Portugal Transformed

Vines have been grown in Portugal for at least 2500 years and wine has been made for much of that period.  But the quality (with a few exceptions – mainly the fortified ports) was ordinary at best.  And that remained true until well into the last century.  It took a political coup in 1974 and Portugal subsequently joining the European Union (EU) before things really began to change.

As one of the poorest nations in Europe, Portugal benefited greatly from EU funding.  Roads and electricity reached parts of the country for the first time and, in the wine industry, temperature controlled stainless steel tanks transformed the winemaking process.  In the vineyards, too, major reorganisation and replanting occurred setting everything in place for the Portuguese wines we see on the shelves today.

Regions such as the Douro, Dão and Bairrada are, perhaps, the obvious choices, particularly for red wines, but the Alentejo, a vast swathe in the south of the country, hides some real surprises – see my recommendation below.

Portugal’s equivalent of ‘Appellation Contrôlée’ is ‘Denominaçáo de Origem Controlada’ (DOC), but you will also see the term ‘Vinho Regional’ (VR) on labels, which equates to the French ‘Vin de Pays’ and is a category that contains many very drinkable wines from producers who prefer to work outside the DOC rules.

I opened one of these VRs recently – a delicious, fruity red, Vinha do Mouro (Corks, £14.99).  A blend of local variety Trincadeira, Aragonez (Spain’s Tempranillo) and Alicante Bouschet with a hint of Cabernet Sauvignon for added tannin and body.  The wine had lovely dusty red fruits on the nose with vibrant blackberries and sour cherries on the palate.   Despite the warmth of the Alentejo, this wine retains plenty of acidity and would pair extremely well with red meat in a tomato-based sauce.

One last word: most Portuguese reds benefit from an hour or so in a decanter if you’re to enjoy them at their best.

Two Good Reads

Looking for a gift for a wine lover this year? Then 2 recently published books – one on the Wines of England and Wales, the other on the Wines of Portugal – may be the answer.
Both books start with the historical background to their wines, followed by a look at the key grape varieties grown and main regions of production and include a selection of producers to note. Both also highlight the major changes experienced in recent decades, not just to the styles of wines produced but also to the 2 wine industries themselves.
But despite these similarities, I suspect that the books will appeal to rather different audiences.
Oz Clarke’s “English Wine – From Still to Sparkling” (Pavilion Books, £16.99) relates his personal experiences visiting his favourite vineyards and winemakers throughout the country. An underlying theme of the book is the rise and rise in sparkling wine production in England and Wales this century and the reasons behind it. In short, England’s cool climate is ideally suited to making fizz and many of our vineyards are situated on the same seam of chalk that underlies the Champagne vineyards. So, with similar temperatures to Champagne and the same soil, it’s a no-brainer to plant the same grape varieties – mainly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – and make the same kind of wine. And we’ve been very successful at it!
Clarke’s book is a much-needed update on the rapidly changing English and Welsh wine scene and is a most enjoyable and approachable read.
Richard Mayson’s “The Wines of Portugal” (Infinite Ideas, £30) is far more in-depth – I might say almost encyclopaedic. The writer has been immersed in Portuguese wine (not literally, I hope!) for his entire adult life and it is clear that he is writing about a country he loves – and has loved since his first visit as a 10 year old child.
Portugal’s wine transformation began when they joined the European Union in 1986 prompting them to introduce a proper quality hierarchy, mirrored on France’s Appellation Contrôlée system, across the whole industry. As a result, wines from the Douro, Dão, Bairrada, Vinho Verde and others, historically variable in quality, were all spurred on to improve and are now worth their place on every wine rack. Even the previously unexciting Alentejo in the south of the country is now regularly producing attractive, excellent value for money bottles.
For lovers of Portuguese wine or for anyone who wants to get to know the many delicious wines of that country better, this book is a must-buy.
Whichever you choose, I wish you happy reading (accompanied by an appropriate glass, of course!)

Dreams of Porto

My wife and I had planned to return to one of our favourite cities for a holiday this year. Oporto (or Porto as it is known to the locals and its friends) is a real treasure tumbling down the hillside, as you can see from the picture above taken across the spectacular River Douro. Hilary has even been studying Portuguese – a notoriously difficult language – so that we would be fully prepared. But the continuing impact of coronavirus has caused us to have a re-think; perhaps next year will be better.
But we can still dream and plan and, to help us, we opened a bottle of Casa de Mouraz red (Corks, £15.99) with our dinner recently.

The Mouraz estate is about a couple of hours drive south-east of Porto in the Dão DOC (DOC is the Portuguese equivalent of the French Appellation Controlée), where the wines are often made in a similar style to the Douro region. They also grow many of the same grape varieties, 9 of which, majoring on the high quality Touriga Nacional, go into the wine we enjoyed, and all are named on the eye-catching label.
The grapes for this wine come from a number of different vineyards across the DOC but, rather than planting each vineyard with a single variety as is the modern trend, here you find an assortment of grapes, known as a ‘Field Blend’ in each plot – a method that used to be much more common than it is today. Under this system, each vineyard is harvested as a whole and all the different grapes are fermented together and only at the final stage are the wines produced from each vineyard blended together to produce the product in the bottle.
The wine itself was quite full and mouth-filling with fresh red cherry fruit and a little dried fruit – raisin, sultana – on the finish. There was no sign of age, although our bottle was almost 6 years old from the 2014 harvest, just a delightful, soft and harmonious red that went very well with our lamb and sparked our interest for plans for the future.

Bringing Back Memories

The restrictions resulting from the current Coronavirus outbreak mean that everyone’s holiday and travel plans are on hold for the foreseeable future. But, a trip to our local fishmonger recently brought back happy memories of past visits to Portugal. For there, in his window, was some bacalhau (dried, salted cod). Often described as the national dish of Portugal with, apparently, 365 different ways of cooking it – one for every day of the year – it’s something we have always enjoyed on our visits there.

But we have never cooked it at home – until now. Mixed with ham, eggs, sweet potato and peppers – an authentic Portuguese recipe taken from a book brought back from one of our trips – it made a delicious meal and, of course, had to be paired with a wine from the country.

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Quinta de Gomariz’s Loureiro from the Vinho Verde region is an old favourite of ours (Grape and Grind or Clifton Cellars, £13.50) imported directly from Portugal by sailing boat – yes really! A delightfully clean and fresh white with lovely floral aromas and intense flavours of grapefruit. There’s an attractive savoury richness too that is surprising given that the wine is only 11.5% alcohol and excellent length. And, of course, an ideal partner with this style of food.

If these restrictions last for long, we may find ourselves bringing back memories of some of our other favourite holiday destinations without leaving home – so long as we can continue to find the local food and wine!

A Shy and Reticent Wine?

The English are often described as ‘reserved’ people: shy, reticent, not very forthcoming.  But the word ‘reserve’ can have other meanings: I can reserve a table at a restaurant or set a reserve – a minimum sale price – at an auction, for example. But what does it mean to wine lovers?

Look along the shelves of your local supermarket or wine merchant and you’ll notice that Reserve (or a local variant such as Reserva or Riserva) is one of the words most commonly found on the labels.  So, does it mean that the wine is shy, reticent and not very forthcoming?  Unfortunately not!  But, what it does mean (if anything) varies a lot, depending on where the wine comes from.

Things are clearest in Spain.  Spanish wine tasting (2)There, Reserva denotes a red wine that has been aged for at least 3 years before being released for sale, at least one year of which must have been in oak barrels.  For whites and rosés, the figure is 2 years (6 months in barrel).  The requirements for Gran Reservas are longer: for reds, 5 years (2 in oak barrel), for whites and rosés, 4 years (6 months in barrel).

Across the border in Portugal, the rules for their Reserva are much less specific, simply requiring the wine to be from a ‘good’ vintage (how do you define that?) with an alcohol level at least ½% above the regional minimum (which varies from place to place).

Italy’s equivalent is Riserva.

41 SelvapianaThis also varies from place to place – as do most things in Italy; it, too, denotes a certain minimum ageing, usually at least a year, although, for Barolo, it is as long as 5 years!  Often, higher alcoholic strength and other requirements are also included in the local rules.

And that’s as far as the regulated use of these terms goes.  Anywhere else and the word has no official meaning.  It might be used to suggest that the wine is of a higher quality, as in the French ‘Réserve du Patron’ or terms like Estate Reserve or Reserve Selection, or has seen some oak ageing, but, outside Spain, Portugal and Italy, none of this is guaranteed.

To my mind, we ought to reserve (sorry!) the use of the word to those places where it does have a legal meaning, but I’m not going to make a fuss about it because I’m English and too reserved!