The Ampelographic Paradox

On a per capita basis, Portugal is probably the most ampelographically diverse wine-producing country in the world. Home to numerous indigenous varieties, each going by various synonyms in different regions, Portugal is paradoxically both traditionalist and modernist when it comes to winemaking. As per Wine-Searcher data, at least 75 percent of all Portuguese wines are blends. Often regarded at the pinnacle of Portugal’s oenological pyramid, port wine alone allows for more than 100 varieties.

With certain exceptions, throughout history, wine blends have been far more common than single-varietal wines, which are a relatively new phenomenon. With a number of notable exceptions, wine blends tend to be associated with the Old World, whereas single-varietal wines the New World. A proximate reason could be that winemakers in the New World, with less conventional and legislative constraints, enjoy more freedom when it comes to expressing and interpreting grape varieties, as if virtuosic musicians e.g. Niccolò Paganini and Franz Liszt expanded the musical boundaries of the violin and piano respectively. (NB: both are of Old World stock, indeed Italian and Austro-Hungarian.)

The ultimate reason could well be necessity. For many regions across the Old World, the climate is far less reliable than that in many parts of the New World. In the not-so-distant past when alcoholic beverages were the only safe drinks available, to quench thirst and contribute to daily calorie intake, wine was more about livelihood and sustenance than luxury and taste. A field blend, therefore, acts as an insurance policy against poor climate and bad harvest, e.g. should Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz underperform this year, at least there are Touriga Franca and Tinta Barroca to hold the fort.

Before the technological advances of the industrial era and the grafting of American stock post-phylloxera plague, it was in any case extremely difficult for winemakers to be entirely sure what vines there were in the vineyards, indeed what actually went into the wines. The saying that many a Portuguese winemaker does not know what goes into their wines, therefore, does contain a grain of truth. Single-varietal wines may now be a matter of winemaking philosophy and market trends, but wine blends probably originated from practical constraints and pragmatic adaptations.

Recent vintages available at various wine shops and supermarkets in Macao.

Carmim Régia Colheita Reserva 2011

A blend of Antão Vaz and Arinto. Rich citrine with shimmering golden reflex, the attractive nose offers apricot, custard apple, fragrant oak and honeysuckle. With generous acidity and clear minerality, the fleshy palate delivers lime, pomelo, dried herbs and brioche. Medium-full bodied at 13.5 percent, the juicy entry continues through a tropical mid-palate, leading to a creamy finish.

Carmim Régia Colheita Reserva 2008

A blend of Antão Vaz and Arinto. Deep jonquil with gleaming amber reflex, the scented nose presents pear, peach, green olive and crème Chantilly. With bounteous acidity and firm minerality, the rounded palate supplies grapefruit, passion fruit, pine nut and oaky vanilla. Medium-full bodied at 13.5 percent, the spicy entry persists through an exotic mid-palate, leading to a nutty finish.

Jacky I.F. Cheong is a legal professional by day and columnist by night. Having spent his formative years in Britain, France,
and Germany, he regularly writes about wine, fine arts, classical music, and politics in several languages

Categories World of Bacchus