Cracking Open the Noah’s Ark of wine

Portugal shipped 7.5% more bottles in 2017 than the previous year (a value of €777.9m) – setting a new record for the country. Sales are up across the board too, including 56% at Majestic Wine. It appears the country has turned a corner, but Portugal has been here before. Multiple times.

downloadThe Iberian nation is a treasure trove of unique varietals, flavours and techniques – with a historical pedigree dating back millennia – earning it the reputation as the ‘Noah’s Ark’ of grapes. In a world where most winemakers seem intent on the copycat success of international styles, Portugal stands out. We are now beginning to see the true tastes of Portugal’s 200 indigenous grape varieties re-enter the scene. But is the world ready?

Vine planting began over 4,000 years ago, brought about by the Tartessians – the residents of a semi-mythical harbour on Spain’s Andalusian coast. It was the Phoenicians, however, who laid the foundations of what would become a remarkably singular story. Bringing techniques from across the ancient world, as well as new varieties of grape, they helped to shape the Portuguese vineyard forever.

It would be wrong to think of a clear identity being forged in this period. Grapes would have been grown in a hodgepodge of bush vines, with distinct varieties meshed together – if recognised at all. A practise which continued well into the 20th Century (and quite probably in some regions to this day). But this is the origins of Portugal’s unique advantage, the skeleton of the Ark.

If there is one consistency in the story of Portugal’s wine, it is isolation. Under Roman rule the region was part of a vast network of vines which criss-crossed much of Europe.

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But as the Empire disbanded, the local population picked up the mantle. It was only then in the 13th Century when Portuguese wines really began to re-enter international palates – with the signing of key trade deals with England. Such was the domination of this relationship that it could be argued that it was the tastes of London, rather than Lisbon, which shaped the direction for the next 800 years of Portuguese viticulture.

This also came with inherent dangers. Portugal, unlike other European wine nations, never really captured the international imagination or created a network of markets for their wine. There was a huge reliance on England, and the Port trade in particular. Anything that could damage this relationship could have huge implications – which is unfortunately exactly what happened. Unscrupulous producers began adding elderberry juice, ginger, black pepper and other substances to their wines to give more flavour or higher alcohol. When news of the fraud broke in the 1730s, Port exports to the UK more than halved.

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A more terminal blow to Portuguese exports would follow. After exports returned, Napoleon’s invasion of the country in 1807 sought to hit the British where it really hurt – in their wine glasses. Such was the enjoyment of the ‘English man’s drink’ that the Brits imported five litres of Port per year for every man, woman and child in the late 18th Century. But as the French marched on Lisbon, exports all but ceased. And despite eventual victory on the Peninsular – Port never really returned. Other than exports to monopolised colonies, another 200 years of near isolation would follow.

Whilst the rest of the world became part of a global wine community, modernising practises and championing international styles like Chardonnay or Cabernet – Portugal was alone. Under the near-40 year dictatorship of Salazar from 1932 to 1968, winemaking was governmentalised. Rather than individual winemakers creating local expressions, co-ops were brought in to mass produce indistinct wines. The grapes which were dominating the rest of the world throughout the 20th Century were forbidden. Portugal was pinned back to her past.

There have of course been international success stories too. Port is the stand-out example, and Mateus-rosé styles wines arguably too. But these are not true examples of an indigenous style. Both were created for British tastes.

So what has changed?

It must have seemed a daunting task in 1986: being a Portuguese winemaker as the nation entered the EU. Everything you knew had changed. Did you seek to follow the crowd, and rip up your vines to plant the styles that everyone seemed to love? 

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Or did you stick to what you knew, continue to foster the vines which have been part of the nation for potentially thousands of years – despite being unfathomable to international markets? In truth, advantage lay in a combination of the two.

The modern demands of the wine-drinking population have changed. Authenticity, discovery, excitement are all in vogue. Without the domination of Chardonnay, or Pinot Noir, or Sauvignon Blanc, Portugal is almost unique. There’s a plethora of grapes to discover. A living hangover of a turbulent past – one which has always sought to bring wine to the world – but has often been thwarted in that attempt or perverted. Hopefully now, Portugal can focus on a vast heritage of individual flavours that truly represent the nation, for a generation or so at least.