Extract: The wines of Portugal by Richard Mayson

13 May 2021 by in Classic Wine Library, Extracts, Wine and spirits

Atlantic wines
It was Mark Twain who observed ‘the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco’. As far as I am aware Twain never visited Portugal but his quip about the weather in San Francisco might also be applied to Oporto and the north of Portugal. Anyone who has ever been to San Francisco in July will understand that the fog that rolls in off the Pacific overnight has a huge bearing on the climate of northern California and the style of the wines produced there. Substitute the Atlantic Ocean for the Pacific and the reasons for this climatic anomaly are much the same. During the height of summer the waters of the north Atlantic are still so cold (typically 16–18°C) that they cause a bank of fog to build up just off shore. It lurks there after sundown and rolls in silently during the early hours, the only noise being the sad boom of the fog horn on the molhe (breakwater) at the mouth of the Douro. Like the Golden Gate in San Francisco, the narrow estuary serves to funnel the fog upriver. At times it will cover more than half of northern Portugal, reaching fifty miles inland before gradually retreating back towards the coast as the sun burns through. In high summer the coastline from the Aveiro lagoon to the mouth of the River Minho and beyond is often shrouded in clammy fog until midday or even mid-afternoon.

The Atlantic Ocean exerts an influence over Portugal in its entirety. Even the Alentejo, 100 kilometres or more from the coast is, to some extent, under the sway of the prevailing Atlantic westerlies. But the oceanic influence is strongest on the littoral, a narrow strip of coastal plain 20 to 60 kilometres wide extending from the northern frontier with Spain, all the way down the Atlantic coast, before turning along the Algarve, where the maritime effect becomes more Mediterranean. To the north of Lisbon, the littoral is shaped by a series of interlocking river basins. Travelling from north to south, the lower reaches of the Minho, Lima, Cavado, Ave, Douro, Vouga and Mondego, and the ribeiras (streams) that drain the hills of Estremadura, provide ample sites for cultivating vines.

Climate is the uniting factor for a seemingly disparate group of wine regions with varying fortunes. In the north lies Vinho Verde, the most Atlantic of all Portuguese wines, covering a granite landscape that feels very much part of northern Europe. It merges, in places almost imperceptibly, with the Douro and then with Lafões on the River Vouga, which leads the Aveiro lagoon. Bairrada, a wine region which (climatic vagaries permitting) is now proving itself to be capable of excellence, sits in between this and the university city of Coimbra. This is an area traditionally dominated by the red Baga grape. The heavily irrigated lower Mondego valley provides a natural gap in the vineyards before they recommence around Leiria. Lisboa, the wine region that is now named after Portugal’s capital, used to be known as Estremadura and before that the Oeste. This is still Portugal’s most productive wine region, with the district of Lisbon itself capable of producing nearly a million hectolitres in a fruitful year. The Lisboa vineyards extend from the rural hills north of Leiria down the Atlantic coast into the suburbs of the capital. In the nineteenth century there was an internationally known fortified wine named ‘Lisbon’, which was a competitor of the better known wine from Porto. In the early twentieth century three very different enclaves representing white, red and fortified respectively – Bucelas, Colares and Carcavelos – were demarcated. Carcavelos succumbed almost totally to the westward expansion of Lisbon in the 1980s but has been saved from extinction and is now showing its worth once again. Bucelas and Colares are both undergoing a modest but welcome revival of fortune.

Just over a third of Portugal’s wine comes from these Atlantic vineyards but, partly due to the unpredictability of the climate, both quantity and quality can vary alarmingly. Average annual rainfall, perhaps the most representative measure of climatic differentiation within Portugal, is high throughout, from around 750 millimetres per year just north of Lisbon up to (or even in excess of) 2,000 millimetres in the northern mountains that form the boundary between the so-called litoral and the interior. But this is not generally a region of extremes: winters are mild and wet and summers are warm and mostly dry. Average annual temperatures range from 15°C in the south to 11°C in the north, in the mountains that create the rain shadow over inland Portugal. But when it comes to rainfall timing is everything. Most rain falls during the winter months but an Atlantic depression causing drab, damp weather in May and June is not uncommon. This reduces yields dramatically as well as increasing the risk of disease in the vineyard. A local proverb highlights this risk: ‘Maio é couveiro não e vinhateiro’ (May is a month for cabbages, not vines). However, late spring frost, a significant problem inland, is rarely a threat on the coast. High summer is usually dry, but while dry enough to cause hydric stress in those vineyards rooted in shallow soils there is still sufficient moisture in the air for disease to be a problem. Severe stress causes the vine to shut down as photosynthesis is limited and grapes stop ripening evenly. This difficulty is summed up in another local saying: ‘em agusto secam os montes, em setembro as fontes, em outubro tudo’ (in August the hills dry up, in September the springs, in October everything). During September growers play a tense waiting game, balancing the ripening of their grapes with the looming threat of autumn rain. The summer weather often breaks around the September equinox and the expectation of a fine crop can be cruelly dashed at the last minute when the heavens open and the rain continues to pour down for the two or three weeks pencilled in for the harvest. White grapes are now being picked earlier (sometimes from late August) but some indigenous red grapes are slow to ripen. In some years, growers on Portugal’s Atlantic seaboard are tempted to pick early, often before their grapes have reached optimum ripeness, and this shows up with a green streak in the wines.

Atlantic Portugal is undoubtedly a challenging place to grow grapes and make wine but thankfully there are plenty of growers and winemakers who feel that it is worth the effort. Although total production has been shrinking, a new generation of growers is discovering (or in some cases rediscovering) their own terroir. ‘This is not the place to be an absentee farmer’, as one quality-conscious grower in the Lisboa wine region asserted. With perceived climate change, grape growers are taking their holidays earlier. The variability of the weather means that snap decisions have to be taken in the vineyard in order to protect the crop and produce worthwhile wine. Some extremely worthwhile and sometimes age-worthy wines – red, white and occasionally fortified – are being made all the way down the Atlantic seaboard (which now also includes isolated vineyards on the maritime stretches of the Setúbal district and the Alentejo, covered in Chapter 5). There are also volume wines being made to meet key price points on domestic and international markets.

With a few exceptions the wines from Portugal’s littoral share a family resemblance. Levels of alcohol are rarely head-splittingly high and a streak of enervating acidity is never very far from the surface. In fact some winemakers are actively looking to produce wines with lower levels of alcohol at the same time as achieving physiological ripeness. Wines from vineyards closest to the sea may even capture a touch of Atlantic salinity. The Portuguese often use the term astringente (astringent) not as a pejorative but in its positive sense to describe that combination of firm tannin and acidity that is the hallmark of Portugal’s best Atlantic reds. Astringency gives the wines longevity, perhaps equalled only by the best reds from Bordeaux. Although the grapes are different there can be a real affinity with Bordeaux, a trait that was not overlooked during the phylloxera years, when this part of Portugal supplied the French with large quantities of red wine. It has taken over a century for wine producers in the Bairrada and Lisboa regions to rekindle their pride. Sometimes this is misplaced by producers who try to obtain a high price for something rather mediocre. But there are now many who are getting the balance right: in the vineyard, in the winery and increasingly with their sales and marketing. They are almost always the ones who have been prepared to reunite the vineyard with the bottle, seeing things through from the setting out of a new vineyard to presenting their wine at a tasting in Lisbon, London or New York. The key to making good wine in Atlantic Portugal is to be in control.

Extract from The wines of Portugal © Richard Mayson (Infinite Ideas, 2020)
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