Portugal Down Under

Wines Of Now
5 November 2021. Words by James Vercoe.

The Australian wine industry has long been a bit of a ‘Francophile’. In Wine Australia’s 2021 National Vintage Report, the top six reds and top four whites, by crush, were all grape varieties planted in significant quantities throughout France. In recent years, as the effects of global warming are becoming more evident, Australian winemakers have started exploring Italian and Spanish varieties such as fiano, sangiovese and tempranillo, which are well suited to our climate. But what about the grape varieties of Portugal?

Portugal has an extraordinary landscape of indigenous grapes and world-class wines, and shares a similar latitude to Australia’s wine-growing regions. We have an oceanic influence in common, with diverse climates and varying altitudes – and even eucalyptus trees. As well as a love of barbecued meat, the two countries also share a history of producing mostly fortified wines up until the 1970s.

So, what’s the deal with Portuguese grape varieties? I talked to Matt Gant and Ashley Ratcliff to discover a little more about Portuguese varieties and their potential down under.

Matt Gant was the inaugural winner of the Young Gun of Wine Award in 2007 – an accolade he received making wines at First Drop, sourcing fruit from vineyards across the Barossa Valley, Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale. These days he divides his time between Gant & Co, a new venture with his wife Claudia in Karridale in the Margaret River, and Portugal’s Douro Valley, where he is a partner and winemaker at Quinta da Pedra Alta.

Gant first found himself in Portugal in 2009, working in the southern region of Alentejo at a winery that was under the consultation of one of Australia’s most famous ‘flying winemakers’ – David Baverstock. There, Gant met João Pires, his future winemaking partner at Pedra Alta. As Gant explains, “João was the assistant winemaker; they would get an Aussie in for vintage, and João would run it for the rest of the year.” Their friendship was instant, and over the following years, Pires made frequent trips to Australia to work vintage with Gant at First Drop.

In 2012, Pires became winemaker at Quinta da Pedra Alta, and Gant would visit every year to help with the harvest and hang out. Gant was immediately taken aback by the Douro Valley’s beauty. “It blew me away, the scale and the diversity. It was the old ‘kid in a candy store’ scenario. When I think about it [the Douro], I still get the hairs on the back of my neck standing up.

Gant convinced Pires they needed to do something for themselves in the Douro and they started looking for a small vineyard. Coincidentally, the quinta (winery) where Pires was working came on the market, so they decided to go for it – even though, at 35 hectares, it was a bit bigger than they were hoping for. Gant explains, “It’s an amazing site that was unfortunately commercially mismanaged for a few years, hence going on the market, but the vineyards themselves were just stellar.”

The vineyards are located on the Pinhão River, on terraced vineyards ranging from 100 metres to 500 metres in altitude, giving Gant and Pires a lot of options. “You can have a huge diversity of styles and varieties in the one quinta,” says Gant. “We can do aromatic whites, textural whites, light reds, full-blooded reds and the full range of ports all from our vineyards. We can do the full dinner party from start to finish.”

For centuries, the Douro Valley made its name producing excellent tawny and vintage Port, but as the popularity of fortified wines has waned, there has been a seismic shift in the amount of table wines being produced – wines that can be extremely expressive of place and high quality. “The Douro is one of the world’s most underrated and undervalued regions for table wines,” Gant believes. While its large diversity of red varieties are becoming more renowned internationally, the whites were a revelation for Gant. “The real surprise of going to the Douro, and Portugal in general, was the quality of whites. They are amazing. The key is the region’s elevation, but also the varieties. We have rabigato, which is high acid with a riesling-like structure, and gouveio, which gives fantastic tropical fruits. When you blend those together you get a refreshing style and complete wine. We also have viosinho, which can be made in a more textural style.”

Under First Drop, Gant had produced a wine solely from the Portuguese grape touriga nacional, which many consider the finest red grape in the Douro, even though it is often used for blending, and only makes up 2% of the plantings. However, it is not the only red Portuguese variety he thinks could do well here. “Touriga franca is the variety, in Australia, that we should actually plant,” Gant says. “It loves the heat and doesn’t need much water. If you pick it earlier, or in a cooler year, it’s nice and savoury, and in a warmer year, or a warmer site, it’s muscular and rich. If ‘nacional’ is the soul of the Douro, then ‘franca’ is the muscle.” Gant adds, “The other revelation for me has been tinta barocca. You can pick early for red fruits and spice, or pick it riper for more chocolatey and richer flavours. It would be another variety I would advocate for Australia.”

Gant’s Australian project, Gant & Co, is based on a single vineyard in Karridale. It was planted in 1998 by Gant’s father-in-law, with a diverse range of chardonnay and cabernet clones. Since taking over the vineyard, Gant and his wife Claudia have also planted some Portuguese touriga nacional and alvarinho (known as albariño in Spain). “I couldn’t resist the temptation,” Gant explains. “Climatically we have very similar rainfall in Karridale to northern Portugal; we get 1200–1300 mm of rain. It’s probably a fraction cooler here, but there are some similarities.” While looking to see how the alvarinho develops in coming years, Gant plans to use the touriga as a key blending component. “It’s a fantastic blender. It lifts the aromatics and floral characters with cabernet.”

Ashley Ratcliff of Ricca Terra Farms is a hero of alternative grape varieties in Australia, with over 30 grape varieties planted on their vineyards, including the Portuguese souzão, tinta cão, touriga nacional, tinta barroca, tinta amarela, tinta caiada, arinto and alvarinho. In 2020, Ricca Terra’s Caravel vineyard in the Riverland – planted largely with Portuguese varieties – won ‘The Groundbreaker’ category in the Young Gun of Wine’s Vineyard of the Year Awards.

Ratcliff planted Portuguese varieties because he was looking to experiment and differentiate himself from all the producers growing French grapes. “I liked that they were something different from the Italian varieties we had. I thought, let’s just plant them and see how they go. I had no real prior experience,” he admits.

Above: touriga nacional vines at Ricca Terra vineyard in the Riverland (Australia). Opposite: a bunch of tinta barroca grapes at Ricca Terra vineyard.

Recognising that traditional French varieties like shiraz, cabernet, pinot noir and chardonnay already had premium regions synonymous with their production, Ratcliff knew that if was to be successful in the Riverland, he needed to look outside the French bubble. “The good thing about alternative varieties in Riverland is that it has taken the Riverland out of the equation. It has taken that prejudice out of it,” he explains. “There is no reason why arinto out of the Riverland can’t be as good as arinto out of McLaren Vale, or the Adelaide Hills, or the Barossa. And that’s the beauty of using these alternatives.”

Ratcliff’s curiosity as a vine grower can be observed in the wines he produces. He wants the variety to show through in the final wine, preferring not to mask or overshadow the varietal characters. “Coming from a viticultural background, I want to see how these varieties form,” he explains. “I don’t want too much winemaking interference. We want them all to deliver something different in wine style and not just have a different varietal name on the label.”

He is particularly impressed with the whites. “We make something like a vinho verde–style wine, using arinto and alvarinho, that has been hugely successful, and probably something we will go back and make again next year,” adding that he is excited from the results he is seeing from his straight arinto wines. “Arinto is one of my favourite whites,” he says. “It is a style that is very pronounced, and it is able to maintain its acidity in a warmer climate.”

With very limited plantings in Australia, the rise in popularity of Portuguese varieties is not likely to happen overnight, though Ratcliff has seen some early promise in the grapes he is using. “I am a big fan of tinta barocca because of its lighter style. It’s very ‘pinot-esque’. We wanted a red variety that could give that lighter juicier style, and it certainly gave us that.” Meanwhile, he believes touriga nacional is likely to have more immediate success here, simply because “touriga has been around a long time, and is well ahead because it’s available.”

When planting and grafting their vines, wine producers are now taking the effects of global warming into consideration. These challenges, along with an increasing thirst for new wine styles and varieties from Australian consumers, could lead to more Australian growers meandering down the Portuguese path.

Thanks to pioneers such as Gant and Ratcliff, the work has already begun in identifying the characteristics and suitability of Iberian grapes for changing Australian conditions. Perhaps, not too far into the future, ‘barocca’ may be more associated with night before than the morning after.


The wines

2019 Quinta Da Pedra Alta ‘Pedra A Pedra Branco’, Douro D.O.C. (Portugal) $32 RRP

Lifted ethereal floral and citrus aromas follow through to the palate with a slight honeyed texture, a hint of a savoury brioche-like note and asparagus. The blend of rabigato (51%) and gouveio (49%) works well. Rabigato retains the crisp acid whilst gouveio provides abundant fruit. The finish is dry and tart making the wine ideal for a plate of oysters or prawns to kick off a summer seafood feast. The grapes may come from the old country of Portugal but the winemaking is sophisticated and modern.

2018 Quinta Da Pedra Alta ‘Pedra a Pedra Tinto’, Douro D.O.C. (Portugal) $32 RRP

Loaded with spice and aniseed flavours there are some ripe plums and dark berries making this wine very complex. This wine benefits from a blend of the mighty two tourigas, both nacional and franca, along with a decent splash of tinta barroca. Just a dash of sousao completes it. The fruitiness is pungent and vital whilst the finish is held together with some grippy tannin. Here is a great each way bet. Enjoy it now whilst it’s fresh and vibrant or put it away for six years and try a mellower version.

2020 Terra do Rio ‘White Field Blend’, Riverland (South Australia) $25 RRP

This is a rich and full-bodied white that fills the mouth with a multitude of flavours. It seems a bit like a blend of riesling and chardonnay with limes and melons fighting for supremacy. The finish is dry and lingering with plenty of acid to pucker up your lips. Two varieties are employed here with the verdejo providing the richness contrasting with the arinto that provides the crispness at the finish. This vino treat would be great with poached fish or chicken in a cream sauce.

2021 Terra do Rio Rosé, Riverland (South Australia) $25 RRP

This beauty is pale salmon pink and most inviting. The delicate aroma is a mix of rose petals and almost ripe raspberries. The wine blends several varieties with the most evident and attractive being tinta barroca. The palate is relatively light, taking delicate steps across your tongue and the finish is dry, thank goodness, and crunchy with acid. There is also just a tad of astringency no doubt derived from the skin contact. You should try and drink this wine outdoors preferably at a picnic and don’t drink it straight from the fridge, let it warm a little to release more flavour.

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