Simon J. Woolf and Ryanb Opaz, Foot Trodden, Portugal and the Wines that Time Forgot. Interlink Books, 2021.
Portugal is having a much-deserved moment at present. For a long time Portugal wasn’t really on the radar for most people. The situation was so bad that some folks couldn’t find Portugal on a map — I saw a headline that proclaimed Portugal as a Mediterranean destination! It was enough to make Henry the Navigator cry!
Now Portugal is high on the list of popular destinations for travelers of all stripes. Many of our friends have visited Portugal as tourists, for example, one has bought property there and is moving permanently, and another is seeking Portuguese citizenship.
What is the attraction? The people, their culture, food, wine, climate — the list goes on and on. The question isn’t so much why people love Portugal as what took them so long to discover it!
You can say pretty much the same thing about Portuguese wine. For a long time the wines of Portugal have been sort of filed away a couple of niches. Port and Madeira? Check! Vinho Verde? Check! Lancers and Mateus? Check! Check!
But the world of Portuguese wines beyond the niche categories was essentially uncharted territory. What would it take for get wine drinkers to try Portuguese wines from unfamiliar regions made with unfamiliar grape varieties? It seemed like an impossible challenge.
Portuguese Charm Prevails
But the challenge is being met these days and Portuguese wine sales have been strong in the United States market, due in part to the popularity of Portugal as a travel destination, but also the rising profile of the country and its people more generally. Portugal has become a little bit like Italy in the sense that warm feelings about the place encourage consumers to give the wines a foot in the door, which is all they really need.
Walking into Costco recently, for example, I was met by a giant haystack wine display right by the entrance featuring colorful bottles of wine labeled simply “Portugal Red Blend” from the Lisboa region. It is an honest red wine, not too complicated, and a very good value. Shoppers happily filled their giant shopping carts. Would that have happened five years ago?
Foot Trodden, the recent book by Simon J. Woolf and Ryan Opaz, comes at an opportune moment when many wine enthusiasts are thirsty to learn more about Portugal. The book is appealing in part because it approaches Portuguese wine from a different angle than many wine books.
The standard format of “Wines of XXX” books is to survey the landscape from the perspective of the grape varieties, the wines they produce, the regions where they are made, and the wineries that make them. It is essentially a top-down approach, which is appropriate for a survey volume. Richard Mayson’s The Wines of Portugal, for example, applies this template to Portugal very successfully.
Foot Trodden breaks the mold a bit by focusing on the people and their stories, letting the other elements appear as part of the human tale. This is a bottom=-up perspective, which I find especially appropriate in this case because, as I noted above, so many of the sources of Portugal’s current success are essentially grassroots characteristics.
The book is well written, the stories, which mainly focus on family wineries, are well chosen and told, and the result a feeling of the place and the challenges that wine makers faced in the past and confront today, too. Excellent book. It deserves the success and recognition it has received.
All in the Family
Because stories are the driving force here, breadth is sometimes sacrificed for depth. So, for example, we are introduced to far fewer wine makers than in the survey books and these tend to be smaller multi-generation family affairs. The big wine producing houses are mentioned, but the focus is elsewhere.
I especially enjoyed the chapter on the Alentejo, which was organized around the tradition of making wines in large clay pots called Talha. The rise, fall, and now rise again of this tradition is very interesting and deftly connects several family wine stories. These wines certainly honor the book’s sub-title.
I was also pleased to see so much Portuguese history woven into the book’s tapestry. It seems to me that it is impossible to understand Portuguese wine today, for example, without taking into account the long shadow case by Prime Minister Salazar’s policies and the reaction to the Carnation Revolution.
The book features many colorful photographs, which support the grassroot perspective by highlighting the families, their land, and work. There are a few missed opportunities. The one map included in the book is pretty, but doesn’t answer many questions. More is more when it comes to maps, especially in this case because they can help connect the top-down and bottom-up perspectives.
Which is the better approach — survey or grassroots? Each is useful and interesting. Why choose? More is more when it comes to perspectives on Portugal and its wine!