Blending Portuguese Red Wine

The Portuguese Red Blend is a flexible term used to describe the numerous and varied compositions of blended red wines made from indigenous Portuguese grape varieties.

They are friendly, they’re cheap and they’re easy to drink; three very good reasons domestic red blends are some of the most sought-after wines in the market today. Although blended reds aren’t new (they’ve been produced for centuries all over the world) thanks to a number of talented winemakers and even more-clever wine marketers, these wines are a seemingly unstoppable trend.

The Portuguese Red Blend is a flexible term used to describe the numerous and varied compositions of blended red wines made from indigenous Portuguese grape varieties. Portugal is famous for the fortified Port wines of Douro, but also notorious for having hundreds of different grape varieties planted within its borders.

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Take the case for instance of Douro wine, where we have been recently: there are three sub-regions of the Douro Valley – the Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior – all of which get different exposure to the sun, varying amounts of rainfall and therefore produce grapes of assorted quality. When blended, the wines from these three areas benefit from and contribute to each other in a way that generates a more powerful, well-rounded wine. During our visit I found it fascinating to see how intricately the winemakers know every inch of their land and understand where the strengths and weaknesses can be best utilized in the different styles of wine they make.

Historically the vineyards in the Douro were planted with a mix of indigenous grape varieties (up to a staggering 90 varieties are permitted for use in port), and many vineyards still are, to the point where the owners and winemakers aren’t sure exactly how many varieties are growing in any one of their vineyards. This higgledy-piggledy planting is referred to as a ‘field blend’ and is a notable element of port.

Varieties such as Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz (Portugal’s name for Tempranillo) are relatively well known and frequently produced as varietal wines, although blended red wines are much more common. The workhorse varieties Touriga Franca and Tinta Barroca are typically joined by any number of regional specialties such as Castelao, Sousao, Trincadeira das Pratas, Baga, Alfrocheiro Preto and many others. The international varieties Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are also included in red wine blends with increasing frequency.

Traditionally, these wines have been labeled according to the region in which they were grown, rather than the varietal composition of their contents. However, blending practices in Portuguese wine are not as overwhelmingly complex as they once were and modern labeling conventions have helped to demystify the country’s winemaking. Wines that were at one time simply labeled Douro or Dao started to contain (more or less 20 years ago) some text on the rear label explaining the bottle’s composition and proportions to the consumer.

We had the great pleasure to sit around the kitchen table and enjoy a traditional harvest worker’s lunch with the charming and hospitable Johnny Graham, founder of Churchill’s. He was so enthusiastic to share with us his point of view of wines from the region. He said: “True port is all about blending. A blend of different vineyards creates power and the ability of a wine to age for decades.”

So in addition to a mélange of grape varieties, wines from different regions are also put together to make the most of the best aspects of each one. In fact, some may say that this sort of regional blend is the true expression of terroir as it encompasses a larger area than a single vineyard and therefore is more representative of place.

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