Wine appreciation: Leave the New World and move to Portugal
The problem with the Portuguese is they insist on making wines to suit themselves rather than foreigners. While there's little demand outside the country for its traditionally rustic, rather muddy-tasting reds and skinny, vaguely sparkling whites, the Portuguese gulp them down with the enthusiasm of children let loose on a vat of corn syrup.
This stubborn regionalism is essentially a result of the country's only recently dispatched poverty and isolation. Until the EU galloped in like the US Cavalry to revive Portugal's rickety economy, there simply wasn't enough cash or cross-border trade to make catering to the international market worth the hassle.
Things have changed, however. Granted, many of us are still unwilling to buy Portuguese wine at a price that makes quality production profitable. Nonetheless, its quirks and distinctive varieties are starting to look attractive in the face of a tidal wave of overfamiliar international varietals. When you find yourself getting blasé about Chardonnay and Pinot bloody Grigio – as all wine drinkers eventually do – the prospect of a glass of obscure Alvarinho or Sercial suddenly seems attractive.
There's also been a successful attempt to boost quality. The long-popular white Vinho Verde, for example, has moved away from its role as an artificially fizzed, bargain-bucket throwaway (at least in its most commonly exported form) to a more serious, elegant affair you actually think about as it goes down. Meanwhile, impressive non-fortified Douro wines and cheaper but very respectable blends of local and international varieties from the Southern Alentejo region are making Portugal's red stuff considerably more accessible.
This beefing up of quality hasn't necessarily made getting hold of the stuff any easier though. It's not easy to persuade penny-pinching British drinkers to squander much more than the price of a kebab on a Portuguese bottle, even though they'll happily stump up more for indifferent Bordeaux or something branded and brash from the New World. Understandably, a misjudged publicity campaign featuring Tony Parsons and the manager of a Birmingham football club also did little to boost the product's reputation as a wine of distinction.
Don't let this put you off, however. White wines such as the Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas 2007, currently selling for around a tenner, are definitely worth hunting around for. Available from Roberson's online and in their Kensington shop (which boasts an unusually good Portuguese wine selection), it's a wine that develops complexity through oak ageing without frittering all its fruitiness.
Made from a trio of barely Google-able grapes (Bairrada Cerceal, Sercialinho and Bical), the result is a wine that veers between orchard and stone fruit. Following a nose that spiked with the scent of pears and blossom, the wine is reasonably full-bodied in the mouth, with a flavour that mixes green apple and lemon with peach and a hint of elderflower. Though it's barely perceptible, there is a mild prickle of carbon dioxide in the wine to keep it refreshing. Perfect to accompany shellfish, it's the sort of interesting, approachable wine that is currently making Portugal seem, er, interesting and approachable.
Feargus O'Sullivan is a freelance journalist