Peter Ranscombe hits the trail to find out what makes Portugal’s wine so special.
IT WASN’T the grapes that first brought Peter Bright to Portugal – it was the surfing.
Winemakers seem to have an affinity for the waves, no matter whether they’re from California or South Africa or Australia.
Bright’s first visit to Portugal was in 1974, four years before he made his first wine.
He was part of the first generation of Australian “flying winemakers” who brought fresh winemaking ideas and techniques from the “new world” back to the “old world”.
Think The Flying Doctors, but with dirtier hands and without the cheesy 80s theme tune.
Portugal clearly left an impression on Bright – back in 2004, he joined forces with two former co-operative grape farmers to create Terra d’Alter, a brand dedicated to banging the drum for the Alto Alentejo region’s native grape varieties, which is now being stocked by The Wine Line.
The company now grows 15 varieties spread across 90 hectares of its own vineyards, and buys a dozen varieties from other farmers caring for a further 30ha.
“I was fascinated about why Portuguese wines tasted different,” explained Bright last week during part one of an online tasting run by Diana Thompson as the latest installment in her Wine Events Scotland winemaker series, which continues next month with De Wet Viljoen from Neethlingshof in South Africa.
“It was the grape varieties.”
Bright praised the country’s “unique varieties”, which trace their roots back to a mixture of French and Moorish influences, with myriad genetic crossings along the way.
He pointed out that there was little interest in separating out all those different grapes to make single varietal wines after António de Oliveira Salazar’s dictatorship began in the 1930s.
Some 80% of the country’s wine production was controlled by co-ops, with grapes hurled into common baskets, and vineyards planted using cuttings from neighbours’ fields with no regard for the variety or varieties being used.
Now, Bright wants to blow the trumpet for the country’s distinctive varieties – in a world of generic chardonnay, shiraz, and other “international” varieties, it’s a refreshing tune.
His 2019 Terra d’Alter Encruzado (£11.50, The Wine Line) is a perfect example – sniffing its aromas is like opening a box of Turkish delight, with peach, lemon sherbet, and rose notes, reminiscent of gewürztraminer.
It’s rich and round on the palate, with its peach, red apple, and brown sugar flavours balanced by its crisp acidity.
The 2019 Terra d’Alter Verdelho (£11.50) is a fascinating mix of expressive lemon and red apple on the nose, with guava, honey, woodsmoke, and cream.
Peach joins apple on the palate to balance the fresh acidity, while there’s a delightful tangy salted almond note on the finish – verdelho might be more familiar from its Spanish incarnations, but this is a distinctive interpretation.
Rounding off Bright’s trio of whites last week was his 2019 Terra d’Alter Branco Reserva (£16.50), a blend of six varieties that delivers a complex aromas of woodsmoke, vanilla, pear, green apple, and lemon.
Burgundy fans should enjoy its combination of pear, lemon, and cream on the palate, with well-integrated acidity and a lemon rind-like texture, which would lend itself to roast chicken or meaty white fish.
One for the Rioja fans
Its white sibling, the 2017 Terra d’Alter Tinto Reserva (£16.50), will similarly appeal to Rioja fans thanks to its dark chocolate, vanilla, and blackberry aromas and flavours, with cigar smoke and leather already starting to develop on the nose.
That Rioja-like character made a lot more sense after Bright revealed that he uses older American barrels to age the wine, the same defining feature as Spain’s red talisman.
While the reserve is made from a wide-ranging blend of grapes, Bright’s other two red wines this evening again focused on single varietals.
His 2019 Terra d’Alter Alfrocheiro (£11.50) – or “Alf” to its friends – is billed as the “pinot of Portugal”, although I found it more gamay-like, with its black cherry aromas, fresh acidity, and mix of sweet raspberry and sour balsamic vinegar flavours.
Again, Bright’s big reveal was that he uses the carbonic maceration technique favoured in gamay’s homeland of Beaujolais – he clearly has a deep understanding of which winemaking methods are best suited to each of his varieties.
One of his most-interesting stories over the two sessions was how the Alicante Bouschet he used in his 2018 Terra d’Alter Alicante Bouschet (£11.50) got its name – plant breeder Louis Bouschet crossed “Alicante”, the 19th century name for grenache, with his own “Petit Bouschet” creation, with its distinctive red pulp and juice.
Bright’s interpretation smelt of dark chocolate, damp earth, and wood smoke – a heady and attractive mix – which then led onto sweet blackcurrant jam, spicy cloves and grainy yet well-integrated tannins on the palate.
*Prices and stockist updated on 2 April 2021.
Read more of Peter’s wine, beer and spirits reviews on his blog, The Grape & The Grain