Portugal perfectly straddles the value-versus-price equation that many consumers seek. For publication in the week of 17 April 2017
When people think about Portugal and wine, the first thing that comes to mind is port wine. Indeed, our word for that wonderful fortified drink originates from the city of Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city. Yet such has been the evolution of the industry in recent decades that three in four bottles from Portugal are still wine.
Despite its relatively small size compared with Spain and France, Portugal has a huge range of wine styles from a diversity of meso-climates. Wine has been produced in Portugal for more than 4,000 years and the country has at least 250 grape varieties.
The names of those grapes vary depending on the region. For example the white Arinto grape, which has spread throughout the country because of its acidity and ability to blend with other whites, is also known as Pederna, Cercial, Azal Galego and Branco Espanhol. The Aragonez grape is known as Tinta Roriz in the north of the country, while across the border in Spain its name is Tempranillo.
In recent years Portuguese wines have been very successful in global competition, a tribute to improved winemaking techniques and vineyard management. For every five wines submitted to international competitions this past decade, four received an award.
Mainland Portugal has 24 designated wine regions, or DoCs, plus DoCs on the island of Madeira (one DoC) and in the Azores (three DoCs). The Douro DoC in the north-west is the world’s oldest designated wine region. The diversity of wine styles is profound, and the wines match beautifully with the country’s cuisine, from fresh seafood in the south to rich and hearty meats in the north.
Exports of still wines have boomed, jumping in value from 318 million Euros in 2010 to 401 million Euros in 2015. Fortified wine exports grew more slowly but were worth more per bottle, from 295 million Euros in 2010 to 336 million Euros in 2015.
Casa Ermelinda Freitas in the Setubal peninsula south of the capital Lisbon currently exports to 30 countries and is the country’s fastest-growing family-owned estate. It has the distinction of being run solely by women in recent years, with a woman winemaker (these are in a distinct minority in Portugal). Deonilde Freitas founded the company in 1920. When his son Manuel João de Freitas died, Manuel’s wife Ermelinda Freitas took over running the company, helped by their only child, Leonor.
Leonor Freitas inherited 60 hectares of vineyard with only two grape varieties, Castelão and Fernão Pires. She decided to introduce a wider range of grapes, including Trincadeira, Touriga Nacional, Aragonês, Syrah, and Alicante Bouschet. The company makes a superb red blend, the Dona Ermelinda Reserva, a beautiful wine that pairs beautifully with game. In recent years the company has focused on single variety reds, an unusual approach in the country probably most skilled in making blended wines.
The Niepoort estate in the Douro region has been a family business since 1842. Dirk and Verena Niepoort are the fifth generation and are known for innovation. Their Redoma Branco and Redoma Reserva Branco are consistently two of the finest whites from the region. A recent innovation is their Aqua Viva sparkling, a blend of mostly Bical and Cercial with a touch of Chardonnay and Alvarinho. It has wondrous length with flavours of zesty lemons and grapefruit.
One of Portugal’s best sparkling winemakers is Luis Pato, from the Barraida region in the north-east. He is known for his ability to tame the difficult indigenous red Baga grape. Pato is a founding member of Baga Friends, formed to promote the grape. He now only works with Portuguese grapes: Baga, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cão for reds, and Bical, Cercial, Fernão Pires (known locally by the alias Maria Gomes) plus a grape that Pato believes nobody else has, Sercialinho.
His 2011 Espumante Quinta do Moinho made from Baga is a delicious mouthful of zingy strawberries. “Bairrada is very good [region] for white wine and sparkling,” he said. “With reds, you really need to take a lot of care.” Pato’s 2016 Vinhas Velhas Branco, a blend of Bical and Cercial with a smidgen of Sercialinho, has superb length. Also splendid is his 2011 Pato Rebel, which has the same cepage and a quirky label that reflects the winemaker’s personality.
Pato’s daughter Filipa also makes wines using the Baga grape. She started the Baga Friends group after returning from her global travels and saw the sad state of some of the vineyards in the region. With her father she made Bairrada’s first dessert wine. She got the idea after working in Australia and seeing how they used cryo-extraction (freezing grapes to concentrate the sugars).
Jorge Moreira was named Portugal’s winemaker of the year in 2011. He is the winemaker at Quinta de la Rosa in the Douro, producing silky and sublime still and fortified wines. In 2001 he purchased his own quinta nearby and has made his own wine, Poeira, since 2002. Moreira’s vines grow in a beautiful landscape on the banks of the Pinhao River.
Poeira has further cemented his reputation for excellence. The word means “dust” in Portuguese and one only needs to be in the Douro for a short time in the summer on the winding dirt roads to appreciate the taste that the dry land leaves in one’s mouth. The Poeira Red has become something of a cult wine in recent years and needs to be cellared for a decade to be fully appreciated.
The 2015 Poeira White is made entirely from the Alvarinho grape and is delicate and delicious. This is a wine to savour now or, with sufficient willpower, cellar for half a decade when the flavours will be even more intense. The 2016 Po de Poeira, made with the same grape, comes from younger vines, has a lighter, more fresh feel and is designed for early drinking.
Matthew Bonner is the director of the Portuguese Fine Wine Company in England, which specialises in artisanal wines from Portugal. Bonner believes Portugal represents the best value for money equation of any European wine region.