Master of Wine Julia Harding reveals how Portugal’...

Master of Wine Julia Harding reveals how Portugal’s wines are raising the bar

©Sakhi Londra

By: James Mayor 

Photo: ©Sakhi Londra

Portugal’s diverse wines

ViniPortugal’s Wines of Portugal Personality of 2022 in Europe, few people know as much about Portugal’s wines as Julia Harding MW (Master of Wine). Or indeed have tasted as many of them.

Colleague of the queen of wine writers, Jancis Robinson MW, on the influential subscription website, Julia is the eagle-eyed Senior Editor and a regular contributor. The London-based journalist is a familiar visitor at every significant wine estate in Portugal, and reels off winemakers’ names with an enviable Portuguese accent.

This should not give the impression Julia’s wine interests are limited to Portugal. “I’ve always been a generalist, the Master of Wine course is great preparation for this,” Julia told Essential Algarve.

She has given Homeric demonstration of her wine generalist erudition as lead editor to the 5th edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine, recently published nearly 30 years after Jancis Robinson edited the original edition in 1994. The wine reference book with a “succinct mention” of everything wine weighs over 3kg and runs to more than one million words, and at £50 sells for the price of a single good bottle of Burgundy! Marshalling the work of 267 expert contributors was like “running a post office”, not to mention the challenge of cross-referencing more than 4,000 entries, one reason the volume is a delight for the wine curious.

Changes to this latest edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine mirror evolutions throughout the wine-producing world, including Portugal. “There have been significant changes in the world and equally changes in people’s attitudes.” Climate change and its effects on viticulture receive more attention, of course, and so does sustainability, with subjects such as how to treat vineyards without using agrochemicals. Cool climate wines, from countries such as Norway, just 10 years ago microscopic producers, now get more space.

On a first visit to Portugal in 2008, Julia took in the Douro, for her a very captivating place. In 2011, she was the British journalist asked by Wines of Portugal (Vinhos de Portugal) to name her top 50 Portuguese wines. She spent a week on a whistle-stop tour of the country’s wine regions to make her choice: “I think I tasted 1,500 Portuguese wines in a year!” Julia found Portugal’s wines unique.

Why did she find the country’s wines so gripping, and what was so different about them? “Portugal is climatically incredibly diverse: rainy in the north and very dry in parts of the south, with the Atlantic coast to the west and continental climates inland. This diversity of geography in a small country is enthralling.”

Julia cites the Alentejo as a wine region with astonishing diversity – traditionally a land of full-fruit, warm-climate sunny wines, fresher wines are today being made at altitude in the Portalegre sub-region which offers “cooler opportunities”.

Alentejo, Portugal

Portugal’s extensive stock of indigenous grape varieties is another important differentiating asset. This eclecticism is timely. “We now have a worldwide trend to value local grape varieties,” she says.

“The recent history of quality Portuguese wines has been very short, but it’s so dynamic.” During the Salazar dictatorship of the last century, there was insufficient investment in Portugal’s ubiquitous wine cooperatives. In the 1980s, new privately owned estates started to spring up and when Portugal joined the future European Union in 1986 money to invest in winemaking technology began to flow. “The Portuguese are creative people and it’s exciting today to see many more winemakers with passion and energy, willing to take risks and be a bit more edgy.”

Pico Island, Azores, Portugal

Julia mentions a few winemakers who are exceptional, in her opinion. Among the women: Filipa Pato, Susana Esteban, Sandra Tavares da Silva, Rita Marques. And the men: Hélder Cunha, António Maçanita, Hugo Mendes, and “of course, the Douro’s Dirk Niepoort, who helped to bring value to regions less considered, such as Dão and Bairrada”.

Dirk Niepoort ‘spawned’ an entire generation of talented Portuguese winemakers and is the 2023 laureate for the Decanter Hall of Fame, the equivalent of a Nobel Wine Prize.


Douro, Portugal

As for which Portuguese wine regions we should be choosing our bottles from, Julia visited the Alentejo again last year: “I was hugely impressed by what people are doing there. Lisbon shows promise too, and Colares is exciting, tiny, but it could get bigger. I’m a great fan of Azores wines; the Pico coop, for example, makes wines of really good quality. Algarve wines, unfortunately, just don’t come my way yet, so if someone wants to send me some top quality Algarve wines, I’ll taste them,” she challenges.

Julia Harding ©Joff Day

As for Portugal’s wines’ international ranks, Julia says: “With Portugal, many consumers still tend to think of Port and reds, and if they think of white it’s Vinho Verde, when Vinho Verde is only one expression of Portugal’s increasingly exciting whites.” Julia still too often hears “’this is quite expensive for Portugal’, a horrible phrase! But it’s not expensive for the quality. The big challenge is getting people to pay higher prices for higher quality”. The Master of Wine references the importance of independent wine retailers, who can talk about wines and get people to taste, rather than “risk taking something off the shelf blind”.

The UK is fortunate to have some outstanding importers of Portuguese wines, “who can handle diversity”, such as long-established Raymond Reynolds and now FESTA. Julia also acknowledges “the synergy between tourism and wine appreciation”.

Our conversation ends on a note of longing for a well-deserved break. “I would love to visit a Portuguese wine region on holiday, they’re all so beautiful. I only go there to work! A few days in the Azores or gazing at the Douro…”


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