Slow progress

Drink - Victoria Moore finds Portugal reluctant to promote its fine red wines

In Spain, they promise the proverbial manana to anything you care to ask. In Portugal, you'll be lucky if someone so much as parts their lips in response. So many port houses (Taylor's, Crofts, Cockburn, to name but a few) bear sturdily British names, it is said, because when port began to be big business in the early 19th century, distribution was king. Instead of shipping their excellent fortified wines far and wide under the name of the grower or the maker, the Portuguese allowed British wine merchants to settle in Oporto and take control. Put another way, the Portuguese betrayed a tendency to be unenterprising and, frankly, slothful.

Here in the arid Douro valley, it is hot. Bees as fat as cats laze down from the vineyards. Our mouths are sticky with grape juice. At the railway station, tiny, dusty and prettily decorated with painted blue and white tiles, the man in the ticket office is being difficult. After protracted and strenuous discussion he agrees to sell us a ticket. Via a self-appointed interpreter we agitatedly ask for returns. "But he has already made out singles . . . " she says, stalling.

"And he can't be bothered to change them?" offers my latest love.

"Yes," she exclaims, delighted and relieved that we have so firm a grasp on the Portuguese psyche.

In the same town we go for dinner. The restaurant is not just dark and gloomy; the walls are painted black. I am clutching a crib sheet for the wine list. Judging by our experience so far of bad vinho verdes and sour, musty reds, this cheat's guide to local wines will come in useful.

There are, in fact, some good wines to be found in Portugal. The Douro alone has begun to make some decent stuff although, perhaps inevitably, all the best grapes still go for the region's star product - port.

"Portuguese wines are very characterful," a resident winemaker tells me. "But they're not really suited to palates reared on full-blown, gutsy New World flavours. They're quite austere and tend to be made for the home market, not for export."

Still, we have had a couple of decent bottles of red that were intended for the overseas market (each had English on the label). Both were made from the Baga grape, native to the Bairrada region. Both avoided the tendency of such wines to be what Oz Clarke terms "menacingly tannic". Indeed they were spicy, fruity and rich. Delicious.

Because there is currently a bit of a buzz about Portuguese wine, our expectations of the Douro have been elevated perhaps a little too far. We are expecting miracles of our miserable little restaurant. The only miracle is that we are served at all. Menu-less, we wait hours before the waitress, Bella Emberg's less cheerful twin sister, can tear herself away from the non-stop TV coverage of East Timor to bark at us, "Meat or fish?" The wine menu is similarly restricted, amounting to the simplest of choices - yes or no. When it arrives, it is red, which is probably the biggest compliment you can pay it. We drink thirstily, pausing only to knock back two glassfuls of home-made port which tastes a lot better. Then we eat fried sardines, tomato and onion salad with bread and rice. The Portuguese are very keen on rice.

This is indeed austerity, but how we love the perverseness of it. It is not until we get back home to London that we discover some more lovely Portuguese wines, both reds. One, made by Quinta de la Rosa but two kilometres up the road from our black restaurant, is spicy and full-flavoured. Another, Duas Quintas Reserva from Ramos Pinto, had actually been on my cheat-sheet and is also good. It looks like, slowly, the Portuguese might just be pulling themselves together but, like everything they do, they're doing it slowly.