Portugal's Many Indigenous Grape Varieties
Portugal is a small country with an incredible amount of native grape varieties. With over 250 of them, Portugal has more indigenous varieties planted per square kilometre than any other country in the world. In trying to market the wines abroad, this sheer number of grape varieties presents different problems for Portuguese producers: consumers don't know anything about the varieties because nowhere else grows them; the names are not only unfamiliar but they're difficult to pronounce; the same variety goes by different names in different parts of the country; and Portuguese wines are often blends of these many varieties, with an understandable focus on regionality rather than the individual characteristics of a grape.
Portugal is old-fashioned and traditional, reluctant to embrace international trends. This means a welcome lack of over-familiar international grape varieties, but it can also hold Portuguese wine back as growers cling on to small holdings of field blends. The wine scene is slowly changing though, with a focus on single-varietal wines from indigenous varieties. Educating the public about all these varieties will take some time, which is why I found myself at an art gallery in San Francisco tasting single-varietal wines from Portugal's highest-quality varieties as well as some I had never heard of. Here are some of the stand-out wines from varieties worth looking out for.
This is the most famous white Portuguese grape, the same as Albariño across the border in Spain's Rías Baixas. It's grown in the Vinho Verde region, around the villages of Monção and Melgaço. This is the coolest and wettest of Portugal's wine regions, and the wines in general have low alcohol and high acidity. Traditionally, those wines have always been blends but now Alvarinho is allowed to be labelled as a single-varietal wine as long as the grapes were grown in the Monção and Melgaço sub-regions.
The best producer is Soalheiro (literally "sunny place"), who were one of the first to take advantage of the liberalised wine laws in Portugal after the fall of the dictator Salazar in 1974. The wine we tasted was "Primeiras Vinhas," referring to the family's first plantings of the variety in 1974 from which the wine is made (under Salazar producers couldn't own their own vineyards). Alvarinho on its own is different from Vinho Verde, as it has higher alcohol (this wine is 13%) and doesn't have the slight spritz. It's a grassy, mineral, creamy wine with citrus and stone fruit aromas ($22; ✪✪✪✪✪).
Another Vinho Verde grape usually found in blends but now being made on its own, Louriero literally means "laurel-scented." It may be the power of suggestion, but the wines can smell of laurel leaves. The wine we tasted, Estreia Grande Escolha Loureiro 2016, was astonishing value at $10, with aromas of ripe peach and passion fruit, low alcohol (11.5%), and a fresh, gripping acidity. It's made by a co-op, Viniverde, proof that co-ops can make good wine. (✪✪✪✪)
Described as "Portugal's answer to Grenache," Castelão used to be the most planted variety in Portugal but has now slipped to third. It's grown all over hot southern Portugal, but is at its best around Lisbon under the influence of the Atlantic. The wine we tasted, Quinta de Chocapalha Castelão 2015, certainly had a resemblance to Grenache with red fruits but with a bit more acidity and the dry, dusty tannins so typical of Portuguese reds, as well as game aromas associated with the Castelão grape. Again, good value at $12. (✪✪✪✪)
Portugal's great black grape, providing the heady perfume for the best ports and now increasingly being made as a dry table wine. Yields are low, and it's a grape that growers have often avoided. With a renewed focus on quality, plantings of Touriga Nacional are increasing - which is a good thing because Touriga Nacional produces some of the greatest wines in the world. I personally prefer it as the major component of a blend, but on its own the wines are still fascinating. It produces wines with floral, red and black fruit aromas, with high tannins and acidity, wines that manage to be both delicate and powerful at the same time.
The two wines we tried showed just how varied the wines Touriga Nacional produces can be. Julia Kemper's 2011 ($25; ✪✪✪✪✪) is from the Dão, a region protected from the winds of Spain and the rains of the Atlantic by a series of mountain ranges. There's a wonderful, deceptive delicacy to this wine, with pretty, perfumed, floral, and herbal aromas belied by a big tannic structure on the palate. The Quinta do Passadouro 2014 ($40; ✪✪✪✪✪) is from the Douro, the classic, dry, hot region for port. This was a much darker, smokier, chunkier wine, with ripe, weighty fruits, and dusty tannins. This was one of a few wines we tried that had been foot-trodden, the traditional method of crushing the grapes to extract as much colour and tannins. Both wines were excellent, but so different.
Government interference in Portugese wine production has rarely had a positive influence. Baga was banned outright in the 1750s by Marquês do Pombal who, coming from the Douro, didn't want any other region to rival the production of port. Baga also happens to be a very difficult grape variety, producing highly tannic wines that take years to open up. The best comparison to make is with Nebbiolo, and the best wines have the same tannic concentration, red fruit and floral aromas, with tar and leather as they age. It's much lower in alcohol, however: one of the two Bagas we tried, Niepoort's Poeirinho 2014 ($39; ✪✪✪✪✪), was an astonishing 11%. Despite the low alcohol, the comparison to Nebbiolo was clear, with high acidity and dry tannins alongside floral, red fruit, and tar aromas. We also tried a Baga from 2000, Quinta do Moinho, by producer Luis Pato, one of the first modern producers to take the grape seriously. This showed just how well this variety ages. The tannins were still dry and very much present, together with mature earth, mushroom, and dried fruit aromas. ($65; ✪✪✪✪✪✪)
A much maligned grape and not one that's actually indigenous to Portugal, but one that's taken seriously albeit usually part of a blend. It's at its best in Alentejo, a hot, sparsely populated inland area traditionally associated with simple, fruity wines, but which is now producing wines of increasingly impressive quality. On its own, Alicante Bouschet tastes very much like Petite Sirah (with which it is planted in field blends in California): dark, black fruits, bitter chocolate, and very tannic. Adega de Borba's Grande Reserva 2011, an "iconic" wine of Alentejo only made in the best years, is a blend of Alicante Bouschet and Trincadeira, another black grape suited to Alentejo's hot climate producing deep-coloured, spicy wines. From another co-op, the wine was tannic but floral and elegant at the same time; even from 2011, this is still a young wine with great potential for ageing. ($32; ✪✪✪✪✪)
I've also written about Portuguese wine and its unique grape varieties for The Buyer.