Return to Porto

We’re just back from a few days in Porto, Portugal’s fascinating 2nd city overlooking the Douro River and a key centre for the port and local wine industries.  It’s been almost a decade since we last visited and, though much of the old city remains unchanged (as befits a designated World Heritage site), there’s building work wherever you look and international tourists have caught onto the city’s delights in a big way.

Thinking about our trip in advance, it was the Douro red wines and the delicious tawny and premium ruby ports that I was anticipating.  But, with the Portuguese autumn still warm enough to eat dinner outdoors every evening and the variety and quality of fresh fish on offer in the restaurants, we found ourselves mainly drinking the local white wines.  And, as for port, our hotel had an excellent example of white port from the formerly French-owned Rozes house that I hadn’t tasted before: clean, fresh, not too dry or too heavy.  White port is made in exactly the same way as red – by stopping the fermentation with grape spirit while some of the fruit sweetness remains – but uses local white-skinned grapes such as Codega, Viosinho and Rabigato rather than black varieties.

It’s those same grapes, along with other native varieties like Fernão Pires, Arinto and Alvarinho (better known at home by its Spanish name Albariño) that are used for the white wines although, on Portuguese wine lists, you often find whites divided into Vino Verde (‘green wines’ – light, aromatic, fragrant young whites) and Vino Branco: whites with a little more depth and complexity, possibly some gentle oak ageing and often a year or two in bottle.

Many of the wines we enjoyed are not easily available outside the region, but, if you see bottles bearing the names of the well-known port houses (including the various members of the Symingtons group plus Noval, Ramos-Pintos and Niepoort) you won’t go far wrong.  But, above all, don’t think port and Douro wines are all red, there are some delicious whites just waiting to be explored, too.

And, as for the city of Porto, go soon, before increasing tourist numbers cause real difficulties at the iconic sites and in the narrow streets.

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Beyond the Familiar

When buying wine, particularly white wine, I find myself increasingly looking away from France.  It’s not that I don’t like French wines – I do – but there are just so many interesting and different grape varieties to explore.  And the more widely I look, the more exciting and attractive flavours I find. 

Take Italy for a start.  I’ve been a big fan of their whites for many years.  If you’ve not tried Greco, Fiano, Verdicchio or Vermentino, then do; you’ve got some delightful surprises awaiting you.  Then there’s the lovely whites from Albariño and Loureiro grown in Galicia in north-west Spain.  And don’t forget Austria’s Grűner Veltliner – I blogged about that a few weeks ago.

You may be familiar with all of those, but the 2 bottles pictured above feature varieties that fewer will recognise.  Firstly, Malagouzia.  That’s native to Greece and Giannikos Winery’s example from the Peloponnese region is a fragrant delight.  Tangy and fresh with lovely peach and apricot flavours, this would be perfect on its own or with fish, delicately cooked chicken dishes or light summer salads.  Local independent wine merchant Grape and Grind have it for £15.99 and it’s worth every penny.

With Fitapreta’s Ancestral from Portugal’s Alentejo region (Corks, £16.50) you get – not one obscure grape variety, but a blend of 6 including 2 – Tamarez and Alicante Branco – that the winemaker says have been rescued from near extinction.  I’ve not heard of either, so I won’t argue.  On pouring, the wine is almost gold in colour, so much so, that I wondered at first if it was oxidised.  But no, it was in perfect condition, rich, tangy, honeyed and savoury with real body to it; a friend who shared it with us thought that, tasting it blind, he would have said it was a red wine.  I know what he means; it’s likely that there was some skin-contact involved in the winemaking.  Not your standard easy-quaffing white, but a really enjoyable and deeply flavoured glass suited to more robustly flavoured poultry or, perhaps, young game birds.

2 very different bottles but each showing the benefits of looking beyond the familiar. 

A Wine from our Twin

My adopted home city, Bristol, and the 2nd largest city in Portugal, Oporto, have been trading partners for more than 2 centuries, particularly in wine and port.  Some 70 years ago, this partnership was cemented by Bristol and Porto (as the locals know it) formally becoming twin cities and, until the outbreak of Covid, a thriving Twinning Association existed, arranging events and exchange visits.  Sadly, official restrictions and subsequent caution stopped all that until last week, when we were able to meet once again for a Quiz night at a local pub (although one that didn’t sell any Portuguese wine!)

Amazingly, the team my wife and I were part of managed (somehow) to win and our prize was – of course – bottles of Portuguese wine.  We decided to defer opening them until we could all meet up again, but thoughts of Portugal meant that I chose a Douro red that I had bought previously to enjoy with our dinner the next day.

It was a complete coincidence that the name of the wine I selected was Beira Douro (Grape and Grind, £14.50), as Beira (a city in Mozambique) is also twinned with Bristol although, as far as I know, that Beira has no connection to the wine.  A deeply coloured blend of 2 Portuguese grapes, Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional, packed with lovely raspberry and crunchy redcurrant flavours with a long dry finish.  Even though our bottle was already over 5 years old, there was still noticeable tannin in the wine, but decanting and teaming it with a juicy venison steak softened that and made it a really harmonious and delicious mouthful.

Twinning is a great way to explore other cultures and traditions and, when it can be celebrated with some wine from a twinned city, so much the better.

Nelson: Small but Diverse

My wife and I loved New Zealand wines even before we were lucky enough to visit there a few years ago.  Of course, we dropped in at a few vineyards as part of our sightseeing (and enjoyed plenty of tasting!).  But New Zealand is a larger country than many in the UK realise and, although we managed to get to several of the more famous wine regions, Nelson, in the far north-west corner of the South Island, is one we missed.  That is a shame because, even though it’s one of the smallest of the regions and dwarfed by Marlborough, its better-known neighbour to the east, its warm, maritime-influenced climate and poor, stony soils are ideal for vine growing.  And, despite its size, it’s home to as diverse an array of different grape varieties as you’ll find anywhere in New Zealand. 

One local company, Waimea Estates, alone, grow, at least 9 different varieties and Majestic Wines often have a selection of their bottles in stock.  I’ve particularly enjoyed their Sauvignon Blanc and Gruner Veltliner in the past so, when I saw the same firm’s Albariño on the shelf recently (£10.99), it was an obvious buy.

Albariño is a white variety native to Galicia in north-west Spain and to Portugal (where it is known as Alvarinho) and it’s only in the last decade or so that it has started to be planted more widely.  That’s a trend I hope will continue. Waimea’s example is beautifully clean and fresh with lovely floral aromas, peach and melon flavours and a long, attractive finish.  Drink it as an aperitif or team it, as the Galicians and Portuguese would, with grilled sardines, but it’s more versatile than that and I’m sure it would work well with a wide range of fish dishes.

I can only remember tasting one bottle of Albariño from New Zealand previously – an equally delicious example from Stanley Estates in Marlborough – but this quality variety clearly thrives in the conditions there and I’m looking forward to it becoming a common sight in vineyards across the country.

A Green Wine

The word ‘green’ has many meanings.  It’s a colour, of course, and, these days, is often used as a shortcut to describe environmental issues or, with a capital G, the political parties that are trying to advance those issues.

And, in Portugual, there’s a Green Wine (the English translation of Vinho Verde) but the meaning is different again; the green is used here in the sense of being young or immature.  Traditionally, Vinho Verde was consumed within a year of the harvest and so was always ‘green’ (with, in general, little character apart from mouth-tinglingly high acidity). 

Despite this, for almost a century, Vinho Verde has also been a DOC, the Portuguese equivalent of France’s Appellation Contrôlée, with designated geographic boundaries (roughly stretching from the Minho River in the north to just beyond the Douro in the south) and a list of allowable grape varieties, all native to the region of production.

Historically, most Vinho Verde was red and you will still find some like that if you visit the region.  But, today, overwhelmingly, Vinho Verde is white and the quality has improved enormously with many examples able to develop well in bottle for a year or 2 at least.  Look, especially, for wines made with Alvarinho (the local name for the currently very fashionable and attractive variety, Albariño, but, in Portugal, made in a rather leaner and crisper style than over the border in Spain), also Treixadura (sometimes spelt Trajadura) and Loureiro.

It was a bottle of the latter from producer Quinta de Gomariz that I opened recently (Grape and Grind, £14.50).  Rather fuller and richer than many Vinho Verdes despite still being only 11.5% alcohol, but retaining a typical floral character alongside a fresh, citrussy flavour and a delightful dry, honeyed finish.  A wine to enjoy on its own or to accompany many fish or chicken dishes.

And this particular Vinho Verde takes the ‘green’ theme even further – it is imported by Xisto Wines who, amazingly, bring all their stock over to the UK from Portugal in sailing boats, priding themselves in using no fossil fuels.  A Green Wine, indeed!

A Portuguese Rosé

Congratulations if you looked at the title and still decided to read the blog!  Particularly if, like me, you were old enough to drink wine in the 1970s.  Because, in those far off days, the words ‘Portuguese’ and ‘Rosé’ meant just one thing: the most popular wine of the era, Mateus Rosé, sold in that familiar, dumpy shaped bottle that, when empty, made a perfect base for a table lamp.  At its peak, in 1978, it accounted for over 40% of Portugal’s wine exports and sold a cool 42 million bottles in just one year.  That’s a lot of table lamps!

Mateus Rosé is still around (and this year celebrates 75 years since it was first produced) but, as readers of this blog will, no doubt, know, it isn’t the only Portuguese rosé on the market.

With summer in mind, I picked up a bottle of Ciconia Rosé from Corks of Cotham recently (£8.99). 

Portuguese roseA blend of 3 grape varieties: touriga nacional, one of the main components in port and many high quality Portuguese reds, syrah (shiraz) and aragonez, one of the Portuguese names for Spain’s best red grape, Tempranillo.  These three together made a wine about as different from my memories of Mateus as it is possible to be: slightly off-dry and really refreshing with attractive strawberry fruit and a clean juicy finish.  Great for drinking on its own or, perhaps, even better, with fish in a tomato based sauce (Cod Portuguaise) or a bouillabaisse.

I’m happy to drink rosé at any time of year, although I think it works best with lighter, summery foods.  But the wine must be dry – or off-dry at most; for me, the sweeter rosés such as Mateus and some of the commercial White Zinfandels that are widely available are just too sweet for a main course yet not sweet enough for a pudding. 

But they sell, so someone loves them – just leave me with the Ciconia, the other Portuguese rosé.