If I ask you to name one country which is most often completely forgotten for its wines, at least on the UK market, I’d put money on many of you saying Portugal. It’s not as if Portugal doesn’t make a range of fantastic wines, from tinglingly fresh Vinho Verde whites (and reds, come to think of it) to long lived, serious, Douro red wine, with rather a lot in between. The Body in charge of promoting Portuguese wine also does a good job here once a year with a Portuguese Wine Week, which rewards independent wine shops which most successfully bring this country’s wines to our attention. I know a few wine shops I use get involved.
It is equally not as if this country on Europe’s Western edge doesn’t have a lot to offer. It has the undoubted expertise of the Port Houses, it has traditions like foot treading in Lagars and fermenting and ageing in traditional clay vessels (Talhas, largely from Alentejo, are the Portuguese equivalent, though very different, to the Georgian qvevri), and it has a string of barely known autochthonous grape varieties to entice the wine geeks and satisfy their curiosity for months.
Perhaps the main issue Portugal has had in popularising its wines would be, in the past, a lack of quality-conscious individual producers with a reputation overseas. They have always existed, of course. Take Luis Pato as an example, who started bottling his own wine back in the 1980s. But overall, Portuguese wine has been dominated by larger producers, whether private companies or co-operatives. They have sometimes been content to produce rather generic examples of traditional wines.
Where such wines have been made in a more traditional style, then they have just not been easy to find outside Portugal. Take the wine of Colares as one prime example, or traditional wines favoured by the older generation (or younger football managers in the case of José Mourinho’s professed love of Barca Velha).
Then there is the “flying winemaker”. When I was getting into wine these folks were everywhere, but Portugal had a few high-profile individuals (Peter Bright and his Bright Brothers company is probably the most prominent example of an Aussie flying winemaker who had a massive influence on the more commercial side of Portuguese wine). As in other countries, Antipodean winemakers, university educated in modern winemaking, have had a transformative influence. It’s just that in the quest to “clean up” Portuguese wine, undoubtedly producing wine of good quality at affordable prices, maybe something of its original character and uniqueness was occasionally bypassed.
Another cause for Portugal lagging behind the rest of Europe has probably been the paucity of natural wine producers. The natural wine movement has seen many young people begin to make wine across the continent, often with very little land at their disposal, but they have achieved a profile far greater than their output would usually warrant. Those countries/regions with a hive of natural wine activity (Eastern France, Austria, Loire, South Africa etc) have very quickly become fashionable, especially among younger drinkers. Until quite recently, Portugal was slow off the mark here, although this is changing.
This new side to Portuguese wine I have yet to experience in the flesh. I won’t tell you exactly when my one and only trip to the country was, but we are talking decades. It was restricted, so far as wine went, to the north, with a visit to Vinho Verde country and a journey up the Douro. This was a time when a desire to try a red Vinho Verde in a bar was met with an attempt to dissuade me. I discovered why. It did taste rather similar to the vinegar on the table. It was also a time when in regions like Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro transport was frequently by mule cart, when a 1940s-era bus was more or less the only alternative. It was also happily a time when EU-funding was beginning to change people’s lives here, reducing rural poverty and for better or worse, eroding one of Europe’s last bastions of embedded tradition.
I have just one book on Portuguese wine on my shelves, written by Charles Metcalfe and Kathryn McWhirter, self-published in 2007 (The Wine and Food Lover’s Guide to Portugal, Inn House Publishing). It was an excellent book. Not only did it cover the wine regions, it was also a useful travel guide with places to stay, eat, and buy food and wine. But a decade-and-a-half on we are in need of something new.
Thankfully we have it in Foot Trodden – Portugal and the Wines that Time Forgot by Simon J Woolf and Ryan Opaz. I’m sure you all remember that Simon Woolf’s first book, Amber Revolution was my Book of the Year in 2018. Simon is one of a small number of people I cannot imagine writing anything I would not love. His photographer and fellow contributor is a real talent in his own right and the photography here adds to the mood of the book in ways hard to imagine without seeing for yourself. They “tell the story” alongside the words, the two being inseparable. The photograph taken on Madeira (pp200-201) must rank among the finest wine pics I’ve seen in print.
Ryan Opaz is, of course, based in Portugal so his local knowledge and network of contacts has probably been transformative in terms of what, and who, the authors have been able to gain access to, but Simon Woolf is hardly lacking in expertise himself, having visited Portugal regularly for at least the past decade.
Foot Trodden states its aim to explore the intersections between wine, culture and history. This is essential on several levels: it’s the only way to view Portuguese wine, but at the same time, it is culture and history which both ground the story and furnish us with that true sense of excitement which may have been lacking. Portuguese wine is so much more that some grape varieties we’ve never heard of fermented in stainless steel, aged in oak and sold for £8.99 on the supermarket shelf alongside the Rioja and Rueda from Spain.
After the preliminaries and an Introduction, Foot Trodden is divided into seven further chapters, all thematic. They are as follows:
2. Granito – Vinho Verde
3. Lagar – Douro
4. Serra – Dão
5. Baga – Bairrada
6. Talha – Alentejo and Ribatejo
7. Terra – Colares and Madeira
8. Bom Dia! – Lisboa and Beyond
Each chapter covers wider ground that you might imagine. We meet the wines, and we meet the people who are not only making them, but who are pushing the boundaries and drawing the international spotlight onto their respective regions. These are individuals who are doing so much more than the regional wine bodies, hidebound, perhaps to a degree, by the need to service the larger producers who are paying their wages. This is not a book which ignores larger producers where their wines are sufficiently interesting and, shall we say, any good. But it is a big shout for artisanal winemakers, and for producers who feel a connection to place, tradition and the wider culture, treading increasingly lightly on their often unique terroir (terra).
In the same way that many so-called modern winemakers in Spain are going “back to the future”, making modern wines via an exploration of tradition and forgotten expertise, Portugal’s best winemakers seem to have an interest in what has been forgotten from the past alongside what has been learnt in the present. Authenticity is a much over used word, but perhaps it is relevant for the wines made by this younger generation of winemakers, looking back to a few select mentors from an older generation and to some of the methods their grandfathers may have used, and generations before them.
Do I have any criticisms? It seems a mean one…my own interest in the wines of the Azores is not reciprocated as this distant outpost of Portuguese winemaking is not covered. I can well understand the reasons, being a mix of Covid constraints and the sheer cost of getting boots on the ground there.
I am pleased that due to the success of the Kickstarter campaign, it became possible for the authors to visit Madeira. I grow increasingly intrigued by all the wines produced on this island, despite poor knowledge and all too little experience. Equally, when I was younger Madeira was seen very much as a destination for old people, on cruise ships. This perception has changed, and with its culture, wine and walking (always a bonus for us), I am coming closer to desiring a trip there.
I think that the world of wine today is crying out for a different tack, and I know Simon Woolf is with me on this. The three decades years before this current decade has seen wine writing take an approach based all around scoring wine. It has led to a great deal of technical discussion in relation to viticulture and winemaking. Can you read anything of this ilk which doesn’t talk about clones, about the size of the open-top fermentation vessels and what was the toast level of the oak in which the wine was aged?
This book has a different focus…on the people and their stories rather than only on the wine as an object to analyse. It’s a book of history and culture rather than just wine science (though winemaking has its part to play here). This is why, alongside knowledge, perception and fine writing, I commend this exceptional book to you. It’s one of those rare books which you don’t know you need to read, but when you do you will be enriched by reading it.
This is, as Jamie Goode says on the back cover, “A beautiful creative endeavour that looks set to introduce a new public to Portugal’s remarkable wine scene”. I could not have put it better.
Foot Trodden by Simon J Woolf and Ryan Opaz is published this month, arriving first to those who helped fund the project via a highly successful Kickstarter campaign. It is published in Europe by Woolf’s Morning Claret Productions and in the United States by Interlink Books of Northampton, Massachusetts, priced £25 (UK), €30 (Europe) and $35 (USA). Contact for sales via http://www.themorningclaret.com (Shop) or Simon Woolf via Instagram ( @themorningclaret ) for further information.
Images © Ryan Opaz 2021, used with permission.