Wines of Portugal – splendid diversity

For those of us well acquainted with the famous Portuguese wine, Mateus rosé (pictured right), it comes as a pleasant surprise that there is a much more palatable choice of still wines emanating from Portugal, writes Harshal Shah. For decades, nay centuries, Portugal has been synonymous with the production of high quality fortified wines in tawny and ruby ports as well as late-bottled vintage port. These have been best produced in the Duoro Valley, in the northeast of the country. mateus1.jpg

As we discovered at India’s largest Portugueses wine tasting in New Delhi on November 10, 2008, in recent decades and particularly since joining the EU, investment has flown into the wine industry. This has enabled wine producers to turn to the production of still wines and begin to give them as much importance as the fortified styles that have historically flourished.
Over a 100 of these wines were offered for tasting recently at the residence of the Portuguese Ambassador to India, H.E. Mr. Luis Filipe Castro Mendes. This was a rare opportunity to sample a plethora of Portuguese – mostly still – wines of generally good to very high quality. The ease with which this event was conceived and put together and the amazing range of wines on show certainly begs the question, “Why aren’t current wine importers doing the same thing on a regular basis with the wines from other countries they currently import into India?”
Is it a case of tight purse strings, or simply a disregard for the general wine-drinking public who can’t satisfy the mercenary imperative of importers, which only large hotel chains and restaurants can? How else do they hope to educate the wine-drinking public, who will in turn purchase their wines in future? Interestingly, only two or three wine importers were visible at the Delhi tasting.
Portugal has a profusion of indigenous grape varieties – more than 200 – which are known by several different names in different regions. Understanding the nomenclature of Portuguese grape varieties is a somewhat frustrating task best left for another discussion. Despite the fact that it is only a small country, Portugal has much climatic diversity. The most important influence is the Atlantic Ocean and much of the country has a maritime climate with warm summers and cool, wet winters. Some of the inland areas, however, have more of a hot and dry continental climate. There is thus a wonderful diversity in the styles of still wines produced.
In general, the best white wines showed a freshness with light flavours of citrus and often delicate white floral aromas. The palate, again was not overly intense but gave away citrus/green apple notes and an interesting almond-nuttiness reminiscent of Arneis from Piedmont in Northern Italy. The finish was always clean with a minerality that was quite long.
The reds, on the other hand, took a little more thought. In general, the wines showed impressive acidity and a naturally firm, dusty, tannin structure. When oak was used, the wines usually had a dimension of spice on the nose and palate as well as a sometimes over-bearing note of pencil-shavings. Overall the wines were mouth-puckeringly appealing, but will take some time to get your head around.

incognito1.jpg Of particular note was the blending of French varieties (Syrah, in particular, as well as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot) to native varieties such as Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz (known as Tempranillo in Spain). The wine of the night for me was the Incógnito from Cortes de Cima, a 100% Syrah from the Alentejo region in southern Portugal. Beautifully structured with a harmonious palate of dark, red fruit mingled with an appealing raspberry jam character.
Another highlight was the fortified Moscatel de Setúbal by José Maria da Fonseca from the Setúbal Peninsula, again in southern Portugal. This is a very seductive, sweet, complex, fortified dessert wine.

Flavours are reminiscent of liqueur Muscats and Tokays from Australia with opulent notes of orange marmalade and walnuts on the nose. On the palate, these beautiful flavours follow with Bergamot notes with walnuts and a caramel-sweetness. And what a finish. It’s such a shame that these styles of wines are not imported into India as they would surely be a success with the domestic palate.


  1. I was at the event too. High on aroma, easy on the palate and drenched with history, Portuguese have been making some of the most indigenous wines in the world. Whether it is from the Douro valley region or the Pico island region (both protected UNESCO heritage sites), or any of the other regions, it is the uniqueness of their grapes and an ancient system of wine making that makes this country the most favourite at the international competitions producing some of the top notch wines. So, Indians, lets say Ahoy! And welcome this wonderful wine making nation. I am sure many, like me, will see this initiative of VinPortugal as something Indian wine enthusiasts were really looking forward to for some time now. Cheers!

  2. On behalf of all of my fellow Portuguese wine producers, thanks for this enthusiastic write up on the tasting. For most of us, it was a first visit to India, and although we are not all likely to find importers just with the first trip, it still gave us an opportunity to visit your beautiful, fascinating country.
    For me in particular, it had a special meaning, as my father (who passed away last year) was born in Delhi in 1920 and also lived in Bombay, and it was my first opportunity to visit the beloved India he always talked of.
    I think a lot of our Portuguese wines, with our ripe fruity style, and smooth silky tannins, make a great match with your spicy Indian food.

  3. Great Event! Haven’t been to one so well organized in a while – the format in which the tasting notes were presented were especially useful and now form part of a greater archive! The wines were overwhelming not only in their variety – a hundred odd wines – but also in quality – a very useful introduction to a well kept secret! Looking forward to seeing them in Indian stores soon and in our homes shortly thereafter!

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