Wine writer and educator with a special interest in Portuguese wines, Sarah Ahmed says that she was 'smitten' on her first tour of Portugal ten years ago. We asked her to bring us up to date with the changes she has seen take place since then.
Pinball Portugal. That pretty much captures my first wine tour a decade ago – a week zig-zagging the land which lies between Oporto and Lisbon from west to east, coast to mountain, before looping the loop back to the capital via Alentejo's rolling plains. Having made only the briefest acquaintance with Portugal's abundance of native grapes (250 plus), it would have been rude not to return.
More to point, I was smitten. Smitten by a unique kaleidoscope of aromas, flavours and textures – the product of Portugal's rich heritage of indigenous grapes and long tradition of blending them. Qualities which, I'm very relieved to report, have not been diminished by the world's love affair with single-varietal wines made from a handful of French grapes! Not even by a younger generation of globe-trotting winemakers who recognise that blending Portuguese grapes with French 'passport' varieties is not the silver bullet for success. In fact, more than anyone, they have grasped the importance of standing out from the crowd and making terroir-driven gastronomic wines which proudly proclaim 'made in Portugal'.
Picking at Passadouro on vertiginous slopes
Modernisation leads to a white wine revolution
To be fair, they are surfing the waves of change which began to ripple through Portugal once it joined the European Union in 1986. EU grants underwrote the much-needed modernisation of Portugal's wineries which smoothed out the rough edges of its rustic reds and, in surely one of the most exciting wine developments of this century, was a catalyst for the country's white wine revolution. Mineral, unoaked Portuguese whites offer great bang for buck. When I had the honour of selecting 50 Great Portuguese Wines for Wines of Portugal's annual trade tasting in 2010, a record-breaking 14 wines were white compared with a big fat zero in the first year it was held (2005). It's saying something when Vinho Verde leads the way with premium single-varietal, sub-regional wines – alvarinhos from Monçao e Melgaço, loureiros from Lima, now avessos from Baião.
Matching grape to soil type
Which neatly brings me on to the most momentous wave of change – the quantum leap in producers' understanding of grape variety and site. It has been fascinating covering Portuguese wine during a period in which improvements in the vineyard have elevated the country's wines to a different level. Insofar as French grapes are used today it's because they really work, not because it makes for an export-friendly label. Knowing which grapes perform best and where has been key to unlocking Portugal's full potential. Take the Douro and Dão where, since the 1980s, vines have been 'block' planted with just one variety instead of a mix of 30 or more like the traditional field blend vineyards of old. This has enabled viticulturists and, it follows, winemakers to coax the best possible performance from each variety.
Concrete lagares, Passadouro
Old-style field blends now increasingly treasured
Which is not to say that winemakers have thrown the baby out with the bath water and given up on blends or, for that matter, co-fermenting grapes (which is a practical necessity with field blends). For The Fladgate Partnership's David Guimaraens, fermenting each (block-planted) variety separately then back-blending it with other varieties simply cannot compete with the complexity of co-fermenting different grapes altogether. Although Portugal has some terrific single varietal wines (the aforementioned Vinhos Verdes, baga from Bairrada, encruzado from Dão, arinto from Bucelas and alicante bouschet from Alentejo) I'm a firm fan of its varietal blends.
Guimaraens' observation also explains why old field-blend vineyards are increasingly treasured and not just in the Douro or Dão. Take Rui Reguinga's Terrenus wines from the up-and-coming Portalegre sub region of Alentejo whose precious grapes previously got lost in the local co-operative's melting pot. This fate is thankfully in decline as a first generation of growers/winemakers – a new breed of vignerons – are singling out the top fruit and keeping it to make their own wines. Quality-focused pockets of excellence – sub-regions, vineyards and wineries with resident winemakers, not just consultants – are rapidly emerging across the country in hitherto quantity-focused regions like Lisboa, Bairrada, Vinho Verde, Tejo and Beira Interior.
'there is now a countrywide tail of rising stars behind each region's comet of star players.'
This has in turn attracted fresh investment producing a virtuous circle which explains why, in stark contrast with my early visits, there is now a countrywide tail of rising stars behind each region's comet of star players. What's more, star players are spreading their tentacles and making wine elsewhere – Niepoort's range now includes excellent wines from Vinho Verde, Bairrada and Dão and João Portugal Ramos is everywhere! Even though I visit Portugal several times a year it's hard to keep up with the pace of change, so hats off to The Wine Society whose mushrooming list faithfully reflects the growth of quality Portuguese wines and its strength in diversity.
Traditional terraced vines in vinho verde
Detail and elegance over density and power
This diversity derives not just from region of origin and variety. It's also about site. In addition to improving grape quality, putting vineyards under the microscope has encouraged a lighter touch in the winery as producers seek to show off terroir. Schoolboy errors such as over-enthusiastic use of oak or over-extraction are not so commonplace now the tide has turned in favour of detail and elegance over density and power. The less is more approach can also be seen in a growing number of organically tended vineyards and the revival of traditional techniques which enhance complexity, texture and structure without recourse to the oak forests of France or America. For example, using whole bunch (with stems) fermentation for reds, skin contact for whites and fermentation in lagares (shallow open vats made of granite, marble, even wood) and clay amphorae as opposed to ultra-protective stainless-steel tanks.
Excitingly for wine lovers this general uplift in quality means it's now possible to buy well-made, highly characterful Portuguese wines across price points and regions. Still, it's fair to say that the Douro remains Portugal's jewel in the crown, both for port and Douro table wines (red or white), especially now many producers earmark specific parcels or vineyards for one or the other. If there's a vintage which, once and for all, trashes the idea that Douro wines are made from port left-overs, it is the outstanding 2011 vintage (a generally declared year for vintage ports which produced great wines nationwide). Classic in structure and modern in their fruit purity and tannin refinement, ports and wine both deftly walk the tightrope of tradition and progress. It's a trick at which Portuguese winemakers increasingly excel.
Richard Mayson with Rui Reguenga, one of the country's best-known winemakers
Sarah Ahmed, The Wine Detective, is a wine writer and educator who specialises in the wines of Australia and Portugal. Thewinedetective.co.uk
More on Vintage Port and the 2011 vintage from Richard Mayson here
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