Portugal’s Wine Industry: At the Crossroads or in the Crosshairs?

If you decided to set out and create a new wine making nation, you would likely not follow the model of Portugal.


By that, it is not to insinuate that the wines of Portugal are inferior in any way to the wines of any other nation on earth. They are indeed not. Nor do I mean to suggest that the wines do not pair well with that country's well-defined cuisine. Portugal's fine cuisine practically begs for the multiple styles of wine grown from one end of the country to the other in both the red and the white hues.


The whole issue about the wines of Portugal has everything to do with this country's incredible history of exploration (do you remember hearing about Vasco da Gama in your sixth grade history class?) and the establishment of a proud nation, rooted in its own culture, language and customs.


The wines are as unique as the country's place in the modern world. Many are made in an old style, often rustic, full of character; and change is likely coming despite much kicking and screaming among some of the Old Guard. But, and here is one of many interesting distinctions, while the new wines are quite, well, modern, the old-style wines are endlessly fascinating.


The last time the wine world experienced a situation like the one Portugal is facing, you have to return to Italy in the late 1960s. Back then, there were strong traditions and deep histories in wine making. But taking a place on the world stage, and maintaining it, takes more than serving wines that were in vogue in your great grandparents' day. The Italians, or at least a few of them, saw a solution to becoming contemporary and relevant, and it was a super one.


Super Tuscans were devised with two parallel developments. First the old style grapes, like Sangiovese, had to become better. The vines had to be treated with proper care in the vineyard. Tearing out vines that did not meet higher standards, and not planting vines in such a crowded, dense fashion resolved many quality issues in the area of agriculture. In the winery, more use of stainless steel, better quality, new and clean wine barrels and more attention to hygiene brought the Italian wine industry to a much improved result.


The final brilliance occurred in the wine blends. The old world grapes, which gave the wines their regional and distinctive qualities, were blended with well-known, international varietals, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The historic proof of that approach is that today the Super Tuscan category is much-desired, well-revered by knowledgeable consumers, and the wines often command stratospheric prices.


And what about traditional Italian wines? They are still being made in every part of the country, often with spectacular results. Today, the entire Italian wine industry is prospering and is true to its culture. The Italians make more wine than any other nation on earth, and they are not apologizing to the many generations who came before, or to themselves.


Here in my opinion is the role model for Portugal. Don't turn your back on your national grapes, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz and the dozens of other varietals which very few wine drinkers outside of Portugal have ever heard of, but use this unique heritage to build international wines, coupling those grapes with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, among others.


The purchasing wine lover may not know Tinto Roriz, which is called Tempranillo in Spain, but there will be a level of understanding when familiar grapes, like Syrah, are added to the mix. Among the new aromas and tastes will be something familiar and previously enjoyed. In that way, consumers will develop curiosity for this "new" sensation. Of course the new sensation has been around since the time of Christopher Columbus, but we don't need to dwell on that.


One of the dissimilarities that needs to be mentioned about comparing the Italian wine industry of then and the Portuguese wine industry of now is a quality issue. Back then the Italian wine industry was producing boatloads of really mediocre product. And to be fair, so was Portugal. Anyone out there remember Mateus and Lancer's?


Portugal in the main today is producing some very good wines, so they really don't have to upgrade that aspect of their work. They merely have to become more mainstream and introduce themselves to the world.


Who knows? Maybe in the not-too-distant future you will hear yourself noting, "This is a most insouciant little blend of Touriga Nacional with a petulant Syrah, from the Dao, that I find quite amusing." Or maybe you won't.


For my part, I hope this wonderful country enacts some tweaking and sends us the beautiful results. And I further hope you never talk like that about wine.

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