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USER GUIDE Portugal

Embracing the diversity of native grapes. Chris Waters reports


  • A panoramic view of Campo Largo, a fourth generation family estate producing wines in Dao and Bairrada
  • Views of the birthplace of Touriga Nacional
  • Views of the birthplace of Touriga Nacional
  • Green acres: Famous for fresh, fruity whites, Vihno Verde is starting to yield some interesting reds
  • On stream: the Douro River separates Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia
 

Wine lovers need to have a little Sherlock Holmes in them to successfully navigate the wines of Portugal. It’s a country with a treasure trove of indigenous grape varieties, more than 160 catalogued, many of which are unique to the country.

While Canadian wine lovers might delight in native Portuguese grape varieties with curious names that translate to mean Lady’s Finger, Dog Strangler and Love-Don’t-Leave-Me, those without a sense of adventure would likely opt to purchase a bottle of Cabernet or Shiraz instead. Sadly, the country’s legion of flavourful wines — reds, whites and rosés — made in dry and fortified styles from unpronounceable varieties are left to languish.

“For most people, Portugal, its regions and its grapes are too complicated,” British wine journalist Charles Metcalfe told a group of writers, sommeliers and winemakers who gathered in Porto in December for a special international conference celebrating the Touriga Nacional grape variety.

“Other wine countries have more enduring images, almost to a point of caricature. Portugal has not yet projected a strong enough image to the outside world,” he continued.

“Portugal is discreet. The Portuguese tend to keep their treasures to themselves.”

Organized by ViniPortugal, the marketing arm of the domestic grape and wine industry, this educational forum was clearly a bid to raise awareness and create links with foreign press and wine buyers. However, it often also seemed as though it was a case of the industry looking to educate itself about how to be better communicators and marketers.

Not lost on anyone is the success of the Douro Boys, a collective of five top-notch port houses that successfully directed the focus of the world to the dry wines of the Douro.

The allied forces of Quinta do Vale Meão, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta Vale Dona Maria, Quinta do Vallado and Niepoort Vinhos managed to elevate the reputation of the Douro Valley as well as Portuguese wines as a whole. Certainly other creative partnerships are yet to be forged.

One of the beneficiaries of this updraft of hype was Touriga Nacional, a grape variety, that despite representing less than three percent of total plantings, stands out as a mega-star.

Part of Touriga Nacional’s appeal can be traced to the role it plays in top quality Portuguese red wines from Dão, widely considered to be the birthplace of the grape, as well as Douro and Alentejo. Touriga Nacional also plays a meaningful role in the mix of grapes in Bairrada.

The fact that its name isn’t difficult to pronounce doesn’t hurt either.

British wine authority Jancis Robinson delivered a message of urgency to Portuguese producers. From her vantage point, Robinson says the time to capitalize on the rich inheritance of indigenous varieties is now.

She reported a growing restlessness with wine lovers. After 35 years of being content with a handful of international grape varieties, they’re looking for something different.

“There is huge new interest in heritage varieties, with flavours and characteristics that provide a welcome change,” Robinson said.

“If all goes according to plan, it will start with Touriga Nacional and lead to others. Don’t put all the eggs into the Touriga Nacional basket, but do, do, do shout about all of the old vines you have.”

Perdoe-me?

A GLOSSERY OF PORTUGUESE TERMS

adega: winery

 

adega cooperativa: cooperative winery

bacalhua: dried salt cod, a staple dish in the Douro and throughout Portugal

branco: white (as in vinho branco, white wine)

canada: liquid measure (2.12 litres) for Port wine that has now fallen from regular use

colheita: literally “harvest,” it also signifies a style of Port

garrafeira: a red wine from an exceptional year that has been matured in cask or vat for at least two years prior to bottling, followed by a further year in bottle before release

quinta: farm, estate or landed property

seco: dry (as in vinho branco seco, dry white wine)

tinto: red (as in vinho tinto, red wine)

vindima: vintage or harvest

vinho: wine

Source: The Wines and Vineyards of Portugal, Richard Mayson, Mitchell Beazley



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