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Portuguese Winemakers Eschew Branding for Flavour and Value

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Ireland has the highest wine prices in the European Union, with almost €4 going to the Government from every bottle purchased.  The average spend on a bottle of wine however remains under €8, so importers have been frantically looking for low priced wines to import.

Portugal is one of the few quality wine regions that can offer cleanly made fruity wines for just a euro or two ex-cellar, so there are more and more are appearing on shelves, particularly in the independent sector.

As ever, the brand conscious Irish consumer has taken a little longer to warm to the wines of Portugal as this is not the place to go for Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot.  Less than 10% of all the wines in Portugal are made with international grape varieties but thankfully flavour and value for money is winning out over branding.

Jancis Robinson’s exhaustively comprehensive book on Wine Grapes lists 77 different Portuguese grape varieties that are commercially grown.  This places Portugal equal with Greece and behind Italy (377), France (204) and Spain (84).  The difference however is that almost all the Portuguese wines in Ireland are made with local grapes, while their competition from France or Italy can rely on known grapes and recognisable regional names such as Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Chianti and Languedoc – few people have heard of Touriga Nacional, Bairrada or Dão.

Everyone has heard of Port wine of course, and the Douro region where Port is made is also the region with Portugal’s best reds, made from a plethora of local varieties including Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz (better known as Tempranillo) and dozens of lesser known varieties with names like Bastardo and Donzelinho.

The Douro has the oldest vineyards many on narrow terraces on the steep banks of the Douro river and a couple of minor tributaries.  Tending these vineyards is not for the faint hearted and the terraces need to be rebuilt each year but the grape quality is often outstanding, so many Port houses have expanded their portfolios by making table wines – e.g. Quinta do Noval and Niepoort.

There are tight restrictions on who can make Port, so younger winemakers are opting to make table wine rather than sell their grapes to the large Port shippers such as Taylors and the Symington family (Dow, Warres etc) when they can potentially make more money by making their own wine.  Expect to see lots of interesting wines from the Douro in the coming years.

North of the Douro is Vinho Verde where you will find peach scented Alvarinho to rival any of the Albariños across the river Minho in Galicia.  The classic Vinho Verde style, with floral mineral aromas and a hint of spritz, is also having a bit of a revival and makes an excellent food wine.  The grape is typically Lourerira but others are also used.

South of the Douro you will find the slightly more rustic but potentially excellent regions of Dão and Bairrada but only a relative handful of their wines have made it to Ireland.  The Baga grape in Bairrada can be difficult to tame but its red fruit and herbal fragrance can have considerable charm if not treated with respect.

Further South is Lisboa and Alentejo who use similar grapes and you will find some Syrah, Merlot and Chardonnay but the bulk of the flavour comes from local grapes.  Watch for white grapes from minerally Arinto, peachy Antão Vaz and Roupeiro and Fernão Pires.  For reds watch for Aragonez (Tempranillo), red fleshed Alicante Bouschet, Alfrocheiro, Trincadeira and Castelão all of which combine to make fleshy fruit driven crowd pleasers.