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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
18 Nov 2017

A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. 

The Portuguese are on a roll. Their football prowess is beyond question. Their two main cities have become tourist meccas. And now comes the ultimate accolade. Madonna has moved from New York to Lisbon and declared that she feels particularly 'creative and alive' there. 

Arriving in Lisbon recently, I was shamefully ignorant of this last feather in the Portuguese cap, but my hosts at an event to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the wine magazine Essencia do Vinho lost no time in telling me, with swollen chests. In 30 years of visiting Portugal I have never sensed such pride in being Portuguese.

So how does this affect the Portuguese wine scene? The most striking change I was made aware of is that producers are no longer scared of asking high prices for their wines.

I had been asked to nominate 10 bottles that I thought told the story of the transformation of Portuguese wine over the last 10 years and saw afterwards to my horror that one of them, Barca Velha 1999, has a retail price of about €350. Perhaps that's just because this is such a mature vintage, I thought. But no, the three younger vintages of it that are also commercially available – 2000, 2004 and 2008 – cost even more. That said, I should express my admiration for any wine producer who releases their wine when it is ready to drink rather than ready to sell.

Perhaps anyway this was an exception because for so many years, Barca Velha was the only commercialised table wine made in the Douro Valley, the home of port? (Today there are hundreds of exciting table wines made in this, one of the wine world's most beautiful locales.)

But no. By studying the shelves and website of Lisbon's excellent wine store Garrafeira Nacional I could see that even current vintages of the most celebrated of the many table wines to have emerged from the Douro over the last decade or two, such as Niepoort and Pintas wines, now command prices in the region of €60 to €90 a bottle.

For the 10 wines I was forced to choose (I'm no enthusiast of definitive selections and found it extremely difficult to narrow it down from dozens and dozens of possibilities), I found it particularly difficult to choose my Douro examples. In the end I decided to chart the history of wines from this valley of extremes via four very different examples. The Barca Velha 1999 Douro represented another era, a completely mature wine that reminded me in its hauntingly nuanced aroma and rather old-fashioned delicacy of a Napa Cabernet or red bordeaux from the 1970s.

Quinta do Crasto, Vinha Maria Teresa 2005 Douro, a wine made from a particularly spectacular slope of then-70-year-old vines above the Douro river, represented the new style of Douro table wine, made by Australian winemakers for the well-established Portuguese Roquette family in this case. The first generation of thoroughly modern, very concentrated, even slightly oaky wines served up generous helpings of what the harsh schist and remorseless summer sun naturally tend to deliver.

Then came an example of Dirk Niepoort's restless global roaming and far-sighted revisionism. He inherited the family port business but has taken it in a dizzying array of different directions. I could have chosen at least six of his Douro offerings, including Redoma Rosé, one of the world's most rewarding pink wines. But I chose Niepoort, Batuta 2007 Douro, a dense red made just as he was turning away from sheer power towards a wine of more subtlety and freshness. Relatively cool, particularly high, old vineyards supply the grapes, the main one of them north-facing so as to delay ripeness and prolong the growing season, imbuing the wine with flavour rather than alcohol. The finished alcohol is just 12.5%, as opposed to Crasto's 14%.

And finally Poeira 2011 Douro, a fine wine from a great vintage representing another evolutionary step for the Douro: that young winemakers such as Jorge Moureiro, who initially worked for other long-standing producers, are now able to set up on their own.

So many of the country's finest table wines are made in the Douro that this, if you like, is the Bordeaux of Portugal. (I apologise for drawing parallels with France but we have to acknowledge that most wine drinkers are far more familiar with French wines than Portuguese ones.) 

If it's the body and ripeness of a Rhône you're after, then the Alentejo may be the region to head for – although the current trend here, as virtually everywhere, is towards lissomness, so the parallels are becoming less with the southern Rhône than with the northern Rhône.

I felt guilty about not choosing more Alentejo wines to highlight for an invited audience of about 200 Portuguese wine professionals (who, poor things, had to watch me tasting without a glass themselves), but I decided to show a new-wave example, Bojador, Vinho de Talha 2015 Vinho Regional Alentejano, a blend of three quintessentially Portuguese grapes fermented in amphorae. Very on trend, and a demonstration that Portugal is no longer an isolated outpost of the wine world. Julia alerted me to this wine that I liked a lot. The next vintage is quite different with a different blend and arguably less precision.

But for sheer, unadulterated local character, the northern wine region of Bairrada cannot be beat. Its reds are made from Baga, its whites from Bical, grapes virtually unknown outside Bairrada and its neighbouring region Dão. No one could be a more vigorous protagonist for these initially uncompromising grapes than impish veteran winemaker Luis Pato, so it seemed churlish not to choose one of his wines, in this particular case Luis Pato, Vinha Barrosa 2005 Bairrada – still not ready!

As for Dão, there was an obvious candidate, a full-bodied dry white made from the region's signature pale-skinned grape variety Encruzado that beautifully demonstrates the general ability of so many Portuguese wines to age divinely. Quinta dos Roques Encruzado 2007 Dão could give many a 2007 white burgundy a run for its money. The current vintage, 2015, can be found for well under $20 a bottle in the US at the time of writing. I was horrified to learn that this estate had lost 12 ha of vines to the recent wildfires that have killed a total of 100 people this year in Portugal.

There should have been more white wines in my selection. Douro Branco can be brilliant nowadays but Vinho Verde is one of Portugal's most distinctive wines so I chose a particularly youthful one from one of the most respected and original producers, Soalheiro, Primeiras Vinhas 2016 Vinho Verde. They also represent the ongoing moves towards organic viticulture.

And then of course there are the wines that put Portugal on the global wine map centuries ago and should never be forgotten in all this flurry of interest in Portuguese table wines. Barbeito, Ribeiro Real Tinta Negra 20 Years NV Madeira dignifies the island's most-planted grape variety while Graham's Single Harvest Tawny 1972 Port kicked off the current fashion for vintage-dated tawnies or colheita ports. See Gloriously gleaming tawnies and A tale of two tawnies, for instance.

SOME CURRENT FAVOURITE PORTUGUESE WINES
You should be able to find tasting notes on all of these wines on our Purple Pages.

WHITE

Quinta do Crasto, Crasto Superior 2013 Douro Branco
£11.99 Drink Portuguese Wine

Luis Seabra, Granito Cru 2013 Vinho Verde
£27 Noble Green Wines, (2015: £32 Vincognito)

Soalheiro, Terramatter 2015 Vinho Verde
£20.95 Drinkmonger

PINK

Redoma Rosé 2014 and 2015 Douro
2014: £13.99 Roberts & Speight; 2015: £16-18 Corks of Cotham, Prohibition Wines, Highbury Vintners

RED

Mouchão 2011 Alentejo
£29 The Wine Society, £38.50 Noel Young, £38.99 The Wine Reserve, £40 Caviste of Overton

Quinta do Romaneira, Reserva 2012 Douro
£41.95 Lea & Sandeman

Quinta do Vallado, Field Blend Reserva 2014 Douro
£29.50 Hailsham Cellars, Fareham Wine Cellar, £36.20 Hedonism

Redoma, Vertente 2014 Douro
£19.99 Tanners, Corks of Cotham