In the minds of many epicureans, Portugal is associated with just one wine: port. But now Portugal's riding a new wave - table wine.
Port has been Portugal’s signature fortified wine since the late 17th century. Much of it was (and still is) shipped to England for consumption by Savile Row-suited men in wood-paneled clubs, where the Aubusson-deadened hush is interrupted only by the sound of the pages of The Financial Times being carefully turned.

Fortunately, in the past decade or so, port has progressed beyond this almost unbearably stuffy image and has started to appeal to a younger, hipper crowd. But now there’s a new wave of wine coming from Portugal — not port at all — table wine. (“Table wine,” just to clear up a common misconception, is not a synonym for inexpensive wine. It simply means wine that’s meant to accompany food at the table.) Many of these Portuguese table wines are made from the same grapes — Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca — that go into port, giving them an intriguingly familiar flavor profile.

Large port producers such as Symington are now making table wines, too, and outside investors (including the Rothschilds of Lafite) have established wineries in promising regions such as the Alentejo in south central Portugal and the Douro in the north. These are just three of the exciting wines helping set Portugal on a new tack.

QUINTA DO CARMO 1998
Various branches of the large and complex Rothschild family either own or have an interest in several major wine estates throughout the world. The Lafite branch of the family, headed by Baron Eric de Rothschild, is involved in Los Vascos in Chile, has also partnered with Catena in a new Argentine wine called Caro, and is part owners of the Chalone Wine Group in California. Quinta do Carmo, which once belonged to the Portuguese royal family, has been the family’s Portuguese endeavor since 1992.

Like most of the newer Portuguese table wines, the lush and generous Quinta do Carmo is a blend. None of the grape varieties used are noted for single-varietal wines, but together they contribute complex flavors of plum, spice, and fruit. The wine is greater than the sum of its parts, and the finish is long and lovely, with a tinge of French oak from barrels that come mostly from the Château Lafite cooperage.

QUINTA DO CRASTO 2000


The Romans first came to what is now Portugal in pursuit of their archenemies, the Carthaginians. Winemaking in this part of the world (the Roman province called Lusitania) dates back many, many centuries. Tradition is strong, and things change slowly here. Quinta do Crasto, in the Douro region, has been growing grapes commercially since the early 17th century. Until very recently, the grapes went entirely into port, but in 1994, the estate began bottling its own table wine. Although Quinta do Crasto is still committed to port, the estate’s well-made and fairly priced table wines are now becoming better known.

This wine, a blend of the region’s workhorse Tinta Roriz grape, with smaller amounts of Tinta Barroca and Touriga Francesa, delivers lots of bright black-raspberry fruit. Its tangy acidity and fresh, racy finish make it an excellent wine to accompany the rustic, hearty cuisine of Portugal.

MARQUÊS DE BORBA RESERVA


Winemaker Joáo Portugal Ramos is at the forefront of Portugal’s new wave of oenology. After working as a consultant for other estates, Ramos decided to concentrate on his own winery. The estate, near the town of Estremoz in the Alentejo, has 140 acres of dedicated vines. It boasts state-of-the-art technical facilities, but like many traditional Portuguese wineries, it also has large stone vats, called lagares, for treading grapes by foot.

Portugal is one of the few places left in the world where foot-treading is still practiced. One of the main advantages is that the grape skins are pulverized against the stone floor, releasing color. (Given the difficulty these days of finding people willing to jump into a vat of ripe grapes, some innovative wineries have come up with mechanical lagares that achieve the same effect.) Ramos’ Marquês de Borba Reserva includes several native Portuguese varieties, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Alicante Bouchet.


buyer’s guide


quinta do carmo 1998;
plummy and complex
try it with steaks or chops
www.pasternakwine.com

quinta do crasto 2000;
bright and racy
pair it with rustic portuguese cuisine
www.broadbent-wines.com

marquês de borba reserva 1999;
gorgeous and intense
a perfect match with game
www.signatureimports.com