Wine Gourmet  

One of the oldest wine producing regions in the world is Portugal.  (Photo: Flickr user, aurelia)
One of the oldest wine producing regions in the world is Portugal. (Photo: Flickr user, aurelia)

Wines of Portugal

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One of the oldest wine producing regions in the world and one of the least understood is Portugal. Long relegated to the image of the sweet desert wine, Port and to some extent, Madeira, there is another side to the Portuguese wine industry.

An eclectic mix of varieties are used in Portugal, not the usual Cabernet, Syrah or Chardonnay. One of the most notable of these being Touriga Nacional, which is the basis of the fine Ports and dry red wines of the Douro valley. The numerous wine producing regions operate under a classification system, much like other wine countries in Europe. They are produced under controlled supervision and labelled with a Certificate of Origin.

These regions are grouped into three levels of classification Denominaçäo de Origem Controlada (DOC), which is classed as Quality Wines Produced in Specific Regions (QWpsr) under European Union wine regulations. This corresponds roughly to the French Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) and Spanish Denominación de Origen (DO) classifications.

Indicação de Proveniencia Regulamentada (IPR) wines are thought of more as DOC candidates in training. To qualify as an IPR, a wine must pass the minimum standards of production methods, including vineyard practices and must come from one of the defined geographical locations.

The final group is Vinho Regional (VR), an indication of where the wine is from and each cover a larger area. These are table wines similar to the French Vin de Pays.

There are 11 wine regions and within those are 26 D.O.C.’s or Denominaçäo de Origem but the most important of these is Vinho Verde, Douro, Bairrada and Dao in the north and Alentejo, Ribatejo and Estremadura and Setúbal in the south.

In the category of dessert wines, Port is in a class of its own, so much so, that other regions in the world have tried to copy the wine but like Champagne and Bordeaux, none can match its quality. For almost two thousand years, this unique viticultural landscape has ascended out of the granite-layered hillsides along the Douro River valley to produce one of the world’s most exceptional wines. Port was and is a key product for Portugal and even more, one that represents Portugal around the world.

The northern province of Minho from the river Douro to the Spanish border is synonymous with Vinho Verde, the green wine of Portugal. Vinho Verde is the ancient, traditional wine of Portugal, made nowhere else, from grapes with names like Alvarinho, Loureiro, Trajadura and Pederna which even when fully ripe produce around 8-11% alcohol instead of the usual 12% or more. What is green about the wine is not the colour but the distinctively crisp, zippy tartness of the wine and effervescent sparkle, pressed from early picked grapes to preserve its freshness.

In the Dão region most of the wine produced is red. The wines range from light, peppery and spicy to more full bodied and fruity but there is usually a lovely suppleness and brightness to the fruit. The winemakers rely on the use of indigenous varieties such as Touriga Nacional, which is the leading red variety here. On its own, it makes strikingly spicy, peppery wines with intense black fruit character but it is more commonly blended with varieties such as Tinta Roriz (the Tempranillo of Spain), Jaen and Alfrocheiro Preto.

The region of Bairrada derives its name from the word, "barro", Portuguese for clay and the region's soil is almost exclusively clay mixed with either lime or sand. Here the variety is Baga, a late-ripening grape that produces a wine that is high in tannin and acidity, needing up to 15-20 years of aging, achieving the grace and fragrance of a fine old Bordeaux. Look for the term “Garrafeira” (gah-rah-fay-rah) on the label. This denotes a wine that the producer has determined to be of exceptional quality and has aged the wine in cask longer.

Of the four regions clustered around Lisbon in the south, two are reduced to relics of their former self, one is small but dwindling and only the fourth, Setúbal, is of any consequence. This is where the the honeyed, sweet, golden dessert wine from the Moscatel (Muscat) grape is produced, smooth and perfumed when young and capable of reaching twenty five years of age.

Three emerging regions are showing great promise. Alentejo is in the south-central part of Portugal and is becoming one of Portugal’s most important red wine regions. Traditional Portuguese grape varieties dominate the region, but newcomers such as Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are beginning to make inroads, often blended with the local varieties.

Ribatejo has for a long time been a producer of bulk wine but is now showing promise as an exciting source of modern-styled red wines. Unlike most other Portuguese regions, foreign varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are quite common here and are producing wines of exceptional quality.

Estremadura is still quite a mixed bag but there are some impressive wines emerging at both the quality and volume ends of the market. As in the Ribatejo and Alentejo, it is not uncommon to find international grape varieties planted here.

In Vino Veritas

As you are reading this, I will have arrived in the small village (Pop. 2100) of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in southern France. I am here for a few days to visit a few wineries, taste some wine and participate in the annual Truffle fesitival. I will try and post something but may not have time. Look for an update next week.

Weekend Wine Picks:

The non-vintage Quinta da Avelada Casal Garcia ($15.00 PWS) is sharp, light, lightly frizzante and remarkably refreshing, a delightful, unpretentious wine that is fun to drink, especially when served well chilled. Like most of the young (literally, green) wines exported from Portugal, this one has no vintage year shown on the label. And because Vinho Verde is at its best before its first birthday, be sure you trust the dealer from whom you are buying to make sure you're not getting a wine that is too tired and has lost its youthful charm. 

First produced in 1850 from regional varieties Castelão, Trincadeira and Argonez, the 2007 Periquita ($10 LDB) is aged for six months in older casks and four months in French oak barrels. Displaying a rich ruby colour with juicy aromas and flavours of red currant, black cherry, strawberry and leather the finish is lush, full and long lasting. A superb bargain and a great match with grilled beef (including hamburgers), roast pork, poultry and vegetable stews.

I tasted this wine at the Vancouver International Wine Festival and was so impressed that I bought a case. The 2007 Azul Alentejano Reserva ($14 PWS…reduced from $25) is a KILLER red showcasing an intense, opaque black purple colour with a stunning aroma of vanilla, licorice, blackberry, cassis and peppery spice. Elegant and refined on the palate with a strong white pepper flavour followed by vanilla, blackberry, cassis, and Asian spice. Soft, lush acidity and ultra firm tannins with a long concentrated aftertaste. A blockbuster wine.

The 2007 Vista VR Tinta Roriz ($12 GLS) is a soft and pleasing red showcasing lovely, vibrant red and black fruit aromas and flavours, vanilla, chocolate, tobacco leaf and cedar. This is not a big, muscular wine but a supple, very drinkable wine. Leave those big, muscular wines to Australia and Italy. Excellent served with roast lamb.

However, if I want a big muscular red from Portugal, the 2008 Vale Meão do Meandro ($45 PWS…reduced from $52) is the one I’d go for. Displaying intense blackberry, cassis, black cherry and sweet licorice with nuances of vanilla, smoke, leather, dried herbs and baked earth, the palate is unctuous with its black fruit flavours, licorice, vanilla, and cocoa. This is a wine that is ready to enjoy now for its youthfulness or be cellared for another decade.

This wine comes from the same vineyards that would normally produce a Vintage Port. However, as they are bottled between the fourth and sixth year after the harvest, they mature quicker and are ready to drink sooner. The 2005 Dow’s LBV ($30 PWS) has a deep, opaque purple-ruby colour, an elegant aromatic nose of ripe blackberry jam, black olive, menthol, licorice and black pepper spice. Well rounded on the palate, Dow’s has traditionally a drier texture with rich ripe blackberry fruit flavours, which leads to a long and lingering finish making it one of the finest LBV Ports available. It can be enjoyed anytime and pairs wonderfully with chocolate desserts and hard cheeses like Wensleydale or mature Cheddar.

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