Saturday, September 3, 2011

PORTUGAL: Paradox of Iberian Discovery

Distinct Discoveries of Difference await wine lovers in Portugal.
Douro Valley's Cima Corgo
Arguably among the world's great wines, Port, Moscatel de Setubal and Madeira's, all fortified, sweet wines, are produced with regional style in the independent country of Portugal. This is also the modernizing wine producer who in recent decades gave the world bulk, sweetened Lancers' and Mateus Rose', so perhaps the real Portugal lies somewhere in an exploration of what lies in-between. A wet and mountainous landscape, the wine grape has been part of this culture for 4000 years, and today proudly touts as many as 300 native varieties, few grown anywhere else! Following Roman and Moorish occupation, Portugal finally became independent with the 1143 Treaty of Zamora, and quickly developed a trade relationship with powerful England, galvanized with the protectionist 1386 Treaty of Windsor.

Atlantic accessed Oporto developed as a gateway trading center; only to find that conflict and international commerce were to become the parents of the modern Portuguese wine industry. Importantly, the Methuen Treaty(Port Wine Treaty) of 1703, established a military/commercial alliance and tax-free exchange status between Portugal and thirsty England. In an effort to protect its domestic interests, in 1758 Marquess des Pombal with a royal charter became the first noble ever to formally demarcate a European production area, the English influenced Douro, almost 200 years prior to the French AOC system. Following the devastating outbreak of the vineyard louse phylloxera, Portuguese wines remained stagnant throughout the 20th centuries authoritarian Salazar corporate era, then saw a quick rise of even more small farm cooperatives in the decade that followed, and only finally began modernization with newly adopted EU agricultural regulations and investment in 1986. Throughout all this turbulent Portuguese history, Port remained constant in wine quality.

Within the Douro DOC and more than forty(40) miles inland from Oporto lie the Porto DOC's three(3) important sub-regions: cool Baixo Corgo, the higher quality central Cima(Alta) Corgo, which produces more concentrated wines and Douro Superior, the warmer eastern sub-region.With more than 80 varieties of grapes(castas) sanctioned, only five(5) red(tinto) varieties: Tinta Roiz(Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cao, Touriga Francesa, and Touriga Nacional and three white varieties are recommended for quality Ports, as regulated by the I.V.D.P. This official body administers the Cadastro vineyard ranking system, regulating vineyard rank, grape production and price, as well as declaring the superior Vintage year classifications. Barrel(wood) aged that benefit from evaporation and reductive bottle aged(Ruby, Vintage, Late Bottle Vintage-LBV) are the two(2) principal families of Port production styles. Barrel-aged Tawny's from a single vintage are designated, Colheita, and a rare intermediate barrel & bottle aged Port from a single vintage may be labeled Garrafeira.

Single vineyard estate (quinta) Ports are becoming increasingly common, as the majority of Ports historically have been blends of grapes and quintas assembled, aged and bottled by the shippers lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia across the Douro river highway. The valley composed of pre-Cambrian schist is also home to quality regional table wine production from the same native Port grape varieties, as Douro DOC. Between the Douro and the Minho to the North lies the provincial provinces of Atlantic-influenced Entre-Douro-e-Minho, and Tras-os-Montes, with the important demarked region Vinho Verde DOC in the northwest being the most prominent. Portugal's largest production DOC, Vinho Verde, is a low alcohol, high-acid blended red or white(branco) wine from regional grapes(dominated by the white Alvarinho) that is produced in a light and fresh style from within the quality (9)sub-districts of the Minho VR. Today, it is Portugal's second most-widely exported wine(vinho).
Cool, Green Minho Vineyards

South of the Douro lies the inland high country of the Dao DOC; principally a red wine temperate climate region, and today producing increasingly elegant, quality wines from blends based in Touriga Nacional. Bairrada DOC is located on the Atlantic side of the Beiras VR, and finds the thick-skinned and tannic native red variety, Baga(Tinta Fina?) its most widely planted grape in its clay soils. This maritime environment proves beneficial too for a regional sparkling wine industry from the fragrant white native Maria Gomes or a blend of local red grapes.

North of  Lisbon(Lisboa VR) is the hilly wine region formally known as Estremadura VR, Portugal's largest bulk wine producing area(Mateus & Lancers). Prominent, historical DOC's within its demarcated region include Bucelas, Carcavelos, and Colares DOC, home to the un-grafted, phyllloxera-free Ramisco red grape, grown in the sandy vineyards of this maritime climate. Here near Lisbon, the Tagus or Tejo river out of Spain separates Portugal into halves with great plains fanning to the south. On the Peninsula de Setubal, south of Lisbon, one of the world's notable dessert wines is produced from fortified, wood aged Muscat of Alexandria grapes, Moscatel de Setubal DOC. Along with native red grapes(Castelao) and newly planted international varieties, like Merlot, there are local sweet wines here also similar to Port, but DOC rules require a minimum of 70% Moscatel for the regions most classic treat.

In the past, Portuguese were quick to joke that the expansive Alentejo VR region, with its broad, golden wheat fields, was 'the land of bad bread and bad wine'. Known mostly for cork oak production(about half of the world supply), this arid region has recently embraced investment and moderization, with eight(8) sub-regions entitled to the higher DOC designation for their production of fruity, improved quality native and international variety wines. Sunnier still is the touristy Algarve to the Mediterranean south,classified only as Algarve VR, the designation offered to the country wines similar to the Vin de Pays of France.

Off the northwest coast of Africa sits Madiera DOC, home to long history producing a fortified dessert wine that is both deliberately heated(estufagem) and exposed to air(oxidized); a process so unique it has an identity that is enshrined by the EU's Protected Designation of Origin status. Although the workhorse red variety, Tinta Negra Mole is most widely planted on these islands, it is the four(4) noble grapes from the graduating strata's of this volcanic landscape: Bual(Boal), Mavasia(Malmsey), Verdelho and off-dry Sercial, that give quality aged Madiera's their special status. Maderized and long living, wines labeled 'Finest' have been aged for at least three(3) years, while Seleccionado are between 3 - 5 years old, 5 Anos or Reservas are between 5 - 10 years old, and all the way to Mais de 40 Anos. Colheita's are minimum 85% single grape variety, minimum 85% single vintage, and the best of these is aged more than 20 years to earn the label, Frasqueira.
Modern Bairrada winery

One of the world's largest wine producers and exporters, Portugal today is a paradox that is greater than Port vs. Lancer's Rose'. It is the resolution of tradition against viticulture and winemaking improvements; going beyond Vinho Verde, to other regions like modernizing Alentejo, which is producing an ever increasing amount of Portugal's top quality DOC table wines. Among its rising stars today are the old, rustic provincial regions, now producing the best table wines from the Dao, like 'Alianca' and 'Grao Vasco' , or the Douro's Quinta de Crasto. Here native grapes grown for a thousand years are finding new contemporary markets to showcase how unique and individual they really are. Last year's Decanter World Wine Awards saw the Regional Trophy's and Gold medals to Portugal's sweet, fortified wines as expected, but a surprising 93 Silver medals to distinctive wines from the Minho, the Dao and the Alentejo. As we look to our rustic, Old World image of these wines, the discovery of what is different and distinct about today's wines of Portugal may be the biggest paradox of all.

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