If you’re looking for that something special to add a little zing to your wine list, then Portuguese whites are a great place to start your search. Sarah Ahmed talks to some happy sommeliers who found love through the grapevine
With the rise of small plates dining, Spanish white wines may be hot, but Portugal should not be forgotten. After all, it lays equal claim to Spain’s best-known white grape: Portugal’s Alvarinho is, you guessed it, Spain’s Albariño. And where this long and skinny country’s north – home to its best whites – is split between coastal and mountainous regions, it has a solid advantage over Spain. Terroir-driven freshness and minerality come easy, especially now producers have embraced protective winemaking techniques.
But even for a Portugal fanatic like me, it’s not difficult to divine why Portuguese white wines are so poorly represented in the on-trade. Insofar as Portugal is known for wine at all (the first and biggest hurdle), it’s for fortifieds and reds. Unfamiliar and unpronounceable native varieties abound, so hand-selling is de rigueur. Plus supplier base consolidation may rule out the specialist importers
who sell Portugal’s top drops.
So why bother? Spaniard Xabier Álvarez-Valdés, co-founder of London’s Trangallán tapas bar (winner of Imbibe’s Small Restaurant List of the Year in 2012), is not an obvious champion for Portuguese wines. However, his analysis hits the nail on the head: ‘Portuguese wines have a great mix of character, expression of origin, food friendliness and affordability,’ he says. Read on for top tips on successfully listing Portuguese white wines, whatever your venue.
For Gerry Price, proprietor of The Inn at West End pub and wine shop in Surrey, Portuguese wines’ trump card is their ability ‘to consistently surprise people with their quality’. Describing them as ‘a good USP’, Price regularly includes Portuguese wines in comparative tastings – for example the Douro’s Niepoort Redoma Reserva Branco in a line-up of Burgundies – hosts winemaker dinners and sells Portuguese wines by the glass.
‘It’s important to have an entry-level wine such as Quinta da Raza Arinto Vinho Verde that people are willing to try,’ he explains, while for more upmarket wines it’s more important to know the story behind the wine, and how it will match with the food. Taking advantage of travel bursaries helps here.
Lionel Perrier of The Wheatsheaf in Gloucestershire agrees with Price about ‘communicating more about the wine when selling it’. Having won the chance to blend wine with Bairrada young gun Filipa Pato in ViniPortugal’s Sommelier Competition, he has a rich resource of knowledge to share with customers when Pato’s Nossa Bical arrives.
Already buoyed by the success of Aphros Loureiro (Vinho Verde) – ‘good value with citrusy minerality and nice texture, it has sold very well’ – Perrier is keen to list ‘as many Portuguese wines as possible starting at £26 to £33’.
Character and ‘refreshingly affordable prices’ are hallmarks of the wine list at London wine bar chain Vinoteca and co-founder Charlie Young says: ‘Portugal fits our ethos well’. With 20 Portuguese wines on offer, it’s all about showing what the country can do, the intention being ‘to showcase the best restrained, fresh and minerally styles as well as some richer, riper styles’.
The Arca Nova – which is ‘very popular’, according to Young – offers Vinho Verde’s classic lower alcohol/super-fresh/inexpensive style with ‘a little flesh on its bones to make it more accessible’. Stylistically, this kind of VV is becoming increasingly common.
At the other end of the spectrum, recent Douro listing Niepoort Redoma is sold to customers as a Portuguese Burgundy. ‘It’s similar in that it is complex, fresh, intense and age-worthy,’ says Young.
And to put Portuguese wines firmly on the radar, Vinoteca staff have been receiving regular training from specialist suppliers, generic support for wine by-the-glass sales and winemakers have been helping to host dinners. Several staff have also visited Portugal.
Rachel Higgins, co-founder of Flinty Red in Bristol, loves Portuguese whites but makes a compelling business case for them, too, on the grounds of ‘value for money, point of difference and versatility, particularly with regard to food matching. Most work well as an aperitif, too, due to their crisp, citrus, mineral nature.’
Higgins believes fully educating enthusiastic staff about Portugal ‘gives them something different to talk about with customers’ and this, together with by-the-glass sales, is the best way to persuade customers to be adventurous. Staff regularly taste by-the-glass wines alongside the menu.
At London Iberian restaurant Eyre Bros, co-founder Steve Chesterfield doesn’t have to argue the case for Portugal against the rest of the world on an entirely Iberian wine list, merely against Spain.
He rates Portuguese whites for their unique flavour profile and good value – ‘even excellent/pricey Portuguese whites’. Though he cautions that ‘price/value has been forgotten by some Douro producers’.
His tips include using specialist Portuguese merchants in the first instance (the Association of Portuguese Wine Importers is a good starting point) and staff training is focused on the wines in relation to the specific food/customer.
It’s not just customers who know little about Portuguese wines, though. It is a gap in the knowledge of many sommeliers, too, as Victor Amaro, the Portuguese head sommelier at Hotel du Vin Tunbridge Wells, points out.
‘It’s a shame,’ he says. ‘Portuguese wines are unique and very gastronomic wines to pair with food. Their freshness, good minerality and quality match the English palate and the French classic and Mediterranean food at Hotel du Vin.’
A range of initiatives from ViniPortugal and producer groups (such as the Douro Boys) has helped and Amaro himself reports that wine dinners and by-the-glass sales have been a great success.
Although Nuno Mendes, Viajante’s renowned chef-patron is Portuguese, the cuisine at his restaurant is not and head sommelier Christophe Richelet explains that the wine list is led by Mendes’ over-arching philosophy, which is about ‘travelling’ through food and wine. (Viajante literally translates as ‘traveller’.)
‘Given that we only serve blind tasting menus, most customers are already in a very open state of mind when the time comes to recommend wine,’ says Richelet. Perfect then for Portuguese wines, which are, as Richelet puts it, just ‘another oddity’ in the whole experience.
The second-largest category on the wine list, the breadth of the Portuguese selection allows Richelet ‘to cover almost every stylistic angle, from light and mineral, to riper and more textural, to tropical and oaky – it gives me a lot of room to manoeuvre. Portuguese wines are always used on wine pairings or in the selection by the glass.’
Adam Pawlowski, head sommelier at Northcote Manor in Lancashire, aims to have about five white wines from each region, always lists at least one Portuguese wine by the glass and ‘very often’ on tasting menu wine flights. This is because ‘although we get great feedback, customers admit that they would not pick them from the wine list themselves,’ he says.
At London’s La Trompette, head sommelier Matthieu Longuere MS reckons too much expectation is placed on consumer knowledge and what’s more important is for knowledgeable staff to respond to customers’ stylistic cues.
For example, if a customer likes dry, crisp wines such as Sauvignon Blanc or Muscadet, there’s an opportunity to sell Vinho Verde, or for lovers of ‘low-key mineral white Burgundy’, he thinks that Portugal’s most expensive whites from the Douro, Dão, or Bairrada are ‘much better’ than similarly priced village Burgundies. For this reason, he believes Portuguese whites are perfect for customers spending their own money (as opposed to expense account diners and ‘label drinkers’).
While Hakkasan group buyer Christine Parkinson agrees that value for money ‘has been key to some of the listings’, the priority is compatibility with the modern Chinese menu.
‘We find aromatic white wines work really well with our cuisine,’ she says. ‘Mineral and concentrated styles of Alvarinhos and indigenous white grapes from Bairrada seem to support Cantonese food with refreshing acidity and ripe fruity flavours.’
Referring to Quinta Sant’Ana Fernão Pires (Lisboa), which is sold by the glass, assistant buyer Diana Rollan rates the grape I regard as Portugal’s Grüner Veltliner for its ‘great balance and synergy with our style of cuisine’, while Reguengo de Melgaço Alvarinho is ‘a stand-out match with our dim sum platter’.
However, perhaps the ultimate endorsement for Portugal’s whites is on-trade exclusive Quinta de la Rosa’s Tonnix brand. Co-owned by the quinta, Fields, Morris & Verdin and restaurateurs Mark Hix and Mitch Tonks, its Tracey Emin-designed labels make no bones about the suggested food match for this fresh, mineral white – ‘great with fish’.
Terroir: Temperate coastal area; sandy and chalky clay soils.
Style: Floral, spicy, elegant and peachy medium-bodied whites (oaked and unoaked) with the acid backbone to age.
Key grapes: Maria Gomes, Bical.
Terroir: Inland mountainous region; granitic soils.
Style: Aromatic, fresh, textured, medium-bodied, mineral wines with an attractive vegetal edge (celery salt/fennel/pine needle).
Key grapes: Encruzado, Malvasia Fina, Cerceal Branco.
Terroir: Inland mountainous region; mostly schistous soils.
Style: Elevated vineyards (400-900m) are key to the freshness and minerality of medium- to full-bodied, complex, concentrated citrus and stone-fruited whites.
Key varieties: Codega do Larinho, Gouveio, Malvasia Fina, Rabigato, Viosinho.
Vinho Verde DOC
Terroir: Northernmost coastal region; granitic soils.
Style: Aromatic, fruity, fresh, typically unoaked, light-bodied whites with a salty tang; traditional blends have a touch of spritz. Top single-varietal wines from sub-regions Monção e Melgaço (Alvarinho) and Lima (Loureiro) show impressive minerality and concentration.
Key varieties: Alvarinho, Arinto, Avesso, Azal, Loureiro, Trajadura.
BIT OF ALL WHITE
From gastropub to Michelin-starred eatery, our experts pick out their top Portuguese whites
Gerry Price, The Inn at West End
Niepoort Redoma Branco Reserva 2010, Douro. £27.50*, Raymond Reynolds
Food match: Gurnard with samphire or pork with apple and black pudding sauce.
Lionel Perrier, The Wheatsheaf
Aphros Loureiro 2011, Vinho Verde. £8.50, Les Caves de Pyrène
Food match: Prawns, oysters and smoked salmon.
Charlie Young, Vinoteca
Quinta de Paços Morgado do Perdigão 2011, Vinho Verde. £6.90, Casa Leal
Food match: Shellfish and squid.
Rachel Higgins, Flinty Red
Quinta da Raza Vinho Verde Branco, Vinho Verde. £8.70, Raymond Reynolds
Food match: Ricotta-stuffed deep-fried courgette flowers.
Steve Chesterfield, Eyre Bros
Quinta do Ameal Loureiro 2011, Vinho Verde. £12.30*, Raymond Reynolds
Food match: Simple grilled fish, bacalão, jamón and vegetables.
Victor Amaro, Hotel du Vin Tunbridge Wells
Dona Paterna Alvarinho 2010, Vinho Verde. £8.30, Atlantico
Food match: Shellfish.
Christophe Richelet, Viajante
Julia Kemper Branco 2011, Dão. £11.14, Alliance Wine
Food match: Grilled meats with fresh herbs.
Adam Pawlowski, Northcote Manor
Quinta da Soalheiro Alvarinho 2011/12, Vinho Verde. £14.40*, Raymond Reynolds
Food match: Marinated or grilled sardines, prawns, mussels and elegant white fish dishes.
Matthieu Longuere MS, La Trompette
Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas Bical 2011, Bairrada. £10.90, Raymond Reynolds
Food match: Roast sea bass, black rice, broccoli, Dorset crab and tarragon.
Diana Rollan, Hakkasan
Filipa Pato Bossa Branco 2012, Bairrada. £7.10, Clark Foyster Wines
Food match: Tofu, aubergine and Japanese mushroom claypot with chilli and black bean sauce.