The blends of the earth

02 April, 2010

The first thing that struck the guests at this year’s 50 Great Portuguese Wines tasting in London – apart from the mass of bodies scrambling to sample Sarah Ahmed’s selections – was the unusual nature of wines one to 14. They were all white.

It was an unprecedented figure for the annual event, which is curated each year by a different trade personality. Richard Mayson’s inaugural selection in 2005 was entirely red. But, as Ahmed was at pains to point out, much has changed in Portuguese winemaking since then.

Not only are producers achieving remarkable results with white wines – Alvarinho was singled out for particular praise on this front – but Portugal has a new belief in its traditional grape varieties and its famously intricate blends. Rather than being embarrassments in a wine market apparently obsessed with international varieties, these are trump cards, emphasising Portugal’s uniqueness.

Ahmed took a major interest in Portugal, thanks to a 2004 WSET bursary, and was already making regular visits as part of her contributions to leading reference books when Vini Portugal appointed her this year’s judge.

Her selections are a mixture of “heart-stopping wines” and “ground-breakers”, meaning the top 50 list contains some of Portugal’s most feted wines and also many which “surpass the regional norm”, including debutantes from the Algarve and Colares.

Ahmed is in no doubt Portugal can crack the UK market, and is encouraged by recent figures pointing to a 14% rise in volumes and a 10% increase in value. Her optimism is based on two main elements: “winemaking bravado, wed to viticultural excellence” and a marked improvement in bottle presentation.

“There’s a growing confidence among Portuguese producers, and that’s reflected in the style of the wines,” she says. “Portuguese wine bottles used to be old fashioned but there are some wonderful labels now.” Crucially, she adds, more back labels are appearing in English.

Ahmed likes the “modesty” of Portuguese wines, which she believes matches the personality of the nation generally. “They don’t shout at you; you’re drawn back to the glass and you discover more and more things,” she says.

“You have people such as Raymond Reynolds and Nick Oakley, total evangelists at distributor level, pushing Portugal and slowly building some momentum. I’ve certainly noticed that a lot more people are discovering Portugal, especially at the independent level and in the on-trade. That’s completely understandable because they’re not wines where people will necessarily understand the grape varieties or back labels.”?Ahmed is evidently delighted to have been able to include 14 white wines within her selection. “Five years ago there were none, and for good reason,” she says. “It’s an area where Portugal has improved immensely. I think people are going to notice clean, fruity wines – beautiful fruit, with minerality as well.

“There are some fantastic whites. Vinho Verde is an exciting region and I’m really hoping that people will start to understand that. Alvarinho for me is going to be the white Touriga Nacional. It has sheer class and also mass appeal. It’s got that peachiness and apricot flavour but also Vinho Verde freshness and acidity.

“Among the reds, the Douro has consistent quality across a range of price points. Other regions like Dão are coming up: Dão used to make wines with fabulous structure, but they lacked a bit of flesh on their bones. They now have that flesh, without losing their Portuguese-ness.”?Portugal is, like France, a country where the region is often more important than the variety, Ahmed maintains. “I think Portugal has a fantastic legacy in the Douro and Dão: old vines, mixed vineyards that bring their own natural balance to the wine, and integrated complexity. That’s a massive trump card.

“Portugal has gone through a phase of single varieties in response to a perceived market demand, but there’s more confidence now to use native grape varieties.”?It’s a point vividly illustrated by Cristiano Van Zeller, winemaker at Lemos & Van Zeller in the Douro Valley, whose CV and Quinta Vale Dona Maria were both included in the 50 wines showcased in London. Each contains more than 25 varieties.

“The Douro is the best example of the different grape varieties,” Van Zeller says. “Any vineyards before 1970 were planted with a big mixture of grape varieties. A few producers still keep some of these older vineyards to make something that has unique character.”?He dismisses the suggestion that growers often had no idea what was in their vineyards. “They knew exactly what they were planting,” he insists. “It was based on empirical knowledge: not every disease attacks every variety at the same time; some varieties produce more grapes some years, some less. There are also variations in acidity and structure; some varieties are floral, some fruity. So it was the blend that produced the consistency and the exquisite complexity in the wine.

“I think producers are learning to make wines that differentiate themselves from the rest of the world. A lot of winemakers are understanding they can produce better, more complex wines, by blending.”?But at the other end of the scale, Ahmed’s selection also includes Quinta do Monte d’Oiro Reserva 2006, a Vinho Regional Lisboa, made of 96% Syrah and 4% Viognier. Winemaker José Bento dos Santos is equally proud of his pure Viognier, which he is happy to compare to Condrieu.

His wines are in limited production but have won acclaim in the US, Hong Kong and even France. As yet he has not identified a UK importer, but is hopeful of achieving success here among discerning consumers.

“People understand wine is either something singular – it comes from a certain area, it’s made with passion – or it comes from anywhere,” he says. “We are producing a gastronomic wine. Wine only makes sense for me if it is drunk with a meal.”?Judy Kendrick, whose JK Marketing business organises the 50 Greatest Wines project – and other UK events for Vini Portugal – is hopeful that a breakthrough is imminent.

“Portugal makes some fantastic wines and even at the top level they are great value for money,” she says. Importers like Raymond Reynolds and Oakley, long-standing supporters of Portugal, are reaping hard-earned rewards and brands are creating more consumer awareness.

“Waitrose, Majestic, the Wine Society and Direct Wines are doing an absolutely brilliant job – and others as well,” she adds. “They’re building their ranges, even in the recession. The UK remains Portugal’s second-largest market – and our mission this year is to get even more distribution.”

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