Food and drink, In praise of the Touriga Nacional grape: the (not so) secret ingredient in Portuguese red wine

In praise of the Touriga Nacional grape: the (not so) secret ingredient in Portuguese red wine

Until recently it is probably fair to say that Portuguese wines weren’t great. Although they were enjoyed by the Portuguese, they were unpalatable to the rest of the world. Up to the mid-1980s (when Portugal joined the European Union) wines were solely produced by co-operatives (set up during the years of the dictatorship), where traditional mindsets and working methods didn’t allow the excellent varieties of grape that grow throughout the country to be used to their full potential. In recent years small vineyards and wine producing companies have turned this around by embracing new methods and technology, combined with an understanding of blending grape varieties to create wines of a quality that can compete with those of other wine-producing countries. The success of the Portuguese red wine blends is down to one grape variety in particular, the Touriga Nacional. This is the grape used to produce the best ports and can be seen growing along the length of the Douro Valley.

River Douro

However, its importance was only recognised 30 or so years ago. It had almost died out by the 1970s due to low yields and disease, but a decade later research was done by some of the top port houses to determine which grape varieties make the best port and, of the ones they short-listed, Touriga Nacional was named the best. As a result of this research, a hardy clone was produced and Touriga Nacional is now grown in every wine-making region of Portugal, from the Douro to the Algarve. Portuguese red wines are made up of blends of grape varieties such as Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz/Aragonez (better known as Tempranillo), Touriga Franca, Trincadeira and Jaen, but the addition of Touriga Nacional (a dark-skinned grape rich in tannins, which on its own can be a bit over-powering) gives the wine its structure with intense aromas, flavours of dark fruit and spices, with a hint of liquorice and bergamot, and a capacity for ageing well. Even a small percentage of this grape (such as the 10% Touriga Nacional blended with 60% Tinta Roriz and 30% Touriga Franca in Casca Wines’ Bote (Douro)) can turn a mediocre blend into a full-bodied wine of international quality. Don’t be put off by the low prices (around €4 a bottle in supermarkets) which belie the quality; good wine is, thankfully, still relatively cheap in Portugal.

Pictured wines (prices as of 2020):
Adega de Vila Real (Douro – blend of Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional), 2018, €3.14
Vale do Viso (Douro – blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz), 2016, €3.94
Cartuxa Vinea (Alentejo – blend of Aragonez, Trincadeira, Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Nacional and Syrah), 2017, €3.05
Bote (Douro – blend of Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional), 2016, €3.85
Cabeça d’Velho (Dão – blend of Tinta Roriz, Jaen and Touriga Nacional), 2015, €2.55

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