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When in Portugal, Have a Trinc


The wine world gets smaller all the time. Not in area, but in diversity. As a half-dozen or so international mainstream grapes led by Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay continue their conquest of the world's vine lands, the formerly vast genetic diversity within each variety has shrunk to a handful of widely planted clones.

Such homogeneity comes at a tremendous cost to wine lovers in terms of unique aromas and flavors that have been permanently lost. That's too bad, because sensual diversity is one of the greatest pleasures wine offers.

I'm not suggesting that anyone would get tired of Cabernet and Chardonnay. But just in case a wine lover might want to take the road less traveled every once in a while, here's a tip: Look to Portugal.

Portuguese table wine offers sensory excursions way off the beaten path. Thanks to a long coastline with several large estuaries that beckoned ancient Phoenician sailors, Portugal has been producing wine a lot longer than most European countries. So long, in fact, that it harbors grape varieties found virtually nowhere else.

And the Portuguese wine community is determined to preserve that heritage. But be forewarned that talking about Portuguese wine can get pretty confusing. It seems that as the names of the mainstream varieties have become almost generic, the wily Iberian grapes have long lists of aliases.

Imagine: Ruby lights gleam in the depths of your glass as you swirl the wine. The aroma seems to fill the room. There is the unmistakable bright cherry of the grape called Castela~o Frances, seasoned with the peppery scent of Trincadeira and underlain with a hint of chocolate typical of Jo~ao de Santarem.

The label says Periquita. A fortuitous blend of three complementary grape varieties, you wonder? Not quite. Periquita is the name of a single grape known by many names, and its synonyms include Castela~o Frances, Trincadeira, and Joa~o de Santarem as well as Tinta Francisca (no relation to Touriga Francesa) or just Frances.

Incidentally, Trincadeira as a synonym for Periquita is not the same grape as Trincadeira Preta of the Alentejo, which is also called Tinta Amarela in the Douro and, sometimes, Espadeiro.

Like T.S. Eliot's cat, every Portuguese wine grape has several names. There is its local name, which changes from place to place; there is its more or less proper name, which is usually the local name that has achieved the most commercial success; there is its traditional pre-phylloxera name; and, no doubt, as with the cat, there is a name known only to the vine itself.

One grape, Ferna~o Pires, is named after a 15th century explorer. Another, Esgana, is widely known as Dog's Throat (its wine is painfully acidic).

There are more than 300 wine grapes planted in Portugal; they share more than 3,000 names. In addition to the confusing synonyms, there is homophonic confusion between sound-alike varieties such as Alvarelha~o and Alvarinho (called Albarin~o in Spain) and Tinta Francisca and Touriga Francesa.

Further complicating the picture is the fact that virtually all Portuguese wines are blends of several varieties, in which the regional characteristics of a given grape may show in unfamiliar ways.

Waiter, cancel that Chardonnay. I'll have a glass of Dog's Throat instead.

What makes Portuguese viticulture so fascinating is the fact that most of these grape varieties are found only in Portugal. Some have Spanish counterparts--Tinta Roriz, for example, is the same grape as Rioja's Tempranillo--but even those may well have originated in Portugal before migrating inland.

Luis Carneiro, professor at the Institute of Agronomy in Lisbon, thinks that makes sense. "People migrated first by sea, around the Mediterranean coastline and up our Atlantic coast and only later by land," he points out. "It would be logical to assume that these grape varieties arrived by sea also, and then spread east and northeast into Spain, perhaps along the rivers."

Carneiro is actively engaged (along with colleagues Antero Martins and Jose E. Eiras-Dias) in determining the origins of Portuguese grape varieties, in much the same way that Carole Meredith has been pursuing the genetic roots of California's Zinfandel. Their methodology is essentially the same as that used by anthropologists and demographers to trace human ethnic origins.

The procedures are complicated, but the principle is simple: Species mutate routinely in response to environmental factors. Over time, the population in a given area will show increasing genetic diversification. Therefore, the area that shows the most genetic diversity is the area in which it originated.

If, for example, it turns out that Tinta Roriz shows more heterogeneity in Rioja than in the Da~o or Douro, it would mean that it probably originated in Spain and was subsequently introduced to Portugal.

Carneiro says that so far they have determined that Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Periquita, Arinto and many other varieties are effectively indigenous to Portugal.

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