Portugal’s Quiet Revolution

Portugal's Quiet Revolution

Europe’s smart vacationers already know that Portugal is the place to go. They have discovered the good values along with the ocean beaches, dramatic mountains and picturesque, historic cities. It is the one place left in Western Europe where the old ways can be seen alongside the new, where SUVs sweep past farmers in donkey carts.

Portugal’s wines are poised to become just as much of a revelation. This is the next Italy, pundits will tell you. It has all the ingredients: The wild variety of local grapes, the distinctive and profound wine culture, excellent climate and terroir. All that it had been missing were the people to make it happen and the wine drinkers willing to listen. Now it certainly has the first, and it is steadily gaining the second. From the Minho and Douro Valleys in the north to the Alentejo in the south, every region has producers using what Portugal offers in abundance—indigenous grapes, centuries of winemaking knowledge and varied terroirs—to create a new wine tradition. Untamed, as they have been in the past, Portuguese reds can be rough, tannic, dry and lacking in fruit. But with modern viticultural and winemaking skills applied to them, the indigenous and international grape varieties yield wines that open up a whole new world of flavors.

While red wines have been the locomotive of improvement, the whites have also been part of the push. Portugal’s most famous white, Vinho Verde, is cleaner, fresher and crisper than in the past—and drier, in line with modern wine preferences. Further south, the best whites come from DĂŁo and Bairrada. Fatter and fuller than the Vinho Verde, blends from the Encruzado grapes in the DĂŁo and Maria Gomes in Bairrada are now given wood aging to enhance character.

Why has it taken Portugal so long to catch up? History played a part. Until 1974, Portugal’s fascist history cut it off from the rest of the west. The demise of the authoritarian regime and the “Revolution of Carnations” eventually led to democratic government and Portugal’s accession to the European Union in 1986. This brought funding to build the infrastructure of the country and, in wine, to create world-class vineyards and wineries.

With the investment have come high-flying wine consultants and foreign buyers. Bordeaux’s Michel Rolland is working with Caves Aliança, one of the big nĂ©gociants, to produce T de Terrugem, which sells for $60 a bottle in Portugal. Bernhard Breuer, one of the Rheingau’s top producers, has bought an estate in the Douro, and is making Quinta da Carvalhosa. Bruno Prats, whose family owned Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux, has teamed up with the Symington Port family to make Chryseia, a top-end Douro red table wine.

“Portugal has been a closed country and only now is it looking out,” says Luis Pato. “The new generation is making the revolution in wine.” Pato is a leading estate wine producer in the Bairrada region, the coastal stretch of red wine grapes halfway between Porto and Lisbon.

Like every other producer I spoke to, Pato believes that the local Portuguese grape varieties are the ones to use. “We are proving that our grapes are as good as the international varieties,” says Pato. “To do that, we have to make the best possible use of them.”

Pato is a master of the sometimes-recalcitrant local red grape, Baga. Only grown in the Bairrada, Baga produces hugely tannic, raw wines. It takes the hand of a master to turn it into something silky. “I am a Pinot Noir lover,” he says, “and when the Baga ages it can become like Pinot Noir.”

Baga isn’t the only grape planted in Bairrada. At Caves Aliança, winemaker Francisco Antunes is able to draw on vineyards of Merlot and Cabernet and, for whites, Bical and Sercial. This makes the Beiras (the regional name for the central coast, which includes Bairrada) a melting pot of international and local grapes.

Caves Aliança is a cross between a nĂ©gociant and a grower. It buys grapes from all over Portugal, and also has its own vineyards in the Beiras. “There are three problems with vineyards in Bairrada,” says Atunes. “One is bad drainage. The second is the wrong rootstock, which gives yields but not quality. The third is the way the vines are trained, like bushes. With our own vineyards we can control all these elements.”

Outsiders can easily be put off by the wealth of sometimes unpronounceable grape names. A few—Touriga Nacional, Tinta Franca (or Francesa), Tinta Roriz—are familiar to Port lovers. But the rest are a closed book. Yet such is the quality of the whites like Encruzado, Bical, Loureiro and Roupeiro or the reds Baga, Castelão, Trincadeira and Tinta Cão, that their names should become just as familiar as Sangiovese or Nebbiolo in a few years.
The Italian comparison is, I believe, essential to understanding the evolution under way in Portugal. The best quality regions lie in the north—in the Douro and the DĂŁo—as do Italy’s Piedmont and Tuscany. The value regions lie to the south—Alentejo and Ribatejo correspond to Puglia and Sicily.

Get DĂŁo, get DĂŁo

When I first visited DĂŁo, almost all grapes in the region went to the co-ops and ended up as basic branded wine. Only since the late 1980s have estate wines emerged. Even now, there are only a handful, but they show what the mountainous, granite-soiled region can do.
Carlos Lucas, manager and enologist at DĂŁo Sul, is one of the people responsible for the arrival of estate wines. He was the winemaker at the local Nelas cooperative. With a group of investors, he set up DĂŁo Sul in 1989 and built a new winery in 1998. Professor Virgilio Loureiro of Lisbon University’s wine department is a partner and wine consultant: “We experiment all the time in the vineyard, in the winery.”

Control was what the family of Luis Lourenço wanted when it decided to stop selling its grapes and bottle wine at its Quinta dos Roques estate. Lourenço, who was a math teacher in Lisbon, came to manage the winery for his father-in-law. He believes that improving quality begins with the vines. “In Portugal, we know what to do in the winery. In the vineyards we still need to learn.”

The DĂŁo is a relatively cool wine region, a beautiful landscape dominated by two mountain ranges, the Serra da Estrela to the east and the Serra do Caramulo to the west. In the valley between lie the vineyards. The region was given a huge boost in 1988, when Sogrape, Portugal’s largest wine company, purchased Quinta das Carvalhais in the heart of the DĂŁo. The producer of Mateus RosĂ©, Sogrape had decided to diversify by making quality wines in all regions of the country. The winery and 126-acre vineyard at Carvalhais are the first fruits of this decision.

Sogrape’s experimental division is also located here. “We are investing a lot of research into the best clones of Portuguese varieties and sharing our knowledge,” says Vasco MagalhĂŁes, director of wine operations. “It is the first time that applied research has been done on Portuguese grape varieties.” Sogrape is one of a group of seven producers (known collectively as the G7), who have come together to handle joint overseas marketing campaigns to boost exports of estate-bottled wines.

Smaller estates have caught the quality bug, too. The oldest winery in the DĂŁo, Casa de Santar, produces classic reds from its 170-acre vineyard, but with a hint of modern style imparted by new French oak. That mix of traditional and new is a reflection of the family: Pedro de Vasconcellos e Souza, winemaker at Casa de Santar, studied enology at Montpellier and Bordeaux, while his mother, the Condessa de Santar, presides over the 18th-century family estate, which includes a museum and stunning topiary gardens.

Portugal’s big-sky country

One of the G7 has the largest single property in Portugal, Herdade do EsporĂŁo. There are nearly 1,000 acres of vines on a 5,000-acre estate. Welcome to the Alentejo, Portugal’s land of wide-open spaces.

The Alentejo is Big Sky country, with big horizons, big estates and a big wine future. If Portugal has a New World, this is it. And, like Southern Italy, the Alentejo can supply huge quantities of delicious wines at great prices.

The winemakers at EsporĂŁo are Luis Duarte and David Baverstock, an Australian who has lived in Portugal since the early 1980s. “The Alentejo is a region of great consistency,” he says. “In most years, it has a warm, dry climate giving really ripe grapes.” The EsporĂŁo wines reflect this—warm and open, emphasizing fruit, revealing the style that appeals to New World wine drinkers.”

That style is not just thanks to an Aussie winemaker. JoĂŁo Portugal Ramos’s wines have many of the same characteristics. He had been a wine consultant before setting up his own winery in 1997. He is excited by the frontier feel of the Alentejo. “It has moved fast. In the 1970s, there was only one producer and the co-ops; now there are 150 producers,” Portugal Ramos says. “We get hot days and cool nights—perfect for ripening the grapes, just like California.”

Apart from Portuguese grapes, Syrah is a big success story in the Alentejo. Portugal Ramos says it’s “fantastic. I can blend it with AragonĂŞs or Trincadeira and I get something like the Australian Cabernet-Shiraz blend.”

Hans Jorgensen at Cortes de Cima’s 143-acre estate in the southern Alentejo also believes there is a future for Syrah in the region: “It is in my young vines wine, the IncĂłgnito, and it gives amazingly rich fruit,” he says. Hans and Carrie Jorgensen (she’s from California) arrived in the Alentejo in 1988. They had been on the way to the Mediterranean in their yacht when they moored in the Algarve and drove north. “We just stopped here,” says Carrie. They had found an estate where the “wine was still being made in old clay amphoras.” Such is the short time scale of the wine revolution in the Alentejo.

By any standard, these estates are not small. All share an intense focus on making not just good wine, but great wine. And it isn’t always with the latest technology. At Herdade do MouchĂŁo, the techniques are as traditional as they come. Owner Iain Richardson married into the Reynolds family, which has owned the property for 100 years. He uses open lagars for foot treading and fermentation, a simple basket press and large wood casks for aging.

From these classic surroundings comes one of Portugal’s cult wines, MouchĂŁo. Big and fragrant, only 15,000 bottles a year are made, and while some end up at the London wine merchant and retailer, Berry Brothers & Rudd, most stay in Portugal. Just outside the Alentejo, in the SetĂşbal peninsula south of Lisbon, J.M. da Fonseca produces two of Portugal’s best known brands—Lancers RosĂ© and the red Periquita—while also making small quantities of boutique wines. At their winery in Vila Nogueira de AzeitĂŁo, Portugal’s most modern facility, workers pressed the 2002 red grape harvest in traditional wooden, circular basket presses. Some of the reds were also being trodden by foot. “I am sure doing it this way softens the tannins,” says Domingos Soares Franco, winemaker and vice president of J.M. da Fonseca.

The draw of the Douro

Even well-established producers in southern Portugal feel the northward pull of the Douro. This hilly region east of Porto is considered Portugal’s best wine region. No longer are the best grapes reserved for the fortified glories of Port. Where once there were a few lonely pioneers—Ramos-Pinto and Ferreira remain the best known—there has been an explosion of quality-minded producers of table wines.

One of the latest ventures comes from the ubiquitous J.M. da Fonseca. “This is new to us,” says the company’s president, Antonio Soares Franco, Domingos’ brother. “We have always been rooted in southern Portugal, so going north to the mountains was quite an adventure.” They enlisted the help of Cristiano van Zeller, whose family used to own the venerable Port house, Quinta do Noval. The result include two table wines, Domini and Domini Plus and a Port, JosĂ© Maria da Fonseca & Van Zeller Vintage 2000.

The palpable sense of excitement in the region extends from the biggest companies, such as J.M. da Fonseca, to the smallest quintas. One proponent of great Douro table wine is also one of the most exciting Port winemakers—Dirk Niepoort of Niepoort Port fame. He makes four premium reds (Batuta, Charme, Redoma and Quinta de Nápoles), and an astonishingly fine white, Redoma Branca Reserva, from a region in which whites have traditionally been second best. Other estates, such as Quinta de la Rosa, Quinta do Vallado and Quinta do Portal have followed suit.

Casa Agricola Roboredo Madeira, or CARM, has estates totaling 152 acres in the far upper reaches of the Douro. They are not far from Quinta do Vale MeĂŁo, once home to Portugal’s legendary Barca Velha (the equivalent in fame of Vega Sicilia in Spain), and now producing wine under the quinta name.

Understanding Portugal’s wines can be confusing at first. But if you follow two simple rules you’ll be on your way to enjoying its wines. One is to remember DAD—the initials for the three major regions: Douro, Alentejo and DĂŁo. The other rule is to follow the grape, follow the winemaker and follow the brand. And it’s not just a coincidence if you are reminded of Italy. It is Portugal’s model for the future.

A Case of Top Portuguese Wines

94 Campo Ardosa 2000 Quinta da Carvalhosa (Douro); $28. The first release of a joint-venture wine made by Bernhard Breuer and Bernd Philippi from the Rheingau in Germany. It’s almost black in color. On the palate, plums and black currants combine with new wood and tannins, leaving a complex aftertaste. Power and elegance blend effortlessly. Age for another five years before opening. —R.V.

93 Quinta do Vale MeĂŁo 2000 Douro; $65. Made from grapes that used to go into Barca Velha, Portugal’s most-storied table red. It’s inky and intense, with whiffs of smoke and toast, but also incredible fruit concentration. Has blackberries, coffee and dried spices on the palate; it finishes long and firm, with hints of licorice. Editors’ Choice. —J.C.

92 Ramos-Pinto 2000 Duas Quintas Reserva (Douro);
$34. The senior partner of the popular Duas Quintas brand, this wine has a dark, intense color. It is a big and black wine, with serious tannins and powerful fruit. Still young, this should develop into a solid, chunky wine. —R.V.

91 Casa de Santar 2000 Touriga Nacional (DĂŁo); $43. Starts off a bit floral and toasty, but the blueberry-scented fruit quickly asserts itself. Masses of soft, ripe fruit come through on the palate, along with a rich, dense mouthfeel and soft but plentiful
tannins. —J.C.

91 DĂŁo Sul 2000 Quinta de Cabriz Touriga Nacional (DĂŁo); $19. DĂŁo Sul wines are produced by a team of Portuguese winemakers, including Virgilio Loureiro, professor of enology at Lisbon University. This wine has aromas of dusty black fruit, plus big
tannins and black-currant and cherry flavors. Spices and herbs complete the mix, along with the essential acidity. —R.V.

91 DFJ Vinhos 2000 Grand Arte Alicante Bouchet (Estremadura); $20. In Portugal, Alicante Bouchet is capable of making some of the country’s finest wines. This is typical, with its sweet, jelly-like aromas and ripe, dense fruit. There’s an evocative, herby, Mediterranean sunshine feel to it. —R.V.

91 Luis Pato 2001 Quinta do Moinho Baga (Beiras); $60. In this bottling, Pato has harnessed the rough tannins and brash acidity of the Baga into a rich, creamy wine filed with blackberries and anise. It’s tannic and crisp, but it needs another 10 years in the cellar. —J.C.

90 Adega Cooperativa de Vila Nova de Tazem 2000 Touriga Nacional (DĂŁo); $18. Sappy and intense on the nose, with cherries, blackberries and toast. Although some tasters used to the lush midpalates of New World wines may find this a little lacking in that department, it comes across as smooth and supple, with finely etched fruit flavors elegantly framed by oak. Editors’ Choice. —J.C.

90 Herdade do EsporĂŁo 2000 Touriga Nacional (Alentejano); $15. The 1,000-acre vineyards of EsporĂŁo are the largest in Portugal. This aristocrat of Portuguese grapes wins again in the EsporĂŁo’s range of single-varietal wines. It is rich, it is vibrant, it has complexity. It is certainly ripe, but also elegant, and has lingering plum flavors. —R.V.

90 Quinta de la Rosa 2001 Quinta la Rosa (Douro); $18. This vintage has sweet fruit on the nose and fine, forward fruit and sweetness. The ripeness and almost-jelly juiciness give a real sense of the wine being made from serious Port fruit. —R.V.

90 Carm 2000 Reserva (Douro); $23. Toast and vanilla notes are layered over aromas of cured meat and blackberries. On the palate, it’s lush but not overly weighty, just nicely balanced. There’s plenty of spicy oak, especially on the finish, but also the fruit to support it. —J.C.

88 JoĂŁo Pires 2002 Dry Muscat (Terras do Sado); $11. This is a perennial favorite and, outside of Vinho Verde, probably the best-known white of Portugal. Floral aromas bring to mind scents of lemongrass, lime and orange blossom, while the flavors brim with tangerines and tropical fruit, yet finish crisp and clean. It’s dry, light and mouthwatering, making it an ideal apĂ©ritif. Best Buy.

Published on November 1, 2003
Topics: PortugalTrendsWine