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Portuguese wine: The next big thing

If you prefer your wine to be powerful rather than elegant, you’re in luck.
Andrew Polmear tells all 

What’s the next big discovery among European wines? People talk about Hungary and Croatia, but my money is on Portugal. It’s a country that’s always made wines for its own consumption but, under the dead hand of President Salazar, there wasn’t much incentive to make quality wines. The British shippers had been buying wine from the Douro valley in the north east of Portugal since the late 17th century. They added brandy to the wine to preserve it during shipping and so port was born. But less and less port is drunk now in Britain and the growers are turning back to unfortified wine, but using modern wine-making methods. The result is a revelation.

I’ve been drinking two Portuguese reds: ‘Animus’ from the Douro made by  Vicente Faria Vinhos, selling at Aldi for the extraordinary price of £5.49; and The Society’s Portuguese Red from the Setubal Peninsula, made by Casa Ermelinda Freitas, and sold at £6.50 by The Wine Society. They are both 2019 but they come from very different ‘terroirs’. 

The Douro is high altitude, sharply drained, stony and mountainous, while the Setubal peninsular is low lying, with sandy soil, exposed to cooling ocean breezes. Both areas get hot. But despite the different ‘terroirs’ both are instantly recognisable as Portuguese. It’s the huge mouth-feel they have – what the wine trade calls ‘structure’. It’s the opposite of watery – a feeling of wine in the mouth that is so satisfying that flavour comes a mere second. It’s like velvet on the tongue. But there is flavour: black plums and dark cherries with a hint of perfume. Is that Turkish delight? Is it woodsmoke?

How do they do it? Conditions are right: plenty of sun, but enough cloud and cool ocean breezes to avoid the wine tasting like jam. Then they have marvellous local grapes. The star is Touriga National, a powerful grape with dark rich fruit and a leathery taste reminiscent of Cabernet Sauvignon. And there’s Tinta Roriz (which the Spanish call Tempranillo) – another big-flavoured grape. The wine from Setubal is from the Castelao grape plus a little Alicante Bouschet, a rich combination.

Then there’s the wine-making. EU funding in the 1990s enabled a lot of wine-makers to move to temperature-controlled, stainless steel vats. At the same time, higher educational institutes in Lisbon and Vila Real taught modern methods to a whole generation of wine-makers.

Now family wine-makers are producing their own wine, like the Freitas family, or, like Vicente Faria, are branching out so they can bottle enough wine to interest supermarkets like Aldi. They must soon rumble the fact that wine lovers are prepared to pay more for wine this good and prices will go up.

If you prefer wines that are elegant rather than powerful, if you like Burgundy with its Pinot Noir, rather than Bordeaux with its Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, then Portuguese reds are not for you. But if you share my love of power, my enjoyment of wine that lets you know you’ve got a real mouthful, then Portuguese reds do the job wonderfully.

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