WINE tastings are a bit like concerts. Most of them are highly enjoyable, but occasionally one comes along that reveals something extra-special and memorable.
Julia Harding’s personal selection of her 50 great Portuguese wines last month was just such an event. I was enthralled. The tasting was the most recent in a distinguished sequence of ‘fifty great’ selections sponsored by Wines of Portugal, the official promotional body of the Portuguese wine industry.
Julia, a leading Master of Wine, is best-known for her close collaboration with Jancis Robinson, the latest fruit of which will be a keenly anticipated new book on grape varieties, due for release in the autumn. It has taken three years to research and will describe no fewer than 1,368 varieties used in commercial wineries around the world. It promises to be the standard reference for years to come.
To choose her 50 great wines, Julia made six visits to Portugal and tasted around 1,200 different wines, some two or even three times. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” she said, “but very pleasurable too.” There have been some fine fifties in previous years, chosen by distinguished wine critics, but this was more exciting, for a number of reasons.
Julia decided to restrict her choice to wines only made from the rich inheritance of indigenous Portuguese grape varieties: “Wines,” she said, “that could come from nowhere else but Portugal.”
Secondly, she chose wines that expressed “freshness and all-round drinkability, to share with friends and drink with food.” This might seem an obvious criterion, but too many wines still stand out and win prizes because they’re concentrated. Like in-your-face people, they quickly become tiresome.
Thirdly, she was brave enough to redress the balance between red and white wine. “I particularly love Portuguese white wines,” she said, “I think they’re underrated and undervalued in the UK.” Julia chose 18 dry whites, a bottle of fizz and three sweet whites. When another esteemed wine writer, Jamie Goode, made his selection in 2009, he included just five white wines.
On my own visits to Portugal over the last couple of years, I too have been impressed by some exceptionally good dry white wines, but the range of flavours and the sheer quality of the wines Julia found was quite a revelation. For example, a superb white Dão: Quinta de Saes, Reserva Encruzado, 2010. On this evidence Encruzado is a terrific variety. The wine has a fresh lemony, slightly nutty character with a delicious, lingering, salty minerality. It’s hard to think of a drink better suited to partner almost any fish dish. I’m astonished that it is has not yet been snapped up by a UK importer.
Many of the white wines had spent time in oak barrels, but none of them were overoaked. In every case the fruit shone through, and like the splendid Quinta de Saes, was balanced by either refreshingly crisp acidity and/or a fine, savoury minerality.
Julia’s selection of red wines was also, just as she hoped, elegant and food-friendly. In previous years, my notes are full of words such as, intense, big, strong, chewy, powerful, chunky and tannic. This year, although there were some rich, fruity, complex red wines to enjoy, I see that I was more often moved to note virtues such as, fresh, fruity, spicy, elegant, long and balanced.
This change does not in itself signal a sea-change in Portuguese wine styles. Tannic, overoaked, blockbusters are still made by too many winemakers, who are tempted to do the equivalent of leaving the tea bag in the pot too long and end up with a stewed, bitter brew.
Too many producers are seduced by international grape varieties and use them to make perfectly pleasant wines that might just as easily have been made in Argentina or South Africa. But this year’s 50 great wines are a real indication of what Portugal alone can do – and it’s very exciting.
But getting this message across to the wine buying public is a challenge. Although Portugal consistently out performs almost all of its bigger rivals at international wine competitions, exports to the UK are modest, barely more than 1% of the total last year, and are still dominated by bottom-end wines, especially sweetish, slightly fizzy rosé.
In our region we’re fortunate to have two importers of Portuguese wines MartaVine and PortoVino. Both have impressive lists, sell direct through the internet and supply quite a number of local shops. Claire Carruthers of leading independent merchant Carruthers & Kent told me that there’s a steady demand for good quality Portuguese wines. And it need not be expensive, as my wine of the week shows.
Although there is some evidence that consumers here are beginning to recognise some major Portuguese wine regions, especially the Douro and Vinho Verde, it is left to independent wine merchants like Carruthers & Kent and clued-up sommeliers to spread the good news about Portugal and to persuade us to explore some of the remarkable wines it now offers. And I’d be thrilled to think that having read this, if you haven’t done so already, you might be tempted to give Portugal another go too.
WINE OF THE WEEK
ALTANO 2009, DOC Douro £6.75 The Wine Society – super red wine, the little sister of one of Julia Harding’s 50 Portuguese Greats. It has a herby, black cherry aroma and real purity of fruit: a soft, juicy flavour, with just a hint of liquorice. Great value too. Try it with simply grilled lamb.
THE Wine Society has a great selection of Portuguese wines.
Best local retail bet is either Carruthers & Kent or Bin 21 (Hexham and Morpeth), or order from local importers MartaVine (www.martavine.co.uk) and PortoVino (www.portovino.co.uk).
Both offer prompt local delivery. Most of the range of MartaVine’s wine is also available through Carruthers & Kent, though single bottle prices are inevitably a little more than those if you buy direct – but if you do that you’ll have to buy a minimum of six bottles.
Highlights for summer include a fabulous, dry, lemon-peel-like flavourful fizz, Caves São João Brut (£8.99), and two excellent dry whites made just north of Lisbon from fine local varieties: Caves Santos Lima Viosinho 2011 (£8.99) is quite savoury and salty; their Arinto 2011 is more lemony and crisp.
And remarkable, inimitable Moscatel de Setubal Adega de Palmela 2009 (£11.49) is a staggeringly sweet, marmalade and raisined grape dessert wine, rounded off by a bitter twist – a bit like pear skin.