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Vital vinhos

Neil Sowerby treads carefully amongst fine Portuguese wines

Written by . Published on February 2nd 2011.

Vital vinhos

STRANGE the way the world wags. I recently came back from a glorious wine trip to Oporto, Portugal, where I attended a conference debating the virtues of touriga nacional, a traditional grape staple of port now increasingly adding its aromatic vim to Douro red table wines.

So much that I tasted – and the whole of the country was represented in a showcase at the conference – is difficult to find on British wine shelves. Since the best of Portuguese wines easily compare with, and often surpass their Spanish counterparts, this seemed a shame.

Consequently I popped into Luso on Bridge Street to borrow a wine list from proprietor Carlos. Luso means Portuguese. The restaurant, while stretching its menu to encompass dishes from that voyaging nation’s nautical outposts, Japan, Goa and the like, offered a list of exclusively Portuguese wines. Some, from the likes of Luis Pato, are exceptional value. Pure Vinho Verde at 8 or 9 per cent is the perfect lunch tipple with a tranche of salt cod. Get the taste for them here, I’d say, and then seek them out in the shops and online.

Within a week, Luso had given up its three year battle to survive in a city centre of high rents and punters who can’t see beyond the nearest Italian. So sad. And I speak as one who, reviewing the food on several occasions, found some fault.

Fortunately, our independent wine stores have some enticing Portuguese bottles on their shelves at the moment, not just from the Douro but also from the central plains of the rising Alentejo region, known as the country’s “bread basket”. Cold winters, hot summers here.

Hanging Ditch (www.hangingditch.com) stock Pedra Basta 2008, from the far north east of the Alentejo. They charge £14 a bottle for this fourth vintage from the high altitude winery created by Manchester-born Richard Mayson, author of definitive books on Portuguese wine. This wine, from 30-year-old native varieties with a splash of cabernet sauvignon (“because it was there” he told a recent tasting in Manchester’s Portuguese consulate on Portland Street) is not intended to be Richard’s top-end wine, but it has emerged from a cooler growing season with great freshness and finesse. It will be interesting to see how it develops after a few years in the bottle. It can also be found on the wine list of Sam’s Chophouse.

A much heftier red beast from the Alentejo, at 14.5 ABV, is Monte da Peceguina 2008 from the Herdade da Malhadinha Nova, a luxury retreat with a Michelin-starred restaurant and its own vineyards. Definitely a match for game, this robust deep crimson blend reeks of herbs and jammy blackcurrant. Oaky vanilla and spiced up dark chocolate and coffee flavours dominate with the heat of the alcohol definitely there.

Cost of a bottle varies according to merchant – Cheshire chain Corks Out £16.85, North West Wine Merchant of the Year Barrica of Salmesbury £14.50, while at Winos of Oldham, whose prices are invariably keen, it’s only £13.95. www.corksout.com, www.barricawines.co.uk, www.winoswineshop.com.

Two more exciting Alentejo reds are from the family-owned Azamor estate, right on the Spanish border.

From an exceptional vintage, Azamor Petit Verdot 2007 is an exceptional wine – elegant from its restrained raspberry and tobacco nose through to its lingering supple, almost blueberry-like fruit. Expect to pay around £16.99. DeFINE of Sandiways (www.definefoodandwine.com), who also stock the standard tinto, Azamor Tinto 2006, a damson-rich, silky blend of Syrah, Touriga and Merlot (also at Hanging Ditch for £12.50).

Finally, among the reds, a nod to the Dao – which, along with the Douro is the home of the temperamental touriga nacional grape I went to Portugal to discuss – and some of the country’s finest reds, usually from blends containing TN.

Ramos Pinto’s Duas Quintas Tinto 2008 (Portland Wine, £10.99) is what it says on the label – a mix of grape varieties (touriga francesa and tinta roriz joining TN) from two Quintas (it means farm) – Ervamoira and Dos Bons Ares. Portland’s notes (on www.portlandwine.co.uk capture it perfectly: “Intense blackberry, black cherry and dark chocolate. Smooth, creamy and velvety.” It matched a roast pheasant with rosehip and crab apple jelly impeccably the other night.

Back to Vinho Verde (“green wine”), a wine synonymous with Portugal. Like German white wine, it has an image problem. Prickly, sour and dull is much of the commercial output. That it doesn’t have to be was one of the revelations of my sortie into the unspoilt Costa Verde region, north of Oporto, which contains 15 per cent of the total area under vines in Portugal – 35,000 hectares but 38,000 individual smallholder growers. Hence the chaotic nature of production.

Not so at Portugal’s only biodynamic estate run by Richard Gere lookalike, architect and Rudolf Steiner teacher, Vasco Croft, who has transformed his family’s viticulture heritage at Casal de Paco with his “Afros” project.

Lots of it is good traditional agricultural practice. Quirkier, though, was a 'House of biodynamics', constructed from wood so there is no electro-magnetic energy – and a special water fountain/trough. The proof of the bio was in the wines, available over here from Booths’ online operation www.everywine.co.uk . Trust me, it’s worth the punt (they do mixed cases). They stock three wines from the Paco Casal. Prices are for a six-bottle case.

Afros, Vinho Verde Espumante Loureiro Reserva 2007
Pale and golden sparkler with a lingering mousse and a herbal nose... plus vanilla from part of the base wine being aged in older oak barrels. Waxy apple and pear on the palate with compensating acidity (£121.45).

Afros, Vinho Verde Branco Loureiro
Smoky, leafy, mineral white. Lemon zest and more mineral in the concentrated taste. (£81.91).

Afros, Vinho Verde Tinto Vinhão
You can’t get more traditional Portuguese than this. After foot-treading of the grapes, it is fermented very slowly in tanks. I loved this deep crimson/black wine reeking of black cherries and liquorice. Fresh yet savoury, best served cool – a real antidote to one-dimensional “international” brands (£86.26).

More affordable, and you can buy it by the single bottle (Majestic £6.99, Hanging Ditch £9), Quinta de Azevedo 2009 is 50 per cent loureiro, 50 per cent pederna. There are fragrant, floral, grassy aromas with a very clean and crisp, minerally palate with a touch of aniseed about it. Awesome value for this classic bone dry VV with only 11 per cent alcohol.

Still, I admit these sharp whites are not to everyone’s taste. For a more approachable modern style showcasing the tropical fruit flavours of verdelho, you have to go to an Australian working in the Alentejo, Donald Baverstock. Verdelho 2009, Herdade do Esporao is lovely and creamy on the palate matched by an underlying fresh acidity but, you guessed it, a wallop of 14 per cent alcohol. It costs £13.50 at Hanging Ditch.

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