Not since the postwar launch of Mateus, the sweet pink fizz in the iconic bulbous bottle, have things looked so rosy for Portuguese wine in North America.
Excluding fortified port – the country's signature wine and dominant export – Portuguese shipments to the United States advanced 15 per cent in value during the first 10 months of 2012 versus the same period a year earlier. In Canada, sales grew by about 10.3 per cent in volume and 14 per cent by value in 2012 compared with 2011, according to ViniPortugal, a trade group representing Portuguese wine.
Much of the gain can be credited to expanding product selection, a welcome departure since the days when Mateus alone accounted for up to 40 per cent of Portugal's table wine exports. And there has been a concerted marketing push of late, typified by a small band of winery owners cheekily calling themselves the Douro Boys.
Five principals in the Douro Valley – a land of majestically steep hills famous for sweet, high-strength port – banded together a decade ago to promote the region's emerging dry wines (complete with tongue-in-cheek beefcake photos worthy of Il Divo or the Canadian Tenors). For more than a century, the valley had been dominated by British companies that enjoyed a virtual monopoly on production. Local growers were forced to sell grapes to port houses. But in 1986 European Union regulations put an end to British hegemony, granting growers the right to bottle their own wine.
Today, the Douro stands at the vanguard of Portugal's quality dry-wine renaissance, with fine offerings from independents as well as from the newly diversified port houses. It's a region of rich, heart-warming reds that combine sunny New World-style fruitiness with Old World savoury character and tannic power. They're ideal pairings for robust meat dishes based on lamb or beef.
Delaforce Touriga Nacional 2009 ($18.95, score 90)
A prominent port house, Delaforce was founded in 1868 by George Henry Delaforce, descendent of Protestant French Huguenots who had fled to London in the 17th century to escape religious persecution. Distinguished for its aged tawny ports, the brand, now owned by a company called Real Companhia Velha, has branched out into good table wines like this red. Dry on entry and juicy on the finish, it offers ripe currant, plum and chocolate flavours pulled tight by astringent tannins. Cellar it for up to six years. $20.15 in Quebec.
Lua Nova em Vinhas Velhas 2010 ($14.95, 90)
The name translates as "new moon in old vines," which captures the modern, organic approach applied to the company's mature vineyards. Old vines yield fewer but more concentrated berries, which in turn produce richer and generally more balanced wine. Well, not everything's modern. The 23 grape varieties in this red were in part crushed by foot in traditional, large open fermenting vats. The result is a cherry bomb, nuanced with mineral, earth and an herbaceous character reminiscent of Loire Valley cabernet franc. Acid provides lift and fine, dry tannins lend welcome structure. It could improve over five more years.
Quinta de Ventozelo Reserva 2009 ($21.95, 90)
Three chief grapes used in port – touriga nacional, tinta roriz, touriga franca – shine in this red blend from an established port house. Very earthy, with a trace of mushroom, it's packed with ripe, almost raisin-like fruit. Lovely now, it could improve with four years' rest.
Adriano Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas 2010 ($16.95, 89)
There are five grapes in this blend, led by tinta roriz, more familiar on these shores by its Spanish moniker, tempranillo. Very dry, it shows an offbeat note of apple along with floral, plum and cigar nuances. A fetching curiosity. $17.99 in B.C., $17.40 in Quebec.
Monte Vilar Reserva 2011 ($14.95, 88)
Not from the Douro but rather from the heart of the vast south-central Alentejo region, this red is made by a company founded in 2002 that grows native Portuguese as well as French varieties. It's all Portuguese content here, a blend of touriga nacional (arguably the country's most distinguished red grape), aragonez (also another name for tempranillo) and trincadeira. Juicy cherry mingles with spice, leather and smoke. Imagine Piedmontese barbera crossed with Tuscan sangiovese and you may get a picture. A tad jarring at first, it's the sort of wine that grows on you – or at least on me.
Quinta do Portal Frontaria 2009 ($13.95, 87)
From a boutique Douro estate that also makes port and sparkling wine, this dry wine is blended from tinta roriz, touriga franca and touriga nacional. Despite the traditional grape blend, it's offbeat, much lighter and brighter than most Douro reds. Just 25 per cent of the juice saw time in oak barrels (the balance was matured in neutral steel). Medium-bodied and juicy, it tastes like fresh grape must crossed with pink bubble gum – in an oddly attractive way. This is one Douro wine that might pair better with tomato-sauce dishes such as pizza rather than with hearty meats.