Going against the grain…or rather the grape: Richard Ashton on his unconventional approach to establishing a vineyard in Portugal
Saucy Dressings makes a big effort to find interesting, unusual…downright extraordinary guest contributors and this month’s contributor more than fits that bill. As part of a house-building project in Northern Portugal, Richard and Linda Ashton acquired a plot of land which Richard thought suitable for a small vineyard. Not wanting to make the local styles of wine, and not being bound by commercial constraints, he ignored local traditions and planted vines that he thinks should prosper in the conditions and produce wines with some ageing potential. With no previous growing or wine-making experience, he tells me disarmingly that he can’t be sure of anything more than some very expensive vinegar, but after a small production run last October, the signs are encouraging. Now in its fourth year, the vineyard is about to produce its first sizeable crop.
It’s hard work obviously – the featured photograph shows Richard keeping an eye on the vines from a strategically placed hammock.
The Portuguese grape – Touriga Nacional
Portugal is known to wine buffs for its trove of indigenous grape varieties which do not occur anywhere else in the world, except where one or two have been recently transplanted by enterprising growers keen to replicate Portuguese wine styles. Perhaps the most widely-known variety outside Portugal is Touriga Nacional, one of the major contributors to the flavour of Port wine, and now a star in most of the dry reds from the Douro (now highly successful – follow this link for more on those Ed).
Portuguese wine varieties
There are over 140 white, and nearly 170 red and roxo (gris) varieties listed as approved by the Portuguese wine authorities. All but a few of these are almost unknown outside the country. In theory, this is exciting; the wine world is also a world of fashion, and international wine drinkers are on the look out for novelty and new sensations. Imagine the marketing potential of varieties with names like ‘Dog Strangler’, ‘Fly Droppings’, ‘Little Bastard’. Well, maybe not those. How about ‘Spring’, or ‘Love-don’t-leave-me’, or ‘Rooster Heart’, or ‘Eye of Toad’ (weren’t the Witches of Cawdor keen on that one?)….or ‘Spanish Bastard’. Ah. But who said making wine was a romantic thing anyway? It’s about sweat, tears and disappointment, dodging and weaving, and a lot of cussing.
The potential for confusion
Profusion is a short step away from confusion where Portuguese grapes are concerned, as a closer examination of the list reveals. Local dialects and traditions mean that a given grape can have several identities, depending on where it is grown. Cerceal Branco is called Cercial in the Douro, but is not to be confused with an entirely different variety called Cercial (or with Arinto, which is called Cerceal in some parts). And don’t mix up Arinto with Dorinto, even though Dorinto is known as Arinto Blanco in the Douro, implying incidentally that there might also be an Arinto Tinto somewhere. There isn’t. Trajadura, which features strongly in many white vinhos verdes, is also known as Trincadeira within the region. Is it the same thing as Trincadeira Branca, or Trincadeira das Pratas (also known as Tamarêz)? Apparently not. And it’s certainly not the other Trincadeira, because that’s a red grape. And then there’s the baffling Tinto Sem Nome (Red Without a Name), presumably named by a surrealist late on Friday afternoon.
Some daring varieties even undergo a gender change: Fernao Pires (a lusty male in some parts of Vinho Verde country), becomes a more alluring Maria Gomes a few miles down the road. We must be grateful at least that he/she hasn’t changed colour too.
Choosing a grape variety
Faced with this mind-bending vortex of ampelographic ambiguity, there’s only one safe and sane response when planting a new vineyard in Portugal: choose varieties that have just one uncontestable name. Jaén, for example; the elegant and productive variety that makes silky and sinuous reds across the border in northern Spain (where, I admit, it’s called Mencia…. but that’s in another country). And Riesling. Good old Riesling, you know where you are with that one. Don’t open Jancis Robinson’s encyclopaedic study on the world’s grape varieties though, or you won’t know where you are with Riesling either. Or rather you will if you concentrate hard, but you’ll become unpopular with your friends when you try to explain it all.
German grapes in Portugal?
Planting Riesling in Vinho Verde territory is not without its risks. I don’t mean the risks of growing a variety that is unknown and untested in the region, and most certainly a cold-climate grape, as the late Etienne Hugel warned me, with not a little Gallic incredulity. (Well I’ve got my own opinion about the climate in this part of the world after spending several miserably cold months house-hunting here). No, the real challenge is to keep a straight face when explaining to puzzled locals that you’ve planted German grapes. Much scratching and shaking of heads will ensue, as if surely some gross translation error or misunderstanding must have occurred: ’German?’, they say. ‘German grapes? So…so…do you mean you are making beer, then?’
And those locals. The wine they make is a treasure if you value diversity, and we must value it, mustn’t we? It’s just that drinking a glass of vinho verde tinto is, on a scale with pleasure at one end and quite bad pain at the other, somewhere close to ‘jumping into an icy lake’ or ‘a double session with the dental hygienist’.
But there’s something I know that those wine authorities don’t. Most of the wine produced here by the ordinary smallholder is made with a grape variety that isn’t included in the official list. I know this because when I meet one or two of my neighbours in the village café at the end of the vintage, I ask them how their wines are coming along. Yes, the red is good this year, they say, we’ve had a good summer. ‘What have you got, some Vinhão?’ I ask, naming the dominant red variety in these parts. ‘Yes, a bit.’ And the rest? What varieties did they make the rest of their red wine with? The answer is delivered with a dismissive shrug: ‘Normal!’
Normal. The word that in this part of the world means ‘Nobody knows. Same as usual. Don’t ask silly questions.’ The fact is that a great deal of the wine produced and drunk in this area is made from unidentified grape varieties, with vines inherited or grafted from cuttings donated by friends or neighbours. Many commercial winemakers bottle wines without specifying the grape varieties and some describe them as a ‘field mix’; in other words, made from a mixture of varieties without clear parentage planted in the same plot, in the traditional style. It is, after all, only in the past few decades that wine drinkers have become accustomed to knowing the grape varieties of the wines they drink, and the identity of many of the world’s best-known wines is determined by location rather than the varieties in the vineyard.
So perhaps ‘Normal’ should join ‘Spanish Bastard’, ‘Ewe’s Tail’, ‘Partridge Foot’ and all the rest – it doesn’t quite have the same colourful connotations, but it encapsulates an aspect of local tradition. And I suppose it does rather point up that it’s really not normal to be making wine here with Riesling.
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