Bronze Age Treasures
With more than 250 indigenous grape varieties and 31 DOPs, Portugal is proud of its winemaking history, which stretches back to the Bronze Age.
‘In some regions, the winemaker will blend more than 20 varieties to achieve the correct balance – in one case, as many as 206 varieties have been known to come together to create a single white wine’
PORTUGAL HAS A long history as a wine producing country. It was here that the first formalised DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada / Controlled Denomination of Origin) was founded back in 1754 under the auspices of Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the Marquês de Pombal, who was keen to strengthen the growers’ hand and reduce the (English) merchants’ influence, which he saw as excessive. With his support, the Real Companhia de Agricultura das Vinhas do Alto Douro was created as the first growers’ co-operative in the Douro Valley, protecting the interests of the Douro region and formalising the first compulsory production and quality regulations for the region’s wines.
Today, Portugal has 31 DOCs/DOPs (the new, preferred pan-European term is DOP, Denominação de Origem Protegida, meaning Protected Denomination of Origin). Each of these regions has strictly defined geographical boundaries. Nevertheless, the country is also still more informally divided into 14 regional wine areas, with wines from these areas labelled as Vinho Regional.
Vinhos (table wines) are Portugal’s simplest wines, subject to none of the rules stipulated for quality or regional wines.
For Portuguese wine, a new era began in 1986 when Portugal joined the EU. The wine regions were reorganised and a new appellation system was introduced for regional and quality wines. Thanks to extensive EU subsidies, huge investment was possible in both vineyards and wineries, resulting in a revolutionary improvement in wine quality. Many private estates began to build facilities to make and bottle their own wines, rather than delivering their grapes or wines to co-operatives or large wine companies.
For centuries, sons have followed fathers into the family wine business, and have thereby maintained family traditions and customs. Today, new generations are still taking over family businesses, and benefiting from the experience of their predecessors. The difference is that this new generation of winemakers is highly trained and enjoys a new professional status within the Portuguese wine trade. Many women are now going into winemaking too. Today 60 per cent of students graduating in oenology from Vila Real University are women.
No other country has a range of indigenous grape varieties to match Portugal’s. The peninsula has in excess of 250 indigenous grapes, only a few of which have travelled (in a very small way) anywhere else in the world. This huge palette of different grapes was introduced to Portugal over a long and exciting history of winemaking, traced by archaeologists back to the Bronze Age. Tartessians, Phoenicians, Romans, all left their winemaking mark here and centuries of isolation then prevented further exchange with other wine producing countries such as Spain and France. Accordingly, Portuguese growers concentrated on the fine flavours to be found in their own grape varieties. The spectrum of characterful, top-quality grapes is impressive: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Trincadeira, Aragonês, Baga, Castelão, Alvarinho, Arinto, Fernão Pires, Encruzado and many others, responsible for the incomparable character of Portuguese wines. Most Portuguese wines are, however, made as a blend, mixing several national grape varieties to produce the desired taste profile. In some regions, the winemaker will blend more than 20 varieties to achieve the correct balance – in one case, as many as 206 varieties have been known to come together to create a single white wine.
One successful example of a complex blend is Quinta do Crasto’s Vinha Maria Teresa, currently produced with 49 identified and highly concentrated native grapes, extended oak aging, and optimum east-facing sun exposure. Described by Miguel Roquette, Export and Marketing Director, as a ‘fruit salad’, vintages are declared only in the finest vintages and in limited quantities. Another good example is Niepoort Redoma Tinto, created in 1991 as the first non-fortified wine from Dirk Niepoort. Comprised of Tinta Amarela, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinto Cão, and several other varieties, the wine is produced from old vineyards planted in the Cima Corgo sub-region of the Douro, mainly from north facing vines planted in schist soil.
While the best way to fully appreciate Portuguese wines is to visit the country’s vineyards and talk to the grape growers and winemakers, if you are curious to find out more and can’t yet make it across to the Peninsula, then come along to one of TASTE PORTUGAL’s wine-tasting events in the new year to learn – and enjoy – some more.
This is adapted from material provided by Wines of Portugal, with thanks.