Impressions of Portugal

Firstly I’d like to point out that I only spent two weeks in Portugal and only nine days of which was spent visiting wineries. Secondly I only visited four (five if you treat Oporto separately) regions in Portugal, all of which are in the northern part of the country. I was also able to visit some of the absolute top producers in each of these regions and thus was only able to experience the best of what Portugal produces. This does also mean that I was exposed to the cutting edge and future of Portuguese wines, and meet people with experience in different regions and producers representing different elements of the wine industry. So it seems a little silly to be making assumptions and assessments about a country that requires significantly longer to get to know, but I wanted to talk about Portugal which is a producer that certainly I had very little experience with and understanding of, but feel that everyone out there needs to get to know better.

Traditional method sparkling wine in Bairrada

Proportionally Portugal is one of the largest producing countries in the world when you consider they have a population roughly equivalent to Melbourne and Sydney combined. Driving up the coast from Lisbon to Porto you see how important agriculture is to this country like every other Southern European country, and vitis vinifera is pretty widespread. When you then factor in the 44,000 hectares of vineyards in the Douro Valley, and the heavily planted south of Portugal there are a lot of vineyards here. Conservatively there are at least 100,000 individual growers and at least 10,000 producers making about six million hectolitres of wine each year. Australia actually exports more wine than Portugal does. So where does all the Portuguese wine go? Pretty simple really, it is almost entirely consumed within Portugal. Compared to their neighbours there is a really strong wine culture here, and they consume about litres per person per year. Some would argue that this is a sign of alcoholism, but I just consider it a sign that they have their priorities straight. They certainly drink a lot of beer – Portuguese beer is superior to Spanish in my opinion – but they don’t really drink a lot of spirits from what I could tell.

A traditional method to plunge the skins in an old granite lagar in the Dao

They also know they make great wines and spend well on them. This is the main reason that the majority of wine exported out of Portugal is at the lower end with the exception of port wine. Portuguese consumers seem to appreciate the uniqueness of their wines and are very au fait with the different regions although there are some tendencies towards parochialism. Like any other wine-producing country they import very little wine apart from champagne which is almost not even wine, just brand. This is surprising considering the range and quality of wines just over the border in Spain, but there are of course complicated histories to go with that as well. The little wine they do export seems to go to a few places in particular; the UK almost exclusively for port wine, Germany because they import wines from everywhere, and Brazil thanks to their relationship and the fact that they speak the same language (almost). Brazil is probably the most important market outside of Portugal, and whilst I was visiting wines people were either about to leave or were already there for a big event organised by one of the major importers.

Grantite – the Dao is filled with it

One of the most complicated things about Portuguese wine and the major thing holding it back in the major export markets is that they are so unfamiliar. For one thing they have hundreds of different indigenous varieties that most people (myself included) have never heard of. French varieties are well-known partly because they weeded out a lot of non-performing varieties after phylloxera over 100 years ago, and partly because the major French varieties are so widely planted around the world both in Europe and outside of it. Whilst there are many thousands of Italian varieties the major ones are well-known because they have focused on a select few, and they have been exporting wines in large volumes for many years. Even Spain has followed this trend and has established a connection to varieties like tempranillo, garnacha, verdejo and albarino. Only recently has there been interest in any Portuguese varieties, and this is really only in the touriga nacional variety which you can find in a number of regions in Portugal and also in other countries including Australia. To add to the complication of there being so many varieties they often have names which are very hard to pronounce and even recognise when you hear them, so it makes it harder to ask for a varietal wine in a restaurant when you don’t know how to say it.

With Vito Ferreira at Quinta do Vale Meao in Douro

One of the best things about Portugal is its strong identity and their desire to be unique. Unlike Spain and Italy they are less as interested in planting French varieties everywhere simply to make wines that will possibly more easily sell in certain markets. They want to retain the unique qualities of their wines, their unique varieties and their unique traditions. One of these traditions is the fermentation and maceration of red wine in broad shallow vats known as lagares, many of which are made out of stone or cement. This is a practice that used to be more common all over Europe but was mostly abandoned in favour of oak and then stainless steel vats that were deeper and had less surface area to protect the wine from oxidation. Portuguese producers truly believe that this adds character to their wines and are reluctant to let this practice die, although they have introduced more modern tanks that are closed.

Getting a bit carried away at Niepoort in Douro

One of the other common things that are almost dead in the rest of Europe is the practice of planting a number of different varieties mixed together in a single vineyard, then treating these varieties together. This practice is commonly referred to as field blending which traditionally used to before there was understanding about different varieties and how they ripened and the idea that you could plant different varieties in different areas to better ripen them. In many people’s opinions these are true terroir wines rather than varietal wines, which is why some people are rediscovering these wines even outside of Portugal (e.g. Marcel Deiss in Alsace). This is part of the reason why Portugal was so late to focus on understanding their different varieties, and with some vines at least 80 years old there are many varieties that are still unidentified. There are a select group of producers at the top end who are striving not only to make the best wines they can but to let the world know about it. Groups like the Baga friends and the Douro Boys are great initiatives to not only promote but to do so collectively with more chance of influence.

Port boats in Villa Nova de Gaia

Portuguese wine can be and often is exceptional, mostly thanks to its originality and personality. Whilst they have a lot of work to do to improve their communication and promotion, the quality is undoubtedly there. If they truly want the recognition they deserve they will have to start getting out into the world and talking about their wines, and also increase the amount they export. Wine professionals like myself can’t help them by talking about the wines unless they are actually available to the consumers, otherwise we may as well be dangling carrots in front of donkeys faces. If you do happen to find some Portuguese wine that isn’t port (or even if it is), give it a whirl and tell me what you think.

Serious vineyards in Douro

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