If you were to pick up a Wine Merchant's wine list from any time before about the year 2000 and thumb through the pages you may well stumble across a fairly sizeable Portuguese section. The chances are, however, that it will be towards the end of the brochure in the section titled 'Fortified Wines' and be almost entirely Port, with perhaps a few Madeiras thrown in. Well things have most definitely changed, and today you'll find a broad range of fantastic table wines and a, sadly, diminishing range of Fortified wines.
Although globally sales of aged Port styles (Vintage and Tawny) are holding up, it is at the cheaper, Ruby Port, end of the scale where sales have declined, and this is the high-volume area of production. The total volume of Port being produced has, therefore, dropped considerably in recent years, and in its place producers are turning their attention to table wines, and with great success. The typical port grape varieties of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz and Tinta Barroca, to name just four, lend themselves to the production of fragrant, fruit driven and robust, yet fresh red wines that tend to be well priced. But this is only the picture in the Douro region of Portugal, elsewhere in the country there has been a thriving table wine industry for many years, but finally it is gaining some serious traction in export markets like the UK.
For white wine production Vinho Verde is probably Portugal's best-known region, but for many people Vinho Verde wines were the cheap, slightly fizzy whites enjoyed when on holiday in Portugal but rarely brought home. Well things are definitely changing. Today we are seeing some excellent single varietal and blended examples in the UK that perfectly fit the growing desire for lighter, fresher white wines, and that hint of effervescence they often have is attracting some of Prosecco's huge fanbase.
Elsewhere, white wine producers are experimenting with both traditional and more commercial grape varieties, often blending them together, and sometimes ageing them in barrel. We are really now seeing a fabulous variety of wines arriving in the UK from Portugal from light and fragrant to richly textured.
As you head south from the northern powerhouses of the Douro and Vinho Verde regions you soon arriving in the historic Dao region. This is another region that has seen a turnaround in fortunes in recent years following years of criticism for producing rather "rustic" wines. Improvements in both production and marketing has seen the region's reputation rise rapidly, and today you'll find some of Europe's most highly rated red wines, mostly produced again from Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz.
Keep heading south and you'll find the main areas for volume growth in Portugal. Lisboa, a coastal region running north from the city of Lisbon, is one of Portugal's most productive areas, mostly for white wines. Its close proximity to the Atlantic ensures a relatively cool growing climate, resulting aromatic wines with a vibrant acidity.
Although there are a number of other regions producing exceptional wine, we'll end our journey in the central and southern continental Portuguese region of Alentejo. This is a vast region by area, and is considered Portugal's experimental region or Portugal's "New World". Here you'll find small boutique wineries next door to vast modern multinationals. Everything is produced here, from high volume low price wine to top end low production blockbusters, but at every level the value for money is very good if compared to other famous European regions. This is one Portuguese region that we are keeping a close eye on, and don't be surprised if wines from Alentejo feature heavily on the wine shop shelves in the near future.
With a couple of decades of experimentation behind them, the Portuguese wine industry has blossomed into a serious player on the international scene. At all price levels you seem to get a lot of wine for the money, and at the moment more and more wines are becoming available to us in the UK.
In summary, there really is now something for everyone being produced in Portugal. We've picked out four wines that we think represent this very well. For a single varietal Vinho Verde we don't think you can beat the Loureiro from Ponte de Lima at the price. If you like your whites with a bit more texture then the Catarina Branco is a lovely Chardonnay Arinto blend. The Dom Martinho Red is a blend of Portuguese and international grapes, and finally, the Prazo de Roriz is a wonderful red made by famous Port producers, the Symington family, in collaboration with former Bordeaux superstar Bruno Prats. This is Portuguese grape varieties meeting Bordeaux production methods, and we love the result.