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Uncorked: Portuguese wine has outside influences

The formation of the European Union had a significant impact on Portuguese winemakers.

With the opportunity to examine wine cultures outside of Portugal, winemakers were able to further their own skills. Traditional winemaking methods were refined, technological advancements introduced and the easing of restrictions allowed for the liberation of creative freedoms for winemakers.

The result was a historic stylistic shift that continues to influence Portuguese winemakers.

Winemaker spotlight
New ideas had finally permeated through the barrier of the old guard that made wines in Portugal.

The year was 1986 and Portugal had just joined the EU.

“Until the early '80s, the winemaking in Portugal was too focused on our own winemaking experiences,” said Miguel Nora, ViniPortugal senior area manager of North America. “Winemakers only learned from their ancestors/predecessors, with a few exceptions, without a link to what was being done outside our borders.”

Research and development rose to the forefront as young winemakers returned from internships abroad with a new cooperative system in place that allowed their newfound knowledge to shine. Portuguese wines experienced a rebirth.

Portuguese winemakers have more than 250 indigenous varieties from which to chose and – like Spain, the neighboring country on the Iberian Peninsula which has found greatness with Grenache, Douro winemakers are headed to their own renaissance.

A pleasant balance between acidity, ripe flavors and alcohol highlight Quinta do Portal, Mural Reserve 2008, and Kopke Douro 2009. Both wines are food-friendly and value buys at $13 each.

“We often hear among Portuguese winemakers, that acidity is the backbone of the wine,” Nora said. “So, you can see how important that is for us. For Portuguese winemakers, it is always important to ensure that grapes are picked at the perfect level of ripeness that will allow for early- to medium-term consumption, but also with enough acid structure to ensure the potential to age in the bottle.” 
What to buy
Kopke, Douro, 2009 ($13): From the oldest port house in Portugal, Kopke has a sense of place. There’s balsamic, black cherry, rosemary and wild rose notes. An intriguing hint of eucalyptus on the finish kept me coming back for more. 

Interestingly, Kopke uses the same grapes for its still and fortified wines.

“It’s very common that the port houses use the same grapes to make both styles of fortified wine and table wines,” Nora said. “Of course, when you have a special vintage, most houses will keep the best grapes to make vintage port because it is a very important product for Porto and maintains a longstanding tradition and prestige for the port houses.”

“In all the wines, both still and fortified, there is an intensive sorting of the grapes and only the good ones that pass the test make it into the entry-level wines. Kopke is no exception, as the grape varieties are the same that are used for their ports and the vineyards usually are the same,” he said.

Quinta do Portal, Mural Douro, 2008 ($13): This wine has a nose of anise and cinnamon stick that yields to toasty tannins and raspberry jam.

Wine 101
To begin a journey through Portuguese wines Nora recommends several varietals. When it comes to whites, he suggests the single variety Alvarinho or Encruzado. White blends with “beautiful acidity” include Arinto or Fernao Pires. Single varietal wines of Baga or Castelao have “amazing ageability.”

“At the end of the day, though, we believe that a blend of our best grapes can create a wine that can reach another level,” Nora said. “In Douro, Touriga Nacional, our most famous grape variety, is often blended with Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca and Tinta Amarela, called Trincadeira in the South, where it often shows up as a single variety, to create truly special wines.”

• James Nokes writes a bi-weekly column for the Shaw Media. He’s been tasting and collecting in the wine world for several years. Contact him at

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