By Christopher Matthews
During its long history, especially during the Age of Discovery, Portugal has been known as a nation of explorers, something that allowed the (then) small kingdom to punch far above its weight for centuries as a colonial power.
Times have changed, and the tables have turned, as Portugal itself, sans colonies and King, has become a hot tourist destination and a country to explore, not least for its vibrant and rapidly evolving wine sector, a big success story of the last few decades, but one the US market should know more about.
This was the point of departure for the Wine Media Guild’s (WMG) most recent tasting/lunch — “Exploring the Wines of Portugal” — hosted by WMG Member David Ransom, and featuring Ivan Escalante, a sales rep for Iberian wines for the distributor Wine in Motion USA, at the Restaurant at La Nacional (The Spanish Benevolent Society).
It was an instructive, eye-opening tasting of quality, value…and lesser known, indigenous grape varieties.
Portugal, the home of Port and Madeira, is no newcomer to the world wine stage. It is only in the last few decades, however, that many Portuguese wineries and estates (Quintas) have moved significantly into production of dry, unfortified wines (particularly in the Douro region), looking to diversify and to capture new markets, and to capitalize on Portugal’s climatic, viticultural and cost advantages. But unlike some other modern wine successes, like Chile or New Zealand, whose models have been based on well-known international grape varieties (e.g. Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot), Portugal has a treasure trove of native, quality grapes, like Touriga Nacional (red), that were once used solely in Port wine production, and are creating (or contributing to) unique and exciting wines made nowhere else.
The hosts put together an impressive tasting of some 30 wines that are available in the US/New York market, with over half under $20.
Portugal is not renown here in the US for sparkling wine, but it produces quality Method Champenois wines, like Caves Transmontanas Rose Sparkling 2014 (Douro region – $17), a bright, energetic bargain, with pretty red fruit and nice minerality, made 100% from the indigenous Touriga Franca grape.
In the US, Portuguese whites are, for many, defined by fizzy, cheap Vinho Verde wines. These certainly have their place, and have wide distribution, but Vinho Verde produces compelling quality wines, too, as do many other Portuguese appellations (DOCs), using diverse, native grape varieties, for just a few dollars more than the lower-end offerings. Here are a few white gems from the tasting (all prices approximate):
Conde Villar Alvarinho 2017 (Vinho Verde) — aromatic and floral, with tropical and stone fruit notes and nice energy, all for only $11! (Alvarinho is the Portuguese version of the Spanish Albariño).
Chocapalha Arinto 2017 (Lisboa region) — attractive peach aromas with a lean, citrusy and mineral-laced palate (Arinto is a native Portuguese grape). [$14]
Torre de Vila Nova 2016 (Vinho Verde) — a blend of the indigenous Loureiro, Azal and Arinto grapes, it has stone fruit and pineapple aromas, and a clean, zesty and citrusy (grapefruit/lime) palate. [$19]
Portugal truly excites when it comes to reds, as this WMG tasting confirmed in spades. And the overall quality of the reds was outstanding. Here are some highlights:
Luis Pato Tinto Vinhas Velhas 2013 (Bairrada) — the Bairrada DO is tied to the native Baga grape for reds, which can yield long-lived, complex wines similar to Nebbiolo or Pinot Noir, depending on age. This one is still youthful, with an expressive, brambly nose, juicy blackberry fruit, nice acidity and a long finish. [$20]
Quinta do Passadouro Passadouro Tinto 2013 (Douro) — possibly the best value of the tasting. Made of 50% Touriga Nacional, 25% Touriga Franca and 25% Tinta Roriz, this has a fresh, dark berry nose, along with lip-smacking black fruit, silky tannins, impressive structure and exceptional length. [$18]
João Portugal Ramos Vila Santa Reserva 2013 (Alentejo) — a slightly smoky, deep black fruit nose, followed by lean, brambly fruit, good balance, medium body and nice length. [$15]
Alexandre Relvas Art.Terre Amphora Red 2016 (Alentejo) — A pretty (and unique) blueberry nose is reflected back on a zesty palate with a clean, long finish. Great as a table companion, and a true bargain. [$15]
Quinta do Vallado Touriga Nacional 2015 (Douro) — on the higher end, and my best-in-show, this 100% Touriga Nacional wine shows it class: a focused nose of violets and black fruit, with energetic, juicy blackberry fruit, smooth tannins and compelling structure and balance, reminiscent of a Grand Cru Bordeaux. [$64]
All of the wines mentioned above — both the whites and the reds — worked beautifully with the Spanish repast over lunch, especially with the wonderful Valencian seafood paella served as the main course.
Certainly a worthy exploration, with plenty of discovery (even rediscovery!), especially the qualitative excellence of these Portuguese wines, at extremely reasonable prices.