With the new tourist season ahead, it might be interesting to find out if the Portuguese wine industry finally has made some progress in the extremely bad marketing approach it has been using so far.
Every year in all of the supermarkets thousands of tourists struggle with the same dilemmas: what is a good wine, what is probably not such a good wine and what wine should I buy?
In practice the tourists don’t ask questions of the supermarket staff…. they have learned that such an approach only leads to disbelief and frustration… it’s a pity but it’s the daily reality in Portugal.
Let’s see what really makes the choice of an adequate wine so difficult for the average tourist.
First of all there is the most ludicrous ‘wine quality classification system’ applied in Portugal.
However, European legislation makes it easy: D.O.C. for quality wines, then regional or provincial wines and finally table wines.
Looking at the bottles in the supermarket , for example, I see ‘Palmela D.O.C. €0,98 next to Cortes de Cima Incognito regional wine for €45 … a mistake? Apparently yes, but in reality no.
There are 2 reasons: a. once upon a time (1989) Syrah was a ‘forbidden grape’ in Portugal. As such one could never obtain the D.O.C. label if using Syrah grapes and b. as there are far too many Portugese wines of poor to very poor quality bearing D.O.C. labels, the best wine makers prefer to use only the ‘regional’ label.
Conclusion: forget about the European quality classification.
The only indication on a (front) label that matters is ‘reserva’ which in practice is a better quality than the wine is not reserva. However the price is double to triple the generic wine that of course can also be of good to very good wine. Question: why pay so much money?
The real question is to know if there are some simple parameters that can help us to make our choice. The answer is yes, but….
• the choice of the region can be helpful. Douro wines are in general the best ones but also are more expensive. Alentejo wines are mostly good to very good at a decent price but in the Algarve there are only a few wines that are excellent whilst most wines can be compared with vinegar.
• Some wine producers are well known for their quality wines - think of Esporão, Cortes de Cima, Maladinha Nova, Herdade de Graus, etc - and as such one can choose these wines without any risk.
• For young wines the year is not so important. However once you deal with wines that are 10 to 15-years-old, clever businessmen raise the prices tremendously.
• and last but not least there is the choice between many sorts of different grapes used to make the wine. This is a very interesting story.
Portugal has 341 different types of grape (excluding all synonyms like for example aragonez = tinta roriz = tempranillo = only 1 kind of grape).
Looking at grapes for both white and red wines we see that there are 28 “international grapes” used (8,2%) and there are 24 ‘excellent Portuguese grape types’ (7%) meaning that only 15% of wine defines the grapes.
Tempranilla, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon make up 10% of the ‘international’ grapes while in 35% of the ‘national’ types we see tourigo national, tourigo franca, periquita, fernão pires, trincadeira, baga, riupeiro, loureiro, alvarinho (Minho vinho verde region), rabigato, antão vaz and of course the ‘Tintoretto’ Alicante Bouschet (1).
And then the logical question is of course: what about the other 50% of grape varieties?
In most of the cases these are used in very quantities and most of the time these are old grapes, small in size and with little sugar, consequently giving quite acidic’ wines. In other words: wines better to avoid for tourists.
What now ? Reading wine labels, especially the labels on the back which give the usually useful technical details about the wine, is a must.
Unfortunately, on about 20% of the back labels there is no grape variety named and 10% of all the back labels are useless because one cannot read the text due to a type size of 6.5 or even 4. Often the wrong background colours are used or the design and layout is messy.
Labels definitely are not always helpful, aren’t they?
• In each year of the last decade, Portugal has had to deal with the introduction to the market of hundreds of new wine labels. This makes the hunt for a decent bottle of wine increasingly difficult. As stated in the title: one has probably only a 50% chance to make a good choice …
• Finally the only good advice we can give is: taste – taste - taste!
In conclusion, if you ask yourself whether in this Portugese wine forest there might be some spectacular highlights - the answer is yes.
• in 1756 Prime Minister Marquês de Pombal was the first D.O.C. in Portuguese wine history
and comes from the privileged Douro region
• and in 1988 Danish mister Hans Kristian Jorgensen of Cortes de Cima planted the first Syrah grapes in the Alentejo. Today Syrah grapes have profoundly changed the quality of Portugese wines in a very positive way.
(1) All red grapes are white under the skin, exception made for 7 sorts (worldwide) that are red under the skin: therefore they call “tintorettos” or “painting grapes” which produce very dark red wines.
These are: Alicante Bouschet, Dornfelder, Dunkelfelder, Odessky Cherny, Royalty, Rubired, Separavi and Turàn.
The Herdade de Graus’ outstanding “Moon Harvest” is produced with 100% Alicante Bouschet.