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Published:  23 July, 2008

Portugal is bouncing back to form with a bumper 2001 harvest. Richard Mayson appraises the current crop of Portuguese wines, the key factors behind the recent upturn, and the shifting balance of power within the regions

Portugal is enjoying a dream vintage. After five years in which quantity and/or quality have been lacking, 2001 seems to have both in equal measure. Initial estimates show that total production will be around 7.5 million hectolitres, some 15-20% up on the 2000 harvest. Much has changed since the mid-1990s, when Portugal last enjoyed a good and plentiful vintage. Although the Portuguese could hardly be described as dedicated followers of fashion, the nation's wine industry has moved with the times in response to the requirements of domestic and foreign markets. Throughout the country, grape varieties and terroirs have been rediscovered and new wines are being made by a variety of producers, large and small. Single quinta and varietal wines are de rigueur. In the case of the latter, Portugal continues to focus on indigenous grape varieties like Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Castelo and Trincadeira, all of which have yet to penetrate the wider consumer consciousness. Although Portugal's overall market share in the UK has remained static at around 1% for the past few years, there is a great deal waiting to be uncovered by buyers, particularly some of the newer regions of central-southern Portugal. Both Tesco and Marks & Spencer seem to be aware of this, and their buyers have recently returned from visits to the Ribatejo and Alentejo. Their interest in these regions reflects a fundamental shift in emphasis over the past five years, away from some of the more traditional demarcations in the north of the country towards those in the south. This has been accompanied by a move on the domestic market from white wines to red, with profound implications for some wine regions.

Northern extremes Of all the regions, Vinho Verde has suffered the most. It seems like aeons since the mid-1980s when, supported by television advertising, Vinho Verde briefly looked like becoming Portugal's answer to Lambrusco and Liebfraumilch. A combination of poor harvests and changing tastes threatens to leave this, one of Portugal's largest DOC regions, high and dry. Portuguese consumers themselves are turning their backs on Vinho Verde, preferring fuller-flavoured wines from regions inland or to the south. While wines such as Borges Gato are being repackaged to appeal to new consumers - and both Aveleda's Casal Garcia and Sogrape's Gazela continue to reach an international audience - DOC legislation remains restrictive, prohibiting, for example, the planting of Alvarinho outside a small enclave adjacent to Galicia, where this variety has proved a huge success. Although there are a number of innovative and successful single quintas, such as Pedro Arajo's Quinta do Ameal, they find it difficult to penetrate the UK market. There must, however, be a niche for good red Vinhos Verdes, a handful of which are being produced by traditional, artisanal methods and taste something akin to a real Lambrusco. Inland, the Douro is one of Portugal's success stories. Long known for Port, the region is increasingly recognised for its unfortified wines. Made from much the same mix of indigenous grapes as Port, the wines have proved to be a great success on the domestic market, although a run of small harvests has hampered progress abroad. This year production seems to have risen by 25-30% on 2000, leaving plenty of grapes for both Port and Douro wine. A number of Port shippers have woken up to the potential of Douro wine and the Symingtons (owners of Dow, Graham and Warre), Royal Oporto and Niepoort have each developed their own distinctive range. Both Niepoort and Royal Oporto have launched white Douro wines alongside red. A number of single quintas from the Douro have also found their way successfully onto the international market, among them Quinta do Ctto, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta de Gaivosa, Quinta do Portal and Quinta de la Rosa. A new enterprise called Lavradores de Feitoria seeks to develop and promote wines from a number of quintas by calling on the winemaking and marketing expertise of Joo Brito e Cunha.

Central and seaward The Do region immediately to the south of the Douro shares many of the same grape varieties, but is hampered, like Vinho Verde, by the extreme fragmentation of land holdings. For three decades the co-operatives held a virtual monopoly on Do, but Portugal's largest winemaker, Sogrape, has made huge inroads, working closely with small farmers to improve their methods of cultivation. This has led directly to an improvement in quality of the main brand of Do, Gro Vasco, and the development of new labels such as Duque de Viseu. Single estates such as Sogrape's own Quinta dos Carvalhais, as well as independent properties Quinta de Pellada, dos Roques and de Saes, are well on the way to proving that, like the Douro, Do is capable of making world-class wines. Bairrada has suffered, along with other coastal regions in Portugal, from variable climatic conditions. The main player here, family-owned Caves Aliana, has invested in both the winery and vineyard, taking on Michel Rolland as a consultant. International grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon have been planted alongside the indigenous Baga (which, pronounced rather like the English expletive, often lives up to its name). Both Bright Brothers and DFJ Vinhos source red and white wines in Bairrada labelled with the broad Vinho Regional Beiras designation. In successful years Bairrada is capable of making some stupendous wines, something that has been recognised by Portuguese specialist Raymond Reynolds, who recently launched his own opening offer of single-quinta Bairradas, predominantly from the 2000 and 1999 vintages. Remaining on the coast, Estremadura has long been a source of bulk wine, largely from huge and rather dowdy co-operatives built in the 1950s and 1960s. In the past decade these have been the subject of large-scale investment from the EU, but most still lack the technical and marketing skills to bring the wines to an international audience. This is where DFJ Vinhos comes in. A partnership between Dino Ventura, Fausto Ferraz and Jos Neiva, DFJ has brought a host of new labels into the UK at price points that appeal to the market. By working with co-ops and larger growers, such as the Santos Lima family (producers of Espiga and Palha Canas), and through owning his own extensive vineyards, Jos Neiva has access to the volumes that attract large retail buyers. DFJ's latest venture is in the adjoining Ribatejo, where it recently purchased Quinta de Fonte Bela as the headquarters for its growing business. But although Estremadura has long been thought of in terms of volume, there are a number of single quintas making wines from both indigenous and international grapes: Quinta do Carneiro, Quinta de Cortezia, Quinta de Pancas and Quinta do Monte d'Oiro. The latter is now producing Portugal's most exciting Syrah.

Heading south The Ribatejo has both volume and, increasingly, individuality. Climatically it represents the transition from the Atlantic to the warmer (and more reliable) semi-continental climate enjoyed by the Alentejo. Sizeable holdings and relatively flat, fertile land mean that large yields can be achieved at unit costs that are a fraction of those in the north. The region was traditionally planted with white grapes to produce wine for distillation, but these are making way for red varieties such as Castelo and Trincadeira, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot - which seem to perform well here. The Australian winemaker Peter Bright has a firm grip on the international varietals bottled under the Bright Brothers and Fiuza labels, whereas Joo Portugal Ramos tends to focus on indigenous grapes. His main brand, Falua, has achieved good distribution in the UK, along with other Ribatejo labels Tamara, Terra de Lobos and Forgotten Field, all of which are represented by Nick Oakley. Consultant winemaker Rui Reguinga has a foot in both Estremadura and the Ribatejo, making wines at a number of properties, including Casa de Cadaval, whereas Portugal Ramos is responsible for Quinta de Casal Branco and its prestige label, Falcoaria. The Setbal peninsula, south of Lisbon, is now known officially either as Palmela for DOC wines, or Terras do Sado for Vinho Regional. The area is dominated by two large privately-owned firms, Jos Maria de Fonseca and JP Vinhos (alias Joo Pires). Both have made significant progress in recent years, planting new vineyards and building wineries. JP Vinhos has moved from its historic home in Pinhal Novo to a new plant nearby at Azeito, and has extended its interests in the Alentejo to include Quinta do Carmo. Two other producers in the area are also worthy of note: Pegos Claros, which produces some of Portugal's finest Castelo wines, and the well-run co-operative at nearby Santo Isidro de Peges. In less than a decade the Alentejo has risen to become the darling of Portuguese wine regions. Its success has been so phenomenal on the domestic market alone that many producers have had trouble keeping pace with demand. Two brands, Monte Velho, from Esporo, and wines from the nearby Reguengos co-operative have become the largest in the Portuguese equivalent of the on-trade, leaving little or nothing for overseas markets. Sogrape and Caves Aliana have both invested in the region, along with Joo Portugal Ramos, who has built his own winery near Estremoz - producing wines under the Vila Santa label, which has recently been listed by British Airways. After a succession of dry years, drip irrigation systems have been installed throughout the Alentejo, helping to maintain yields, while new vineyards are also coming on stream. The technical director at Esporo, David Baverstock, is also responsible for the wines at Cortes de Cima, a family-owned estate which recently played host to Sir Cliff Richard's grapes from Quinta do Moinho, in the Algarve. Long written off as a location for wine, the Algarve is also making a comeback under Jos Neiva, who is making a new red wine at the Lagoa co-operative.

Britain - the stumbling block In spite of all this investment and innovation, Portugal is still a source of some frustration among importers. One Portuguese specialist describes the UK as, "an enigma, where good [Portuguese] wines struggle to sell, for no apparent reason. Elsewhere in the world there is a clamour for Portuguese wines, so why not here?" Joo Costa of the Portuguese Trade and Tourism Office says that: "Although consumers perceive that the quality factor of Portuguese wines is going up, and there is more and more recognition of indigenous grapes, there is still a long way to go." The plentiful 2001 harvest should go some way to improving Portugal's price quality/ratio and its position in the UK market. Richard Mayson's new book, "The Wines and Vineyards of Portugal", is to be published by Faber & Faber in the spring of 2002.