Taste a world of difference in the wines that Portugal has to offer.
Every wine collector or connoisseur has a bottle of vintage port waiting for that perfect occasion when it will elevate the finale of a meal to the realms of the sublime. Ask that same collector who has lovingly aged their port for decades until it reaches the glories of full maturity what the main grape used to make their port is, and you’re likely to get a blank stare. This is the paradox of Portuguese wine, which includes some of the most easily recognized and widely marketed brands in the world, yet its details remain shrouded in relative obscurity even to the most dedicated lover of wine. However, this gap between accessibility and familiarity presents a rare opportunity for anyone curious to expand their understanding of wine and uncover one of the few remaining bastions of value in fine wine today. With the rising demand for dry table wine, Portugal has emerged from a generation of reinventing itself, bringing new concepts to market that capitalize on its strengths: indigenous varietals, old vines and depth of wine- making experience.
Dirk Niepoort, the fifth generation of a venerable port family long famous for its tawny styles that slowly build complexity as they age for decades in barrel before bottling, changed gears and now uses some of his best grapes to make stunning examples of dry white wine using techniques borrowed from Burgundy to make a wine in a style that emulates the best of Meursault. The top of their lineup is named, evocatively, Coche. Attempting to replicate what many regard as the world’s best chardonnay using a blend of Rabigato, Arinto and Códega do Larinho might seem like a fool’s errand, but the results and the wine’s perennial scarcity speak for themselves. The acidity of the wine is precise, surprising, given the sear- ing temperatures in Douro Valley where this wine is sourced from, minerality is one of the dominant tasting notes, and the usage of oak barrels for texture and complexity shows careful calibration. However, there is a richness in body and creamy texture that lovers of the great California chardonnay will find familiar and makes this wine approachable, even in youth.
The grapes that go into Coche and other leading dry whites in Portugal themselves are unfamiliar for most but represent the blending of indigenous varietals that is a hallmark of many of Portugal’s regions, be it in Dao, Bairrada or Vinho Verde. It is difficult to get a sense of the contribution of each component since varietal wines are so rare, and even more frustrating since many of the most prestigious vineyards were plant- ed long before genetic sequencing and cloning were widespread. However, this is less important, the sum of the parts of this and the many other blends is always greater than its parts.
A similar story with a slightly different ending is the Vallado white reserve blend, made by the Ferreira family in Douro, another port wine producer that has expanded its focus to meet the market’s demand. Here Arinto, Gouveio (the same as Spain’s Godello), Rabigato and Viosinho are also aged in oak barrels to craft a wine that is remarkably similar to the stunning sauvignon blanc-based white wines produced by the famous châteaux of Bordeaux. Freshness in this wine is expressed in green savory notes of tarragon and watercress, and the warmer climate of Portugal is noticeable in the fuller body and riper nectarine and yellow apple notes.
The red blends in Dao, like in Douro, often focus on a blend of indigenous grapes like Touriga Nacional, Alfrochiero and Castelão, with results that bridge the gap between familiar new world Rhône and zinfandel blends, and slightly more reserved examples from France’s Southern Rhône. Quinta do Correio’s Dao sees no time in oak and provides easy summer drinking with a soft texture, generous fruit and old-world complexity with notes of dried savory herbs and slow smoked meat.
Even Vinho Verde is reinventing itself. The white rendition of this wine has a crisp, refreshing character that results from the cool climate in the area and early harvesting to avoid the dangers of rot associated with the autumn Atlantic storms. Because of climate change, the region has become more amenable to fully ripe grapes yielding luscious trop- ical fruit-tinged versions of Alvarinho, and even red wines, which had historically been a curiosity but never a focus. Now, with a climate that is both drier and warmer, an example like Anselmo Mendes’ Vinho Verde Tinto balances the light and refreshing sparkle of its white cousins with a purity of red berry notes and floral tones that recall the lighter styles of French bistro wine from decades past.
With 200 indigenous varieties that are largely unknown anywhere else in the world of wine, Portugal is begging to be discovered, a trend that is already being mined by retailers and restaurants specializing in Iberian wines in major cities. While their labels might seem unfamiliar, the juice inside is easily recognizable: good, quality and value-driven wine that bridges the gap between new and old world, combining ripe fruit with balance and restraint.