Touriga Nacional evolved into a cultivar in the area of the Dao and Douro in north central Portugal. Philippines wine supplier Manila wine shop discusses wine by the grape variety Touriga Nacional.

December 18, 2010

Article By: Bill Nesto, MW
What would be a US wine consumer’s reflex response to Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec? . . . New Zealand and Argentina.

The marketing power of these so-called “signature” varieties is clear. Could the market woes of the Portuguese wine industry be solved by a signature variety or two? Could one or two of the numerous indigenous varieties currently playing anonymous roles in Portugal’s appellation wines be put to better use?

Two signature varietals could be a powerful force. The “branding” of a signature red variety would not compete with that of a white one. Rather the pairing could be a synergistic vinous duet. I introduce Touriga Nacional and Arinto. Touriga Nacional, a red variety, is one of the many varieties in the Port wine blend. Arinto, a white one, is the major variety of Bucelas, a small and little known appellation in the vicinity of Lisbon.

Both Touriga Nacional and Arinto must pass our screen test. Identification with Portugal is essential. Competing associations with other countries would weaken the identification process. The names of each must be easy to pronounce. Wine producers must be able to make varietal wines out of Touriga Nacional and Arinto that consumers appreciate and value. The minimum standard for legal varietal labeling that satisfies the minimum regulations of all countries is 85%. Other varieties can assist up to a maximum of 15%. Volume, quality and style of production must be sustainable from year to year. The varieties’ growing habits must allow both to grow in a wide range of growing conditions within Portugal. A pedigree helps. It can give marketers a story to tell and hence cement the branding of a varietal more deeply and quickly. A pedigree also implies that a varietal wine can stand the test of time. Ability to improve with bottle age can enhance prestige and value.

Touriga Nacional gets our first screen test. Touriga Nacional evolved into a cultivar in the area of the Dao and Douro in north central Portugal. There is very little of it planted outside of Portugal. In the 19th century, the still red wines of the Dao region were widely exported and were considered to be the finest still red wines of Portugal. Touriga Nacional was the dominant variety in the Dao wine blend. During the same century, Touriga Nacional had been an important, if not dominant, component of the Port wine blend. With the arrival of phylloxera at the end of the 19th century, all vines had to be grafted onto American rootstocks, a modification which made fruit set problematical for Touriga Nacional. The resulting low yields discouraged farmers from planting it though it remained a favorite variety among winemakers. In the Douro, it nearly became extinct. In the Dao, Touriga Nacional continued to be an important variety. In the 198Os, Dao quintas (quinta is Portuguese for farm) had been forced to sell their grapes to cooperative wineries which employed substandard winemaking technology. As of 199O, Portugal’s entry into the EU forced cooperatives to lessen their grip on grape-growers. Growers began to break away and make their own wine. Unfortunately, by this point, the tradition of making fine wine had weakened and the image of the region’s wines had deteriorated.

In 199O, the bulk cost of Douro grapes declined. This encouraged Douro quintas to vinify some of their grapes into wine instead of into Port. The production of Port, being a fortified wine, is very different from that of wine. Port grapes are harvested in riper condition than wine grapes. In Port production, the grapes are aggressively macerated underfoot. This maceration always occurs early, during the first 2 or 3 days of alcoholic fermentation. In red wine production, maceration is more delicate and prolonged usually lasting for about 1O days. The grape spirit addition that abruptly terminates alcoholic fermentation during Port production also mitigates problems associated with microbial infection. The lower alcohol level of red wine makes it much more susceptible to microbial degradation. Learning how to make fine wine entails a different perspective than making fine Port. Because Port producers were slow to adapt to the needs of wine production, Douro reds of the late 198Os and early 199Os frequently tasted overripe, over-extracted and unclean.

By the late 199Os, Douro red wines began attracting attention. Douro winemakers began traveling overseas to learn about still wine production and visiting enologists and viticulturalists from overseas began doing research in the Douro. Interest in improving quality led to increased interest in what was considered the finest, but also one of the rarest, elements in the Port blend, Touriga Nacional. Clonal research, begun in the 198Os, helped provide Touriga Nacional more yield stability. The new clones also have good resistance to fungus disease, especially oidium and downy mildew. Increasingly the variety came to be seen as the savior of the Portuguese wine industry. Before 2OOO, the amount planted in Portugal was miniscule. Today it is being planted nearly everywhere. In particular, large swathes are being planted in the Alentejo, Portugal’s equivalent of France’s Languedoc. If canopy management and irrigation are not employed intelligently there, the sizzling summers can push the variety too quickly through its ripening window leaving harvesters overripe and low acid grapes to pick. The limit of Touriga Nacional’s continental reach occurs in the mountains and valleys of Tras-os-Montes to the north of the Douro where spring frost too easily damages vine buds and early growth. At the oceanic extreme of Bucelas, low temperatures and high humidity disrupt flowering and ripening.

The average vine age of Touriga Nacional vines throughout Portugal today is very low. There are old vines sprinkled in mixed plantings, mostly in the Dao and the Douro, but these do not budge the average up. At Quinta do Crasto, the pioneer of Douro Touriga Nacional varietal wines, there are 3O hectares of small parcels dedicated to Touriga Nacional. The oldest vines in these vineyards are only about ten-years-old. Because of the paucity of old vines, we are about ten years away from experiencing the full potential of Touriga Nacional varietal wine.

Touriga Nacional’s thick grape skin gives wines deep color, a dark berry nose accented with bergamot and violets, moderate-to-high acidity, moderate-to-high alcohol and a substantial underpinning of bitter tastes and astringent textures. The personality of its wine varies according to location. In the Dao, its likely ancestral home, the granitic soils, the high elevations (about 4OO meters above sea level), and rain particularly near the harvest time, yield wines that are floral scented, moderate in weight, with high acidity, and a fine lingering astringency. In the Douro, where schist dominates, the weather is hotter and drier. Wine smells are more mentholated. Alcohol percentages mount to well over 14%. Coarse wine texture and low acidity are common.

You can detect my preference. I prefer the Dao style, which resembles that of pre-199Os Bordeaux. Touriga Nacional wines from the Beira Interior, a high elevation, continental-climate area southeast of the Dao can show the same character. The wine I liked most among the wines that I sampled for this article was Quinta do Cardo, Winemaker’s Selection, Touriga Nacional, 2OO4. The grapes for this wine were grown in the Beira Interior at 7OO meters in elevation, among the highest vineyards in Portugal. Most wine critics tend to award more points to the brawnier Douro reds. To me, they resemble warm climate Australian Shiraz. Winemakers Daniel Lloses, working for Jean Michel Cazes, and Manuel Lobo, working for Jorge Roquette at Quinto do Crasto, make a collaborative Douro wine called Xisto. They employ a long 3O day maceration compared to the more typical 1O day red wine maceration. Though long maceration may enhance some nutty smells at the expense of fresh berry fruit, this technique encourages tannins to condense, resulting in a finer and more pleasant astringent mouth-feel. Though Xisto is not a varietal Touriga Nacional, it shows a direction that Douro vinification could go in to reduce some of the rough textures that are associated with Douro red wines in general and with Douro Touriga Nacional wines in particular. In the Estremadura where the soils are more clayey and calcareous and where ocean winds brings more rain, the Touriga Nacional wines are more similar to the Dao in style. Sandra Tavares da Silva, winemaker for both Douro wine entrepreneur Cristiano van Zeller and for her own family estate in the Estremadura, Quinta de Chocapalha, told me during my recent trip to Portugal that Estremadura’s Touriga Nacionals are more powerful than Dao examples. According to Quinta da Alorna winemaker Nuno Cancela de Abreu, the fertile plain of the Ribatejo has the potential of producing good value Touriga Nacional varietal wines that are fresher and more acidic than those of the Alentejo.

Compared to Touriga Nacional which has some mystique associated with it, Arinto is unknown outside of Portugal. Its home is Bucelas, a small appellation comprising about 2OO hectares, located in the suburbs of Lisbon. Arinto dominates the Bucelas wine blend. It has quite a pedigree. William Shakespeare (1544-1616) in his drama Henry VI mentioned a wine called “Charneco”. Charneco is a small village in Bucelas. The Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) found Bucelas to his liking and helped develop a good reputation for it in the England of his day. Perhaps due to Bucelas’ high acidity, the English referred to it as Portuguese Hock (Rhine Riesling).

Nuno Cancela de Abreu is credited with resuscitating the variety from near extinction. Working in the early 199Os at the important farm in Bucelas, Quinta da Romeira, he made clonal selections which improved the growing habit of the variety, particularly its ability to provide commercially viable and consistent yields. Under his direction, the vineyards were moved from the low lying fields to the hills where alcohols of 12% to 13% could be achieved without diminishing the variety’s natural high acidity. While other farms during the 199Os made substandard wine, Cancela de Abreu at Quinta da Romeira made fine, pure examples.

Because Arinto keeps its acidity even in warm conditions, its use has spread to other regions in Portugal where it anonymously improves wine blends. Though it is itself susceptible to botrytis, the variety needs humidity for its ripening. In the Alentejo, where there is little humidity, the variety yields neutral smelling wine which retains Arinto’s hallmark acidity. Today Arinto is found throughout southern Portugal, in the Estremadura where Bucelas is located, in the Ribatejo, Alentejo and Terras do Sado. Dirk Niepoort, a well known producer of Douro wine, has some of it in his vineyards in the Douro. Further to the north in the Minho, it is called Paderna and plays a minor role in blends.

Arinto’s somewhat reticent nose shows citrus, mostly lime, and flint. Cancela de Abreu left Quinta da Romeira in 2OO2. He now consults for Quinta da Murta, also in Bucelas. There he coaxes aroma out of Arinto using cold maceration. Cancela also makes Arinto at Quinta da Alorna in the Ribatejo. At this warmer and drier locale, Arinto loses its limey and flinty edge. Aromas move slightly towards tropical fruit.

Of all Portuguese white varietal wines, Arinto wine improves the most with bottle age. At five years of bottle age, petrol aromas make their appearance. Unfortunately, few producers in Bucelas or elsewhere store bottles away for posterity. Arinto barrel ferments well, but, to my taste, oak overwhelms the wine too easily. Frank Paredes, a Portuguese wine expert at Winebow Brands International comments, “Some of Portugal’s daring young winemakers have been blending stainless steel fermented Arinto with barrel fermented Chardonnay with great results.” Though Chardonnay helps plump out Arinto wine in the mouth and oak gives it a tactile edge and more aroma, producers could possibly improve Arinto varietal wines by using techniques such as cryomaceration or enzyme additions which would release more varietal precursor compounds from the grape skins. Specially developed selected yeasts could then unleash the aromas locked in these precursors. Sensitive use of lees contact could also add aromatic nuance and add softness in the mouth.

Are Touriga Nacional and Arinto destined to be Portugal’s signature varietals? Given the widespread new plantations of Touriga Nacional, it is clear that the Portuguese wine industry is betting much of its future on the variety. Cancela de Abreu, who has his own farm in the Dao region named Quinta da Giesta, believes that Touriga Nacional has everything it takes to become an international variety. The trend to identify Portuguese red wine with Touriga Nacional, however, irks Dirk Niepoort. He regrets that wine producers are replacing mixed plantings of old vines, which are the genetic heritage of Portugal, with clonal selected stands of Touriga Nacional. Touriga Nacional, he says, overwhelms other varieties in blends and should be used only as a spice. Rupert Symington thinks the Touriga trend is “talk”. He would rather see Touriga Nacional supporting its more reliable blending partner Touriga Franca. Regardless of what people think, there will soon be rivers of Touriga Nacional varietal wines flowing out of Portugal towards us. Alentejo will likely breach our shores at the $2O retail price point, Dao at $3O and Douro at over $45.

On the other hand, Arinto’s popularity might have to wait for another Shakespeare. It does have two advantages over Touriga Nacional: its long history of usage and its name. Arinto is easy to say in English. There is only one way to pronounce it. Just think of the various permutations of saying Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, let alone, Touriga Nacional. Anibal Coutinho, a Portuguese wine writer, last November suggested that Touriga Nacional undergo a name change. Call it Portuguesa, he suggests.


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