There is no doubt that the most famous wine made in this extraordinary country is Port. Strongly influenced by the British, with whom the Portuguese have had trading agreements since the 1350s, and whose families, with names like Warre, Graham, Taylor etc, are forever associated with the best from the region, the courageous and wild people of Portugal have made this river valley the absolute epicentre of fortified wine production. Nowhere in the world has shown the remotest likely-hood of emulating the wonderful wines made here. I feel it is no accident that this achievement has taken place in a barely accessible river valley whose steep, almost gorge-like sides are terraced as far as the eye can see, creating contoured strips of level land on which the vines are able to get a grip. Surely one of the wonders of the world.
However, to understand the really exciting things going on in the wine trade in Portugal, it is important to appreciate how tough and confident are the Portuguese. A small country with a population only marginally bigger than Greater London, speaking a language which I hope they will forgive me for saying is almost completely incomprehensible, they have a long history of world exploration and colonial expansion. Like many of us they are now facing the slightly distorted view of hindsight from a modern world which refuses, when criticizing past actions, to make allowances for contemporary mores, but their world-wide influence was strong and largely constructive. This nation is no small time player. It is with this background that they have tackled the familiar incursion of new world wines into the European market.
When they were forced, along with every other European wine making nation, to face up to the fact that other people were making wines more commercially than they were, their reaction was fundamentally different to most. Rather than scrambling to copy the new world methods and styles, they simply decided to do what they had been doing for centuries, but to do it better. Only a small number of the 367,000 odd vineyards, registered in 1996, have planted non indigenous grape varieties, and then mostly for blending with their own local grapes to enhance them rather than to usurp them. Portuguese wines are still as obviously Portuguese as they ever were.
I'll give you some examples. When you visit the vineyards of the high Douro, which every human being that walks this earth should do before they die, you will find that even in this most conventional of areas, where, until recently, only fine Port was allowed to be made, they are now making the most delicious red table wines. The Oxford Wine Company stocks one of the finest from Quinta de la Rosa; the wine is made from the same grapes as the Port from the same vineyard, and has a lot of its characteristics. Huge depth, long ageing potential and so on, but it is a new, less alcoholic experience that makes the heart sing. This great new idea is a direct result of the changing wine drinking scene. Actually this is largely down to us.
Whilst France, the Netherlands and several other countries drink considerably more quaffing Port than we do, we have traditionally been the largest consumers of the very finest vintage and old Tawny and Ruby port. Sadly we no longer see it as a wonderful experience to finish a meal with a small glass of this nectar; all because it used to be the domaine of the rich, pompous and misogynistic. What a shame to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But never mind. The Portuguese ingenuity is up to the problem.
Further south there is another extraordinary example of how the wines of this country are improving. The wines of the Algarve have never been the area's biggest draw. Tourism? Yes. Food? Certainly, but wine? Well no. But following in the footsteps of the previously mentioned great British influences of the past is the disturbingly unlikely figure of Sir Cliff Richard. Some years ago Cliff bought a lovely house with a field of vines and he has put his huge enthusiasm, knowledge and resources into turning it into a serious vineyard and winery. Certainly he recruited help, both local and foreign, but the wine remains essentially Portuguese in style, if slightly heavy on the Syrah for my liking. The grapes that give it that essential style are the Aragonez and the Trincadeira, and I happen to know that they are looking at using some Touriga Nacional from another grower in the future.
His wine is called Vida Nova Tinto and is a deep coloured spicy wine with strong plummy fruit with cinnamon and vanilla overtones. Sorry about the pomp, but this wine definitely deserves a description. He also makes some delicious Rose and a very expensive and rare Reserva that I haven't tasted as they are not available in the UK but I gather are terrific.
Poor old Portugal is having a very nasty time as I write this. Thousands of hectares of forest are burning fiercely and many hundreds of people are being made homeless and worse. What nicer way to give them a small bit of help than to try their wines. I have noticed that supermarkets are trying us out on wines from Portugal more often than they used to. We aren't buying them a lot and the wines are often remaindered quite quickly. Grab the opportunity if you see it. You almost certainly won't be disappointed.
Hic!! Robin Shuckburgh