The land of custard tarts, football and piri piri chicken awaited me, but I was far more interested in the wine I was going to encounter in my two week grand tour of the Portugal. It was a trip arranged care of the Vinhos Sogrape scholarship I had won on completing the Wine and Spirit Education Trust diploma and it was to take in their various properties in Alentejo, Dao, Douro and Vinho Verde. An adventure indeed.
I arrived in Lisbon, a stunning city rich in history, breath taking architecture and a fantastic gastronomic tradition. And custard tarts. Oh my goodness the custard tarts. It is worth a trip to Lisbon just to find the Antiga Confeitaria de Belem who are the undisputed kings of the custard tart world. Sneaking inside the blue and white tiled shop to get my fix, I felt like I was conducting an illicit affair, straying from my stated aim of wine exploration.
After a few days in Lisbon I was on the road, heading east to the wine region of Alentejo, an area I knew little about save they made some delicious, juicy and incredibly affordable reds. It was here I began to understand a bit of Portugal’s recent vinous history which had been so strongly influenced by President Salazar. He has effectively removed Portuguese wine from international markets, and encouraged the formation of large cooperatives at the expense of small independent wine growers. The impact on quality, innovation and creativity in the wine industry was immense. It was really only in 1986 when Portugal joined the EU that the industry saw a philosophical and qualitative renaissance. This time armed with new technology they were able to analyse the soils, and replant and rebuild the industry with the backing of all the scientific advances of the last half century. At the Herdade do Peso winery they were able to point out 12 soil micro-zones in one vineyard resulting in different vine vigour and thus harvest dates. They specialise in indigenous varieties and their wines range from easy to drink, elegant fruit driven wines, so complex and powerful wines made to age. The region boasts a wide range of styles and quality levels which have yet to make it to the UK... watch this space!
The drive north took in breath taking views, historic castles, striking churches set again cobalt blue skies and picture perfect villages. The Dao region could not be more different from the gently undulating plains of Alentejo, as it is located on a high plateau, protected on three sides by granite mountains creating a unique temperate climate for growing grapes. This is the birth place of Touriga Nacional, now more famous as a key grape in the Douro. A historically bad reputation for over extracted and often oxidised wines, the transformation was extraordinary.
At Quinta dos Carvalhuis I discovered experimental vineyards exploring rootstocks suited to these sandy, granitic soils, complex weather stations in the vineyards providing huge amounts of data for research, and of course their state of the art winery with tanks that would send a text message if the temperature fluctuated beyond the desired parameters. Here I tasted some beautifully elegant, perfumed and complex Jaen’s (Spain’s Mencia grape) and rich, barrelled aged whites made from Encruzado as well as some delicious red blends. The wines were all imbued with a freshness imparted by the altitude and an aromatic complexity from the longer growing season the cooler temperatures allowed.
A little further north and I was into the more familiar territory of the Douro valley where I had the pleasure of visiting both the port warehouses in Vila Nova de Gaia, as well as the vineyards themselves further up the river. The vineyards are breathtakingly beautiful and brutally difficult to work, with steeply terraced vineyards making machines impossible. I visited Quinta do Porto, staying the night at Dona Antonia Ferreira’s house, as well as Offley, Sandeman and Quinta do Seixo. It was with Sandeman that they challenged me with the component parts of a vintage port, to see if I could blend something similar to their finished wine, a far harder task than you would imagine. They sweetly bottled and labelled the product of my labours for me.
The final region to discover was Vinho Verde, a region I knew very little about beyond their reputation for light, petillant and often off-dry whites. We visited the absolutely beautiful Quinta de Azevedo which is a small 4th century castle surrounded by vineyards. The winemaker was an elderly yet alarmingly spritely man with a wicked sense of humour and a deep understanding and passion for his vineyards. Strolling through the vineyards he joked that his neighbour (a good friend and, and as it happened a cross dresser) must have been spending too much time in his vineyards where he used pheromone pods in the vineyard to promote sexual confusion among the insect pests that stops them from mating. I didn't know whether to continue taking notes or to burst out laughing. I went with the latter. We tasted some incredibly refreshing and mineral driven wines, from off dry to bone dry accompanied by a delicious dish of melted cheese and chorizo served in a hollowed out loaf. To underline this man’s intimate knowledge of the vineyards, he recognised the quality of the indigenous yeasts in his vineyard, isolated them, and it is now known as QA23, one of the most popular commercial yeasts for semi-aromatic white wine inoculation.
Back to Porto for the last few days of wonderful Portuguese hospitality, and my stay happened to coincide with the Festival of San Joao, an extraordinary and brilliant street festival which (from an outsiders point of view) revolved around people armed with squeaky plastic hammers bashing strangers on the head, and others armed with stinky wild garlic rubbing them in strangers faces (to be avoided at all costs!). This was amid bustling crowds (something that seems so alien in these days of social distancing), live music, sardines grilled on open fires and culminating in a magnificent firework display.
The cherry on the cake was the rabelo port wine boat regatta on the river Douro. It is an annual race of the traditional rabelo boats that were once used to bring the port barrels down the river from the vineyards to Vila Nova de Gaia for aging. I was invited aboard the Sandeman boat for the race, and at the start line I was front and centre of the somewhat competitive banter. At the starter's signal the other boats took off, just as our mast broke leaving us floundering at the start line. Yes, I know, it served me right! There was nothing for it but to crack open the copious stores of Mateus Rosé we had on board and await rescue (and it is here I obtained a deep and abiding affection for the much maligned rosé, which is now considerably drier than many assume, and beneath the baking Portuguese sun is about as refreshing as you could wish for!). We were unceremoniously towed down the river to much good natured and well deserved ribbing!
Portugal is a staggeringly beautiful country, filled with wonderfully hospitable people, delicious local food and above all an incredible, diverse and world class wine scene which is still, unbelievably, largely overlooked by the wine drinking world. My advise to you is get involved!