Portugal’s best fine-wine hope?

Is Touriga Nacional capable of making fine wine on its own? Or is it better in a blend? A recent conference in Porto discussed the ups and downs of Portugal's best -known grape variety
by Graham Holter

All hail Touriga Nacional, Portugal's flagship wine grape. You can tell a variety has hit the big time when a whole two-day conference is devoted to it, and that's exactly what happened in Porto in December 2010. Portuguese wine needs a calling card to attract fine-wine lovers, delegates agreed, and what better grape for the job than Touriga?

What, indeed? It's hard to imagine an international Tinta Roriz symposium attracting such numbers; a seminar on Alicante Bouschet would probably struggle to fill a modestly sized meeting room. For better or worse, Touriga Nacional is the nearest thing the Portuguese have to a signature grape, and the country's wine producers hope that it may eventually work for them in the same way that Grüner Veltliner works for Austria and Malbec does for Argentina.

Yet the parallels are not exact. Touriga Nacional may have the advantage of being easy to pronounce for non-Portuguese speakers, and stylistically it is equally adept at crossing cultural borders. But it's rarely at its best as a varietal. Drinking 100 percent Touriga doesn't have to be a dispiriting experience, though it can feel rather like attending a 1972 Beatles reunion only to find Wings have been booked as a last-minute replacement.

Rui Falcão, a respected wine journalist and member of Vini Portugal's fine-wine board, takes a more positive view, telling the conference that Touriga has one of the key qualities that make a variety great: "the capacity to be excellent as a varietal or in a blend." But he accepted there are other hurdles to clear. Touriga needs to prove its international reputation and show it can age well. "We don't have absolute certainty, because Portugal has a tradition of blends, which means there aren't many examples from the past," he said, though he's privy to a tasting of 1963 wines that showed the variety has longevity. A great grape variety also needs to travel well, and Touriga is cropping up in Australia, Argentina, South Africa, and even Spain.

Does Touriga tick all the boxes? Perhaps not yet, but few would contest that Touriga has a character that's all its own. "It has a deep color and a very exotic and happy floral scent, very similar to Earl Grey tea. It has such a huge personality that the terroir is not able to become more relevant than the variety. Regardless of the place and the soil, the aroma is very distinctive."

Touriga Nacional was Portugal's main grape variety in the 19th century, but it was virtually eradicated during the 1970s. And though it now grows in all the main regions, it accounts for a meager 2.2 percent of planting nationally. Enologist Carlos Lucas of Dão Sul, another speaker at the conference, does not believe Touriga works everywhere. Studies have shown that yields, and acidity, decrease from north to south, with implications for quality.

"Dão is the birthplace of this grape variety. I don't know if it's the soil, but the climate is not as hot and releases all its potential. All these aromas that we associate with Touriga Nacional," he said, "floral, fresh aromas -- they're all found in this region. And there is a great capacity for aging.

"Bairrada is an excellent place for the production of Touriga Nacional; the climate is not as hot, and it has a lower yield. Alentejo -- to be honest, I'm yet to be convinced. I have tried to produce 100 percent Touriga Nacional, and I have never succeeded. It's very stress sensitive. I'm not happy about the acidity."

Rui Renguina, a winemaker who works for a range of producers in Portugal and overseas, agreed. "Touriga Nacional works better as a blend with other grape varieties. There is one exception, which is the region of Dao," he said. In Argentina, he has blended Touriga with Malbec and believes similar marriages with local favorites could work elsewhere. In Portugal itself, there is a feeling that it makes sense to use Touriga as an emblem, if only because international wine drinkers are not used to the complicated blends and unfamiliar varieties that the country favors.

Jancis Robinson MW agreed this was a sensible course to take, even though her personal list of exciting Portuguese grape varieties contained more whites than red. Hers was not the only voice at the conference to express concerns that the vogue for Touriga might result in the uprooting of less fashionable, but no less interesting, vines.

Wine lovers are, she said, increasingly interested in "heritage" varieties associated with particular regions and in older vineyards. "Now is the moment. Fifteen years ago, when the world's wine consumers were crazy about a handful of grape varieties, was not the moment. But the world's wine consumers and the world's wine trade are now heartily sick of this handful of wine varieties.

"There's enormous cachet in having your own indigenous variety that's already at home in your region. You in Portugal are ideally placed to take advantage of this current fashion. Portugal's renaissance will start with Touriga Nacional, and people will then get interested in the huge amount of other grape varieties."