Domestic reds are all the rage today. Meanwhile, a country that specializes in these wines struggles to get a toehold in the wide, wild world of wine.
Granted, these are a different kind of red blend, usually lacking the residual sugar and other additives that have made Apothic and Ménage à Trois megapopular with millions of consumers who, as the trade catchphrase goes, “talk dry and drink sweet.”
And granted, the grapes in these wines bear distinctly unfamiliar names: touriga nacional, tinto roriz, castelao and the like.
We’re talking Portugal, and more people should be.
The reds emanating from this Iberian nation are distinctive, usually bold and rustic and almost always drier and sturdier than the most popular U.S. red blends, the fruit and tannins melding with an earthiness that evokes their origins.
The better ones often come from the striking terraced vineyards of the Douro region, with others from the nearby Dao district. In many cases, the obscure-to-us grapes are scattered hither and yon within the same vineyard, creating a true “field blend.”
Over the years, most of the Douro vineyards have gotten a lot more money for grapes used to make the fortified Port wines, so the grapes that went into the table wines sometimes were second-tier. But with vastly improved agricultural practices and winemaking techniques, the red “still wines” have improved markedly in the 21st century.
The better news: These wines don’t cost any more than the trendy domestic reds.
Among the gems in terms of quality-price ratio (QPR) in the $10 to $13 range: the supertasty, superbalanced, surprisingly refined DFJ Vinhos “Portada” Winemaker’s Selection Tinto; the smoky but smooth Udaca “Irreverente,” which deftly straddles the line between traditional and modern (and is now available in 3-liter boxes), and the Dow Vale de Bomfim Douro blend, with juicy red fruit and one of the cleanest, most refreshing finishes you’ll find in a red wine.
Value also abounds in the $15 range. The Sogrape Callabriga is packed with structure and vibrancy, a rare combination. The Alvaro Castro Tinto is a beautifully savory, minerally wine but has plenty enough blue and red fruit to mesh deftly with those elements. The earthy but rich Lua Cheia em Vinhas Velhas is stunningly complex — must be the 23 (!) grapes — with layers of fine flavors and cool textures capped by a smooth finish.
Those who find a lot to like at those lower price points should be even more pleased with several $20-$25 offerings.
The longest-running staple of Portuguese reds in these parts, with 15 years and counting on local shelves, is the beefy, chocolate-y Altano Douro Reserva, from the vanguard Symington Port house. Even more pronounced roasted flavors imbue the Delaforce Touriga Nacional, but the midpalate and finish are lush and plush. Perhaps the most gorgeous fruit comes from the Dow Vale do Bomfim Douro Reserva, which still has plenty of that telltale Iberian dust and earthiness. And one of the coolest combinations — dark fruit and white pepper — is a lovely telltale trademark of the Niepoort “Twisted.”
Also worth checking out at this price point: Ferreirinha Esteva and Vinha Grande, plus Portas da Herdade Alentejano and Herdade dos Machados Alentejano.
On a recent trip to Portugal, I tasted some dandy varietal wines, especially touriga nacional and touriga franca. But the blends still rule, and with good reason: As in California, and the southern Rhône and Bordeaux, vintners cherish the ability to mix in different percentages of different grapes from year to year.
Part of the reason is that different vineyards and varieties fare differently in different vintages, so letting one grape “star” and others play supporting roles in certain years makes sense. But also at play is something that longtime wine savant Clark Smith once told me about two oft-blended Minnesota-developed grapes: “Frontenac fills in the holes in Marquette.” In these blends, one grape might serve that role, while others might provide color, or aromatics, or structure.
That’s what really matters, how the blend works, not what’s in it. The typical Apothic buyer doesn’t know or care what the grapes are, only about what’s in the glass. People who approach Portugal’s red wines the same way will find a lot to like.
Bill Ward writes at www.decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.