DRINK / Grapevine: Kathryn McWhirter visits Portugal

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The Independent Culture
THERE can't be many British holiday-makers who make the outward journey to continental Europe with a couple of cases of wine in the boot. Wine writers have funny habits, however, and we arrived on the northern Portuguese coast with a yummy selection of Champagne, New Zealand and Loire Sauvignons, white Burgundy, German Riesling, reds from Tuscany, California and Australia, plus a little fino sherry and Sauternes.

We needed some solace in the first few days. The promised holiday house had been sold, and we had been transferred, unconsulted, to a dark, gardenless hovel with too few beds. We ate in the lean-to garage, the nearest thing to a terrace, drowning our disappointment in foreign wines.

Not that Portugal is devoid of good wine. We were in the Minho, vinho verde country, and we made that our staple in restaurants. Vinho verde for the British market is sweetened up as an alternative to Liebfraumilch. In Portugal it is traditionally dry with a pleasingly high acidity. The Minho mornings were misty, the afternoons cloudy, but even under the baking British skies of late July, these vinhos verde make ideal summer drinking as, at around eight degrees, it is one of the lowest-alcohol wines.

Small-estate vinhos verdes can be a definite notch up in quality from the brands (look for 'Quinta de Something'), and single-grape variety ones are a recent and often tasty innovation. Alvarinho is the smartest grape, full of apricot and peach fruit. But the toffeed, buttery Trajaduras and aromatic, muscatty Loureiros are also very good. Quinta da Aveleda (as opposed to the straight 'Aveleda') was another very reliable, dry, crisp vinho verde. (Here it costs pounds 4.60 from Robersons of London W8, Wright Wine Company of Skipton, Satchells of Burnham Market and Nadder Wines of Salisbury.)

But there's a snag with vinho verde; it rarely lasts more than two years at the most. Restaurant lists often gave no vintage, and in one we sent back two bottles (a senile 1988 and fading 1991) to the astonishment of the waiter. The same thing goes, sadly, for the dry vinhos verdes in Britain. Sales are small, and old vintages gather dust.

'Vinho verde' means 'young wine', as well as being the official appellation (regiao demarcada or RD) for this specific type of wine grown in a chunk of north-west Portugal. And the 'Vinhos verdes' heading on a wine list includes all young wines, not just Vinho Verde RD, and not just white. Older wines are listed as 'vinhos maduros' (mature).

When in doubt, when the wine list gave few clues, Jose Maria da Fonseca Successores was one of the names we relied upon. We knew its reds: rich, ripe and not too Portuguesely tough Periquita (about pounds 3.99 Tesco, Oddbins, Thresher, Waitrose and Majestic), the lean Quinta de Camarate ( pounds 4.89 Victoria Wine), the voluptuous Tinto Velho Reguengos de Monsaraz Jose de Sousa Rosado Fernandes ( pounds 3.99 Tesco and Majestic), and the savoury Garrafeira TE (about pounds 6.99 Tesco and Victoria Wine).

Another more-than-safe bet was JP Vinhos, which has a live-in Aussie winemaker. These were all good, from the oaky, generous white Cova de Ursa ( pounds 6.99 Thresher and Oddbins), made from Chardonnay (unusually for Portugal, which sticks doggedly to its often very good local grapes) to reds such as the figgy Tinto da Anfora (about pounds 4.59 Tesco, Majestic, Waitrose, Safeway, Oddbins, Thresher, Wine Rack and Bottoms Up), the blackcurrant and cedar Quinta de Bacalhoa (about pounds 6.49 Sainsbury and Majestic) and Meia Pipa (about pounds 4.99 Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up and Oddbins). Sogrape was another dependable big-company name. Its Duque de Viseu Dao ( pounds 4.79 Safeway) is fruitily better than other Daos, and the Terra Franca Bairrada (about pounds 3.50 William Low and Sainsbury), is soft and approachable, unlike the general run of mouth-searingly tannic Bairrada reds. My favourite Bairrada, also soft and fruity, is from the little estate of Joao Pato ( pounds 6.99 or pounds 8.99 depending on vintage from Thresher: Wine Rack and Bottoms Up, or by the case by mail order from Wine Finds of Ludlow). Sogrape also does a lovely Alentejo red Vinho de Monte pounds 5.99 Spar), and a good, gutsy Vila Regia red ( pounds 3.69 at Grape Ideas of Oxford and London N6, arriving at Oddbins at the end of August) from the Douro.

Much Douro table wine is sorry stuff, but our discovery of the stay was an unoaked red, Quinta da Lamelas. Made by an Australian winemaker (they get everywhere), it was bursting with luscious cherry and plum fruit, and brilliant served cellar-cool. (The last of the 1992 costs pounds 3.79 in some Thresher, Bottoms Up and Wine Rack shops, and the 1993, arriving next May, will be better still.)