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Weird and wonderful grape varieties

“Some of the wines are available in the UK; others are so rare it is unlikely that you will be able to find much literature on them,” said the email from an MW. I’d have gone a long way and spent hours in a cold, damp cellar to taste the wines made from these grape varieties, but I didn’t have to. They were going to be served at a six-course dinner in the private dining room of Gordon Ramsay’s Savoy Grill. It was not an invitation to turn down. So I didn’t. Nor did the President of Vini Portugal and the President of Portugal’s Vine & Wine Institute. They came to the UK specially. And yes, you’ve picked up the blindingly obvious clue: the grape varieties and wines were all Portuguese. The full title of the event was “Hidden Gems of Portugal: rare, undiscovered and exotic grape varieties”.

Everyone talks about Portugal’s treasure-trove of indigenous grape varieties and we see some of them in the UK, but many others are emerging or re-emerging only now and often in the tiniest quantities. Take the white Samarrinho: there are just 2.5 hectares in all Portugal, although the producer, Real Companhia Velha in the Douro, is doubling plantings this year. So that’ll make 5ha. Steady on. David Baverstock, an Australian at the forefront of winemaking in Portugal for 25 years, has 188 different grape varieties at the Esporão estate he heads, but he hadn’t heard of Samarrinho until he was involved in the selection process for the wines for the dinner. The first vintage of Real Companhia Velha’s Quinta do Síbio Samarrinho was 2013, and the 2014 vintage was scuppered by the weather, so it’s very much a work in progress but an exciting one.

"There is one known Jampal wine: amazingly you can buy it in the UK"

In comparison, plantings of Jampal, another white variety, look almost lavish in comparison. There are a princely 32ha, mostly around Lisbon, but there’s only one all-Jampal wine, as far as anyone knows: Manz’s Dona Fátima Jampal 2014 from the Lisboa sub-region of Cheleiros. Amazingly, you can buy it in the UK. The enterprising Oddbins has the 2014 at £16.50 and it’s worth every penny, not just to taste a rarity but because it’s a dry white wine of real interest. It’s oak-aged for six months and the creamy nuttiness that complements the candied citrus fruit and minerality has an almost Burgundian feel.

Another of the whites was Verdelho, a familiar name from Madeira, but there is much less planted than there used to be. Today there are 520ha altogether on the mainland and islands, including significant amounts in the Azores. The wine we tasted was the Azores Wine Company’s O Original Verdelho 2015 from Pico. Pico’s volcanic soils may be rocky and unforgiving but the wine is an unoaked delight, with racy green-apple, pear and lime-cordial intensity and a salty, smoky minerality (£35, Red Squirrel Wine).

"Deep trenches have to be dug in Colares' sand for the Ramisco vines"

Among reds, Ramisco is a grape variety that used to produce 1m litres a year and now covers a mere 4.7ha, almost all in Colares, the region east of Lisbon where it originated. It’s not an easy variety: deep trenches have to be dug for the vines to establish themselves in the sand and coastal humidity means that disease is always threatening. As a result the grapes are often picked early when sugar levels are low and acidity and tannin levels are fierce, but good Colares, all bottled in 50cl since 1999, is very long-lived. We tasted a 2007 from Adega Viuva Gomes and it was still a juvenile.

At 4100ha, Alicante Bouschet was the most widely planted variety of the 13 we tasted. It’s French in origin, but Portugal has long since adopted it, especially in Alentejo. It can produce vast yields, but if the reins are applied it can give long-lived, fine wines. The most famous is the foot-trodden, long-matured Mouchão. We tasted the dense, dark-berry and savoury flavoured 2011 which is just appearing in the UK (£29.95 The Halifax Wine Co).

Menu and wines

Altogether we tasted eight whites and five reds. The white varieties were Avesso, Azal, Bical, Códega do Larinho, Jampal, Loureiro, Samarrinho and Verdelho. The reds were Alicante Bouschet, Ramisco, Rufete, Sousão and Tinta Grossa. They had been whittled down from more than 100. Some that missed the cut (on this occasion) were Alfrocheiro, Tinta Francisca, Sercialinho, Viosinho and Rabigato. I can only hope that London-based Brazilian Master of Wine, Dirceu Vianna Junior, who organized the event, is now working on a follow-up. And I can only urge you to go, try Portuguese wines. In addition to retailers already mentioned (Oddbins, Red Squirrel, Halifax Wine Company), it’s worth exploring The Wine Society, Lea & Sandeman, Tanners, Waitrose and Majestic.

The menu (right) specially chosen to accompany the wines for at the dinner in the private dining room of Gordon Ramsay's Savoy Grill

All photographs by Joanna Simon

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