Everyone is talking about the amazing wine values you can find from Portugal. Well, what are they… exactly? Here is a great overview of everything you need to get started with Portuguese wine.
“If you don’t recognize the grape variety on a Portuguese wine label, it’s a good thing.”
Because Portugal’s wine culture developed in relative isolation, there are many grape varieties that do not grow anywhere else in the world. So, if you don’t recognize the grape variety on a Portuguese wine label, it’s a good thing. All told, there are over 250 indigenous varieties and a few imports (including Alicante Bouschet) that have adapted well to the Portuguese landscape (i.e. they are delicious). To many wine experts, Portugal is the last frontier of wine in Western Europe; there is still so much to be tasted and explored. So with all the excitement this region offers, let’s take a look at what there is to know about the major wines and the regions.
There are 3 levels of wine quality in Portugal. You can identify them by looking at the wine label.
Each region is managed by a regional “Wine and Vine” commission, the Comissão Vitivinícola Regional (CVR). Each CVR supervises and controls the quality regulations in order to insure quality and to maintain each region’s individual character. Also, because water is a problem in Portugal, the CVR also controls the granting of permissions for irrigation, which is carefully monitored.
Portugal Wine Terms
Port is the most famous, and most copied, wine from Portugal and it grows in the Douro Valley. The hills along the Douro River have been worked by hand into terraced stair steps since the time of Jesus. It’s so impressive that the entire region was made a UNESCO world heritage site.
If you’ve ever drank something ice-cold on the beach that happened to be from Portugal, we wager it was Vinho Verde. Best served young when the wine is at its peak of aromatics and crisp acidity, the wines of Minho are the ideal wine alongside salads, fish, vegetable dishes and even do well paired against citrus-driven sauces.
The Alentejo region feels strangely similar to California (save for a few marble castles to remind you that you’re still in Europe) with low rolling hills of wheat, even hot temperatures and tons of sun. There are many progressive and modern wineries here making red wines that offer generous fruit and mocha flavors with refined tannins from careful wood aging strategies. White wines from the Alentejo range from medium-bodied refreshers to full-bodied in a style similar to Chardonnay.
One of the most dynamic and varied regions is a strip that runs from Lisbon northward along the coast. There are many wines from the various regions in Lisboa (Alenquer, Bucelas, etc) that are already making their way into stores internationally. While there is great quality found in Lisboa (Bucelas, Colares, Alenquer, Arruda) most of the wines you’ll find available are affordable (around $10 a bottle) and great for everyday drinking.
The Dão has been identified amongst collectors as a place to watch for quality. Wines from the Dão are lighter in style than in the Douro but have shown to age very well because of the tannin and acidity development (a.k.a. “structure”) from growing in high altitude areas with rugged soils of decomposing granite and schist (similar to Douro and Priorat). If you have had Mencía from the northwestern part of Spain, the same variety grows in the Dão and is called Jaen (“Zs-ine”) and offers a very different expression.
Once called Ribatejo, Tejo is mostly flat and in these areas you’ll find large agricultural holdings where lower quality, simple quaffing wines are the norm. You’ll find that Tejo plants all kinds of grapes, from Alvarinho (the grape of Vinho Verde) to the full-bodied blackish Alicante Bouschet. The good thing about the region is that the wines are almost always under $15 and, as you move away from the rivers in the center of Tejo and into the hills towards the coast, the wines get better. This is a good region for getting super value from Portugal.
Baga is the highly productive red grape of Beira, grown in Bairrada. In the past, the wines made with 100% Baga were known to be densely structured, blackberry-fruit driven wines with high acidity and a tar-like finish. Odd, because the wines were so structured they would stubbornly (and slowly) morph into refinement over the course of 10–20 years. Today things are changing. With careful vineyard strategies and vinification (winemaking), you’ll find a much wider range of Baga that are a stark contrast from Bairrada Clássico. From the aromatic and delightfully pink sparkling wines by Luis Pato to the soft, structured light-bodied red wines by Niepoort that remind us of Pinot Noir, this area is one of the new frontiers of winemaking for the Portuguese. The wine geeks are very interested.
The most mountainous region in Portugal (it snows!) has one of the most challenging climates to produce grapes. With a shorter growing season (but still very hot), you’ll find reds to have red-fruit driven flavors with herbaceous smoky notes and a juicy finish and white wines tend to be lean with chalky minerality. There are many old vines here as well as producers using native yeasts and organic viticulture, so we have hope the region will continue to improve.
Both Madeira and Pico Island are places like no other. Pico Island has a designated UNESCO area covered with a network of stone walls, each of which protect a vine (or two) of Verdelho, the main regional white wine grape. The good stuff in terms of wine from Pico is this golden, viscous liquid that is hauntingly sweet, tart and somewhat salty with a smokiness from the volcanic landscape. Madeira, on the other hand, has a fascinating, daunting and somewhat stressful history as one of the most collected and appreciated fortified wines in the world. These wines are not for dabbling, you have to want them to drink them. If you do, drink the islands of Madeira and Pico with an open mind; you’ll find yourself stupefied at the wonder that went into making them.
The beaches of Algarve are awesome and there is even a city called Tavira which is often referred to as “The Venice of the South.” For sun worshippers, Algarve is a thing to behold. Perhaps because of all the tourist excitement, there is also wine in the Algarve too, nearly 2500 acres / 1000 hectares. Naturally, as a hot and sunbaked region, the wines aren’t designed to age, but there is hope in particular for red wines with Alicante Bouschet, Syrah and Aragonês (Tempranillo). These drought-climate varieties still manage to have juicy acidity and create more smoky sweet, dusty notes on the finish somewhat reminiscent to South Australia.