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The Forgotten Wines of the Far West (of Europe)

Standing on top of the fifteenth century Tower of Belem looking out over the Tagus River towards the Atlantic, it is difficult to imagine winching down the sails 550 years ago with the next uncharted landfall being the Americas. Nothing but you, the ocean, the wind, a creaky wooden boat, storms, diseases and pirates. Amazing bravery.

But I fully admit to having rather forgotten Portugal, one of the smaller and poorer member countries of the EU. The last time I drank its most famous wine, port, was probably after some formal dinner at university in the days when I could do so and still wake up in the morning with a clear(ish) head. I’ve never really appreciated port, but a few years later my father invited me to an International Wine & Food Society tasting (I think) and we found ourselves faced with an array of odd black bottles with white stencilled paint and no labels. Even odder, I was probably a third of the average age.

It was a truly Road to Damascus moment. Madeira, a beautiful volcanic island in mid Atlantic, famous for its flowers, levadas (water aqueducts/channels), banana trees and steeply terraced vineyards. And, above all, its wonderful, fortified wines.

At the tasting, the Damescene bottle was a 1920 Malmsey (Malvasia to be correct) the sweetest of the main 5 grapes (Sercial, Verdelho, Boal, Malmsey-Malvasia) but with an acidity and caramelised orange richness that was unforgettable. There were also mixed vintage soleras that dated even further back. Incredible, and as the majority of the attendees were genteel ladies that did not spit and were thus well tiddled by half-way, my father and I ended up finishing most of the bottles in a glorious orgy of gustatory excess. My mother later remarked that we returned to the house and tiptoed up the stairs with the silence of a balletic elephant.

Thirteen years ago, we made it to the island, my first voyage into Portuguese territory and, frankly, were disappointed. Yes, the scenery, walks, flowers etc were all very nice, but the food was uninspiring, and you could hardly find a decent glass of the real stuff! The only good thing was that I did buy a few bottles of vintage madeira which seemed expensive at about 100 euros back then, but in Lisbon this weekend the real frasqueira (vintage) wines started at 300 euros for the 1990s (and a frasqueria has to age a minimum of 20 years to earn its stencil, so those are relative babies). As real madeira is kept up in the loft in cask for decades, it is effectively already oxidised (hence its high acidity and concentrated richness), so you can half a glass today, and another in a month and it will be the same. If you are that disciplined that is.

Madeira was never in fashion, (well, Napoleon loved it and had a cask shipped to his exile on St Helena), but port disappeared as the crusty old Englishmen’s clubs died off (with their members) but it has reinvented itself as a cocktail mixer, white, red, ruby, tawny, vintage or whatever – the choice is now bewildering and trying to be increasingly trendy.

But of the unfortified wine, I remained ignorant. As a student I remember the battery acid cheapness of Vinho Verde and only 2 real names – Barraida and Dao, which I recalled as the serious reds. Beyond that nothing, and I didn’t drink either. As time went by and the famed port houses needed to diversify, they started to invest in unfortified wines and expensive bottles of Touriga Nacional appeared in every magazine, but though the Douro’s steeply sculpted valley looked lovely, the idea of newly invented wines with high price tags and lots of marketing did not attract me.

And so Portuguese wine remained a forgotten cause, far to the west. Until some cousins asked us to join them in Porto, which in the end fell through, but made me think of the country and realise that my airmiles were about to expire and I needed to book something fast. Air France has a complicated system where the number of miles required changes for each flight, but eventually I found that we could get to Lisbon.

Hence that view from those stark little castle battlements on the Tagus. Lisbon turned out to be a delight, the friendliest people, an interesting history, a cataclysmic earthquake, the famous tiles, the Moors, the fifteenth century explorers and a host of architecture. But apart from the pure tourism, what impressed us too came as rather a surprise – the food and the wine. No, I do not mean the shops flogging pasteis de nata which seem to be like chemists in France (you can always see two from any point in Paris), nor the bacalao salt cod, but the cuisine beyond that.

By the way if you want to find out just how good this can be, in a place as unfancy as the food is delicious and clever, go to Oficio (‘tasco atipico’). It’s housed very modestly in an old convent in the heart of town in Bairro Alto, but the concept is great – no courses, just a host of small sharing plates for two. I must admit that some are very small, but the flavours are wonderful and the overall bill light, the wine list too. The chef was for a time with Adria in El Bulli in Barcelona, temple of molecular cuisine and often voted best restaurant in the world, but here there is no clever artifice and frankly ridiculous scientifically created food, however tasty the result, but pure flavour and much more simplicity. And at such approachable prices…

Anyway, as we only had 3 days, the chance to try much wine was restricted, and I decided to concentrate on Dao and Barraida and I can say that we did not have a bad glass. What surprised me more was the whites, the Bical grape from Barraida and the Encruzado from Dau, and even the dreaded Vinho Verde, all with plenty of fruit and good minerality. I tend to steer clear of whites from ‘the south’ as so often they are built of sunshine not acidity, but not here.

There are also a number of stars who have revamped the two regions, Luis Pato in Barraido, Antonio Madeira in Dao, people who believed in the traditional old vine field blends, avoided slathering everything in new oak, steered clear of the tedious ‘international’ grape varieties (ie French) and went for non-interventionist, often biodynamic wine making and vine growing.

Under the 40+ year dictatorship of Salazar (I guess Portugal’s sad equivalent of Franco), the Dao was forced into becoming the breadbasket of Portugal (the wine decanter?) – rather like communist era USSR satellites. Mass production, co-operatives, high yield, low quality. It was only after his removal in the 1970s that people could try to think back to wines of traditional individuality and quality.

I guess that Spain has followed a similar trajectory, but there are a lot of very heavy, powerful wines beloved of the critics and with prices to match. I did for a moment think Priorat was the next best thing, but many of the wines taste of 15% sunshine, power, density and over-ripeness. Wines on steroids with no elegance at all. I simply don’t know enough, apart from the stalwarts of Rioja, to navigate through the body builders to the less overblown reality…

But here in Portugal I think everything we drank was 12.5 to 13%! Wow, elegance again, like wines from the last century, but these were from 2018 onwards… What happened to the much-touted global warming as the universal excuse for ever higher alcohol? (As an aside I saw in a magazine the 2020 Haut Brion released at 15%, a travesty). White and Red, and with no lack of flavour, be it the field blends of Dao based on Touriga nacional, Alfrocheiro, Baga, Jaen (Mencia), Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo) and more or the often single varietal Baga of Barraida. Dao sits protected from the continental heat by mountains, and slightly higher up, Barraida closer to the Atlantic, both benefiting from cooler climates and often granite or clay-limestone soils, all in all conditions that seem to retain acidity and freshness (Baga being a grape with high acidity and tannin).

What is even better, the prices of some of the better-known wines are as soft as the alcohol levels, the old vine wines from Antonio Madeira retailing in the 20s of euros. Finding anything like that in France, well, good luck. Even the single vineyard top cuvees are often only double that, all less than a village wine in Burgundy. Indeed, if you are looking for an oft made comparison, though the flavour is not the same at all, in terms of weight, structure and minerality/acidity, these wines (of both colours) do carry a similarity to the blessed Cote d’Or, but at a fraction of the cost. Hurrah.

The Outrora from Barraida, a youthful 2018, was an example, a touch of caramelly oak, crunchy dark red fruit, almost floral aromatics, with definite minerality and high acidity which will surely keep it ageing nicely. It reminded me of Nebbiolo without the alcohol or weight, Piemonte in Burgundy and then in Portugal. Very nice.

For sure I will be onto the internet to see what else I can discover and what to buy in a region that still remains, happily for us, somewhat forgotten.

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