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Portuguese diversity on show as exports rise

Published:  12 September, 2023

The breadth of Portugal’s diversity was on full show in London yesterday, where lower yields, good value and newly emerging grape varieties formed an interesting picture of one of the world’s fastest growing-in-popularity regions.

The UK’s recent love affair with Portuguese wines has been in development for several years, now. According to Wines of Portugal, which held its autumn tasting in Belgravia yesterday (11 September), the country’s wine exports saw a significant upswing in UK export’s in the first half of 2023, growing 18.15% in volume and 43.85% in value, worth €43.5 million.

Building on this rise, a total of 23 wine producers, showcasing nearly 200 wines, were on show, representing nine sub-regions.

Many of these regions were on show at a masterclass hosted by Dirceu Vianna Junior MW, the first South American man to obtain the Master of Wine title. During the masterclass, ‘Modern Premium and Authentic Classic Wines of Portugal’, Junior sought to make the case for Portugal as “the most diverse country in the world for wines”.

He added: “Portugal is smaller than California, roughly the distance from San Franscico to LA, and the UK is two-and-a-half times larger. Bordeaux has roughly 120,000ha under vine, while all of Portugal on its own has 190,000ha.

“Yet, it has 250+ native grape varieties and a huge amount of climactic diversity, from Atlantic cool breezes in the west all the way to a continental climate with high temperatures in and low rainfall in the east, plus a Mediterranean influence with dry summers and mild winters.

“There is always something to discover. For instance, from reading textbooks, people might think the Douro is easy: it has schist soils…or does it? It has 60 different types of schist, plus granite… and limestone, which looks exactly like Chablis. Then, there are the grapes themselves. A couple of years ago, there were 197 different clones of Touriga Nacional. Recently, that number has risen to 300 – and they all behave very differently.”

Seeking to highlight some of this diversity, the wines ranged from a Loureiro from Vinho Verde – an impressively drier, more serious take on what is usually perceived as a simple, fruity wine – all the way through to a lower abv (12%), elegant Niepoort red blend from the Douro and a Baga-led blend from 1996, which showed some of the longevity of Bairrada.

One of the more surprising entries included an Encruzado-led blend from the Dão region, which impressed with its value and high acid, matched with Burgundy-esque nutty, spiced notes.

Barely known a decade ago, the grape has grown from 220ha in 2013 to 1,000ha in today and is one of the more exciting developments to emerge from the country in recent times, along with Loureiro.

“Alvarinho is everywhere at the moment, but producers are really excited about Loureiro. The vines are vigorous and naturally high yielding, but reduce the yields and it makes a serious wine,” Junior said.

Overall, the trend towards low yields is clear. Niepoort’s Museu dos Lagares 2019 is just 5hls/ha. Though this is certainly an outlier in terms of extremity, the wines in general showed a move towards lower yields in the pursuit of quality; and ranged from the Mouchão Vintage 2016 made from Alicante Bouschet and Trincadeira at around 25hls/ha, to Caves São João’s Quinta Poço do Lobo Reserva 1996, at 50hls/ha.

Yesterday’s masterclass was also notable for an appearance by Julia Harding MW, co-author of The Oxford Companion to Wine. Fresh from the release of the new edition, Harding rounded off the session by finally taking home her Wines of Portugal Personality of 2022 award, after being unable to receive the gong in person last year.

A long-time champion of Portuguese wines, Harding said she finds it “upsetting” when the wines are widely painted “as cheap and made to a price point. That so isn’t true.”