It is a truth universally acknowledged amongst wine-producing countries that each should have a red and white signature grape variety on which to build their reputation, and which consumers immediately associate with that country itself. France and Italy have too many well-known varieties and regions to mention. Spain has Tempranillo and, over the past decade or so, has given Albariño global recognition. Austria has Blaufränkisch and of course, Grüner Veltliner. Germany, Riesling and Pinot Noir. The list goes on.
But what of Portugal, famous for having some 350 indigenous varieties? The explosion in red wine production in the Douro conferred fame on Touriga Nacional, which despite its key historic role in Port production actually has its origins in Dão. Eventually, Touriga Nacional has now become vinously synonymous with Portugal.
But the hunt for a defining white variety continues. Alvarinho is a contender, with producers like Anselmo Mendes showing just how impressive it can be in the right hands, but this really only grows well in the Minho, Vinho Verde country, and it just wouldn’t do for Portugal to share the same signature variety as Spain.
Other contenders include Loureiro, also from the Minho, adaptable Arinto or Fernão Pires (present across most of Portugal) as well as aromatic Alentejo variety Antão Vaz and fragrant Douro variety Viosinho.
Encruzado, queen of whites
But for long-term fans of the Dão region, it’s clearly Encruzado that should win the prize, because of its capacity to deliver balanced, full-bodied but aromatic wines, with great acidity and a structure that encourages judicious ageing. ViniPortugal – the interprofessional association of the Portuguese wine industry – compares Encuzado wines to aged white Burgundies and to Vermentinos, saying the grape can ‘make exceptional white wines [that] are voluptuous and complex with aromatic mineral notes and tropical fruit’.
The Dao region has huge potential for white wine, with Encruzado leading the way
Many of these characteristics were on show at a recent tasting in London, organised by the Dão Wine Commission. Encruzado varietal wines and blends – usually with Bical or Malvasia Fina – featured strongly, with diverse wines from renowned producers Casa da Passarella, Quinta dos Roques, Quinta de Cabriz and Quinta dos Carvalhais all demonstrating its versatility, almost overshadowing wines made from red grapes Touriga Nacional, Alfrocheiro and Jaén.
‘The Dao region has huge potential for white wine, with Encruzado leading the way,’ claims Pedro Mendoza, CEO of Solar do Vinho do Dão, who says that although 80% of the region’s production is currently red, this is changing as demand for local white varieties like Encruzado grows.
‘Encruzado has been in our region for years, but now there is increasing focus on it, from abroad and elsewhere in Portugal. It is as if we had a treasure all along, but it has been rediscovered for us,’ he says.
Great ageing potential
Mendoza says that although Encruzado drinks well when young, the real joys come with age. This reflects Dão’s altitude and granitic soils – sandy decomposed granite soils dominate although the region also has clays and some schist – but also the climate; although just 5% of Dão is planted with vines, these are protected from the harsh continental climate to the east and the Atlantic influences to the west, and benefit from plentiful rainfall, as anyone who has visited Viseu, the region’s capital, in winter can confirm. The result is wines that are fresh and bright when young, but increasingly complex as ageing progresses.
‘Early on, aromas can be muted, but after a few years, everything comes together; the wines become very mineral and very forceful, the evolution can be remarkable,’ he says, recalling a 1964 Encruzado he tried recently which he said had lost little of its fruit and none of its complexity.
Much of the success of Encruzado today must be attributed to Manuel Vieira, head winemaker at Quinta dos Carvalhais – owned by Sogrape – until his retirement three years ago. Under Vieira, Carvalhais did much to encourage the modernisation of production across Dão over the 1990s, but also made the first single varietal wine from Encruzado back in 1992, some 50 years after the variety was first formally documented.
‘I’d say that Carvalhais has been among the most important producers in carving out a quality niche for Encruzado,’ says David Gleave, managing director of Liberty Wines, which imports the full Carvalhais range as well as popular Portuguese entry level brand Grão Vasco, all now overseen by Sogrape’s Antonio Braga. Gleave says Vieira’s decision to plant the variety back in 1990 and to pay growers good prices for the grapes, encouraged its renaissance and its emergence as a key Portuguese variety.
Others agree. ‘Encruzado is an extremely adaptable grape in terms of terroir, vinification, and also age-worthiness. It has certainly proved its worth, whether standalone or in blends, ripening well and retaining acidity. It also has a good propensity for barrel-fermentation and ageing, or both,’ explains Jo Locke MW, Portugal buyer for the Wine Society, which as well as Carvalhais imports wines from Ribeiro Santo.
I’d say that Carvalhais has been among the most important producers in carving out a quality niche for Encruzado
Andrew Chudley of Davy’s Wine Merchants, which this year started importing the Somontes range from casa da Passarella – made by winemaker Paulo Nunes, named as Portuguese Winemaker of the Year in 2018 – claims that some Encruzado rival top Burgundies in both taste and style.
‘It seems to have all the right ingredients – from delicate apple and citrus mineral styles to wonderful tropical fruit, voluptuous and textured,’ he says, ‘all styles tend to be fresh – imparted by the acidity of the grape and in many cases enhanced by altitude. Encruzado also has natural affinity to oak (my favourite style), takes to lees-ageing and with age develops beautiful nutty and pine resin character’.
For the on-trade, the appeal of the variety has been both its ‘otherness’ and its Burgundian sophistication, which might be why Branco Especial, Quinta dos Carvalhais’ high-end blend of Encruzado, Gouveio and Semillon has done very well in the likes of the Ledbury and Bibendum.
‘The Semillon-like texture it takes on with age makes it a great match with a wide range of fairly delicate dishes... I think its appeal lies in its delicacy, its affinity with oak and its ability to age. For sommeliers or independent wine merchants, it is ideal as it does need to be hand sold, something at which they excel,’ says Liberty’s Gleave.
Portugal's white counterpart to Touriga Nacional?
According to Chudley, ‘Dao is predominantly a region of blends so I can’t see why it couldn’t lead the way in single varietal whites and become the region’s signature grape.’
Gleave echoes this, stressing the variety’s elegance and subtlety and its age-worthiness: ‘As with Italy, Portugal’s great diversity of soils and climates makes it difficult for one variety to emerge as leader. Encruzado would struggle in areas where Alvarinho excels, and vice versa. This is, to my mind, one of Portugal’s great strengths. However, along with Arinto and Alvarinho, Encruzado is certainly one of THE Portuguese white varieties.’
Eight Great Encruzados for your list
Casa da Passarella, available in the UK through Enotria, makes a range of Encruzados but the most impressive must be the Villa Oliveira Encruzado, currently in the 2014 vintage. Part-fermented on the skins in cement before being pressed and transferred to oak barrels to complete fermentation, this is aged for nine months in oak, making for a complex, long taste, with tantalising hints of marzipan. This is the old-fashioned way of wine-making here, and the result is delicious.
Passarella are also behind the good-value Somontes brand (through Davys Wine Cellars), and their Encruzado 2015 is a fine example of the variety, with the mountain vineyards in the Serra da Estrela giving the wine extra zing and freshness. Appealing and moreish.
As you might expect, Niepoort (Raymond Reynolds) – who started making wines in the Dão (and Barraida) a few years ago – has his own take on things, and his Conciso Branco 2016 – a blend of Encruzado with Bical and Malvasia Fina – is very him; low alcohol (11.5%) light but complex and serious, this has good acidity thanks in part to early picking.
Again through Raymond Reynolds, Casa de Mouraz Branco 2017 is a field blend of at least nine local varieties, led by Encruzado, this takes the Dão’s reputation for blended wines to new heights. Young, very vibrant and appealing. Quinta Dos Roques Encruzado 2016 is instead a classic take on the variety, benefitting from fermentation in French oak and stainless steel. Good balance with lots of weight and character.
Given its key role in the renaissance of Encruzado, it is unsurprising that Sogrape’s Quinta dos Carvalhais (Liberty Wines) has several impressive, distinct takes on the variety. The Colheita Branco 2017 is very appealing, with strong acidity but lots of warm buttery fruit already coming through (ageing is in stainless steel and oak): 60% Encruzado, 40% Gouveio. At the other extreme the golden-coloured NV Branco Especial is – as its name suggests – a very special blend of Encruzado, Gouveio and Semillon. Taken from 13 lots from a range of vintages (a Dão tradition) most of which are at least 10 years old, the result is a complex and unusual wine. The Encruzado 2018 – priced mid-way between the above two wines – is quite rounded, classic in style but with lots of character and pizzazz. Winemaker Beatriz Cabral de Almeida has bought a real confidence to these wines, which are almost Burgundian in expression.