What's wrong with Portuguese wines, and how estates have put it right

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 June, 2015, 6:13am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 June, 2015, 6:13am

With Portuguese cuisine being touted as the next big thing by food luminaries such as Andrew Zimmern, can the country's wine be far behind?

Both food and wine have had 174 years to establish a toehold here, but haven't done so yet. The rich, often heavy food is never likely to be a winner in Hong Kong's humid climate. Baby squid stuffed with braised oxtail on a fennel purée with cep mushrooms might be good fuel for an afternoon in a dusty olive grove, but it's probably a bit much for an office in Central.

There are other explanations for the wine's failure to grip the public imagination.

Joao Pires, Portugal's only master sommelier, says the country's winemakers have only themselves to blame for the failure of previous strategies. Pires, now in charge of the wine cellars at the City of Dreams in Macau, says winemakers have finally learned the lesson that good wine "starts in the vineyard with good fruit" and not through meddling in the cellar.

While many might think of the overselling of Mateus rosé and its associated tacky image in the 1970s, Pires gives Dao as an example. One of Portugal's best known regions, Dao winemakers made some "terrible wines" but have clawed back their reputation by producing "very elegant wines", says Pires.

He says the results can be seen in widening sales and recognition in US and British restaurants.

Before his recent arrival in Macau, Pires worked in London for 10 years - at the Capital Hotel in Knightsbridge with chef Eric Chavot and then for Gordon Ramsay at his flagship Hospital Road restaurant, and at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in the Mandarin Oriental.

Winemakers tended to be highly secretive in the past, but over the past 20 years they have discovered that sharing winemaking tips and marketing budgets can be beneficial. Baga Friends, for example, is a growers' association that has brought the baga grape from the Bairrada region to the attention of wine mavens such as Jancis Robinson.

Winemakers have also learned to value Portugal's status as what he calls a "boutique wine country", meaning it doesn't produce much in the way of top-end, highly expensive wines and cannot compete with the volumes of New World producers such as Argentina and Chile. "We don't have enough land, and we can never compete in price. Manpower is expensive in Europe," Pires says.

Baga can make lots of different wines. It needs time and long ageing for the tannins to develop
Joao Pires, master sommelier

So if you are looking for something that costs far less than a top-level Bordeaux or Burgundy but is perhaps made with more care than a South American merlot, where should you start?

Portugal has 200 or more native grape varieties, most notably the touriga nacional, and some growers have started planting international varieties. Pires says beginners should think of regions first. While the Douro and its powerful reds are best-known, the biggest region is Alentejo, which stretches from north of Lisbon down to the Algarve and from the Atlantic coast to the border of Spain.

The region is full of different soils and microclimates and altitudes. Generally, wines are "softer, rounder, easier to drink" in a somewhat New World style, but the farther south one goes, the more alcohol and less acidity is present. It's also the region experimenting the most with growing chardonnay, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon.

Pires is also a big fan of the Bairrada region, which makes Portugal's highest quality wines and is home to the baga grape. Baga is difficult to compare to internationally known varieties, but the closest comparison Pires can make is with the intense Italian grape nebbiolo. "The grape can make lots of different wines. It needs time and long ageing for the tannins to develop and has a huge intensity of acidity," he says.

The Algarve is too hot to produce good wine, the one exception being those produced by British singer Cliff Richard.

Fans of rustic wine should try the "extra tannic" ones from the Tejo region, which straddles the River Tagus.

Pires has not been in Macau long enough to introduce many changes to the wine lists at City of Dreams but plans to update them in September. It's likely he will introduce more Portuguese wines by the glass.

For Portuguese wines in Hong Kong, try Adega Royale adegaroyale.com or Howard's Folly from the Alentejo howardsfollywine.com