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Fiona Sims feels festive at the Yeatman Christmas Wine Experience

Published:  07 December, 2012

Luís Pato elbows a bauble out of the way to pour yet another sample of Fernão Pires, his rather bonkers, but nonetheless delicious, red wine made from white grapes (he throws in Baga skins for the colour, an idea he got from madcap Californian producer Randall Grahm).

The legendary Bairrada winemaker has already gone through a couple of cases and it's not yet 3pm. The Yeatman Hotel, in Portugal's second city, Porto, is holding its second annual Christmas Wine Experience, and this year it's taking place over two days instead of one.

Three hundred tickets have already been sold, with many more expected to roll up to taste the best the hotel's wine partners have to offer, at a modest €30 a pop, from sparkling Soalheiro 2012, to Graham's Colheita 1969 and Niepoort Charme 2010.

The Yeatman is a wine hotel with knobs on. Opened in August 2010, it has a wine spa with treatments such as a Cabernet scrub, a Michelin-starred restaurant boasting a 1,100-bin almost exclusively Portuguese wine list and 82 wines by the glass, thanks to a monster Enomatic.

The wines by the glass belong to the Yeatman's 70 wine partners, drawn from 11 Portuguese wine regions, which plunder their cellars for older vintages to share with the hotel's guests, and which name and sponsor each bedroom.

Yup, there's no doubting the vinous theme here - or its intentions to trumpet Portuguese wines. "Portugal has immense possibilities as a wine region. As a country it needs to encourage winemakers to take charge of their own destinies and not wait for the government to help them," urges the Yeatman's altruistic chief executive Adrian Bridge.

Bridge, and the team at the Yeatman, is almost single handedly doing just that - you would be hard pushed to find a better platform for Portuguese wines than here. The Christmas wine-tasting event is just one of many initiatives that they have put into place to showcase the country's wines (and the Yeatman), from their Thursday winemaker dinners to the busy online wine shop, which of course includes a spotlight on its own wines - the hotel is owned by the Taylor Fladgate Partnership.

With Portuguese pop belting out of the speakers, winemakers are upbeat about the recent tricky harvest, citing quality grapes, albeit half the quantity, and talk terroir with guests. Each are allowed to show just two wines - singling out those that have the most Christmas food-matching potential, and which the public can either cart home by the bottle or case from the on-site wine shop, or order online, from the newly relaunched website.

"This is great with smoked salmon," declares Pedro Araujo of Quinta do Ameal in Vinho Verde country, pouring an aromatic, elegantly structured, gently oaked Loureiro 2009. He also makes a passito with the same grape, which will work with the festive period's sweeter dishes, he suggests, both available in the UK through Raymond Reynolds.

His latest project, however, is a natural wine, made with no sulphur. "It's a tribute to the soil," he says, confirming buoyant sales across his range (especially in Australia) despite the recession. "Consumers are looking for something new," he shrugs.

Douro winemaker Tiago Alves de Sousa agrees. "This year is our 20th anniversary of making wines here so we've gone through every stage - from nobody knowing anything about our grapes, to people grappling with the strange-sounding varieties. Now we get consumers buying our wine because they are bored with the homogeneity. They are looking for a new world of flavours and Portuguese wine offers that," he says, pouring his intriguing 2005 Douro white made from Port grapes, which pays homage to the Port white winemaking tradition and plays around with 48-hour skin contact and oxygenation. Alves de Sousa also reports that it works well with smoked meats - even the Christmas bird itself (available in the UK from Top Selection).

Though Esporão is showing another possible Christmas bird alternative - a distinctly un-Portuguese blend of Semillon, Marsanne and Roussanne. Though this is the exception to the mostly Portuguese variety rule at Esporão, says winemaker Sandra Alves, one of a growing number of female winemakers in the country.

"We now have over 200 different Portuguese varieties growing in our vineyards and the plan is to build a winery just for these grapes," Alves reports, revealing her favourite new old variety for its finesse and minerality, called Amor não ne Deixes, which translates as 'love don't leave me', a fittingly festive note.

Best Christmas match of the event in the end, however, went to Taylor's own tawny and Portuguese Christmas Eve treat rabanadas, basically French toast sprinkled with cinnamon - one tradition I will definitely be adopting.