This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
Belgrave Square is one of London's smartest addresses, giving its name to Belgravia, the rich kernel of one of the world's richest cities. It is not the natural milieu of scruffy wine writers but, thanks to João de Vallera, the current, unusually wine-minded, Portuguese ambassador to the Court of St James, we have all been trotting along to number 12 Belgrave Square on a regular basis. The Portuguese embassy is the handsome three-storey stucco mansion on the square's north-western corner (the Spanish ambassador lives in the south-western one) and so far this year alone it has been the setting for a Wine Society event showcasing the wines of Luis Pato; Baga Friends celebrating the characteristic grape of the northern wine region of Bairrada; the tenth Wines of Portugal Awards dinner (the occasion of this photo); and The New Douro, a presentation of the exciting table wines that the Douro Valley, home of port, is producing now.
For wine-trade veteran and UK representative of the Symington port family Tim Stanley-Clarke, 'I would put João top of the vinous Richter scale of the Portuguese ambassadors I have known over the past 30 years. He really loves wine and knows quite a lot about it.'
Danny Cameron, the chairman of the association of Portuguese wine importers in the UK is another fan. 'He has a great sense of humour, and a great sense of humanity. And above all, he loves good wine. Whenever I have a meeting or telephone call scheduled with him, it's never completely about the next event, or whatever else, because he always slips in a comment about something he has tasted recently, or wants to discuss a particular vintage of something.'
As I settled in to my seat next to João de Vallera at the awards dinner in the frescoed dining room recently, he said with some pride that the room had recently housed a catwalk. 'There are three areas I take a personal interest in', he confided, 'fashion and textiles, tourism, and wine. And I am particularly keen on combining the last two.' He was then able to quote the number of person-nights spent by Brits in Portugal last year and, almost, the number of glasses of wine they had drunk. And it is not as though wine is a particularly important export from Portugal. The ambassador reeled off statistics about Portugal's prowess at exporting machinery, oil, vehicles - all of them wildly more important to the fragile Portuguese economy than fermented grape juice, but his heart is clearly in wine.
It is also, according to several independent reports, very close to one particular article about wine, a cutting from the Financial Times which he keeps in his inside breast pocket. It was a survey last November which showed that average red wine scores [on my website] are higher for Portuguese wine than for any other country's. Although one of my informants adds, 'it is really funny because it always takes him some time to find the photocopy amongst all the little papers he carries with him, but he shows it to literally hundreds of people'.
Leading Portuguese wine producer Dirk van der Niepoort describes the current ambassador as 'very special, intelligent and really wants to do things for Portugal. He does a lot more than is his duty.' This is his third year in London and this will be his last post, following on from Dublin (1998-2000), Berlin (2002-2006), and Washington (2007-2010). In Berlin he is proud of having converted the sommelier at one of the top restaurants to Portuguese wines so that by the time he left there was 14 wines from the Douro on the list. He also religiously attended the Prowein wine trade fair in Düsseldorf (something even a professional might regard as hard work) and reminisced about his adventures there with an enthusiastic Portuguese wine exporter and a corkscrew. In Washington he famously shipped the Douro red Quinta do Vale Meão 2004, which was the first Portuguese table wine to feature in the Wine Spectator magazine's top 100, disguised as olive oil. He was determined that America's arcane prohibitions on moving alcoholic liquid from New York to the nation's capital would not rob him of an opportunity to show off this new Portuguese achievement.
He earned his ambassadorial roles working 16 hours a day at the cliff face of Maastricht negotiations in Brussels. 'Then, as a young diplomat, I was very interested to witness the revolution in Portuguese wine, to see all these new, young winemakers emerging. You used to have to search for good Portuguese wine, but now it 's difficult to find a bad one. And even the inexpensive ones are good', he says delightedly.
He has a particular fondness for the Douro because his maternal grandfather had a port wine quinta there, in the Távora side-valley, the grapes being sold to Barros. He and his family spent every summer there. He was born in Angola, now the second most important export market for Portuguese wine after France, which imports huge quantities of basic port. The youngest of five and seriously threatened by liver disease, he was shipped back to his grandmother in Lisbon at the age of two and hardly saw his parents again until he was six.
As an attendee of the recent New Douro tasting in the embassy, I must say I was struck by the unusual warmth of the atmosphere. So often a tasting for the wine trade can feel rather impersonal and routine. There are various settings, often used by a range of exhibitors, which have all the charm of the National Exhibition Centre. But in the Portuguese embassy we really did feel as though we had been invited into someone's home, as we indeed had been. The wines were truly exciting - not least because most of the reds were the products of the exceptional 2011 vintage in the Douro Valley. I have previously written that if you have reason to celebrate the year 2011, you might consider investing in 2011 vintage port. But the quantities made were very small and most of it has been squirrelled away in private collections by now. I would urge you to think seriously about the 2011 Douro red table wines, too.
João de Vallera was very much in evidence at this Douro tasting, sauntering between the two handsome reception rooms with a smile framed by his neat, white naval beard, glass in hand and, often, his beloved Olympus EPM2 round his neck (he is a keen photographer). He even - and this is surely way, way beyond the call of diplomatic duty - emptied my spittoon.
For my notes from the New Douro tasting, see Douro table wines - better than ever. International stockists can be found at wine-searcher.com.
RECOMMENDED DOURO 2011 REDS
These stunning top bottlings are only just making their way on to export markets.
Quinta do Crasto, Touriga Nacional and Vinha Maria Teresa
Quinta da Gaivosa, Abandonado and Vinha de Lordelo
Lavradores de Feitoria,Três Bagos
Quinta da Manoella, Quinta da Manoella and Vinhas Velhas
Niepoort, Batuta and Charme
Ramos Pinto, Duas Quintas Reserva
Quinta de la Rosa, Quinta de la Rosa and douRosa
Quinta da Touriga, Chã
Quinta Vale D Maria
Quinta do Vale Meão, Meandro
Wine and Soul, Pintas, Pintas Character