Portugal’s Answer to Cabernet is Complex and Ageworthy | Wine Enthusiast
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Portugal’s Answer to Cabernet is Complex and Ageworthy

Touriga Nacional is Portugal’s signature grape, its international vinous calling card. It’s close to entering the hallowed territory of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir in red wine renown.

Winemakers in Portugal praise the variety’s quality in the two regions where it has been traditionally planted, the Douro Valley, and its original home just to the south, the Dão. Touriga Nacional produces wines that are instantly recognizable and offer intense floral aromas and red fruit flavors. It’s an elegant grape, a natural leader in a blend, timeless and ageworthy.

In the Douro, it’s planted for both Port and table red wines, at home in both worlds. Touriga Nacional is “complete and balanced, aromatic, maintaining freshness and with great aging capacity,” says Jorge Moreira, winemaker at Quinta de la Rosa, Passagem and Poeira, his personal label in the Douro.

From these two regions, the grape has spread around Portugal.

“It is the most traveled and the most discussed grape in Portugal,” says Carlos Lucas, CEO/winemaker of Magnum Vinhos in the Dão. “It is present on all back labels, even if it only makes a tiny contribution to the final blend.”

It wasn’t always like this. In the 1970s, Touriga Nacional was poised to disappear. Even though the grape’s quality was recognized, it had low yields, was full of disease and growers wanted nothing to do with it. Its fortunes changed a decade later.

One of its champions was João Nicolau d’Almeida, owner of Quinta do Monte Xisto in the Douro Superior and formerly CEO of Casa Ramos-Pinto, identified five out of the 80 different grape varieties planted in the Douro. Atop that list was Touriga Nacional.

That listing, and the fame it garnered, spurred the research that produced the reliable, quality clones that are planted today. Now, Touriga Nacional can both take its rightful place and keep growers happy.

Planted the length of the Douro Valley, Touriga Nacional is at its best as part of a blend.

“I like to use it like salt and pepper to make the wines from old vines almost perfect,” says Moreira.

“It can be used as a single varietal, as in our Casa Ferreirinha Reserva Especial in 1992,” says Luis Sottomayor, winemaking director at Sogrape Vinhos, which brands include Sandeman, Offley and Ferreira. “I really prefer to use it in a blend when it brings complexity and harmony.”

Touriga Nacional grapes in a white basket
Touriga Nacional grapes/Getty

In the Dão, Touriga Nacional’s blending companions are Jaen and Alfrocheiro. It’s grown in the region’s cooler climate, with granite mountains and high-altitude vineyards providing “such great elegance, aroma and velvety textures,” says Carlos Lucas. “It gives wine with intense color, violet and bergamot aromas.”

“In the mouth, it is full-bodied, robust and structured, fruity when young, but with a high potential for prolonged aging.”

In other regions of Portugal, Touriga Nacional is a relatively recent arrival, certainly since its clonal revolution of the 1990s. While it brings style and sophistication, it does lose some aromatic quality and ageability in the warm Alentejo and Tejo vineyards.

In Touriga Nacional’s new incarnation, with clones and rootstocks that guarantee quality and quantity, winemakers love to work with it.

“It is like the guarantee seal for the best wines,” says Lucas. “It has attributes I cannot do without, especially its ability to give us wines with longevity. This will be our legacy.”

Sottomayor, who’s also responsible for Sogrape’s Dão wines, calls Touriga Nacional “a winemaker’s best friend. Always solid and consistent maintaining the same quality and aromatic profile.”