One of the wonderful things about wine is its ability to surprise and delight — there are always new wines made with unusual wine grapes and from unexpected places to enjoy. A person who is bored with wine, given this great discovery potential, is bored with life!
Portuguese explorers were at the forefront of the “Age of Discovery” that opened the world to economic and cultural exchange. Portugal’s impact on global trade was astonishing considering that it is and was a relatively small country hanging on Europe’s western-most edge.
Now I propose a reverse movement with respect to Portuguese wine and its native grape varieties. The New Age of Discovery, as I call it, calls for wine enthusiasts to take deep dives into Portugal’s many wine regions and especially to explore native wine grape varieties with unfamiliar names but intriguing flavors and unlimited potential.
Discovering Portugal Wine Diversity
Maybe that’s why Italian wines frequently appear on The Wine Economist page (although this is a global wine blog, for example, it was recently named one of the 40 best Italian wine blogs and pages). The wine map of Italy is a colorful mosaic that invites close inspection. But Italy is not alone is this regard. It is time to explore in more depth the diversity that Portugal offers.
Vini Portugal sent us three wines selected to illustrate three sides of Portuguese wine diversity. The Villa Alvor Singular Moscatel-Galego-Roxo 2020, for example, comes from the Algarve region, which is better known for sunny beaches than lush grapevines. The Antonio Maçanita Tinta Carvalha 2020, an Alentejo wine, is made from grape varieties now quite rare, but that once dominated the region. This wine brings them back from near-extinction. Finally, the Esporão Reserva Tinto 2019 is an interesting hybrid from a famous Alentejo producer, blending indigenous grapes with international varieties such as Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. It tells the story of the winery and the region, too.
Unexpected Field Blend
Knowing of our interest in native grape varieties, António Graça, the head of Research and Development at Sogrape Vinhos, arranged for us to receive examples of Casa Ferreirinha Castas Escondidas, a field blend from an old vineyard at Quinta do Seixo in the Douro.
The grape varieties include such unfamiliar names as Touriga-Fêmea, Tinta Francisca, Bastardo and Marufo, which are sometimes included in Port wine blends, but rarely make themselves known in unfortified wines. Tinta Amarela, Tinto Cão, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa and vinha velha are also part of this unique blend.
Now it would be easy to dismiss a wine like this as a “kitchen sink” product made up of odds and ends, but that is clearly not the case here as you will know immediately when you taste it. It is really true that what grows together often goes together, and the combination of these wine grapes in the talented hands of Sogrape Douro winemaker Luís Sottomayor results in a distinct and delicious statement of terroir. We found the wine to be complex, balanced, and elegant with a finish that went on and on. An experience as much as a wine. Fantastic.
Quiet! Old Vines at Work
António writes that, “We have been surveying our old vineyards and inventoried all varieties present in that vineyard, plant by plant in an effort to identify the patterns of the historical field blend. This wine is the result of the knowledge we gained from that work which we extended now to other old vineyards we own in order to gain knowledge that will assist us in adapting to a warmer climate in an already warm region.”
“This has led us to develop new vines and wines using blends or single variety wines made from minority varieties, some representing less than 50 hectares as total planted acreage today. The revelation of their sensory aspects has been very reassuring. Examples are Touriga Femea (literally «female Touriga»), Tinta Francisca in the Douro, Sercialinho in Bairrada or Encruzado and Alfrocheiro in Dao.”
Portuguese winemakers have a lot of material to work with in this new age of discovery. The official wine grape registry lists 343 native varieties so far — incredible diversity for a relatively small region.
An Age for Discovery
When I first visited Portugal and began tasting wines made from the native grape varieties, I saw the unfamiliar names as an obstacle to their success on the global market. It made sense to me, I wrote, to market the wines under proprietary brands or in blends with familiar international grape varieties in order to avoid erecting another barrier to entry for consumers new to the country’s wines.
But things have changed and my opinion has changed with them. The world is re-discovering Portugal as a place to visit or live along with its history, cuisine, and of course its wine. It is the new Age of Discovery and my, but there is a lot to discover in Portuguese wine.
So true Mike! The Portuguese wines are full of great surprises. I think the long period of time that their industry was focused on local consumption of still wines while exporting robust fortified wines allowed a lot of experimentation at the local vineyard level. We all get to reap the benefits of that now!
Note that Abacela, in the Umpqua Valley AVA of Oregon, grows many of the Portuguese varieties mentioned by Mike and Antonio in the article. We have Bastardo, Tinta Amarela, Tinto Cão, and Touriga Nacional, each of which we use in a Port-style wine and, in the case of Tinta Amarela and Tinto Cão, possibly the first 100% varietal wine of its type in the US. These varieties do well in our climate with solid yields, great flavors and sound chemistry.