Friday, 1 October 2010

Portugal's tales of the unexpected

Portugal is a land of surprises.

When we imagine ourselves there, it's all white villas on sun-drenched hillsides, impossibly green golf courses, grilled, just-caught sardines on the beach, washed down by sharp, lightly fizzy Vinho Verde.

But outside this slightly hazy, Algarve villa-inspired memory, Portugal confounds stereotypes. Far from the sun-soaked and Brit-packed south, the country's cool north is rainier than Manchester – and this is the region that makes that very Vinho Verde that we down so enthusiastically on holiday.

The same country that is responsible for mass market Mateus Rosé (yes, that seventies icon whose empty bottle served as a handy candle holder, and which still sells 20 million bottles around the world each year, is going strong) is also home to an almost vertigo-inducing array of native grape varieties. Some of those varieties – like Touriga Nacional – have developed a profile for themselves and been planted in other parts of the world. Most, however, languish in obscurity – glass of Fernão Pires or Baga, anyone?

All this diversity is what makes Portugal one of the most exciting places for a winelover to explore – albeit virtually, without actually leaving Blighty's shores.

Mount your steed, in the manner of a modern day cowboy, to discover the vast expanses and rolling hills of the Alentejo in the south east, Portugal's own New World, where producers combine native varieties with a cocktail of international grapes to make crowd-pleasingly ripe and soft, but unmistakably Portuguese wines. This is also the home to Europe's largest area of cork forest – Alentejo might have a New World attitude to its wines, but screwcaps and synthetic corks are definitely not part of the picture.

Then, head north, take a travel sickness pill (trust us, it's the only way to enjoy looking at the scenery without incurring crippling nausea) and head off along the winding Douro Valley, inland from Oporto. For centuries we Brits have enjoyed the fortified wines made from the vines grown on the steeply-terraced slopes of the Douro. In recent years, our appetite for Port has waned but, happily, Douro's grape growers have discovered that they are sitting on the perfect raw material to make characterful and unique table wines. The Douro is now, arguably, Portugal's best region for fine wines.

Portuguese wines to seek out

Douro Valley

Pinga do Torto 2005 - £10.99 from Guildford Wine Company in Shalford (2004 vintage currently)
The Torto is one of the tributaries of the Douro River and is, as the name suggests, torturously winding. This wine, made at Quinta Macedos, has an unexpected Surrey link: the owner is Paul Reynolds, until a few years ago a resident of Farley Green in the Surrey Hills. The 2005 vintage of this wine was selected as one of Portugal's 50 Great Wines this year, so he is clearly getting plenty right. Pinga has hints of violet on the nose, with dark chocolate and savoury notes and has the heft to stand up to an autumnal beef stew.

Alves de Sousa Abandonado Red 2007, £56.95 from Surrey-based online merchant,
OK, not your everyday wine - it would have to be a pretty special occasion to justify cracking open something this expensive. But the eye-watering price gives you an idea of the level of ambition of the Douro Valley's winemakers. Made from the fruit of a previously abandoned vineyard, whose mixture of grape varieties is lost in the mists of time, this highly individual wine smells of roses and tar and has a medicinal edge to the palate – this description might not win you over, but believe us it's utterly charming.

Vinho Verde

Contrary to what you might imagine, Vinho Verde is in fact the name of the region, rather than the actual wine itself. Indeed, there is such a thing as red Vinho Verde – though we're not sure it's worth getting excited about.

Quinta de Azevedo, Vinho Verde 2009 - £5.49 if you buy 2 currently at Majestic or £6.99 at Waitrose
This is exactly what a decent Vinho Verde should be – light, bracingly refreshing and affordable. The ultimate seafood (and yes, sardine) wine.


Azamor 2006 - £8.95 from
Owned by the Anglo-Portuguese combination of Alison and husband Joaquim Luiz-Gomes, this is a crazy mix of syrah, touriga nacional, merlot, trincadeira, alicante bouschet, mourvèdre and petit verdot. It sounds like they couldn't decide which varieties to plant, so they just slung them all in – but, amazingly, it works. Deep, inky-tinged flavours with soft tannins that you want to curl up in front of a warm fire with.

So Portugal isn't all sun and sardines. It's high time we embraced the diversity and quality that this fascinating country offers – Europe's own wild west.

Portuguese Wine and Food Evening with the two Heathers
Tuesday 12th October, 7.30pm
Guildford Institute, Ward Street (off North Street), Guildford

This is an opportunity to explore for yourself some of the delicious flavours that Portugal has to offer, in the company of Heather and Heather. Take a virtual tour of Portugal via its wines – helped along with some delicious Portuguese food over the course of the evening.

Tickets: £20 per person, including wine tasting, food - and of course our sparkling company!

Book your place or find out more via our website on:, or you can email us on

Also booking now:

Walk and Wine
Saturday 9th October, departing 10.30am from The Parrot in Shalford.
An invigorating walk followed by a tasting of delicious Italian wines to suit the season, plus a pub lunch with coffee.

Tickets: £20 per person, booking details as above

We hope to see you at one – or both – of these events!

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