Monday, 13 February 2012

Portuguese Wines

Wine drinkers around the world are almost certain to have heard of Vinho do Porto, or Port to the English speaking world, but few will have tasted the many excellent Portuguese table wines or other fortified wines, liqueurs and spirits. This is a great pity. I drink wine with dinner every night, and have done since 1979 when we moved from Britain to Australia and I discovered how cheap wine was there. I have up to two glasses with lunch sometimes too. I have at least one table wine with dinner and most nights more than one. I trial table wines to see whether I would like to put some in my cellar and that is the reason for usually having more than one on the table. In the past I would occasionally have Port afterwards, but since moving to Portugal also have Port with cheese, and Moscatel, sometimes a Spanish one, with nuts, pâté or presunto (a Portuguese ham) every night after a main course. It is extremely rarely that I have a sweet.

I would stress that my drinking habits are not expensive. It will be generally known by regular readers of my writings and forum contributions that I live well, but only spend what I must. This way I do not need a high income and life is therefore much easier. I can enjoy cheap wines knowing that I am not going against my philosophy in order to drink them every night. If I drink a bottle a day it costs me less per week than it would to go to a pub in most countries and have a couple of pints of beer once a week.

I do not profess to be a wine expert, but like to compare wines against each other over two or three nights before deciding whether to commit myself to a few for storage. My reasoning behind this is that after a couple of nights it will be similar to it ageing in the bottle. A very unscientific method, but it seems to work. I would not call myself a “wine lover” either, just a wine drinker. Wine is exceptionally cheap in Portugal, and many very good wines are under €2 a bottle. Bargain ends of line are often under €1. Spain can be even cheaper, and I once bought a large quantity of one-litre bottles at 59c. My son and I occasionally do a “raid across the border” when he visits. Much safer than being a Border Reiver in days gone by in the area where I was raised.

I find some wine tasters’ descriptions rather nonsensical. No doubt they believe the aromas and tastes they describe, but I have extremely rarely reached the same conclusion, and I never read the back label until after I have tried the wine. I believe that if you can have a reasonable idea when you look at the front label of a bottle whether or not you will enjoy it, then that is as much of an expert as you need to be. Portuguese beer is also very good; Sagres and Super Bock being the best known, but there are others of high quality.

I will not go into great detail but Port is the result of grapes grown in the oldest wine demarcated region in the world, high in the Douro valley. The newly pressed grapes have their fermentation stopped at an early stage by transferring the must as it is called into barrels that have been part filled with Portuguese brandy. These barrels are later transported to Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite bank of the Douro to the city of Porto close to the Atlantic Ocean, and matured in the Port Lodges to produce the various types of Port. Portuguese brandy on its own is probably an acquired taste and whilst I admit to not being much of a brandy drinker, I do not drink it often. “Aguardente” is sometimes the word on the bottle rather than “Brandy” and this is also the word used for home-distilled brandy. Distilling for your own use is legal in Portugal and stills of various sizes are readily available, but expensive. I have had some very nice homemade Aguardentes. One in particular was flavoured with the fruit of the Arbutus tree. This is also known as the Strawberry tree because the fruits look just like little strawberries. They grow profusely in the mountains near us and we have one growing in the ornamental garden area.

For everyday drinking I have Ruby Port, several brands being available at under €4. I think Tawny is better suited to nuts, and occasionally I will compare one against a Moscatel. Moscatel as made in Portugal, either in the Douro or Setúbal, is a different dessert wine to French muscats. Spain makes a similar style to Portugal and there is another made on the Greek island of Samos. On special occasions I will open a bottle of a Vintage Port (VP from hereon) from my cellar. This cellar is built underneath the house as cellars should be and has individual bottle spaces for over 600 bottles within its large space that includes the wine making area, complete with lagar or stone trough for foot crushing of the grapes. The spaces are about half filled, mainly with table wines from around the country, a few Spanish and any others I have found marked down in price, with only a few dozen VPs. They are not cheap even here. I am endeavouring to build up a stock for my son and his offspring when he has some. It takes many years for VPs to mature and it is much cheaper to buy them when young. I also cellar a few Ruby ports each year, and they are improving with cellaring. It is just an experiment, but mentioned by Allan Sichel in a book he wrote about 50 years ago as a possible means of raising the quality of some Rubies.

There is some very drinkable wine, both red and white put into what I call Chateau Cardboard, or plastic bags inside a cardboard box, most holding between three and five litres, although they are available with up to 20 litres in them. I think that size must be for serious drinkers. The boxes are much cheaper than the same quantity and quality in bottles. I use these boxes most nights, often using them as the standard against which bottles are compared, and take aged bottles out of the cellar for visitors, as well as treating myself now and again. I have had whites still drinking well at 15 years old and reds over 20. These wines were very cheap when I bought them, many for only 99c. I look for “bargain basement” offers when the supermarkets are having a general tidy up of their wine areas.

I am also building up a stock of Moscatel do Setúbal, and these are much cheaper to buy than VP. I am told they will keep as long as good Madeira, and that is at least 100 years. The oldest I have is 1981, so a long way to go. I had one of these last month (a bottle usually lasts me a week) and it was produced by the Palmela Co-op. I have also been using their Chateau Cardboard in recent weeks, and am very impressed with both the red and white.

Madeira is part of Portugal although off Africa, and out in the Atlantic, as are the Açores (Azores), which are further north and much further out. The different styles of Madeira are worth sampling if you can find them. The best place is Madeira itself. Even within the Portuguese mainland there is very little choice. The only wine I have seen from the Açores is Lajido from the island of Pico and it is an aperitif, which is again very long lived. I have only seen the 1994 vintage and managed to buy a few. All Portuguese wines will keep much longer than wines from most other parts of the world, many not being ready at the age when wines from other countries are past their best.

Mateus Rosé is the world’s biggest selling rosé table wine, and originated in Portugal, although I understand it is now also made elsewhere. It is lightly carbonated to give a “spritzig” effect. I have never cared for rosé wines, fizzy or otherwise, and prefer a naturally spritzig wine from the region north of the Douro, the Minho, where the wine is know as Vinho Verde, or green wine. In this case the word green meaning young and it is a style that suits many people. There are some really good examples made, perhaps the best being from the Alvarinho grape grown around Monção, where I am told it is served fresh from the barrel in copious quantities. I prefer whites to reds.

Bairrada to the south of the Douro has its own unique red grape, the Baga, which can take decades to reach its peak. It is now my favourite individual varietal wine, but I also like old Douro reds, say ten year old or more, that are a blend of the varieties used to make Port. Younger Douros are slightly too fruity for me but will suit many other people. Wines from the Dão area, to the east of Bairrada, were recommended to me more than 40 years ago as being suitable for a mixed company of people who were not regular wine drinkers, and I think the same still holds good. I like them, but prefer the Baga. Bairrada whites suit my palate too, particularly made from Bical. For those who are not short of cash, or just wishing to treat themselves to something extra special, I suggest a visit to the Buçaco Palace Hotel on the very edge of the Bairrada region and try some of their older vintages. The internationally famous wine writer Hugh Johnson suggested the whites are at their best at about 20 years old and the reds at about 30.

Moving south to the Lisbon area there are small parcels of vineyards and demarcated areas, and some very good reds and whites, plus of course Setúbal across the Tejo from the city. On the other side of the country is the Alentejo wine area, lying below the Tejo and next to the Spanish border. One of the important red grapes in the Alentejo is known as Aragonês, which is the same grape as the Tempranillo of Spain and the Tinta Roriz of the Douro. The region is relatively recently demarcated and a wide range of grapes are grown, both red and white. There are several large co-ops producing wines of high quality. I live in the area known as Beira Interior and this is a little known demarcated area from which I think the wines have improved in the few years I have been here. As with elsewhere in Portugal I shall continue trialling them on a regular basis. I do make wine myself from our own vines, but, in common with most amateur attempts at winemaking (using a mixture of unknown varieties) it is not as good as any of the commercial production and I only make it in years when I think the grapes are good enough..

I have only touched on a few places; there are many more areas, and thousands more wines that I have not mentioned. I admit to having had the occasional bottle of which I was not fond, but I can say the same about other countries. There were wines in Australia I did not care for; I am yet to have a German red that I like, or an Italian wine, either red or white. I am not saying they are not good, just I have not yet found one that I enjoyed. I do keep trying whenever the opportunity arises. I have also had wines from every other country I have tried that did not suit me, with one exception - I am yet to have a Spanish wine that I did not like, but I expect there are some.