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Portuguese Reds
By Gerald D. Boyd
Oct 6, 2009
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In a world where it seems as though every wine region is striving to join the international scene, Portugal is doing its own thing.  Long known for its excellent Port wines, Portugal has lately been attracting attention for its attractive red table wines, made mainly from native grapes.

There was a time on the U.S. wine scene, when if you found a Portuguese red wine loitering in a wine shop, it was likely from Dao, a mountainous region in northern Portugal where red wines of merit are made from many of the same grapes that American wine consumers associate with Port, such as Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz, the Portuguese name for Tempranillo, the leading red grape of Spain.

Today, Dao producers are competing with “new” wines, based on Touriga Nacional, coming out of the Douro, the savagely beautiful river valley--famous for its Port wines--that cuts across the width of northern Portugal from Spain to the Atlantic Ocean.  Joining this elite group, are red wines from Terras do Sado, a region in southern Portugal that includes the Setubal Peninsula, known for its fortified Muscat wine; Alentejo, the up-and-coming zone in the south-central part of the country, and Ribatejo (now known as Tejo), centrally located inland from Lisbon.  This is not a complete list of Portuguese red wines, but it does include the regional wines you’re likely to see in your local wine store.

Given the cyclic nature of wine commerce, and the relatively short history of American wine consumption, it is not surprising that Portuguese red wines were enjoyed by the English and French in the 18th and 19th centuries and that Madeira, a fortified wine from the Portuguese island of the same name, became a common quaff in the American Colonies.  With the exception of a few Dao reds, Portuguese red wine mostly stayed in the background, until a breakthrough in 1952 when the Port house Ferreira released Barca Velha, an unfortified Douro red wine that has become one of Portugal’s most admired wines.  Barca Velha was followed by a string of sophisticated red wines, made from grapes grown in the upper reaches of the Douro valley.

Today, dense, fruit-forward Douro red wines, many based on Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz, are available from Prats & Symington, Quinta do Vallado, Ferreira, Ramos Pinto, and a growing list of other Port houses.  Touriga Nacional offers a different profile when used for a concentrated dry red wine then it does when used as a Port grape.  Touriga has a pepperiness that is often lost in Port, especially when it is finished with residual sweetness and matched with the fortifying spirit.  However, this peppery character comes through when the grape is rendered as a the table wine.  A little Tinta Roriz gives a lift to the Touriga fruit, while adding its own red fruit (raspberry) aromas and flavors.

An unusual feature of Portuguese red wines, one that in my mind makes them stand out in a crowded field of similar-tasting red wines made from international varieties, is the Portuguese focus on indigenous grapes for their wines.  Where the confusion comes in for the American wine consumer is sorting out the bewildering collection of Portuguese native wine grapes with unfamiliar names.  The list is long and includes, but is not limited to Tinta Roriz (a.k.a. Tempranillo) that is also known as Aragonez (or Aragones);  Trincadeira, an Alentejo grape that is called Tinta Amarela in the Douro; and Castelao, Portugal’s most planted wine grape, that has no fewer than five other names in various regions.  All of this makes my head hurt. 

Confidence in local grapes, though, is not the only feature that makes Portuguese red wines attractive to the consumer looking for something unique.  Many of today’s Portuguese reds have a denseness and concentration of flavors without being over-ripe and heavy with high alcohols; the majority of the wines I tasted recently are in the 13% to 14% range.  Then there is the revitalization of the red wines from traditional regions like Dao, competing with the substantial wines from the Douro and Alentejo.  Finally, Portuguese winemakers are an intriguing mix of traditionalists and modernists, playing off traditional grapes like Touriga Nacional, but occasionally blending in a little Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot and then seasoning the wine with French oak, or a combination of American and French oak barrels. 

Evan Goldstein MS, president & chief education officer for Full Circle Wine Solutions, Inc, representatives of viniportugal, says that while traditional Portuguese grapes still dominate, international varieties are making inroads, especially in blends.  However, he notes, “it depends on the region and flexibility of the laws.”  Even with the expressed importance of Touriga Nacional, which Goldstein describes as “one part Syrah, one part Petite Sirah and one part Zinfandel,” does he think Tinta Roriz is gaining in importance among Portuguese winemakers?  “Yes.  And not just in the Douro.  Tinta Roriz is also popular in Alentejo where it is known as Aragonez,” he says. 

Still, the unfamiliarity of Portuguese wines and regions among American consumers, can pose a problem.  Goldstein provides this mini-primer: “Douro wines are leading the way in terms of critical acclaim, overall quality and investment.  Dao is very much in transition, becoming less dependent on Jaen (a local variety) and moving more towards new grapes and lower yields, and benefiting from the emancipation of not having to sell so much fruit to the coops that once dominated.  Alentejo is perhaps the area changing most, evolving from volume to quality, with perhaps the best wines coming from around Evroa and Reguengos.  Tejo (the former Ribatejo) is making solid, well made, middle-of-the-road wines that are increasingly interesting.”

So, if you’ve been stuck in a Cabernet rut and your wine budget has taken a hit in this slow economy, try Portuguese reds--the wines with a difference.