Portuguese table wines – worth looking in to

My palate spends a lot of time immersed in the various offerings of wine producers in what is so inaccurately called the New World. The often admirable wines of Australia, the Americas, New Zealand and South Africa are certainly various, but are not that varied – at least in terms of the grapes they're made from. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot plus a local speciality each such as Shiraz, Zinfandel, Malbec and Pinotage still just about sums it up, even if the varietal range is gradually broadening.

It is with great pleasure therefore that I think back to summer 1999 when the main focus of my tasting was Portugal. If you are a workaholic like me (I regret but am not ashamed of this affliction; Robert Parker and James Halliday are fellow sufferers), you need something to do in the holidays. Especially if like me you spend several weeks in an extremely quiet southern French village.

The new edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine had finally been put to bed and I was looking for something to occupy my summer mornings. (Even I can amuse myself in the afternoons.) Help came from a publishing firm in Lisbon which was translating one or two of my books and which suggested a pocket book consisting of my tasting notes on 250 of Portugal's best table wines (Jancis Robinson Tastes the Best Portuguese Table wines).

I leapt at the chance. For some years I had been aware of a table wine revolution in Portugal and had dutifully gone along to every possible generic tasting in London, but here was an opportunity (and a flattering one at that) to go into much more detail, spending weeks rather than hours on the survey.

The process began with the arrival in our courtyard of a large Ford Transit which had been driven from Lisbon by the head of publishers Livros Cotovia and his son. Inside were 250 pairs of sample bottles (duplicates in case of duds), each inside a carefully labelled double carton. Our Portuguese visitors then unpacked this haul, stacking the wines in neat piles by region around our empty garage. Refusing anything stronger or longer than a glass of water, they then set off back over the Pyrenees to Portugal.

Then began a fascinating experience (with, for the record, only about one per cent of samples affected by cork taint). Every morning I would unpack and taste a dozen or more examples of the wines of a particular region, grouping them by vintage. Because, as in almost all wine regions today, quality is improving each year, to follow the evolutionary process I tasted from old to young.

Possibly the most exciting aspect of Portugal's table wines is their varietal diversity. In the 250 examples I tasted that summer, only a small minority was made from the so-called 'international varieties'. The best tended to be made from indigenous Portuguese grapes. Of these the star performer is undoubtedly Touriga Nacional, already famous as the most respected port grape but often showing much the same explosive drama and serious ageing potential in table wines. And not just in port country, the Douro valley, but in Bairrada and Dao in the north and in the up-and-coming regions such as Ribatejo and Alentejo further south too. This is a variety that should be of interest to any curious quality-conscious New World wine-grower in a warm climate. (In the Old World, they probably wouldn't be allowed to plant it, however good it is!) Definitive proof is available in the form of the 1996 varietal Touriga Nacionals from the two best producers in the Dao region (whose wines in the old days managed to combine being tough as old boots with tasting of nothing at all): Quinta da Pellada and Quinta dos Roques.

But vine variety identification is still a relatively new sport in Portugal. Vineyards were traditionally planted with an ad hoc mixture of often mysterious varieties and wines. Even Portugal's classic wines such as Ferreira's Barca Velha and the Hotel Palace do Bussaco's long-aged oddities just had to be blends.

A common feature in these blends is the grape we think of as Touriga Nacional's most obvious Spanish counterpart, known as Tempranillo and Tinto Fino in Rioja and Ribera del Duero respectively and Tinta Roriz and Aragones in Portugal. Wines such as Barca Velha 1991, Quinta do Fojo 1996 Grandes Anos and the extremely modern Quinta de Roriz 1996, all from the Douro, show just how successful this grape, often blended with Touriga Nacional or the slightly lighter Touriga Francesa, can be in Douro valley table wines.

Such Cabernets and the Merlots as there were among these emissaries from Portugal were relatively disappointing, but there were some seriously intriguing examples of the sweetly fruity Trincadeira Preta, the juicy Alfrocheiro Preto, fragrant Tinta Miuda (identical to Rioja's all too rare Graciano), smooth and pruney Jaen, and the almost Pinot-like Tinto Cao. Baga is the notoriously tart grape of Bairrada which, impressive as Luis Pato's old-vine Vinha Barrosa 1997 example is, may not be an obvious candidate for international fame.

Portugal's best-made red wines can be both delicious and distinctive but the country's white wines are still an evolutionary step or three behind the New World's. Grapes such as the lemony and obviously noble Arinto, Madeira's Cerceal, oak-friendly Encruzado and Alvarinho and Loureiro, two Vinho Verde grapes that perform so well across the border in Spanish Galicia, are clearly capable of great things, but they await mastery of modern white-winemaking techniques. Even the ubiquitous Fernao Pires, which in Bairrada travels under the alias Maria Gomes, has clearly got its own extremely distinctive character which I am still struggling to describe.

'Cabbage soup' came to mind the very first time I ever tried it, but since this is (unaccountably) one of Portugal's favourite dishes, it might just have been autosuggestion.

Offputting this particular descriptor may be, but I seriously urge you to try some of Portugal's new table wine treasures.