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Portugal is escaping its ‘fortified’ niche

Portugal is escaping its ‘fortified’ niche

For centuries Portugal has been known for its port wines and, of course, as the birthplace of the time-honored cork. Today those are background topics when it comes to Portugal’s unfortified wines stepping into the limelight for the world’s attention. Portugal is escaping its ‘fortified’ niche. 

In the past, wines made in Portugal, other than ports, rarely had a chance to come into their own. Port producers considered the valuable grapes as worthy only to be made into luscious, sweet fortified wines. The grapes of lesser quality or those left were used for wines for local consumption.

It was in 1986, when the country joined the European Union, that Portugal’s wine industry developed a worldwide presence. This alliance was an almost assured success, as it was timed in sync with the world’s increased thirst for red wines and the local producers stressing vast improvements to the modern winemaking industry.

What makes Portuguese wines unique is that while the rest of the world planted the popular grape varieties that make cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay, Portuguese producers were focusing on nurturing native varieties that have been produced for decades.

The wines of the Douro region and young vinho verde (“green wine”) are great introductions to Portuguese wine beyond port.

THE VALUE

  • 2014 Twin Vines Vinho Verde, Portugal (about $12 retail)

THE SPLURGE

  • 2014 Twisted Red Douro, Portugal (about $18 retail)

Portugal cultivates new wine identity

Vinho VerdeOnce known only for its Port and notorious Mateus Rose production, today Portugal is changing its image with its own signature grapes. Portugal’s bottled wine exports to the United States topped the 1 million-case mark last year, an increase of more than 30 percent in recent years.

While many winemakers around the world focused on planting international varietals of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay, Portugal stayed true to its roots. Literally. It’s betting its traditional wine making reputation on the powerful indigenous Touriga Nacional and refreshing, distinctive Vinho Verde.

The Touriga Nacional is considered the finest nonsparkling red wine of the Dao and Douro regions, with very little planted outside of Portugal. It’s one of the lead grapes in the blending of Port wine. In the past these wines were made in very concentrated, high-alcohol styles (very similar to a concentrated full-bodied Australian Shiraz). Today many winemakers are moving in the opposite direction with lighter, lower alcohol content, less extraction and more acidity from grapes being grown at higher altitudes.

Because the Touriga Nacional was regarded as only a blending partner for Port, varietal plantings of this grape are relatively new by vine standards. Most vineyards have small plantings and vines as young as 8 to 10 years. Because of the scarcity of old vines, we are still about 10 years away from experiencing the full potential of this indigenous grape.

Vinho Verde is Portugal’s fresh, lively, zingy, zesty and above all bargain-priced wine. These wines are traditionally made from an unfamiliar listing of local grapes like azal, loureiro, arinto and trajadura. Vinho Verde is the largest of the regulated wine regions, stretching from the Spanish border to south of Oporto on the Atlantic coast.

Over the past few years some winemakers are adding albarinho (more familiar to Americans by its Spanish name, albarino) to the mix. With growing familiarity of this wine, more and more consumers are passing over the known white varietals on the retail shelf for Vinho Verde’s refreshing taste and price.

THE VALUE

  • 2011 Broadbent Vinho Verde, Portugal (about $9 retail)

THE SPLURGE

  • 2010 Cape Roca Fisherman Red (Touriga Nacional blend), Portugal (about $15 retail)

Crossing over into new wine territory

World Map of WineYou’re browsing in your favorite wine shop strolling among the familiar California section and a turn to the next aisle lands you in uncharted territory. The once familiar chardonnays and cabernets are replaced by strange and unfamiliar bottles. Grape names and labels are becoming unrecognizable, almost mysterious. It’s not a bad dream, just the realization of the myriad of wine regions around the globe.

The downside of this exploration is it can lead to confusion and uncertainty. Just the act of learning which wines are worth your time and money can be a bewildering and daunting prospect. The names may be unfamiliar (Barrida), the grapes difficult to pronounce (tinto cao) and the growing regions hard to find on a map (Rias Baixas) but they are delicious.

GALICIA

Galicia (an autonomous community located in northwest Spain) is experiencing the spotlight with the rising popularity of Albarino, a wonderfully refreshing grape variety. Albarino is produced and grown in the Rias Baixas region. The region is cooler than most of Spain, giving the wine its crisp, fragrant characteristics.

THE VALUE

  • 2011 Martin Codax Albarino, Spain (about $14 retail)

THE SPLURGE

  • 2011 La Cana Albarino, Spain (about $19 retail)

PORTUGAL

While much of the rest of the world was planting high-demand varieties like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay, Portuguese growers focused on grapes that have been produced in the country for decades. The Douro, most famous for its port houses today, produces exceptional still red wines. The indigenous grapes – touriga nacional, tinta roriz, touriga Franca and tinto cao – are made into wines that expand beyond the common flavors of the world’s wines. Farther south in Barrida and Dao, the baga grape is making a name.

THE VALUE

  • 2011 Twisted Douro Vineyards, Portugal (about $14 retail)

THE SPLURGE

  • 2011 Barco Negro Douro, Portugal (about $17 retail)

CHILE

Wines such as malbec and camenere from Chile may be familiar to most, but the growing regions of Maipo, Colchagua and Aconcagua may not.Chilean growers have been making great strides in the warm valleys nestled between the Pacific and the Andes. The Colchagua in the central valley region of Rapel has ideal growing conditions for carmenere and merlot. Just to the north the hot Maipo Valley offers excellent conditions for cabernet sauvignon.

THE VALUE

  • 2012 Puerto Viejo Sauvignon Blanc, Chile (about $13 retail)

THE SPLURGE

  • 2009 Montes Alpha Syrah, Chile (about $23 retail)

It’s not Christmas if there’s no port

Port at ChristmasWe all have our wine traditions and for me it’s port wine at Christmas. I cannot imagine ushering in the holiday without this one-of-a kind, fortified masterpiece.

It takes its name from the city of Oporto, Portugal, and possesses many unique viticulture and winemaking techniques. The growing area, Portugal’s Douro Valley, has very hot summers and cold winters, making it a rather inhospitable area for viticulture.

Its isolated landscape is just as uninviting with its steep hillsides, poor, dry soils and archaic-looking planting terraces. In spite of the weather conditions and poor terrain, the port grapes thrive.

As much as the terroir affects the final product, the process used in making port is unmatched throughout the world. Just after harvest, a celebration of sorts begins with the traditional foot-treading in open trough wine vats by families and winery workers. They march, walk and even dance in keeping with this winemaking tradition. This may seem a bit awkward to envision, but the human foot is perfect for the task.

Port styles range from crusted and ruby to tawny, all blended from wines of different vintages made in different years and having spent time in wood barrels. These styles are ready to drink immediately after bottling. Vintage and single quinta (house) ports differ in that they spend minimal time in wood barrels before being bottled for the long, slow aging process.

THE VALUE 

  • NV Graham’s Six Grapes Porto, Portugal (about $32 retail)

THE SPLURGE

  • NV Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Tawny Port, Portugal (about $74 retail)