News article

Portugal has learnt to put a smile on its wine

Feargus O'Sullivan | FT Adviser | 20-09-2009 | General, Other Subjects, Articles
Until recently, this country's Portuguese wine drinkers fell into two camps.
First, there were the lovers of Port, that soporific Christmas stalwart that has the unique privilege of being the one sweet, sticky wine inhibited British men are permitted to admit they like. Then there were the Mateus Rosé drinkers, fans of the once hugely popular droplet-shaped 70s throwback, whose taste in wine meant they risked looking like they'd wandered off the set of Abigail's Party.

The cliché surrounding these two drinks – Port is good, Mateus bad – is actually rather simplistic. While Port is often fantastic, it spoils quickly, so people who drink a bottle slowly through advent are not uncommonly knocking back something that tastes like soiled pantaloons steeped in gin and Ribena. Cheap, basic Mateus Rosé, meanwhile, is a brand even wine novices feel safe disparaging, but which surprises on first sip by actually being fairly decent.

More recently, however, this basic binary opposition is being complicated somewhat by the arrival of fine, complex and not even especially cheap wines from Portugal.

While it's still not easy to get hold of, Portuguese wine is enjoying a mild popularity among buffs right now, attracted by the country's distinctive national grape varieties and competitive pricing. To do justice to all these different bottlings is beyond the scope of a single column, but exploring the wines from the Douro Valley that make port grapes into a dry, unfortified wine are a good place to start.

Port was initially invented as a way of enabling the poor quality wines of the Douro to reach Britain in a better state. Adding brandy before the wine was fully fermented (thus keeping some residual sugar and improving the wine's longevity) proved such a successful innovation that quality dry wines largely disappeared from the picture. Recently, however, some of the better wineries have taken to sparing some of their barrels the usual dose of spirits and now produce some wonderfully intense bottles that marry a Port-like aroma with a leaner, meatily sober flavour.

A good example is the 2004 La Rosa Reserve sold by Berry Brothers and Rudd, both online and at their St James' Street shop, for £19.30 (they also sell a non-reserve version that has less oak ageing for a little over £12). A blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cao and Tinta Roriz (known as Tempranillo in Spain), the wine has a faintly confected nose that mixes black cherries, raspberries and cinnamon, plus a hint of prune that suggests fruitcake. That lovely pure fruitiness remains in the mouth, but is offset by the taste of coffee and bitter chocolate, plus a light twist of black pepper.

While less powerfully alcoholic than a fortified wine, at 15 per cent, it still has a good bit of heat to it and would stand up brilliantly to red meat or game. It's just one example of how the Portuguese, in spite of always striking me as one of Europe's grumpiest nations, have cheered their wines up admirably in recent decades, a process I'll be looking at more next week.


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