Portugal’s new colours

Image of Jancis Robinson

Last year the UK was beaten into second place as biggest importer of Portuguese wine by … Angola. We British wine drinkers, and particularly those who sell wine to us, have a duty to maintain our reputation as connoisseurs. If we don’t pull up our socks and ensure that a better range of top-quality Portuguese wines makes its way into the UK, we will have to concede that Angolans are more discerning than we are.

My colleague Julia Harding, Master of Wine, was made Wine Writer of the Year at the UK’s Portuguese wine awards last year, which meant that she was charged with selecting her 50 finest Portuguese wines (from 1,200 tasted) and then presenting them to the trade, media and consumers in London, Manchester and Edinburgh last month. Reactions varied from surprise at the number of high-quality and refreshing whites to titillated confusion over many of the grape varieties (Julia narrowed the field by concentrating on indigenous vines) and bafflement at how difficult it is to find such wines on our shelves and wine lists.

This was not the first time I had tasted the annual selection of “50 Great Portuguese Wines”, but I and several other British wine professionals were struck by the sheer quality of the wines chosen this year: 27 reds, 18 whites, four fortified wines (for questionable administrative reasons, port and Madeira were excluded) and one rather fine, traditional-method sparkling wine, Quinta das Bageiras, Grande Reserve Bruto Natural 2003 Bairrada. Every wine tasted as though it were handmade, with real sensitivity towards the place and grape responsible for it. Admittedly some of them carry price tags as high as £80 a bottle, but there were others at £10 and under. What astounded and saddened me was how few of these beauties are available in the UK. About one in every three of the wines in this hand-picked selection has no UK importer.

As suggested by Julia’s selection, and my own recent tastings in Portugal and London, Portuguese winemakers are now producing an array of really fine white wines as well as the extremely distinctive reds more readily associated with the country. Vinho Verde, crisp, young white made in the far north of the country, is perhaps the best-known Portuguese white and Julia included four in her selection. There was a time when these wines tasted a little uncomfortably like carbonated apple juice but these four were fine by any standard. I was particularly struck by the concentration and tension of Quinta de Soalheiro, Primeiras Vinhas Alvarinho 2010 Vinho Verde (£21.50 Butlers Wine Cellar) made from the grape that is so popular as Albariño across the river Minho in the Spanish wine region Rias Baixas. The serious price denotes a serious wine, one for the dinner table, from the most prized subregion Moncão and Melgaço.

But even the local Moncão co-op is able to deliver obvious wine quality in the form of Adega de Moncão 2011 Vinho Verde (£5.95 The Wine Society). In this bone-dry wine that manages to be both subtle and dense, some of the local Trajadura grapes have been blended to add richness to Alvarinho. With just 11.5 per cent alcohol but no shortage of personality, this would make a great aperitif. I also enjoyed the vibrancy of Vales de Ambrães Avesso 2011 Vinho Verde made in the south of the region from the full-bodied Avesso grape, but the producer is without a UK importer alas. (Verde is Portuguese for green and all these wines demonstrate the green sap of youth. The white wines described below are more mellow and would be called branco, Portuguese for white.)

The Douro valley is most readily associated with port and a new groundswell of red table wines but Julia’s selection included four full-bodied, intensely individual Douro whites. The most daring and playful, even if the price tag is no joke, is Niepoort, Coche 2010 Douro (RRP£65, UK importer Raymond Reynolds), Dirk Niepoort’s latest creation, in homage to Jean-François Coche. The nose may have the same smoky, struck-match, reductive character as a cult Meursault from Domaine Coche-Dury, but the heat of the Douro Valley and the blend of Rabigato, Côdega de Larinho, Arinto and other white port grapes ensure that it is no carbon copy. This is a fascinating, beautifully textured, bumptious wine with a beginning, middle and end to the experience of tasting it.

A more affordable version comes in the form of Quinta de la Rosa Branco 2010 Douro (£14.95 Berry Bros), another variegated blend including Rabigato, half of which was fermented and aged in barrel. Dense, dry, appetising and tangy, this is a wine with more interest than most at this price level, and I would expect both these Douro whites to benefit from just as much bottle age as white burgundy.

From vineyards in northern Portugal with a much stronger Atlantic influence comes Filipa Pato, FP 2011 Vinho Regional Beiras (£11.95 Noel Young), made by the daughter of the leading light of Bairrada (who has now left the appellation in disgust at its laxness) Luis Pato. This equal blend of the top quality grapes Bical and Arinto, has wonderful aromatic appeal and a certain creaminess on the palate but, most important, like all of these wines, it bears no relation to any other wine made elsewhere.

The granitic Dão region was for years the source of some of the driest, most curmudgeonly wines on earth. But a fruitier new broom has swept vigorously during the past 10 years and the exceptionally winning, full-bodied white Quinta das Maias, Malvasia Fina 2011 Dão (RRP£15, UK importer Raymond Reynolds) is just one example of a white Dão that can rival fine white Rhône in its confidence, and beat most of them in their ageing ability. This particular wine reminded me of milky coffee – in an intriguing, but good, way.

Even more like white burgundy with its two months’ lees stirring is Quinta de Saes Encruzado Reserva 2010 Dão made from the local Encruzado grape variety and wonderfully fresh.

Portuguese whites really do deserve attention, not least from those with an eye for a bargain. Don’t let them all go to Angola!

Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com

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