Portuguese still wines come out from under Port’s shadow
It’s taken a while for Portugal’s unfortified wines to come out from under Port’s formidable shadow. But, despite all odds, they have. And, they’re here to stay.
Wander down the steep, narrow streets of Lisbon’s Barrio Alto and it’s impossible to resist the temptation to duck into at least one (or two) of the numerous wine bars. These compact escapes are rarely fancy. But they flourish in every incarnation, from the tiny but brilliant BA Wine Bar Barrio Alto to the bustling and trendy Old Pharmacy, with its shelves of coloured glass and clever lighting. Each sports its own charm and character. Not to mention a wealth of choices that underscores just how much Portugal has to offer. However, the reality is that the wine bar is a relatively recent phenomenon in one of Europe’s fastest growing tourist destinations. There was a time not all that long ago when if you wanted to taste wine you went primarily to one place: Porto. To taste, of course, Port.
The blossoming of Lisbon’s wine culture directly parallels the ongoing surge in popularity of Portuguese table wines. For sure, Port continues to be a mainstay. But it’s still wines from the Douro, Dão and many of the country’s other producing regions that are getting all the attention. And while, at the outset, the focus of those still wines initially relied more on value-driven drops, in recent years there’s been a much greater appreciation of Portugal’s higher quality still wines, which consistently win major international accolades.
The fact that Lisbon’s tourists are packing into wine bars is indeed good news for the industry at large, as it works to take the mystery out of Portuguese table wine and introduces consumers to myriad styles. Not only that, it’s also introducing them to wines from all over Portugal, including to tastes they likely never dreamed existed beyond Mateus Rosé and Casal Garcia.
The fact is, says Sopexa’s Edouard Clouet-Foraison, “Portugal has lots to offer. Portugal is full of serious and quality wines, with completely different profiles, from the light and frizzy to the complex and robust, that compete with what is better made in the Old World. And we have our native grape varieties that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, that allow us to offer unique wines, different from everything else.”
The consumer challenges Portugal has been working hard to overcome fall loosely into three principal areas. Firstly, a lack of understanding of the country’s long history of grape growing and appreciation of its regions; a misperception that Portugal makes only light whites and budget reds (and, of course, Port); and a resistance (especially in North America) to “drink outside the box” — to discover lesser known varieties, especially indigenous grapes.
Much of Portugal’s challenge lies in the English-speaking consumer’s inability or reluctance to move beyond their comfort zone to discover something new and noteworthy. But signs are afoot that wine drinkers are happy to pursue the likes of Encruzado (a noteworthy peer to Chardonnay). If Albariño’s fortunes are on the rise (and they are, even in Canada) can Avarinho be far behind, especially as drinkers move beyond basic Vinho Verde? Likewise, Arinto is grown in most regions. Now being discovered by inquisitive tasters, it’s also a popular variety used in sparkling wine — which, while still only a miniscule part of the big picture (about two percent), is already flexing its muscle.
On the red side of things, it’s not nearly as complicated as some might think. Granted, much of Portugal’s “red identity crisis” stems from the fact that most of the country’s wines are made with field blends. That in itself is a challenge for marketers catering to consumers obsessed with knowing the precise varietal makeup. Add to that the fact that many of those varieties, even once revealed, are challenging to pronounce, and it’s easy to see why Portugal’s path to recognition has proven labourious at best.
However, drinkers who take the time to inform themselves soon learn that several key red grapes are not-so-distant cousins of varieties found in neighbouring countries. Tempranillo shows up in Portugal as Tinta Roriz, while Duero’s Tinta Roriz is actually Aragonês.
Indigenous Touriga Nacional (Port’s mainstay) is also finally getting the table wine respect it deserves alongside international varieties such as Syrah, Cabernet and Pinot Noir. Having originated in Dão and the Douro, it’s now a mainstay throughout the country and valued not only for its complexity but also for its aging potential. Indeed, Touriga Nacional was the original standard bearer in the early, modern table wine movement.
Even Barraida’s temperamental Baga (the original force behind Mateus) is finding fans well beyond budget wine drinkers. Now better understood, and again eminently ageworthy, it’s also more likely to ripen now than in the past, thanks to a changing climate. It’s increasingly appreciated for its racy acidity, which makes it an excellent food partner, or blending component.
It’s safe to say that no one has done more for Portuguese still wines’ newfound respect than the Douro Boys. This collaboration between five of the Douro Valley’s most celebrated estates took shape in 2003, when Quinta do Vale Meão, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta Vale Dona Maria, Quinta do Vallado and Niepoort Vinhos decided to work together. A group of youthful upstarts — but also smart winemakers from formidable pedigrees — they managed to carve out a personality for Portuguese wines that shook up the staid reputation of Port, so tangled up in its Anglo-Portuguese heritage.
You could call them the Vasco da Gamas of the wine world, as they took their message — that Portuguese wine was anything but boring or homogenous, or even that complicated — to every corner of the globe. It didn’t happen overnight. But their message, fuelled by their passion for indigenous varieties, has managed to change the country’s image from staid and predictable to quality-driven and colourful.
A pivotal moment in the shift to table wines came with Portugal’s entry into the European Union and common market in 1986. The changes that took place were momentous in enabling the industry to cast off the shackles of a culture driven by the two polar opposites of bulk wine and Port. The groundwork undertaken not only by the Douro Boys but also by many others over the last two to three decades has now come to fruition, with Portugal finally seeing significant growth and acceptance of its quality table wines. In addition, the increase in table wine production has been significant over the past few years, as has the rise in volume of DOC and IGP wines. For example, the Lisboa wine region has seen its certified regional wines hit double-digit growth, exceeding 20 percent per year. Once almost entirely dedicated to bulk wines for both local consumption and for shipping to Portugal’s colonies, Lisboa now produces some 40 million bottles of certified wine annually. Of that, some three quarters is exported.
The challenges Portugal has faced in getting its table wines on the map is not unlike that faced by New World regions such as Chile, Argentina and Australia. But interestingly, unlike those players, Portugal’s very mystery — the wealth of its diverse varieties and even the serendipitous uncertainty of its field blends over centuries — has made it unlikely if not impossible to ever become associated with primarily one variety.
Vancouver’s Red Dog Wine and Spirits has been importing Portuguese wines for more than a decade. During that time, the wine importers have watched people discover and come to appreciate even the more obscure, hard-to-pronounce Portuguese varietals. Consumers are constantly looking for the “‘next great find’ … and wines from Portugal deliver on so many levels,” says Red Dog co-owner Laurie Adams.
She thinks, in part, it’s thanks to “a changing of the ‘Old World guard,’ in terms of management, wine style, packaging and marketing, and to the new, up and coming winemakers,” she says. “Portugal is finally getting over its inferiority complex.”
Cabriz Dão Reserva Encruzado 2016, Dão ($22)
Dão’s ascendant white grape, Encruzado (think Pinot Blanc meets Chardonnay), is made here with Burgundian-style bâtonnage, with 3 months in barrel. Upfront notes of floral, orchard and stone fruit with mineral hints precede a palate of citrus and pear with tropical notes, well-managed oak, and generous but elegant mouthfeel with lingering minerality, plus a touch of spice in the close.
Cabriz Colheita Selecionada 2015, Dão ($21)
Good-value blend of Alfrocheiro (40%) and Touriga Nacional (20%) sports aromas of red- and black-berry fruit with some savoury notes before a balanced palate, with well-managed oak and approachable tannins, anise, blackberry and raspberry flavours with a herbal note through the finish.
Portal da Calcada 2016, DOC Vinho Verde ($21.99)
This blend of Loureiro, Arinto, Azal and Trajadura, all stainless-steel fermented, yields upfront floral, stone-fruit and zesty notes with a mineral hint, before a tropical- and citrus-toned palate, defined by fresh and lively acidity with a touch of zest and clove through the finish. Easy-drinking but still quite dry and complex, 11.5% ABV.
Herdade das Servas Alantejo Sem Barrica Unoaked Red 2015, Estremoz, Alentejo ($32)
Blend of Alicante Bouschet (70%), Syrah (15%) and Touriga Franca (15%), foot trodden in the traditional way and aged in stainless steel with 6 months in bottle. Lifted red and black fruits up front precede a full bodied palate of plum and dark cherry, underpinned by firm, well integrated tannins and fine core through the finish, with good aging potential.
Quinta das Cerejeiras Branco 2015, Lisbon DOP ($35)
Blend of Chardonnay (50%), Arinto (40%) and Vital (10%), fermented 40 percent in oak barrel with remainder in stainless steel. Nicely balanced richness with acidity from the indigenous component. Forward notes of baked apple, nuts and pear with tropical and creamy citrus notes lingering through the close.
Quinta do Crasto Reserva Old Vines, Douro ($41)
From one of the Douro’s originals, and one of Europe’s oldest vineyard sites. Flagship field blend of 70-year-old vines, painstakingly grown on steep terraces high above the Douro. Aged 18 months in French (85%) and American oak. Upfront notes of red and black berries with vanilla and spice before a structured palate of dark cherry and wild blackberry with spice and mocha hints wrapped in supple tannins through a long close.
Quinta do Encontro Q do E 2014, Barraida ($22)
Following a wine-making tradition that dates from the 10th century, this wine blends indigenous Baga (50%) with Merlot. The backbone comes from the high-tannin Baga, which is fleshed out by the Merlot. Forward black fruit and earthy notes lead into a palate of cassis, blackberry and black plum defined by lively and juicy acidity, with a savoury edge, underpinned by firm tannins.
Quinta Vale Dona Maria VVV Valleys Douro Branco 2014, Douro ($30)
A hallmark white from one of the Douro’s longest established producers, this blend of undisclosed varieties invites with floral and stone fruits before a formidably well-structured, mouth-filling palate with peach and floral notes, balanced oak, a streak of minerality and a lengthy finish.
Roquette & Cazes 2014, Douro DOC ($40)
A long-running collaboration, since 2003, between the families of Quinta do Crasto and Château Lynch-Bages, that coincided with the start of a new era in Portuguese table wines. This blend of Touriga Nacional (60%), Touriga Franca (25%) and Tinta Roriz (15%) is hand-harvested and stainless-steel fermented before spending 18 months in French oak. Aromas of vibrant black fruit and complex spice notes precede a full-bodied palate of vanilla, cassis and blackberry with balanced oak, moderate, well-integrated tannins and a lengthy finish.
Sôttal Vinho Leve 2016, DOP Lisboa ($17.99)
Indicative of that new way of more modern thinking, this easy-sipping blend of Moscatel, Arinto and Vital was conceived as an alternative to Vinho Verde, with grapes picked early and alcohol kept low (9.5% ABV). The orange-toned, fruity but zippy blend of Moscatel, Arinto and Vital is ideal with local seafood such as clams and shrimp.