One of the more pleasurable tasks I've undertaken this year was judging at the Concurso Vinhos de Portugal in Lisbon. Portugal is still widely associated with Port and Madeira in some minds, so it would be no exaggeration to say that the tasting was a revelation for two reasons.
From a country with a reputation as a producer of blended wines, it was interesting to follow the trend towards single grape varieties, even if, in part, it is a marketing ploy. But what bowled me over even more was the improved quality of so many of the wines – and not just reds and tawny ports, but whites, rosés and fizz, too.
It's a shame that Portuguese wine isn't better known and appreciated in the UK. What accounts for this? The arthritic structure of the Portuguese wine industry, for a start, with its reliance on a legion of tiny growers and dearth of well-known brands or grape varieties. Plus an inferiority complex about its giant Iberian neighbour. But with wines of the quality I saw coming through, it seems likely that the Portuguese will shed their underdog status and make their treasure trove of old vines and native grapes, 300 of which are in common use, work for them.
Touriga nacional, the backbone of Port, has now become everyone's darling because of its potential for great red table wine. The 2011 Quinta Do Vallado Touriga Nacional, £22.64– £27.11, Exel Wines, Spirited Wines, shows why with its unmistakable aromas and rich black fruit complemented by a distinct spiciness. Dominating a blend such as the 2011 Quinta do Vale Meão, around £19, Highbury Vintners, Philglas & Swiggot, it can display a superbly aromatic autumnal berry- richness and power. Or it can join hands with other native varieties, and syrah, in the 2009 Cedro do Noval, Vinho Regional Duriensis, £14.95 – £16.99, Uncorked, H2Vin, Soho Wine Supply, a blend satisfyingly rich in dark berry fruit, complemented by pepper spice and damson freshness.
Thanks to the maritime influence of the Atlantic, not to mention improvements in vineyard and cellar, Portugal's white wines are at last showing the promise that many have long believed was always there. We are seeing the emergence of an astonishing array of appetising whites, from the country's north and effervescent Vinho Verde, such as the 2013 Quinta da Lixa Vinho Verde, £8.99, Avery's, Tesco Wine by the Case, and Beiras Altantico and Filip Pato's moreishly stonefruit-rich 2013 Filipa Pato FP Branco, £11.75, Oddbins; and Lisbon's mouthwateringly lemony 2012 Fossil, £6.25, Asda, and the southern Alentejo's smoky 2013 Esporao Reserva, Alentejo, £10.58, The Drink Shop.