The importance of being imported

If you think of Mateus or Lancer’s when you think of Portuguese wine, then you may soon be thinking anew. Portugal’s food and wines have been overshadowed by those of Spain, its larger Iberian neighbor, over the last generation or so, but the Portuguese viticultural tradition has its roots in Roman times and produces wines that compare favorably with any in the world. The issue at the moment is distributing them to that world – in particular, to us – and that means finding importers.

To judge by the offerings of a recent trade show, Portuguese winemakers aren’t going to have much trouble convincing the public about the quality of their wines nor about their value. I found myself, after rapturous sips of this and that, asking what a particular bottling might sell for at retail in Europe and repeatedly hearing, "2 euros 50" or "3 euros" – in other words, $3 or $4. I would have bought several cases on the spot if I’d been able to, the whites being especially appealing.

At least one wrinkle for Portuguese winemakers who want to sell their stuff here is that there is no restaurant infrastructure to serve as a wedge into public consciousness. Our Iberian restaurants are almost all Spanish, and there aren’t even that many of them; I am aware of only the Grubstake, a Polk Gulch hamburger salon, as an offerer of a full-scale Portuguese menu in the city, and even there you have to know what you’re looking for, lest you end up with a BLT from the regular menu. Some years ago, Stars, in one of its post-Jeremiah Tower configurations, made a point of featuring Portuguese wines, but that program went down with the restaurant.

Perhaps there will be a breakthrough wine, a Portuguese answer to gruner veltliner and albarino. (The Portuguese grow the latter, incidentally, as alvarinho.) I might place a small bet on white wines produced from antao vez, a grape indigenous to Portugal and grown in the Alentejo region southeast of Lisbon. The name looks a bit forbidding to the Anglophone eye – an unhelpful detail in a brand-name culture like ours – but the wines are bright and fresh, with a green fruitiness gently crisped by acid. Wines like these at $3 to $4 a bottle would be too good to be true – but maybe $5 or $6 is feasible?

Paul Reidinger