Growing a name in wine

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 June, 2006, 12:00am

FOR MANY YEARS Portugal's reputation as a wine-producing country was allowed to rest mostly on Port and Madeira. Nobody disputed the excellence of those spirit-fortified classics, but Portuguese table wines tended to be regarded as less serious.

Vinho Verde - still much enjoyed as a quaffing wine in Macau but now difficult to find in Hong Kong - and Mateus Rose, a blush wine often cited as a triumph of marketing over taste, were the most recognisable of the country's bottled exports.

After Portugal joined the EU, however, serious investment started to go into the wine industry and quality production began in earnest. Portugal now produces many superb red and white wines which also offer outstanding value for money, although, inevitably, prices have risen in line with quality in recent years.

Names to conjure with include Barca Velha, Quinta Do Cotto and Quinta Do Crasto from the Douro area, where the port houses have their vineyards; and Herdade Do Esporao and Cartuxa from Alentejo, an important up and coming area of quality red and white wine production. Good- value reds are produced in the Ribatejo area.

Portugal's most important indigenous grapes are Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz, also known as Aragonez, both used to make port and good quality unfortified reds. International varieties are also being increasingly cultivated, in particular Syrah/Shiraz, often blended with native grapes.

New areas have emerged to compete with the long-established wine regions, allowing winemakers a new flexibility, while overseas expertise has flowed in with foreign investment.

Port slips in and out of fashion, but remains a reliable long-term investment wine and the perfect companion to many desserts, cheeses and chocolate as well as the traditional fruit and nuts.

Ruby and Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) ports offer good value for money and are ready for drinking at the time of buying. Ruby is a sweet, simple, easy-drinking style of port, while LBVs have some vintage character at a relatively modest price.

Connoisseurs prefer old tawny port - aged in wood, hence its colour - which can be rewardingly complex, and vintage port, which is unfortunately very expensive unless bought young and allowed to mature, which can be a very lengthy process.

The most recent vintage ready to drink now is 1991, but great years - of which the most recent is 2000, time will tell about 2003 - if properly stored, will continue to improve for decades.

Investors in vintages need to buy from highly reputable houses including Croft, Dow, Fonseca, Graham, Quinta Do Noval, Smith Woodhouse, Taylor and Warre, and ideally store it under bond. Crown Wine Cellars offers this facility in Hong Kong.

Chilled white ports are suitable as aperitifs. Good ones are made by Ferreira, which also makes fine aged tawnies, and Churchill.

The Portuguese island of Madeira produces similarly long- lived fortified wines, named after the grapes principally used to make them.

Sercial is dry and a great aperitif, as is mellower Verdelho. Bual is a sweeter dessert wine and Malmsey is the richest and sweetest of all.

Barbeito, Blandy, Cossart Gordon, Henriques & Henriques, Leacock and Pereira d'Oliveira are all names to look out for.

Portugal's other great contribution to wine is to be found in the necks of bottles from all over the world - the country is the world's biggest supplier of corks, and although the age of the screwtop is upon us, corks will probably play an important role in preserving fine wines for many years to come.

A good introduction to Portuguese wine culture can be found at the Wine Museum in Macau and at many of the supermercados.