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The Time Has Come for Portuguese Wines
By Ed McCarthy
Mar 30, 2010
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Portuguese table wines, red and white, have been on the brink of making a breakthrough in the U.S. market for many years now, but they still remain unfamiliar to most American wine drinkers.  This is a bit mystifying to me, because the wines are authentic, basically well made, and certainly offer value to the consumer--one reason that I think, during this economic climate, the time might finally be right for these wines to find acceptance.

Imported wines have slowly found acceptance in the U.S. during the last two or three decades.  Of the major wine-producing countries, only Portuguese and South African wines have failed to capture the attention of most wine drinkers in this country.  I’ll save a discussion of South Africa for another column, and focus on Portugal here.

It might surprise you to know that Portugal ranks sixth in the world in wine exports, quite a feat for a country which is about the same size as the state of Indiana.  Most wine consumers here are of course familiar with Portugal’s outstanding fortified wines--Port and, to a lesser extent, Madeira--but their familiarity doesn’t extend to its table wines.  When I first visited Portugal’s wine regions some 25 years ago, I returned all enthused about the wines, and I subsequently tried to buy some of my favorites, with little success.  And things have improved only slightly for Portuguese table wines since then.

One reason that Portugal doesn’t have more wines in the U.S. has to be the dearth of Portuguese restaurants in this country.  You can be sure that all the Italian restaurants here have contributed greatly to the success of Italian wines in the U.S.  Also, Portuguese trade commissions haven’t spent much money promoting their country’s wines, compared to Spain, for example.  And consumers’ lack of familiarity with Portuguese wine names can’t help.  It’s so much easier for buyers or diners to choose a New World wine from say, Chile or Australia, when they can recognize the varietal name of the wine--such as a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon or an Australian Chardonnay.

I was reminded of Portugal’s wine availability problem by a recent visit to New York of an old friend, Domingos Soares Franco, Senior Winemaker  and owner (along with his older brother, Antonio) of José Maria da Fonseca, Portugal’s third-largest winery.  Their main winery is located in Azeitâo, on the Setúbal Peninsula, just south of Lisbon.  At least JM da Fonseca’s wines are generally available here; in fact, the U.S. is its biggest market, by far.

José Maria da Fonseca really grew in size after World War II, mainly due to the popularity of two brands, Lancers (a spritzy rosé wine in a crock bottle which was wildly popular in the U.S.) and Perequita, an inexpensive, light-bodied fruity red that sells for $10.  Perequita was the first table wine brand established in Portugal, and continues to be the best-selling Portuguese red wine worldwide.

Probably the one Portuguese table wine that does have some popularity in the U.S. is a white, Vinho Verde.  On a warm summer afternoon or evening, a chilled, bracing, slightly effervescent Vinho Verde can be ideal, especially when accompanied by seafood or grilled fish.  Vinho Verde comes from the Minho region, a cool, damp area next to the Atlantic in northwest Portugal. The only problem with Vinho Verde in the U.S. had been that, until recently, a couple of mass-market Vinho Verde brands, not very good, dominated the market. 

Fortunately for us, António Maria Soares Franco, Jr., son of the owner and current Director of Marketing and Sales for José Maria da Fonseca, while completing his MBA at Columbia University in NYC in 2005, was asked by his fellow graduate students if his family company made a Vinho Verde.  Inspired by the interest of his fellow-students, Antonio went home and convinced his father to start making Vinho Verde, and Twin Vines, named after the birth of Antonio and his wife’s twin daughters in 2007, was born.  The first vintage was 2008; the current  vintage, 2009, is excellent.  Made from local varieties--Loureiro, Trajadura, and Pederna, with a little bit of Alvariñho, Twin Vines is light-bodied, dry, and lively.  It contains only 10.1 percent alcohol, and sells for seven dollars!

Jose Maria da Fonseca sends 83 percent of its 45,000 case production of Twin Vines Vinho Verde to the U.S., and it is already the biggest-selling Vinho Verde here.  Vinho Verde also is made as a red wine, but that’s mainly sold in Portugal; it’s just too acidic for most non-Portuguese consumers.  A more expensive white Vinho Verde, made exclusively from Alvariñho (in Spain, Albariño), is also available, but it’s difficult to find in the U.S.  One proviso about the inexpensive white Vinho Verde: drink it young, preferably one year old, when it’s fresh; it doesn’t age well.

In addition to Minho, Portugal’s main wine regions are the Douro Valley and
Dâo in the northeast, Bairrada, just north of Lisbon, in the central part of the country, and Alentejo in southern Portugal--all primarily red wine areas.  The Douro Valley, home of Port wines, is also considered Portugal’s finest red table wine region.

José Maria da Fonseca’s current red Perequita , the 2007, is made in Azeitâo.  A light quaffing wine suitable for barbeques with only 12.8 percent in alcohol, it’s made mainly from the local Castelao grape.  Considerably better, and for only $6 more ($16) is the winery’s 2007 Perequita  Reserva, made from 55 percent Douro Valley grapes (Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca) and 45 percent Castelao.  Perequita Reserva, more concentrated and richer than the standard Perequita, can ably accompany meat and poultry entrées. There’s also a decent $10 white Perequita, made fro 76 percent Moscatel and 24 percent Arinto.

José Maria da Fonseca is currently exporting three other red table wines to the U.S.: Domini 2007 ($16) from the Douro Valley; Domingos 2008 ($16) from Azeitâo; and Domini Plus 2007 ($40), also from the Douro.  While the 2007 Domini Plus is easily the most impressive and “important” wine, with its richness, velvety structure and concentration, I really love the 2007 Domini--for me the best buy in da Fonseca’s stable of wines in the U.S.  Both the Domini and Domini Plus are made from three important Douro grapes--used in making the best Ports: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, and Tinta Roriz .  Although the 2007 Domini doesn’t have the intense flavors and aromas nor the velvetiness of the Domini Plus, it has plenty of concentration for a $16 wine, along with an authentic Portuguese flavor profile--rich, lively, and tannic, with a touch of rusticity. 

The 2008 Domingos is the most international  wine of the JM da Fonseca group; it is made from 60 percent Touriga Nacional along with 40 percent Syrah--which rather dominates the wine.  Domingos Soares Franco  told me he intentionally made the wine like this to appeal to the American wine drinker.  Perhaps, but not to this drinker.

I came to the realization that Portugal can produce really fine red wine when I first tasted Barca Velha, a complex, dry age-worthy wine made in the Douro Valley in exceptional vintages by the Ferreira Port house.  In fact, because of the acclaim Barca Velha has received, many other Port houses started producing dry red wines of their own. The wine authority Darrell Corti calls Barca Velha Portugal’s best dry red wine, and I would not disagree with that.  The 1999 Barca Velha, the currently available vintage in the U.S., sells for $130.  Compared to Australia’s iconic red, Grange, and Spain’s Vega Sicilia Unico, $130 is a reasonable price for a wine of this quality.

Ramos Pinto, a Port house now owned by Champagne Louis Roederer, produces a very reliable dry red wine, Duas Quintas (now being called Adriano Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas), which sells for about $12 or $13, an excellent buy.  It has ripe, plummy flavors and a velvety texture.  Ramos Pinto also makes a superb Duas Quintas Reserva Especiale, which retails for $48 to $50.

The style of Portuguese red table wines appeals to me.  They are uniformly dry, earthy, and plummy.  Most are made without  any new wood aging.  In today’s world, many of these wines might be considered a bit old-fashioned, or un-commercial, but I would call them genuine, rather than “made.”  Quite a few Portuguese wines, with their earthy, slightly rustic style, remind me of Alto Adige’s red Lagrein wines in northeast Italy.

I have compiled a list of some of Portugal’s top-rated dry red wines from recent international competitions.  I have stuck to red wines because--other than Vinho Verde--Portugal’s best table wines are red.  A few of these wines might be difficult to find.  Red wines from the Douro warrant special attention.  I list the region the wine comes from, plus the approximate retail price of the wine in the U.S.:

Quinta do Vale de Dona Maria 2005/06  (Douro)  about $45
Quinta do Crasto 2007 (Douro)  $18-$20
Quinta do Crasto Maria Theresa 2005/06  (Douro)  $100+ (its finest wine)
Casa Ferreirinha Quinta da Leda 2003  $43 (Douro); (2000, $59)
Quinta do Vale Meâo  2005/06/07  (Douro) $75 to $87
Quinta do Vale Meâo, Meandro  2005/06  (Douro) $22 to $24
Quinta dos Roques Reserva 2000 (Dâo) $17
Quinta dos Roques 2005/06/07 (Dâo) $17 to $19
Joao Portugal Ramos Marqués de Borba 2004 Reserva  (Alentejo)  $64
Joao Portugal Ramos Marqués de Borba 2007 (Alentejo) $12-$13
Quinta do Mouro  2006 (Alentejo)  $13; (2003, $35)
Quinta do Monte d’Oiro Reserva 2000/03 (Estremadura)  $43 to $49
Quinta de Pancas 2005 (Estremadura) about $15
Quinta de Pancas 2003 Reserva Especiale (Estremadura)  $32

 Quinta de Pancas  (above) is one of Portugal’s only Cabernet Sauvignons.

Other Portuguese red wines that I have enjoyed include:

Quinta do Carmo 2004 Reserva (Alentejo)  $45
Quinta do Carmo, Don Martinho  2005 (Alentejo)  $11
Quinta do Vallado 2005/07 Reserva (Douro) $55 to $65
Quinta do Vallado 2007 (Douro) $20
Quinta de la Rosa 2007 (Douro) $16-$18
Quinta de Roriz 2003 Reserva (Douro)  $28
Quinta da Bacalhôa 2005/06/07 (Azeitâo)  $30-$33
Joao Portugal Ramos Vila Santa 2008/07/06  (Alentejo)  $18-$20

Quinta da Bacalhôa  is also an exception to typical Portuguese wines in that it is mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, with some Merlot. 

Joao Portugal Ramos is Portugal’s most renowned winemaker of table wines.  He owns several properties in the Alentejo region, and he consults for many wineries throughout Portugal.  Look for his name on the label of Portuguese wines; it will invariably be a well-made wine.