MARTA Mateus has chosen, perhaps wisely, not to use her surname for her new company, which imports quality wines from her native Portugal.
Marta Vine began trading last month and is a lively newcomer to the local wine scene that, despite the tough financial times, has recently seen the blossoming of several new businesses – great news for wine lovers here.
Marta herself is a hugely engaging and persuasive ambassador for her country’s wine, which she has known and loved since childhood. Her father is a cork farmer in the Alentejo, supplying corks to a wide number of wineries. “Vineyard owners used to give us samples,” she told me, “we felt very close to the world of wine.”
She went on to study geography and environmental studies and after a spell at university in Holland as an Erasmus scholar, where she met her future partner Kevin, she worked in Portugal analysing and mapping vineyard regions. Few people are better qualified to talk about which grape varieties will grow best and where in Portugal.
As the daughter of a cork producer, Marta has unsurprisingly firm views about how wine bottles should be sealed. She explains how overproduction undermined the reliability and reputation of cork and adds, “I grew up understanding the benefits of quality cork. I believe it assists in good wine aging, is the environmentally-friendly option and is simply a great way to open a bottle of nice wine. Screw caps have a very real place but I think it is better restricted to cheaper, younger wine.”
When she decided to move to Northumberland 18 months ago to join Kevin, she looked for good Portuguese wines to partner the kind of food she loves to prepare for friends.
“It was hard to find nice bottles, I wanted something different and local,” she said. So she decided to do something about it. “I used my dad’s contacts to search for wines. I started with local producers and then sent out thousands of emails. In March, Kevin and I went to Portugal for a fortnight to visit wineries. I’d like to work with one producer from each major region in the country. There’s so much variety. People always go to the Douro first, the wines from there are fantastic, but there’s a lot more to discover. I’ve begun with just five producers, so there’s quite a bit to go yet.”
One of her discoveries is the Caves São João, according to Marta, one of the oldest cellars in Portugal. She’s imported their red wines from Beiras, Bairrada and Dão.
The Dão is a blockbuster, a Reserva 2007 (£11.49) made entirely from the Portuguese star red grape of the moment, Touriga Nacional. What I love about it is that although it’s immensely powerful and concentrated, with bags of ripe black fruit, licorice and what American wine guru Robert Parker quaintly likes to call ‘gobs’ of tannin, it’s a refreshingly moderate 13% alcohol. It’s food-friendly too, with juicy steak an obvious possibility.
Another red, this time a Vinho Regional from the Lisbon area, Azulejo 2008, shows that Marta has succeeded in finding quality wines at bargain prices – it’s just £5.99 and is full of juicy berry fruit, blueberries, black cherries and blackcurrants, with just enough of a tannic bit to round it off. It also justifies Marta’s claim that Portugal can offer “Old World wine with New World attitudes,” though it’s the distinctively Portuguese character of her choices that I find so appealing.
This is especially true of one superb dry white, Vinho Verde, Estreia, Grande Escolha 2009 (£7.49) made from the fine local grape Loureiro. It has a floral, grapefruit-like aroma and a bracingly citrus flavour with deliciously lingering salty minerality. And it’s just 12% alcohol. Why waste good money on Pinot Grigio when you can enjoy this instead? As Marta rightly says, it’s great with fish (she’s also a keen member of a ladies’ fly fishing club).
Another dry white, with just 9.5% alcohol, this time from the Lisbon region, Ala dos Namorados, will come into its own in slightly warmer weather than is likely to come our way over the next few months, but it’s a very good example of a typically Portuguese taste, which like some Vinho Verde, combines minerality, lemony fruit, a hint of fizz and the merest suggestion of sweetness. It’s also very reasonable – just £5.99.
A wine more suited to sipping in a Northumbrian autumn is an unusual Moscatel from the Douro Valley, Mural de Favaios (£9.99) – deep old gold, with intense marmalade richness and just enough pithy bitterness to complement its considerable sweetness.
Marta’s wines, delivered free to addresses on Tyneside and the Tyne Valley, can be ordered online at www.martavine.co.uk.
Marta is also delighted to offer wine tasting evenings. “I feel I’m promoting my country as well,” she says. Her promising line-up is largely complementary to that offered by other local Portuguese importers, Portovino. There’s some tempting port, sparkling wine and yes, even a few bottles of rosé, but none in a bottle that might readily lend itself to conversion into a table lamp.
ANOTHER good new Viognier is cast in a different style from my wine of the week: Marquis de Pennautier Viognier, Pays d’Oc 2009 (£6.99 at Majestic). It’s quite spicy, but it’s more obviously ripe and fruity, lighter and crisper with flavours of peach, pear, lemon and even banana.
One of Australia’s true originals, Hunter Valley Semillon is always worth a try, especially if it has some bottle age. Mount Pleasant ‘Elizabeth’ 2005 is a relative baby, but already shows the intriguing spicy, limey character of the unoaked grape – a deliciously different dry white and very fair value at £9.99 from Sainsbury’s.
Sainsbury’s also has a pair of interesting newcomers from Western Australia’s Margaret River. Maybe you’ll not quite “do anything to get your hands on it”, as the label suggests, but Catching Thieves Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (£9.99) is a lovely, lively dry white with crisp lime, lemon and tomato stalk aromas and a touch of saltiness. Their Cabernet/Merlot 2008 (£9.99) is ripe, earthy and chewy.
WINE OF THE WEEK
Viognier, Pays d’Oc, Laurent Miquel, 2009 £7.99 Waitrose
Subtle, characterful dry white wine. Nutty and gently fruity – peach stones and pear skins with a spicy overlay. Delicious with white meats or sea bass and other slightly oily fish.