Long before there was port, there was Portuguese wine.
Since about the 12th century, whenever relations between England and France turned sour, the London wine merchants would send their ships off to ever-friendly Portugal to load up on red wine to replace their interrupted supplies of Bordeaux.
The Portuguese product was rough stuff compared with the more elegant French wines, but what the heck, it was wine.
About 300 years ago, some bright folks got the notion that the red wines of the Douro Valley in northern Portugal would be less likely to turn into vinegar en route to England if they added brandy to the fermenting wine. Soon it was found that if they added brandy soon enough, it preserved some of the sweetness of the wine.
English consumers quickly realized that not only did this newfangled wine pack more of a wallop than nonfortified wine, it was also quite tasty. Port was thus born and other Portuguese reds began their slide into obscurity.
The Portuguese have never stopped making them and enjoying them, however. And recent decades have brought technological changes that have eliminated many of the most egregious flaws in the wines. Most of these changes have been little-noticed outside the country, however.
The result is that some Portuguese red wines are among the best values coming out of Europe today. These wines are well worth exploring, and one might some day take its place as your "house" red wine.
But it would be imprudent to rush off to the store to stock up on everything Portuguese. Unfortunately, Portugal also produces some of the most dreadful wines you can buy in the United States. Some of them are enough to make you wonder what the importers were smoking.
But, for an example of the best Portugal can offer, try the 1986 Periquita Reserva from Jose Maria da Fonseca, one of the finest wines $9 can buy anywhere. This lush, mature red wine shows RTC great depth and texture, with meaty, smoky black raspberry flavors. Robust but not coarse, the Periquita still has room for further development. It tastes much like a mythical blend of a fine Barolo and a Ridge petite sirah.
For an example of the worst Portugal can offer, try the weird, acidic 1992 Quinta de Santo Amaro ($9) or the thin, dried-out 1988 Carvalho, Ribiero & Ferreira Garrafeira ($9). On second thought, don't try them. That's what wine writers are paid to do.
In between you can find some excellent values, though not as many as one would like.
For a basic, everyday red wine, there are few better choices than the 1990 Serradayres. For $5 a bottle, you get a medium- to
full-bodied red with pleasant flavors of black cherry, herbs and pine. It's a little coarse, but could smooth out with some aging -- a rare trait in this price class.
Another $5 success is the 1991 Alianca Bairrada, a medium-bodied red with ample black currant flavor. It's not what you'd call elegant, but it provides sound value.
A splendid mouthful indeed is the 1991 Herdade de Santa Maria from J. P. Vinhos S.A., a $10 wine with gobs of youthful, grapey. chunky, herbal flavors. It doesn't have quite the class of the Periquita, but it's a delight to drink.
Few Portuguese wines are made of recognizable grape varieties. The 1988 cabernet sauvignon from Quinta do Baccalhoa is a worthy exception. The $14 price tag is rather steep for its quality, but it's a well-made cabernet with plenty of chocolatey fruit.
Portugal remains one of the few sources left for well-aged red wines at low prices, but that doesn't mean they are bargains. Neither does the word "Garrafeira," which supposedly denotes a reserve wine.
An example is the 1982 Romeira Garrafeira, a complete waste of $10. The wine is completely dried out, with barely a trace of fruit to hide the bitter tannin.
One Garrafeira that does have merit is the 1985 Alianca from the Beiros region, a $9 wine that resembles a good Rioja with its black currant nuances and mature flavors. Devotees of older vintages can find some satisfaction here.
The other wines tasted can be damned by the faint praise of the word "drinkable," which ceases to be a compliment when the price gets much above $6.
They include the 1989 Dao Terras Altas from Jose Maria da Fonseca ($7); the 1989 Morgado do Reguendo from the same producer ($9); the 1989 Dao from Caves Velhas ($8); the 1987 Romeira from Caves Velhas; and the 1990 Tinto da Anfora ($10).
BSO's ordinary encore
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has, in recent years, adopted the admirable practice of selling wines bottled under its own label in order to raise funds.
Last year the wines, produced by California's Plam Vineyards, received extravagant and well-deserved praise in this column. Recalling that rave review, the folks at the BSO asked for a review of this year's selections.
Be careful what you wish for.
The wines produced by Healdsburg Vineyards by the BSO this year are no repeat of last year's extraordinary selections.
The 1993 BSO Cabernet Sauvignon is a medium-bodied, fruity red wine that is perfectly pleasant for early consumption but nothing close to last year's well-structured classic. The newer wine represents honest quality for the price.
The 1994 BSO Chardonnay is also a letdown. The flavors are inoffensive but dilute, and there is no grip or complexity. One gets the sense that Healdsburg kept the better fruit for bottling under its own reliable label. Buy this for the music the BSO makes, not the harmony of the wine.
The wines are sold by the case for only $120, which works out to $10 a bottle. Orders will be taken through Nov. 6. Call (410) 783-8000.