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Portuguese Red Wines Come of Age, Steal Spain’s Thunder

Douro Valley Grapes
Grapes in the Douro Valley, Portugal. The grapes are grown on steep hillsides to take best advantage of the sun's rays. Source: The Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto (IVDP) collection via Bloomberg

Oct. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Back in the 1990s Spain seemed to be Europe’s most forward looking wine producer. But as overproduction and high alcohol wines increasingly dominate Spanish viniculture, it now appears Portugal can steal some of its thunder.

Such an achievement would simply not have been possible 10 years ago. Prior to 1986, when Portugal joined the EU, its wine industry was wracked by political directives and a lack of any dependable system to make sense of its wine regions.

After joining, EU subsidies and investments poured into Portugal for the regeneration of old and the building of new wineries, attracting a young generation of winemakers, including an impressive number of women, who now account for 60 percent of the students at the oenology school in Vila Real.

Today there are 31 DOC and DOP appellations and 14 approved wine regions in Portugal, including the beautiful Douro River Valley, famous for its fortified Port wines.

Indeed, Port’s historic renown has blinded many to the charms of Portugal’s modern red wines, 30 of which, all from the Douro, I got to taste at a recent Wine Media Guild luncheon in New York.

Modestly Priced

My overall impression was that many were so very good and so modestly priced, with some of my favorites retailing at only $10 - $16. In fact, none cost more than $40.

My second surprise was that very few topped 14 percent in alcohol, with most at a reasonable 13.5 or below, indicating that, at least so far, Portuguese winemakers have resisted going for that bold but imbalanced style that plagues international wine markets and destroys any subtleties of individual terroir.

One of my colleagues at the luncheon said he thought too many of the wines tasted very much the same, but I reminded him that all were from the same Douro region and therefore shared identifiable characteristics.

Some of the newer blends -- and Portugal offers a wide palate of grapes to choose among -- include the robust touriga nacional; the late-ripening baga, sometimes used as a base for sparkling wines; the widely planted, zesty castelao; the aromatic touriga franca; the fruity, herbal trincadeira; and the increasingly impressive tinta, in Spain called tempranillo.

Fuzzy Reservas

These were young wines we tasted, and the laws about “reservas” are a bit fuzzy: a reserva must spend at least one year in oak and one in bottle -- rather liberal for a wine that is held back for more maturity -- and a garrafeira must spend three years aging, at least one in bottle, but the rules allow for a good deal of flexibility.

Most of the wines were recent vintages from 2009 and 2010 vintages, with the oldest going back only to 2007. I enjoyed the younger, fresher wines, including a lovely, sweetly juicy and floral Vinho Oscar Quevedo Douro Oscar’s 2009 ($10) that makes for very easy drinking. Sales-wise, Quevado is cutting edge: the producer markets only through its social network.

At $13, the 2009 Quinta dos Murcas Assobio, is a terrific buy, with a remarkably assertive bouquet and fine texture felt from the tip of the tongue to back of the throat. “Assobio” means “whistle,” in homage to the winds in the Douro hills.

Persuasive Blend

The 2009 J. Portugal Ramos Colheita ($20) is a persuasive blend of two touriga varietals plus tinta roriz, with plenty of complexity.

If you want a sense of what a “typical” Portuguese wine tastes like, try the 2009 Quinta de Roriz Prazo de Roriz ($16), which is a little rough around the edges but would be perfect with Portuguese dishes like caldo verde soup, the salt cod dish called bacalhau, or just with a handful of the country’s wonderful roasted chestnuts.

My favorite wine, at just $21, was the PV Mutante 2007, whose age mellowed its tannins and acids, revealing layers of integrated flavors of fruit and woodsyness.

At $30, the curiously-named Twisted Tinto 2009, a blend of the two tourigas, roriz, amarela, and barroca, by Niepoort (one of the finest Port producers) had medium body, a rich, fat quality and plenty of dense fruit flavors, ideal with suckling pig or lamb.

Yet not one of these wines went above 13.5 percent alcohol, while providing real depth of flavor.

(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Katya Kazakina on art and Patrick Cole’s interview with Lang Lang.

To contact the writer of this column: John Mariani at

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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