PORTUGAL'S WINE RENAISSANCE
Updated: Oct 15, 2021
What country drinks as much wine per capita as France and Italy, developed an appellation system 190 years before France did, and has a national grape that should be the qualitative envy of the world yet is virtually unknown? The answer is Portugal.
The center of Portugal's wine trade is Oporto, and its twin city, Vila Nova de Gaia. Oporto is an ellipsis of the words "O Porto," meaning "The Port," and Gaia is a corruption of "Cale," the name of a Roman fortress town.
Lest anyone doubt Oporto and Gaia's centrality to the Portuguese national identity, it may be useful to remember that Portugal gets its name from Porto and Cale, or Porto-Cale.
In fact, Portuguese still red and white wines are only now leaving the shadow of fortified Port wine. The history of England's concession in Oporto/Gaia, England's power to commercialize Port throughout the world, its lore as the preferred drink of London dining clubs and Oxbridge colleges, and not least, its uniqueness as a fortified wine, have given Port wine, for better and worse, a dominant position in the Portuguese wine trade.
For over 250 years, the only wines exported from Portugal were Port, and much later, the vaguely fun frizzante roses of Mateus an Lancers. The extraordinarily clean, opulent, mouth-popping flavor of Portugal's still wines have not come onto the international wine scene until the past 25 years or so, and they are only now starting to make a splash.
England and Portugal's Port-centered relationship is well known. Trade between the two countries began around 1250, then was accelerated by England's loss of access to Bordeaux wines during the Hundred Years' War and Portugal's border skirmishes with Spain at the same time. England and Portugal went on to develop the greatest empires of their day, but Portugal over-extended it resources quite quickly.
By the mid 17th century, Portugal was mired in chronic dynastic and military struggles. England came to Portugal's rescue, but at a heavy cost to Portugal. The Commonwealth Treaty of 1654 exempted England from Portuguese legal oversight in Oporto and Gaia, and the Methuen Treaty of 1703 gave Port wine preferential duties in England in return for similar treatment of English textiles.
By the 18th century, an adversarial relationship had developed between the British and Portuguese officials and even more so between British shippers and Portuguese grape growers.
Higher competition, lower prices, and plain greed pushed the British shippers to offer lower prices to growers for their grapes. Pushed to the limit, growers often adulterated the grape juice on offer with local berry juice and even water. The combination of degradation and fraud eventually came to affect tax revenues to the Portuguese Crown.
The prime minister and dictator of Portugal at that time, the Marquis de Pombal, modernized the ownership and exploitation of vineyards, reserving several of the greatest Quintas, or plantations, for himself (of course!)
He also instituted a new price scale for grapes based on each Quinta's terroir characteristics: soil, elevation, gradient, location, aspect to the sun, rainfall, etc. In doing so, Pombal preceded the French appellation system by almost 200 years.
Yet for all their modernizing effect, Pombal's reforms also turned Port into a sort of national champion that thoroughly dominated all other wines from Portugal.
The still wine industry in Portugal turned in on itself, abetted by an insular military dictatorship through much of the 20th century, non-existant investment, and a surplus of grape varieties indigenous to Portugal and unknown in the world at large.
It was not until the late 70s that Portugal began to improve its other still wines and consider exporting them. First, through a fortuitous World Bank study of Port wine's manufacturing inefficiencies, five grapes were identified as being of the highest quality.
Wine drinkers outside Portugal are only now beginning to hear the names Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz/Arragones, and Touriga Francesa.
Yet they are the basis of Portugal's wine renaissance. Second, Portugal's entry into the EU, in 1986, completely revolutionized Portugal's access to markets and its access to capital, much of it subsidized by EU agriculture programs.
Both Spain and Portugal took full advantage of these programs, and wine customers see the results in the enormous selection of Spanish wines and Spain-sponsored tastings in New York City and at select wine stores. Portugal, somewhat more tardily, is following in step.
The star of Portuguese winemaking is the Touriga Nacional. It is the heart of all good Port wine, but as a dry wine, TN produces opulent wines with great acidity and a pluminess reminiscent of a good Ripasso or Amarone.
TN must be recognized as one of the world's greatest grapes, and soon. Tinta Roriz and Arragones are none other than the Spanish Tempranillo grape that is found in the great wines of Rioja and Ribera del Duero.
In the north of Portugal, the grape is Tinta Roriz, and in the South, it is Arragones. Finally, Touriga Francesa adds huge perfume and color to wines.
Regions of note in Portugal include the Douro, the Dao, and the Alentejo. The Douro and Dao produce opulent wines, while the Alentejo produces more austere wines, especially suitable for matching with lamb, salads, and even fish.
A number of notable wine regions also exist near the Setubal Peninsula, south of Lisbon: the Moscatel of Setubal is sweet, rich and had incredible flavors of caramel, orange, peach, and tangy citrus fruits. The Palmela region produces fine, clean white wines And the Bucelas, Ribatejo, Terras do Sodo and Bairrada regions are starting to bring out very nice red wines.
Some notable wines are:
Altano: a Douro wine that is plummy, but well-balanced. (Worldwide Wines)
Berco do Infante: "the child's cradle." A wonderful, plummy wine with great balance. (Maja Imports)
Callabriga: rich wines in easily-recognized color-coded, distinguished bottles. They produce an Alentego and a Douro. (Opici Wines)
Esporao Red: the leader of Portugal's renaissance. These wines are the equal of top-end reds from other countries, yet come in at under $30 a bottle. One of the masterpieces of Portugal. (Maja Imports)
Quinta do Carmo: another Douro wine; one of the finest Quintas of Portugal. (Worldwide Wines) Quinta de Romeira: one of the treasures of the Bucelas region. (Maja Imports)
Vista "Beiras" Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo): more fruit-forward than a typical Rioja Tempranillo wine, but quite compelling, and at a nice price. (Iberia Imports)
Vista "TN" Touriga Nacional: one of the most opulent and best wines I've had in a while. Beautiful stuff. (Iberia Imports)