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A Toast to Portugal Wines

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Blends make it easy for food pairing

By Charlene Peters

May 3rd – Portugal, a small country a quarter the size of California, has had a long-time connection with the United States. In 1776, Independence Day was celebrated with a toast of Madeira, a fortified wine produced on the Portuguese Madeira Islands off the coast of Africa. Nurturing the relationship further, it’s interesting to note there are several Portuguese communities in Massachusetts, and Portugal’s oldest continuously-operating U.S. Consulate is based in Ponta Delgada on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores. But when it comes to wine, U.S. consumers are challenged by the pronunciation of the label that lists the wine’s region and the names of the indigenous grapes that make up the many wine blends.

Of Portugal’s 250 grape varietals, there are only a handful of labels U.S. consumers are familiar with, including the sweet aperitif and long aging Madeira, the tawny Port dessert wine, and wines from the Douro, Alentejo, and Vinho Verde regions. 

The country’s largest appellation is a Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC) region in the north and is called Vinho Verde. These wines are made with a blend of indigenous grapes and bottled under the assumption to “drink-now.” The translation of Vinho Verde is “green wine” and as its name suggests, these wines are light, fresh, and easy-to-drink table wines. There are nine indigenous grapes grown in this DOC, which include Amarante, Ave, Baião, Basto, Cávado, Lima, Monção e Melgaço, Paiva, and Sousa.

More familiar white grapes include Alvarinho and Arinto, and for the reds, Trincadeira and Touriga Nacional.

It makes sense that having a large number of grape varietals on-hand leads to a plethora of blends, and to be clear, the winemakers in Portugal are all about blends. Food pairing, in particular, is easiest when served with blended wines. 

At a recent walkaround tasting event held at City Winery in Boston, President of Wines of Portugal (ViniPortugal), Frederico Falcão, and Portugal Wine Ambassador for the U.S., Eugénio Jardim, were in attendance. The event began with a state-of-the-industry conversation that touched upon the challenges in pronouncing the various grapes and regions on the labels, as well as distribution in the U.S. in comparison to widely popular Italian wines.

To gain widespread recognition for Portugal wines, it would seem essential to offer an educational component, which is why Commonwealth Wine School has been an advocate in the efforts of Wines of Portugal to enlighten the U.S. on Portugal wines by coordinating master classes and endorsing trade/media events such as the City Winery walkaround tasting event, which offered 200 Portugal wine tastings. 

An Avicella Pet Nat was part of the tasting. This slight sparkling blend of Fernão Pires and Loureiro grapes were grown in the Vinho Verde region. From the Douro region, a lovely, bright acidity of a Quinta dos Avidagos Reserva highlighted Arinto and Viozinho grapes. And from the Tejo region, a Lagoalva rosé was a sweet strawberry jam of Touriga Nacional and Syrah grapes.

Falcão’s expertise is vast and varied and includes 18 years spent as a winemaker. He is approachable, well-versed on Portugal wines, and an all-around interesting professional. As a wine journalist, I was thrilled at the prospect of interviewing him. My first question was related to my first visit to the Azores. It has been more than a decade since I first visited Sao Miguel, the biggest island in the Portuguese Azores archipelago, where winemaking barely existed at that time. I wanted to know the status of this emerging wine region as it was briefly mentioned during the City Winery conversation before the Grand Tasting began. I learned that I should visit a tiny volcanic island in the youngest of the Azores archipelago, called Pico (300,000 years old compared to millions).

“It is booming,” said Falcão. “Especially in quality.”

Important to note is over 100 years ago the vineyards in the Azores, predominantly in Pico and in the Biscoitos region of Terceira, were abandoned due to plant disease, loss of soil, and reduced rainfall. They’ve replanted a lot in the last decade or so and, according to Falcão, these regions grow approximately 90 percent white grape varieties among the Azores 1,100 hectares of vineyards. The soil conditions of interlaced black lava rock adds to the salty-sweetness, varied and complex minerality of these wines.

Said Falcão, “They’re doing an amazing job and their wines are fantastic!”

Climate Change

While climate change is affecting Bordeaux, Champagne, and California wineries, Portugal has been spared from wildfires, earthquakes, and unseasonal weather. The one scenario mentioned in brief was an early harvest—in August, due to warmer summers, but Falcão explained this as typical for the cycle of harvesting grapes, and for sparkling wine production, harvest comes early. In 2003, he says he recalls harvest began in late July (high acidity, low alcohol grapes for sparkling).

“We are lucky we don’t know what a thunderstorm is and haven’t experienced extreme climatic events we see happening everywhere, such as earthquakes in Italy.” says Falcão. “We are quite lucky so far. We do have some effect in Portugal; it’s not raining as much, and summers are getting a bit warmer.”

He says adaptations are in process, such as planting vines further north and in higher altitudes within the Alentejo region. But he’s not worried. 

“As Eugénio was saying, we have a huge collection of grape varieties,” he said. “My life is about wines [of Portugal] and if you ask me to count all the Portuguese wines, I’d say there are around 80.”

He realizes there are actually 250 documented varieties, and DNA studies are ongoing, but many are obscure. 

Said Falcão, “Some almost vanished a decade ago. We have many producers planting those varieties because they can support high temperatures and the lack of water. These varieties allow us to keep growing and evolving.”

The best way to taste wines of Portugal is to travel there. Exploring the wine regions is easy by car. East of Porto, it’s a 60-plus mile drive to the Douro Valley, where the landscape changes completely from region to region.

Before the tasting closed, a few tastings of Tawny Port were necessary. First, a Poças 10 Years Old White Port made with Códega, Rabigato, Viosinho, and Malvasia Fina grapes begged the question, “Where can I buy this?” to which I was informed, Wegmans Food Markets. Next, a Porto e Douro 10 Years Old Tawny Port red blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, and Tinto Cão priced at $110 for a bottle seemed worthy of a purchase. But the Shangri-La moment was the Poças 20 Years Old Tawny Port made with the same grapes as the previous red blend but aged another decade.

Mic drop.

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