Any Port In A Storm

Portugal is often considered a one-trick pony in the world of wine, being famous for their eponymous Port, but not much else.

Prepare to be amazed, gentle reader, for the Portuguese wine industry dates back over 4000 years, while the fortified wine you know as Port is only 3 centuries old.

In the toga-wearing days of the Roman Empire, the vineyards of the Iberian Peninsula were the envy of the known world, with Pliny the Elder waxing poetic of the wines produced there.

Following the decline of the Roman Empire, Portugal faced new challenges in the Middle Ages. The Moorish invasion of 711CE put much of what is now modern-day Portugal and Spain under Muslim rule for several centuries.

As you might imagine, the Moorish ban on alcohol damaged the wine trade, but the Portuguese vineyards quickly recovered when the Knights Templar of the Holy Roman Empire reconquered the Iberian Peninsula.

A renaissance of Portuguese wine occurred around 1200CE, with England stepping forward to purchase the entirety of the Portuguese wine harvest.

It seemed that England had a bottomless appetite for French wines, but England and France also had this habit of regularly declaring war upon each other, so Portuguese wine exports were seen as a substitute for the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy that became inaccessible during wartime.

The English maintained a near-monopoly on Portuguese wine exports for centuries, ending with the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s.

It was during the so-called age of sail that Portuguese winemakers discovered that fortifying their wines with distilled grape spirit helped to stabilize and preserve the wine for the sea voyage to England, and onwards to other parts of the expanding British Empire.

Portugal was not spared by the phylloxera epidemic of the 1880s, which ravaged up to 90% of the old vineyards of Europe with an invasive louse inadvertently imported from North America by eager yet clueless botanists.

The two world wars did no favours for the Portuguese wine industry either, which remained in a slump until Portugal joined the European Union in 1986. Abolishing the government-controlled wine cooperatives was a condition of joining the EU, which was considered the birth of the modern wine industry in Portugal, finally unshackled by government inefficiencies and bureaucratic meddling.

Portugal is still known for low-priced plonk domestically, but the export market must meet a higher standard.

Vinho Verde is one of the most popular wine regions of Portugal, located along the northern border with Spain. The name translates to young wine, as the wines from this region tend to be released within 6 months of being harvested, and consumed shortly thereafter.

Vinho Verde wines come in both white and red varieties, and often have a very slight effervescence from malolactic fermentation occurring in the bottle.

My favourite Vinho Verde wine is made from the Alvarinho grape, which attentive readers may recognize as the Portuguese version of AlbariƱo, my favorite white grape from just across the border with Spain, and also available closer to home in the Okanagan Valley of BC.

White wines from Portugal are generally consumed young, and the Alvarhino grape bursts with aromas of jasmine, hints of peach and orange blossom, finishing with tropical notes of lychee and passion fruit.

These youthful flavours tend to fade after the first year in the bottle, so do not put those bottles down in the cellar for a special occasion, but drink them now to enjoy them at their peak.

Red wines from Portugal have traditionally been field blends, made from somewhat random assortments of grapes planted in haphazard fashion along the steep cliffs of the Douro Valley.

Modern winemaking techniques have been moving away from field blends over the past few decades, as improvements in viticulture steer the winemakers to fermenting a single grape varietal at a time, and later blending the wines after aging in oak barrels for varying periods of time.

While many of the familiar grapes like Tempranillo and Syrah are grown in Portugal, the most popular varietal is Touriga Nacional, widely considered to be the signature grape of Portugal.

Highly tannic and aromatic, Touriga Nacional is bursting with flavours of rich black fruits, making it a popular blending grape for providing structure to lighter grapes.

Portugal still plays second fiddle to its more famous neighbours of Spain, Italy, and France in the world of wine, but has surged in popularity in recent years. Look for them at your friendly neighbourhood bottle shop and take one home today!

About the author

Nick Jeffrey

Nick Jeffrey

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