Country focus: Portugal

PORTUGAL is a refreshingly exotic ‘mainstream’ wine producer: hardly anyone has heard of its regions, with one notable exception; mention of its extensively-used native grapes – 200 are in use – prompts blank-faced head scratching in all but the most devoted oenophiles; and its big wine brands number just two: pink, sugary, espumosos (lightly sparkling) Mateus and Lancers.

Portugal beach

You could argue, in fact, that Portugal’s place in wine’s hall of fame has more to do with its cork industry than its wine sector: the southern half of the country has the world’s greatest concentration of cork oak trees, and Portugal accounts for half of the planet’s production of this versatile, spongy bark. Chelsea football club’s shy Portuguese manager and wine lover, José Mourinho, was previously the face of a campaign to promote the use of cork as a wine closure; “If it’s not real cork, take a walk,” he warned.

Since the 1990s Portugal’s wine industry has been undergoing a steady transformation, much of it fuelled by EU funding, and now the country boasts some of the most cutting-edge adega (wineries) in Mediterranean Europe.

Port is undoubtedly Portugal’s heavyweight wine, albeit a member of a club – fortified – that is in long-term decline. The Douro valley, where this full-bodied, sweet wine is grown and made (it is matured downstream in the Atlantic town of Vila Nova de Gaia), became in 1756 – the year Mozart was born – the world’s first demarcated and regulated wine region.

Cork oak forest

Portugal’s largest DOC, Vinho Verde, is another key style. Made in misty Minho, just across from Spain’s Rias-Baixas region, this zesty, fruity wine, blended from a motley crew of grapes, gets its trademark spritz from a squirt of CO2 at bottling. Vinho Verde means ‘green wine‘, which refers to the wine’s youth and not necessarily its colour or flavour. The sunny Algarve, meanwhile, churns out impressive quantities of dependable wine, most of it guzzled by the undemanding northern Europeans that flock to the area’s golden beaches each summer.

To its credit, Portugal has stood back from the general trend of switching to French varieties from local ones, although Cabernet, Syrah and pals do to a limited extent appear here. A handicap in one way, this focus on rugged natives ensures also that whatever charms Portugal has can’t easily be copied. Touriga Nacional has emerged as the country’s most-respected variety; originally associated with the Douro and Dão, it is now widely dispersed. Others to note include long-lived Baga, workhorse Periquita/Castelão, Touriga Franca, Trincadeira, Jean (Mencia) and Tinta Roriz/Aragonés (Tempranillo). Quality whites are made, too, from Arinto, Alvarinho (Albariño), Encruzado, Gouveio (Godello) and more.

The good news is that whenever a country’s wines are unfamiliar to consumers they can offer brilliant value for money, producers not being able to add on a ‘name recognition’ premium. This is certainly the case with Portugal, whose wines manage to combine bang for buck with big flavours and quirky interest. What are you waiting for?

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