Wine Club: Voyage of discovery

Christine Austin opens the Pandora’s Box of good taste that is this country’s range of distinct grape varieties.

Portuguese vineyard workers take a lunch break
Portuguese vineyard workers take a lunch break

One thing I really like about wines from Portugal is that they are made from different grape varieties. While there are patches of Cabernet and Chardonnay grown in parts of the Alentejo in Portugal, the main grape varieties rejoice in complicated names such as Fernão Pires, Antão Vaz and Aragonez. Not only are these difficult to remember and pronounce, they are old varieties that have been growing in various parts of Portugal for generations.

Over that time producers have found the best places to plant them, discovered the best clones – sometimes by the simple method of propagating the healthiest vines in a plot, and then winemakers have worked out ways to make the most of these distinctive flavours. Trying a few Portuguese wines is like opening a Pandora’s box of good taste.

The best way to start a Portuguese wine adventure is to try the Tagus Creek range of wines. They are made from a blend of international grapes with local varieties to act as a halfway house for your tastebuds. There is a white Chardonnay and Fernão Pires with notes of lemon and apricot, crisp and food friendly. The rosé is made from Shiraz and Touriga Nacional and has ripe, summer fruit flavours, but my all-time favourite in the range is the red, Shiraz and Trincadeira 2012 that won the Regional Trophy in the 2013 Decanter World Wine Awards. It is packed with juicy, red-berry fruits, clean and lively with just a hint of spice, making it perfect to enjoy as the barbecue warms up and then alongside a teriyaki-spiced kebab. The whole Tagus Creek range is stocked at Asda at around £6.25 but the red is on offer at just £4.50 until the end of this month. Get some stock in if the home-coming students are planning to drink your cellar dry this summer.

Once you have stepped into Portuguese wine territory then the wines of João Portugal Ramos (JPR for short) should be your next port of call. He is a winemaker who started out consulting for various wineries and has now expanded his work so that he has his own modern winery as well as working with other Portuguese winemakers in different parts of Portugal. Using mainly Portuguese grape varieties, he has lifted the quality of a huge number of wines as well as raising the overall perception of Portugal as a winemaking country.

Marquês de Borba is a pair of wines from Alentejo made by JPR from mainly local varieties. The white is a blend of crisp Arinto, with rounded Antão Vaz and a splash of Viognier adding aromatic notes. The result is a wine with smooth melon fruit and crisp citrus notes which would be terrific with summer salads if only it could be found in Yorkshire. Tanners of Shrewsbury is the nearest stockist at £8.95. The red version of Marquês de Borba is available at The Halifax Wine Company at £10.35 and I like it for its joyful, lively blackberry and pepper spiced fruit.

With the signature of the winemaker on the label there is no mistaking Ramos Reserva 2012 as the work of JPR. Made from local grapes Trincadeira and Aragonez with a splash of Syrah this comes from the warm, dry, inland area of Alentejo and at £7.64 on multibuy at Majestic provides some of the best good value drinking from Portugal. With dark berried fruit, hints of damsons,

chocolate and spice but with smooth, elegant tannins it can face up to a grilled steak or a spicy sausage.

Made from a similar blend of grapes but with Syrah replaced by local grape Castelão, Waitrose has the quite serious-style F’Oz 2012 (£9.99) also from the Alentejo. Its lush, plummy fruit and a definite sprinkle of spice provides a more authentic taste of Portugal and its clear acidity will cut through roast pork or grilled lamb.

Also from Alentejo, but this time made by Australian winemaker David Baverstock, Monte Velho 2012 white wine is another great value addition to any wine rack. It comes from Esporão, a huge, well-funded estate, where in the past I have found some of the whites to be slightly overwhelmed by oak.

Not anymore. This 2012 version is perfectly balanced with honeyed, apricot-edged fruit and a crisp, yet rounded finish. Definitely a food wine, this will go with a slow-roasted pork belly, lightly spiced monkfish or a creamy, mushroom quiche. If anyone can tell me of a local stockist I would be delighted, otherwise The Wine Society (£6.75) is your port of call for this gem.

Sometimes, being in the wine trade encourages you to think that there can be nothing better than to spend your hard-earned money on a vineyard in your favourite wine region. Most of these ventures fall flat on their faces because, as everyone knows, there is a massive difference between writing about wine and actually making it. For specialist Portuguese wine writer Richard Mayson this difference hit home in a big way in the first few years of his development of a vineyard at Quinta do Centro in the Portalegre district of north-east Alentejo. The name of the wine explains the problem, Pedra Basta, meaning “enough stones”, because the site is very stony, but this is good for quality, although it is difficult to work. Now nine years into the project and in partnership with winemaker Rui Reguinga he has just released the new vintages of his wines.

Duas Pedras 2012 (£10.95) is made from Touriga Nacional, Syrah and Viognier from young vines, planted in 2006. Bottled without any oak it is a rounded, smooth wine with damsons, chocolate and spice harmoniously balanced and it can be enjoyed on its own, but works well with a chunk of cheddar. Pedra Basta 2010 (£14.50) is Trincadeira, Aragonez and Alicante Bouschet with a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon, oak aged for one year.This has delicious deep, dark fruit flavours, again harmonious but with intensity and structure. Both wines are available at new Sheffield merchant StarmoreBoss on Sharrow Vale Road, tel. 0114 4534087.