spotlight on portugal and galicia
Over the last 30 years, wine has become increasingly homogeneous. Walk into any store, whether a supermarket or an independent retailer, and you'll find rows of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. For the general consumer, there are clear advantages: familiarity, consistency, and quality. However, it doesn't encourage experimentation, which is a great pity as there are so many opportunities to try something new or different.
As anyone will know who owns the mammoth Wine Grapes book, co-edited by Jancis Robinson, there are well over 1,300 distinct grape varieties, which gives an idea of the possibilities in producing many different styles and types of wine.
Trying wines made from local, or indigenous, varieties, allows us to explore the history and culture of a region as well as support winemakers who want to uphold traditional grape-growing and winemaking practices. There's nothing wrong with Pinot Noir or Chardonnay—I drink those wines all the time—but they are made everywhere; instead, let's explore wines with a clear local, regional identity.
Although northern Portugal and Galicia of course have their own separate identities, they border each other and there is a huge overlap in the grape varieties grown there—even if they have different names (an occupational hazard in both Spain and Portugal in general).
The most famous internationally is Albariño, as it's called in Rías Baixas, or Alvarinho, as it's called in Portugal's Vinho Verde. Although it's well-known now, Albariño had been forgotten about as after phylloxera Palomino was planted instead. The quality and reputation of Rías Baixas rose after replantings of Albariño in the late 1970s and 80s. This is an example of how varieties not really suited to a region result in generic wines, while a local, historic variety is much more expressive and individual. And now Albariño has become a byword for quality, aromatic, high acid white wines and is planted internationally. (Check out the white made in Washington by Analemma which is an Albariño-Godello dominant blend.)
But it's not just white wines: blackpoolmatt's wine club has recently taken on a red blend from the Ribeiro region in Galicia, made from local varieties also grown in northern Portugal. The wine is called "O Alborexar," which means "the dawn" in gallego, and comes from the small mountainous Ribeiro region where there are just 3,000ha planted. The blend is of four varieties: Sousón, Ferrón, Caiño Tinto, and Brancellao, all also planted in Portugal with slightly different names.
The lack of familiarity may be unnerving, but those varieties have been planted in the area for centuries. And, in fact, they're not always as obscure as may seem at first: Sousón is the same as the Portuguese Sousão, used for port and planted for port-style wines in California since the nineteenth century.
The wine is made by Antonio Moreno who is committed to preserving—but also evolving—the tradition of the Ribeiro region. Both his father and grandfather were also called Antonio, giving a sense of their continued, ongoing identity which is reflected in Antonio's attitude to grape-growing and winemaking. The easy option might be to plant a well-known international variety such as Syrah, but why produce wine that is already made to high levels of quality elsewhere?
Moving down to Portugal, a country of just 10 million people, there are around 250 indigenous grape varieties. The tradition is to blend, in part because there are so many varieties but also because vineyards are often small field blends of many different varieties. This makes Portuguese wine a difficult sell sometimes, due to the international trend for varietally labeled wine. But it also makes Portuguese wine unique.
Luis Seabra is a renowned winemaker working in the Dão region, in warm, inland Portugal. He has joined a new label called Textura which has only recently been imported into the USA. The white is a blend of Encruzado and Bical, both local to the area. Encruzado is one of my favorite Portuguese white varieties, with a rich, round mouthfeel not dissimilar to white Burgundy; Bical is also aromatic, with fresh acidity. In such a warm region, the ability for a variety to maintain its acidity is all important, which is why having plantings of indigenous varieties is so significant as they have developed over the centuries to adapt to the local climate.
Another new producer to blackpoolmatt's wine club is Muxagat, which is owned by Susana Lopes with, again, the help of Luis Seabra. The wines come from close to the Spanish border in Douro Superior. The white is another blend: 60% Rabigato, 20% Arinto, and 10% Gouveio (Godello in Galicia). Rabigato means "cat's tail" due to its long clusters and maintains acidity in a warm climate; Arinto also maintains acidity and can be made in a wide range of styles; Gouveio can be confused with Chardonnay in its texture, depending on how it's been made. Blending these varieties together creates a wine which is balanced and complex, and showcases the different elements each variety brings to the blend.
It isn't just Portugal and Galicia that lead the way in making wines from indigenous varieties. Countries such as Greece and Italy follow similar patterns. In all these cases, indigenous varieties show how having adapted to local conditions has made them ideal for quality wine. They also let us delve into the history, culture, and people of these historic regions, which sums up the joy of wine.