Recently, members of the UK wine trade, myself included, were asked to nominate the wine producing countries/regions they considered the most under and overrated.
For France, the survey’s results made for unpleasant reading, as the country’s most famous wine regions, Bordeaux and Burgundy, came, respectively, top and third in the overrated category. I can’t pretend, given the average price of wine from the two regions, that the placings were hugely surprising but my personal vote of disapproval wasn’t directed across the channel and, for that reason, I’d like to forget French failure and toast, instead, the country considered the most underrated in the survey.
Portugal, pleasingly, and, in my opinion, deservedly, topped the chart of underrated wine producing nations. Certainly, I, without hesitation, put my cross in the Portuguese box, because it’s a country that boasts a hugely diverse range of grape varieties and wine styles but it isn’t, as yet, on the radar of most UK wine drinkers.
However, adventurous wine drinkers will find rich reward in Portugal because the country is the proud possessor of over 400 indigenous grape varieties that, with a handful of exceptions, aren’t to be found elsewhere. Such a USP (unique selling proposition) is undoubtedly a major asset in today’s overcrowded marketplace but, sadly, it exists because of an inglorious 50 year period in the country’s history.
Between 1926 and 1974, Portugal suffered under a dictatorship that left it with very few international trading partners. Although, disastrous for the country as a whole, it proved, ultimately, to be good for the country’s wine industry as its insularity ensured that it never weakened it’s unique wine identity by embracing international grape varieties.
Of course, the downside is the majority of wine drinkers only recognise famous international grape varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc or Shiraz and they can easily be put off when confronted with unfamiliar names such as Trincadeira or Touriga Nacioncal. So, the Portuguese, with the enthusiastic support of the UK’s independent wine shops, have sought, over the last few years, to introduce drinkers to Portugal’s differing wine regions before going into too much depth about unusual grape varieties.
The Douro, the most famous of Portugal’s wine regions, is named after the Douro River which lies due east of the coastal city of Porto. The area’s beautiful vineyards, rising vertiginously from the banks of the river and beyond, have, for hundreds of years, produced the fruit that goes to make perennial Christmas favourite – Port. And now, adding another string to its bow, the Douro is fast gaining praise and plaudits for the quality of its table wine.
Based in the Douro, maverick winemaker, Dirk Niepoort, owner of Niepoort Vinhos winery, wanders far and wide in his quest to make great wine. Quite frankly, the number of wines he has on the go across Portugal is mind boggling but, forced to choose, I’d recommend trying the artfully labelled, Alice in Wonderland inspired, Drink Me Tinto 2013 from the Douro. The wine is vibrant and juicy with expressive notes of wild fruit and has marked mineral notes typical of the region.
Another winery with vineyard holdings spread throughout Portugal is Caves Aliança. Again, It’s hard for me to pick a favourite from Aliança’s incredibly diverse range of wines but TV wine expert, Ollie Smith, has singled out the Aliança Barraida Reserva 2011 for particular praise, “Crikey! Another great value red with a real backbone of firm structure that would be delicious paired with a hearty meaty feast.”
To finish, I must also recommend trying white wines from the northern Vinho Verde region and reds from the southern Alentejo region.