Portuguese Varieties Promising Back Home
My first trip to Portugal in 1998 included a crash course in Portuguese winegrape varieties that began with a tasting of the major Port varieties made as still wines. This tasting was led by Joao Nicolau de Almeida at Ramos Pinto’s striking Douro Valley estate Quinta dos Bons Ares. Educated at the University of Bordeaux in the 1970s, de Almeida has an uncanny resemblance to an eccentric professor. He loves research and experimentation, and one of his first projects was to try and identify which of the many varieties found in the Douro Valley were truly exceptional for winemaking.
I also met Portuguese wine expert Richard Mayson on that trip. A very urbane Englishman from London, he has written two excellent books on the wines of Portugal. “The Douro is noted for fortified wines, but they also produce non-fortified table wines that are quite good,” Mayson explained. “In the olden days, these table wines were rather harsh and tannic, but by using techniques developed by the French, including temperature-controlled fermentations in stainless steel tanks, tannin management and aging in small oak barrels, the resulting wines have supple tannins, good fruit, moderate alcohol and are quite alluring and certainly world class.” Examples of these wines would include Ramos Pinto’s Dos Quintas, Quinta do Crasto’s Vinha do Ponte and Maria Teresa, all made from selected vineyards known for very high quality and multiple varieties.
To the south, the Setubal Peninsula near Lisbon became famous for its spritzy rosé wines sold under the Lancer’s label. The region is quite warm, the soils are sandy, and drip irrigation is used to keep the vines productive and healthy. The principal red variety used is Castelao (also known as Periquita, which was a brand name used for the variety more than 100 years ago). Castelao can also be made into serious, long-lived red wine.
Finally, the Alentejo region in the south makes excellent wines under very warm growing conditions from Aragonez (a biotype of the Spanish variety Tempranillo), Castelao, Trincadeira and the French grape Alicante Bouschet.
Portugal grows 341 recognized grape varieties, and the majority of them are indigenous. The origin of these varieties is believed to be a combination of plant material that was brought to the Iberian Peninsula by the Phoenicians (the ancient people of modern-day Lebanon) more than 2,000 years ago. There are also stands of native Vitis vinifera that existed even during the Ice Age, as glaciation did not cover Portugal or Spain. Consequently, the plant material of this region is quite different from the rest of Europe, and it has been selected to be heat and drought tolerant.
In old Portuguese vineyards, many of these varieties were trained in a style similar to head-pruned vines (gobelet) and planted at high densities, since the sites typically have low fertility and water-holding capacities. Now, most are grown on vertical shoot positioned (VSP) trellis systems, and in the warmest and driest regions, they are drip irrigated. Mechanical harvest is becoming increasingly common in the areas flat enough to allow it.
Dr. Harold Olmo of the University of California, Davis, is credited for bringing many of the important Portuguese varieties into Foundation Plant Services’ collection. Dr. Deborah Golino is continuing to import new clones and promising selections that will soon be available for planting.
Most of these varieties are planted in very small quantities and barely show on the California Grape Acreage Reports. In 2008, there were 210 acres of Touriga Nacional and 62 acres of Souzao, a red variety with red juice that the Portuguese generally do not consider to be important in the Douro region blends.
There are probably numerous small patches of Portuguese varieties around the state. Most have been planted for small “port” projects (fortified dessert wines). When compared to fortified wines made from other varieties such as Zinfandel and Syrah, the Portuguese “port” varieties can show much more depth and concentration under our gro wing conditions. I presently have Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira Preta, Castelao and Tinta Francesca planted in my new Mediterranean Cultivar Trial at the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center for evaluation.
The following are some red wine varieties that have the potential for interesting and high-quality wines based on experiences in Portugal, and for which clean material is available in California.
Touriga Nacional: This is believed to be the best quality red grape grown in the Douro Valley, although it only makes up around 2% of the fruit grown there. It is late to bud and ripen and has small yields of small, loose clusters. Clonal selection has resulted in improved yields, and new vineyards are increasing the area of this variety. The small, thick-skinned berries tolerate some rain (common during many harvests) and can make very dark, well-structured wines. The wines have a distinctive floral aroma of violets, or the herb bergamot. The unique flavors are easily obliterated with too much new oak cooperage.
Tinta Cao: “Red dog” is a somewhat silly name for one of the Douro’s best varieties. It was preferred in the olden days as one of the best varieties for Port wines, but almost disappeared following the plague of phylloxera in the late 1800s. Happily, it was identified as one of the top five varieties for the Douro region in recent times, and acreage is increasing. It is a low yielder, but the small, loose clusters and thick-skinned berries are quite resistant to mildew and rot. It buds out and ripens late, so it needs a warm site to properly ripen. Wines are dark, dense and long-lived. Top quality and very interesting as a single varietal wine.
Touriga Franca (Touriga francesa): This variety is late in budding and ripening, and it can be easily over cropped. The clusters and berries are larger than Touriga Nacional. It takes a little work to extract good color from the thick-skinned berries, but the resulting wines can have good color and fragrance, often described as violets. This is an important blender used in Port wines, as it is more productive than the more elegant Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cao, yet blends nicely with these varieties.
Aragonez (Tinta Roriz, or the Spanish variety Tempranillo): This variety was covered in my October column about Spanish varieties. It is a productive variety that makes well-structured wines that can range from fruity and simple when heavily cropped to serious, deep red, long-lived wines. It shows great promise in the warmer regions of California.
Trincadeira Preta (Tinta Amarella): This variety is thought to be Tunisian in origin, brought long ago to Portugal. In the Douro region, it is known as Tinta Amarella. The vines can be productive, and the clusters during cool rainy years become quite large and rot easily. Site selection is very important to grow good fruit—areas that are warm with good air movement are critical. This variety has shown extremely well in the very warm Alentejo region, where it makes dark, fruity, well-structured wines.
Castelao (Periquita): This variety performs best in the warm, dry, sandy soils of the Setubal Peninsula near Lisbon. The vines are productive and yield both rosé wines and well-colored red wines that have a pleasant raspberry aroma with good tannic structure capable of aging. It doesn’t do well in areas with high humidity, too much soil moisture or extreme heat.
As the wine industry sorts through interesting new varieties to grow in the warmer parts of the United States, Portuguese varieties certainly should be considered. Their interesting flavors, deep colors, tannic structure and good acidity under warm conditions are all attributes that will make winemaking easier when these varieties are used.
Glenn McGourty is the UC Cooperative Extension winegrowing and plant science advisor for Lake and Mendocino counties. He also tends a 1-acre vineyard of the aromatic Italian winegrape variety Arneis on his property along the Russian River near Ukiah, Calif. To comment on this column, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.