Portugal vineyard

Portugal’s wines perfect pitch

On May 20, Portugal’s wines had their coronation moment. In an article published in the Financial Times and on her website, JancisRobinson.com, the distinguished British wine writer backed Portuguese wines.

Jancis Robinson lauded Portugal’s “dramatically improved winemaking” by a new generation of “well-trained” winemakers curious to experiment with Portugal’s unique array of indigenous grape varieties. In Robinson’s opinion, Portugal’s wines still have a “less than established reputation”.

After Portugal joined the European Union in 1986, vineyards and wineries benefitted from much-needed EU investment largesse. Stimulated by home-grown oenology courses such as the one at the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro (UTAD), and experience in wine-producing countries like Australia for winemakers as different as David Guimarães (The Fladgate Partnership) and Rita Marques (Conceito), winemaking began to improve exponentially.

Leading United Kingdom importer of Portuguese wines, Raymond Reynolds, whose family own the Mouchão wine estate in the Alentejo, recalled the influence of adventurous figures such as Dirk Niepoort and Luís Pato, who, around the turn of the century, “spawned a whole generation of accomplished producers”.

By the early years of this century, the days were fast receding when the grape harvest would be carted off to the local cooperative to be made into hide tough, alcohol heavy wines, sold in even heavier bottles with obscure labels. Reynolds’ ‘accomplished producers’ had realised that Portugal’s hugely diverse indigenous grape varieties and equally exceptional terroirs were golden assets.

Far-sighted, energetic producers such as the Douro Boys began to organise tastings of their wines in foreign markets. Initially, some international publics were a bit mystified by these new wines. Paul Symington of Symington Family Estates, a large wine company for which branding holds no secrets, remarked to this writer in 2019, “there’s possibly almost too much diversity in Portuguese wines”.

Wine trade events, such as the first edition of Festa, held in London in June 2022 and attended by 55 Portuguese winemakers, have since helped unravel the complexity of Portuguese wines.

Jancis Robinson recently presented a tasting of Portuguese wines at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., as part of a FT Weekend Festival. In an email to Portugal Resident, she commented “the tasting was a big hit”. Attendees gave the highest vote to a Pintas 2019, from Wine and Soul (Douro).

There have been two other significant shifts in recent years. Portugal, hitherto known for its fortified wines (Port and Madeira) and red table wines, is now making outstanding whites as well, hitting the spot with grape varieties such as Encruzado and Alvarinho. At the 2023 Decanter World Wine Awards, more Portuguese whites won gold medals than on any other occasion in the competition’s 20-year history.

The other shift has been the arrival of a cluster of talented women winemakers: Sandra Tavares da Silva (Wine and Soul, with her husband Jorge Serôdio Borges), Filipa Pato (Luís’ daughter, with her husband William Wouters) and Joana Maçanita (with her brother António), among many others.

Over the last decade, successful branding of Portugal as a desirable tourism destination has encouraged the uncorking of more and better-quality bottles of Portuguese wine in homes in many countries of the world (US, UK, Brazil, Switzerland, Germany…), and increasingly in Portuguese restaurants abroad as well.

After timid beginnings, wine tourism in Portugal is now gaining traction, with imaginative winery visits and hospitality from Quinta de la Rosa in the Douro, to Morgado do Quintão in the Algarve.

Wine and culture

World of Wine, in Porto, is a new cultural district affirming wine tourism’s place as a sub-set of cultural tourism. And Bienal’23 Fotografia do Porto’s ‘Acts of Empathy’, which can be visited across 14 venues in Porto until July 2, is contributing to building Portugal’s new position as a destination for international quality exhibitions of contemporary art.

A deliciously uncomfortable new film duology by Portuguese director João Canijo, Mal Viver/Viver Mal, interestingly gives Portuguese wine a tongue-in-cheek ‘character actor’ part, when the attractions of a high altitude, minerally white from the Portalegre district of the Alentejo are explained to diners in a hotel restaurant.

With so many of the country’s best winemakers still under 40, we can almost certainly look forward to many more years of distinctive, world-class Portuguese wines. Let’s enjoy them before prices for these wines catch up with their peers.

By James Mayor