Saturday, March 6, 2021

Portugal's Excellent Reds

 "Port is essentially the wine of philosophical contemplation."  H. Warner Allen, British writer and journalist


Over the years, I've visited Portugal on a number of occasions, for family vacations and, of course, for wine.  Port wine attracted me at first, but slowly I discovered hidden gems in Portugal's emerging red wines. 

Port, in all its distinct styles -- ruby, tawny, vintage and more -- is a great treasure that I fear is dismissed by many wine lovers as just "a sweet red wine with more alcohol."  Nothing could be further from the truth, but this is an essay on the red wines of Portugal, so let's dig in. 

Portugal is the long  narrow  western third of the Iberian Peninsula.  The country  shares its eastern border with Spain and with the Atlantic Ocean along its west coast.  This compact size makes it easy for travelers.  The roads are relatively free of heavy traffic and the major cities -- Lisbon, Coimbra, Oporto -- are conveniently placed along the western edge of the country.   A day or two is all it takes to travel the 360 mile length from the Minho river in the north that separates Portugal and Spain, to the southern edge and the Algarve, Portugal's "riviera." 

For wine fans, a short trip from Lisbon east to the Alentejo, for its wines and cork tree forests is about 125 miles.  Alternatively, you can maneuver the twists and turns of the narrow road along the Douro river, through Port country.  Terraced vineyards, Port lodges and spectacular scenery  are just a few of the attractions in one of the most ruggedly beautiful wine regions in the world. 

Cork Forest Images, Stock Photos & Vectors | Shutterstock
Alentejo cork oak forest, after bark harvest

Throughout the wine world, growers and vintners have embraced  international varieties because their quality and appeal drives consumer demand.  Portuguese wineries, however, have resisted using Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, preferring, to their credit, to work with indigenous grapes, making bold, flavorful and sophisticated wines.  And that's what makes Portugal unique. 

There are about 250 native wine grapes grown today in Portugal,  but only a dozen or so are considered high quality and widely used; roughly divided equally between and white and red. 

Personal Aside --  On a wine trip to Portugal, I took a few extra days to visit the unique island of Madeira.  Located in the Atlantic Ocean, closer to North Africa than Portugal, Madeira has a unique wine history, especially for Americans.  (Note: An entire essay on Madeira is slated for the near future.)

Flying in to Madeira can be a white knuckle experience! The runway juts out from the rocky island like a heavily supported pier and as you are approaching the island, you look out the window and wonder where the runway is.   Madeira sits on the top of a volcano, with not enough flat land on the island, that isn't already in use, for a regular runway. 

The Streets Of Funchal Madeira Stock Photo - Download Image Now - iStock
Street of Funcal, Madeira

I was in Portugal a few years after the country was admitted (along with Spain) into the European Union (1986), a move that came with considerable amounts of cash for such needed infrastructure projects as road improvement.  On the down side, historic markets changed under the EU and unique Madeira agriculture products with established markets now were in trouble.  I was told that a short fat banana, indigenous to Madeira was no longer allowed to be sold as a banana in EU markets because it did not meet the length prescribed by the EU for a fruit known as a banana.  Madeira wineries also felt the impact of the EU, when one of the grapes used to make Madeira wine was suddenly no longer authorized. 

The sheer magnitude of European Union bureaucracy is staggering, but I digress.  Here are the five dark-skinned grapes presently favored for varietal red wines or red blends:

Touriga Nacional -- This intense, tannic grape is the leading variety in Port and shows its adaptability as the main grape in Dao and Douro red wines.  The importance of Touriga Nacional has grown steadily in recent years, as more wineries add the varietal to their line up.  It may be a push to say that Touriga is Portugal's answer to Cabernet Sauvignon, but with each vintage, the quality of varietal Tourigas is moving the comparison closer.

Enologist Patricia Peixoto coaches visitors helping to gather the grape harvest of the Touriga Nacional variety at Santa Vitoria winery on September...
Sorting of Touriga Nacional grape clusters, Douro Valley

Tinta Roriz  -- This popular variety goes by two names in Portugal: Tinta Roriz in the Douro valley and Aragonez in Alentejo.   It is one of Portugal's most planted varieties. In Spain, Tinta Roriz  is known as Tempranillo.

Varietal Tinta Roriz is especially popular in the Alentejo, where the wine is aromatic and spicy.   Alentejo wineries also blend Tinta Roriz with Trincadeira.

Trincadeira -- Grown successfully in the hot dry climate of the Alentejo, where it is bottled as a varietal and valued as a blending component.  Trincadeira is called Tinta Amarela in the Douro and is one of the five main grapes in Port wine.  While it is big and plummy, Trincadeira can be bitter when over ripe.

Alicante Bouchet  -- Alicante may be one of few wine grapes in Portugal that are not indigenous.  Grown mainly in Alentejo, the variety is a teinturier, a black grape with red juice, that helps bolster color during weak vintages.  

 Did You Know? --- Teinturier is a small group of dark-skinned grapes with red flesh.  Because of their red flesh teinturiers are used to boast the color of pale red wines. Alicante Bouchet in one of the best known teinturier grapes , grown in Portugal mostly in the Alentejo.

Outside of Portugal, Alicante is grown in Spain, Australia and, for a time, in California where it once was part of field blends, along with other red grapes.

Baga-- Grown mainly in the central part of Portugal, Baga is by far the major red grape in the region of Bairrada.  Rarely bottled as a varietal, Baga is widely used for red, rose and sparkling wine.  Baga is preferred by Sogrape for its  long-popular Mateus Rose. 

All five of these grapes have individual flavor characteristics, although the base  component is very similar, deep black fruits like plums and blackberries. Individual spice notes, and fuller tannins, are what make the grapes good blending partners. 

Touriga Nacional is the main choice for 100% varietal wines or as the major component in a red blend.  Tinta Roriz is a major grape in blends and sometimes is bottled as a  varietal.  The other grapes, while widely grown, are grace notes that balance the blend and improve its quality.  

These wineries, many of them Port houses, are among the main producers of Portuguese varietal red wines:  Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas, Calem Lagarda Sa, Quinta do Noval Corucho, Ferreira Quinta da Leda, Sogrape, Vila Nova, Herdada do Racim, Adega de Penalua, Tinta Dao.


Next Blog:  My Life in Wine Episode 12 

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