Discover Portugal: home to more than 250 indigenous varietals

4 Oct 2021

Portugal has over 250 native grape varieties to explore, along with an incredible array of clones within each of these varieties. It’s this very diversity that positions Portugal well for future climate changes and a consumer more interested in exploring new varietals. We asked Dirceu Vianna Junior, the first South American male to obtain the title of Master of Wine title (2008), and recipient of the Viña Errazuriz Award for excellence for the Business of Wine paper, for his thoughts on Portugal’s native varietals. After three decades of experience of different sectors of the Wine Industry, he founded Vianna Wine Resources, a company that consults for wine businesses across Europe, Africa and South America. He is also a wine judge, educator, writer, and regular speaker at wine events around the world.


ASI: Producers around the world are returning to indigenous varietals for a variety of reasons. Do you think Portugal’s allegiance to indigenous varietals gives it an advantage over other countries, regions that perhaps more broadly accepted international varietals in the 80s, 90s, 2000s?

Dirceu Vianna Junior MW: As we begin to see consumers that are interested and more involved with wine value products that are exotic, have provenance and great stories, Portugal is certainly one of the countries that is well positioned to fulfill the need for wines that are authentic and offer exceptional value. So far, it has been challenging to sell wines made from lesser-known grapes varieties but as the appetite for new and interesting thing grows, I see this becoming an advantage. The challenge in terms of marketing and communication is to focus on the right ones since there are so many to choose from.


ASI: One reason wine producers are returning to indigenous/ancestral varietals is as a reaction to climate change? How do you feel Portugal, is positioned as a result of your wealth of indigenous varietals for future climate changes?

Dirceu Vianna Junior MW: Portugal is well provided for since it has over 250 grape varieties to explore, not to mention an incredible array of clones within each of these varieties. For example, only a small number of clones of Touriga Nacional is utilized. The variety has hundreds of clones that can be further explored for different purposes. Furthermore, white varieties such as Avesso, Arinto, Encruzado e Rabigato as well as reds such as Tinta Grossa, Sousão and Tinta Cão are capable of retaining good levels of acidity in warm conditions. These varieties will be good weapons to overcome the threat of climate change in the future. It is interesting to know that the majority of these varieties and their clones have been studied, cataloged and are preserved by a competent institution called Porvid. There is still work to be done to enhance our level of knowledge of these varieties and clones but in general I feel that the Portuguese industry is better prepared find against climate change than most other wine producing countries. This is good news for the consumer since there is a continued promise of exciting wines.


ASI: Are you seeing a varietal shift within some of your regions from one indigenous varietal to another or from international varietals to indigenous?

Dirceu Vianna Junior MW: Certainly. Portugal is a dynamic country and producers don’t stand still. There is a bit of everything happening in Portugal. The traditional areas such as Douro and Dão seem to prefer to conserve their local varieties, which is great. Yes, it is possible to find Syrah and even Grüner Veltliner in Douro but this is an exception. There is higher penetration of international varieties such as Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, etc in areas such as Peninsula de Setubal, Lisboa and Alentejo. In any case, I would not consider that these plantings of international varieties as a major shift but as additions to the rich array of indigenous varieties that Portugal possesses, and they will remain a small proportion of plantings in the future.


ASI: Portugal is home to hundreds of indigenous grape varietals. Some like Touriga Nacional and Alvarinho, for example, are very well-known. Do you think there will be increased attention placed on some of your lesser-known indigenous varietals? Even though Portugal has hundreds of indigenous varietals do you think there are still some that perhaps now are growing wild, or part of field blends, that may become more important in the future?

Dirceu Vianna Junior MW: I would love to think that this will be the case. Portugal is a country of small producers. The production costs are high; therefore, it would be unwise to try to compete with other wine producing countries where cost of land and labor is cheaper. In order to be sustainable, Portugal must continue to focus on delivering wines that are authentic, offer great value and are different. With such a huge number of varieties there is so much to explore. It doesn’t matter how many times I visit Portugal; I always learn something new and taste varieties I never knew existed such as Vital, Jampal, Folgasão, etc. This is really exciting for buyers and sommeliers, and I am sure they will play a vital part in helping consumers discover many of these jewels in the future.


ASI: Are you seeing any trends in winemaking as it relates to indigenous varietals? For example, are you finding producers moving away from barrique and embracing less evasive fermentation and aging vessels in a desire to showcase the varietal and the terroir?

Dirceu Vianna Junior MW: This seems to be the case and I think that it makes sense to explore new varieties using gentler winemaking techniques so the producer can better identify the varietal characteristics. It is an important part of the learning process that can lead to developments and exciting wines. It doesn’t necessarily mean that hands-off winemaking is the right thing to do in the long term, as some varieties perform better in oak, especially in larger and older vessels where oak adds texture and complexity without obscuring varietal character. This is the case for Encruzado, for example. This is a wonderful white variety from Dão that when it is young and un-oaked is often neutral and lacks charm. It performs wonderfully when vinified with a gentle kiss of oak and allowed to develop in the bottle. There is a tendency by some professionals to think that interventions during winemaking are bad. I am in favor of experimenting in order to accumulate knowledge that helps to make decisions based on facts and science. It is fine to interfere as little as possible, but the winemaker must ensure that wine is sound, consistent and will give consumers pleasure.


ASI: What’s the role of the sommelier in terms of telling the story of indigenous varietals to the end consumer? Have you found sommeliers to be receptive to Portuguese wines made by these indigenous varietals?

Dirceu Vianna Junior MW: The role of the sommelier in telling the stories of indigenous varietals to the consumer is essential. Discovering something new is part of the experience of dining out, however most consumers don’t have the knowledge or the confidence to explore on their own. The best sommeliers, those who combine curiosity for something new with a humility to always learn, are incredibly receptive and often surprised by what Portugal can offer.


ASI: Given Portugal’s allegiance to indigenous varietals do you feel it has it given Portugal an advantage in terms of establishing well connected links between indigenous varietals and local food pairings? What are some classic indigenous varietal and food pairings?

Dirceu Vianna Junior MW: Portugal has renown and well-established links between indigenous varietals and local food pairings. One of the classic examples comes from Bairrada where roasted suckling pig is served alongside sparkling Blanc de Noirs made from Baga that helps refresh and cleanse the palate. Another example of indigenous varietal and local food pairing comes from the north of the country. Lamprey eel, that is usually in season between January and April, is served with the deeply color, fruit forward, light, and crisp red wines made from Vinhão.  Having said this, it is important to be open minded and explore Portuguese wine with any type of food available worldwide. The array of aromas, flavours, textures and different levels of acidity are compatible with most types of cuisine. This is what makes Portugal so special and our jobs so interesting.