Sunday, 22 May 2011

Portuguese white: a melting pot of Old and New Worlds

I miss Portuguese wine, especially the whites. That's what I drank most when I was working as assistant winemaker at Adega do Cantor in the Algarve . While Portuguese red wine is slowly being recognised internationally thanks to the popularity of Touriga Nacional and the marketing efforts of ViniPortugal, the white wine is still lagging behind. I have to admit that the quality of the whites was kind of hit and miss some 10 years ago, but the new generation of winemakers, adopting New World winemaking techniques such as temperature controlled fermentation and better cellar hygiene, are making some world class examples these days.

Part of the fun: operating the forklift
Portuguese wine is confusing in general because of the myriad of indigenous grape varieties (some 300), and the fact that some are named differently in different regions doesn’t help. Plus most wines are blends of usually three but often more grape varieties. Looked at from another angle, though, these are the unique aspects of Portuguese wine and what make it interesting.

Because of the blending, Portuguese white wine is more complex than than most single varietal wines. Unless you are very familiar with them, it is near impossible to identify the grape varieties. With modern winemaking techniques, the wine retains freshness and fruitiness but the aromas are never over-dominant, making for some very food-friendly wines.
There is an annual Sardines Festival in the Algarve
I attended a seminar on ‘The Quiet White Revolution’ organised by ViniPortugal last week, and tasted five white Portuguese whites made from a single or a blend of indigenous varieties. They really reminded me of the fresh grilled sardines, octopus salads, cataplanas, etc that are the joy of eating in Algarve fishing villages. The speaker, Carlos Teixeira, winemaker of Quinta da Lixa, was asked to describe Portuguese white wine in one sentence. Not easy. He came up with "Contemporary". I would say "A melting pot of Old and New Worlds".

Wine is for enjoying with food and friends, and Portuguese wine certainly fits the bill. Sometimes, we wine drinkers should stop being over-analytical and thinking we are only any good if we can name the grape varieties in a wine. As long as it is well-made, balanced and enjoyed with good food and good company, does it matter if it is a Chardonnay, an Arinto or a blend of five grapes that we can’t pronounce properly?

My favourites at the tasting:
Pouco Comum Alvarinho 2010, Qunita da Lixa: Light and refreshing with intense floral and white fruit notes. Try this with Chiuchow style Chili crab.

Tiara 2009, Niepoort: A Douro white with more than five different indigenous grape varieties. This is one where nobody could have guessed the grapes. Slightly smoky and savoury with subtle tropical fruit and melon. Good structure and length. Perfect with a stir-fried chicken dish.

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