Nowadays they would be raking in the proceeds on 30 million bottles a year, with income reasonably assured by a faithful following in Britain and fans in Spain and Germany, who now drink more Mateus Rose than we do. It still accounts for nearly a third of all Portuguese bottled wine exports. Until a few years ago, the Counts would have been doing even better. But the Americans, once major guzzlers of the stuff, have turned to their own pink Zinfandel, and now drink only a third of the 17 million bottles a year of Mateus they imported a decade ago.
When American thumbs began to turn down, the Guedes family, who own the Mateus brand, decided to plough the profits into finer wines. Rather than plant internationally acceptable Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, they chose to inject modern technology into the native wines of some of the traditional Portuguese regions - Dao, Vinho Verde, Bairrada and the Douro - with the aim of turning the heavy, oily, yellow 'white' wines and tough, astringent reds into something softer, fresher and fruitier.
Their latest project, a pounds 6m winery with its own newly planted vineyards hidden among the beautiful pine forests of the Dao region in northern Portugal, is one of the most modern in Europe. That has yet to prove itself. But some of the new wines from other regions are characterful and delicious (see below) and excellent value judged by world standards. The rest are remarkably fresh and fruity compared with most Portuguese wines - but at the cheaper end of the price scale it is important to catch both reds and whites young. I have not recommended here some of the wines I have enjoyed in Portugal, since the vintages currently in Britain are tiring.
At the end of the 1980s, the Mateus production company, Sogrape, was striving to produce Portugal's best table wines; it landed the country's big red wine fish, Barca Velha, by buying its owner, the port company Ferreira. Barca Velha - a rich, fruity, complex, long-lived wine from the wild, mountainous, port country of the Douro - is the Chateau Latour of Portugal, the only Portuguese wine with this kind of reputation. A sparkling chandelier to set alongside the familiar Mateus lamp base.
PICK OF THE SOGRAPE DRY WHITES
**1990 Sogrape Reserva Douro Branco ( pounds 5.49 Oddbins, Grape Ideas of Oxford). Unusual, fullish, characterful white, gently vanilla-oaky, slightly piny and fruity.
**1990 Sogrape Bairrada Reserva Branco ( pounds 5.49 Grape Ideas of Oxford, pounds 5.54 Safeway). Flavoursome, mediumbodied, honeyed, oaky white with lively, lemony acidity.
**1990 Planalto Reserva, Douro ( pounds 4.50 Richmond Wine Warehouse, pounds 4.99 Grape Ideas of Oxford). Attractive, slightly musky, medium-bodied, lemony. *Bairrada Branco ( pounds 3.09 Tesco). Crisp, lemony, floral, fruity.
PICK OF THE SOGRAPE REDS
****1983 Barca Velha, Douro ( pounds 18.99 Oddbins and Grape Ideas of Oxford, pounds 22 David Scatchard of Liverpool). Portugal's most famous red, rich and velvety, with lasting flavours of cherry, fig, cedar and plums; firm but drinkable tannin. Drink now or keep for several years.
**1985 Dao Grao Vasco Tinto Reserva ( pounds 4.99 Grape Ideas of Oxford, pounds 5.89 David Scatchard of Liverpool). Rich, tannic red. But unlike most Daos, this has plenty of cedary, figgy fruit to balance the toughness. (Don't confuse this with the 1985 Sogrape Dao Reserve or the 1985 Grao Vasco Dao Garrateira - this one is much better.)
*1987 Sogrape Douro Reserva ( pounds 4.99 Grape Ideas of Oxford and David Scatchard of Liverpool). Rich red with cherry and fig fruit and savoury, farmyardy flavours of maturity.Reuse content