The weird world of Portugal's wine

Ernie Whalley

History and geography conspired to cause Portugal's vineyards to develop in isolation from those of their European counterparts. The result has been an idiosyncratic approach to wine making.

Even the names are bizarre -- what other country has grapes called 'little bastard', 'the dog strangler', 'cockerel's heart' and 'love, don't leave me'?

As late as the 1980s, Portuguese vineyards were set out haphazardly, with any number of grape varieties grown, white and red cheek-by-jowl on the same plot. A kind of anarchy persisted, of which overtones have lasted until the present day.

In 1986, Portugal joined what was then the Common Market and the wine industry was whipped into line -- sort of.

A DOC system, along similar lines to the French AOC, was introduced; a catalogue of designated wine regions having prescribed grape varieties, maximum yields, minimum alcohol levels and, sometimes, ageing requirements. These can be split in two, by drawing a horizontal line about a third of the way down separating the northern regions of the Douro, Dao and Bairrada, and the central and southern ones of Alentejo and Ribatejo. I'd suggest you regard the northern region as quality focused, whereas the south makes quaffable wines, with pockets of stunning quality.

The Douro, with high labour costs and low yields, due to the steep terrain, has only recently established itself as Portugal's premium wine region.

Bairrada is dominated by one grape, the often-maligned Baga.

Until 1990, Dao's production was dominated by underperforming cooperatives and the resulting wines were usually tough, tannic and unlovable. Since then there has been massive improvement. Below our imaginary line, Alentejo, a huge agricultural area largely given over to cereal production, is dominated by large firms, using mainly native grapes.

Lastly, Estremadura, a long, straggly region running up the Atlantic coast was in the past a producer of bulk wine. While the region is a mixed bag, there are now some fine wines emerging at both ends of the market.

Two of the most interesting reds I drank in 2010, vastly different in character, are Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas Tinto 2005 (Corkscrew, Chatham Street; Redmonds, Ranelagh, €23) and Monte da Peceguina 2009 (Donnybrook Fair, Corkscrew, Fallon & Byrne, Wine Boutique, Sweeneys, Mortons, Bin No9 and others, around €19). Lower in price, try Pato Casta Baga 2007 (Corkscrew, €10.99) or Pegos Claros 2005 (€12.39, O'Briens and others).

Another that impressed is Dourorum 2007 (pictured), currently on Christmas Special at O'Brien's, down from €16.45 to €11.99 -- powerful, polished and on my shortlist as 'the red for the turkey dinner'.