Tiny area produces big volume of wine

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 June, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 June, 1993, 12:00am

WHAT nicer than to sit in the sun, open a bottle of vinho verde and while away the afternoon comfortable in the knowledge that you really should be working, but that it can wait until tomorrow.

Portuguese wines seem to have a quality that is their own, especially for people in Hongkong who have ready access to some of the best when they visit Macau. In fact, the wine can often be enjoyed at almost absurdly low prices.

What few people realise, however, is that Portugal, despite its tiny land area, is one of the largest wine-producing countries in the world.

It produces four times as much table wine as California, its wines come second only to tourism in terms of the foreign exchange it brings into the country, and the country has a history of production which dates back to Roman times.

Though madeira, port and Mateus rose are the three names most frequently associated with Portuguese wines, there is a tremendous variety available.

Take vinho verde, for example. Described by wine guru Hugh Johnson as Portugal's ''specific contribution to the great table wines of the world'', there is nothing else, anywhere, quite like it.

Vinho verde means ''young wine'' - the grapes are picked when young, and the wine should be consumed when it is young, too.

Crisp and dry, white or red, this wine has the freshness of spring about it, with a slight tingle when the bottle is newly opened, because of secondary fermentation.

At the other end of the scale, the red wines of Colares can be aged in the bottle for 20 years, producing one of Portugal's great reds.

Colares is living proof that ''the greater the struggle for existence, the greater the wine''. The Ramisco vines are planted in clay, 15 feet below the surface, by workers who dig cone-shaped holes several yards across and constantly risk cave-ins.

Full-bodied and full of character, Colares is often compared to fine Rhone wines.

If the ground of Colares is tough, then that of the Dao region is even more so - explosives often have to be used to make holes in the granite soil to plant the vines.

The rich, ruby reds that come from this region are full-bodied and fruity, good when young but capable of being aged to 10 years.

Port is one of the world's most distinguished beverages, having been taken up by the English aristocracy in the 17th century and, consequently, passed into classic etiquette.

Port can be white, red, bone-dry, light or sweet, and is made from 20 to 30 varieties of grape, grown in the Douro region in northern Portugal.

During the making of port, the fermentation is arrested with grape brandy, a process which dates back to the days of the ancient Greeks.

The proper name for this is ''fortified wine'', and one fifth of the final volume is brandy. It has to be aged for three years before it is drinkable and thereafter improves with age.

For the hot weather, a white port consumed chilled with ice, or mixed with tonic or soda water, is remarkably refreshing.

Vintage port, meanwhile, is a supreme after-dinner drink.

Generally decanted, the custom is to pass the decanter clockwise around the table.

But the secret of Madeira was discovered purely by chance, when fortified wines shipped from the port of the same name on long trips across the Equator were found to mature to a greater richness in the hot and humid conditions.

This gave rise to a practise known as ''stoving'', or deliberately leaving the wine barrels in hot cellars.