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May 1, 2011

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Portuguese back on the rise

PORTUGAL'S wine history has seen many ups and downs with the downs decidedly prevalent over the past century, although a recent renaissance has restored intrigue in them. About 8 percent of the land in Portugal is planted with vineyards and there are more than 500 native varieties of grapes, which is confusing even to wine experts and has hurt consumption in the nation with one of the largest per capita consumption rates of wine.

Some historians claim that tribes from the Iberian Peninsula including Portugal fermented wild grapes 7,000 years ago. However, the first verifiable instance of winemaking in Portugal was by the Tartessian traders in 2000 BC, whose mysterious culture has been linked to tales of the lost city of Atlantis and was famed for their love of wine and wild parties. The Phoenicians followed them and brought new varieties from Greece and the Middle East. The Celts and Greeks also settled in the area and brought their indigenous vines. But it was the Romans that first made winemaking a major industry in the area.

Since the Treaty of Windsor in 1386, the English have played a principal role in the development of the Portuguese wine industry. The numerous wars between the French and English caused the English to prohibit French wines or heavily tax them on numerous occasions between the 14th and 18th centuries. The 1703 Methuen Treaty further solidified trading between the nations and benefited the Portuguese wine industry. The English were also key players in developing the style and popularity of Portugal's most famous wine, Port. Aside from trade with England, the Portuguese wine industry has historically been quite isolated and insular.

Noted Regions

A huge though not distinguished success of the Portuguese wine industry was the popularity of the Mateus and Lancers wines last century. Along with the esteemed Port wines, these simple and sweet rose wines account for nearly 70 percent of Portuguese wine exports. But it's the high-quality dry white, rose and red wines from small to medium-size producers that are exciting the wine world today. The quality revolution began when Portugal joined the European Union in 1985. The rise of smaller wineries, subsidized by the EU, lead to experimentation with new varieties and techniques. So what should consumers look for to pick the right Portuguese wines?

There are several regions in Portugal noted for their wines. The Douro Valley is not only the largest wine region in the country but also the oldest. In 1756, the Marquis of Pombal created the appellation system Regiao Demarcada do Douro (demarcated region of Douro). This was nearly two centuries before the French initiated their AOC system. Today, in addition to Port which also comes from this region, Douro makes many of the best dry wines of Portugal. The Dao region is best-known for powerful and tannic red wines though some producers are experimenting with lighter more fruity wines. The Bucelas region is making some lovely full-bodied white wines while the Vinho Verde is now making delightfully fresh and clean white wines.

Knowing the country's 500-plus indigenous grape varieties is one of the most daunting tasks in appreciating Portuguese wines. In fact, many older vineyards may be planted with multiple grapes so identifying the grapes of the resulting wines is impossible, even for the producers. These field blend wines may be interesting but vary wildly in quality. Newer vineyards are almost always planted with one variety which will make things easier for both winemakers and consumers.

Knowing the producer is one of the most reliable ways to pick a wine and here are some whose wines you can find in Shanghai. Post Scriptum is a joint venture between the Port giant Symington and famous Bordeaux winemaker Bruno Prats that makes beautifully crafted red wines. Caves Alianca with the help of French wine consultant Michel Rolland has a range of good-value, well-made white, rose and red wines. Another venture of Symington is a wholly owned company, Symington Family Estates that offers a range of fine reds from the Douro Valley.


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