How did I become familiar with the wines of Portugal?
Well here goes a bit of my history.... Once upon a time, about 12 years ago, I worked for a PR agency (Dunn and Robbins) that promoted wines of Portugal. I used to hold in-store tastings twice a week, every other weekend and got familiar with all the Portuguese indigenous grapes.
Of course for the beginner, learning about wines of Portugal can be overwhelming. Portugal has over 250 native varieties, some of which only grow there. But, Portugal also grows French varieties too: Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot, Viognier are some that are used in blends with native varieties or on their own. It's also important to know that some of the native varieties are found in neighboring Spain, though with different names; for example Tinta Roriz is the Spanish Tempranillo from Rioja and Ribera del Duero, Alvarinho is the Albariño from Rías Baixas and Jaen is the Spanish Mencía, etc.
For me Portugal, like Spain, offers plenty of quality at a very reasonable price. Of course if you want to spend a lot of cash, you can find expensive wines here too! but if you are looking for very affordable wines, @ less than $25 a bottle, Portugal is definitely your destination.
Slightly bigger than Bordeaux, Portugal has 190,000 hectares dedicated to vineyards. Climatically, the north of Portugal is cooler than the south which is drier and hotter. We can easily divide Portugal in three sections; appellations on the west coast, facing the Atlantic, enjoy cooling sea breezes, abundant rainfall and moderate temperatures. To the east, on the border with Spain, the climate changes to continental: cool at night but very hot during the day, much dryer, with lower rainfalls. Finally, in the south we have the Mediterranean influence, mild winters but dry and hot summers. There are many soils in Portugal; granite in Vinho Verde, Douro, Alentejo and Dao. Schist in Douro and Alentejo; clay, sand and limestone in Bairrada, Tejo, Peninsula de Setúbal and Lisboa. As you imagine it is the perfect combination of climate, soil, grape varieties and exposure that allows Portugal to produce unique styles of wines.
Like every country in Europe, wine production is super regulated in Portugal and has a quality system copied from the French. The top wines are known as DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada) equivalent to the French AOC/ AOP, then comes the IPR (Indicação de Proveniência Regulamentada), similar to French VdP (Vin de Pays) and finally the Vinho de Mesa category or table wine. If you want quality, always stick to DOC wines.
Map of Wine Appellations, courtesy of Wines of Portugal
There are 11 regions in Portugal, these listed below are just my favorites. I opted to list regions, following the system of the old world, I'm including the grape varieties there too, though they don’t usually appear on labels. I am also including descriptions of all the wine styles, this will be important for all of you, who are not familiar with these varieties, and to give you something you can relate to.
Vinho Verde: located to the north of Portugal and facing the Atlantic, Vinho Verde is usually a blend of several aromatic varieties that include Alvarinho, Loureiro, Trajadura, Arinto, Avesso, etc. Vinho Verde is a very refreshing white with piercing acidity, usually low in alcohol, light body, and a bit of fizz. On the nose will show citrus: fresh orange peel, lime and grapefruit but also green apple notes. Wines from the Monção appellation are usually 100 % Alvarinho and a bit more serious.
Douro: Yes! the same wineries that produce port, also make superb, dry table wines, and not just any red wines; Douro reds are some of the most flavorful/ beefy reds around! I consider them a powerbomb, because they feature a big body, big fruit, high alcohol (14% is the usual) but soft tannins. On the nose, they have nice black fruit (black cherries and plums), tobacco, cloves and other spices. The main grapes here are those used to make Port: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Cao,Tinta Amarela and Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo). Some will be produced as a blend or as varietal. Quinta Do Crasto is one of my favorite producers here, see more recommendations below.
Dão: is another source of delicious softer reds than those from the Douro valley. Made mostly from Touriga Nacional, Alfrocheiro, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Jaen (Spanish Mencía) & Baga. Dao also produces flavorful whites, which can be medium to full bodied from the Encruzado grape.
Bairrada: is a source of sparkling wines made with Maria Gomes grapes, Arinto, Cersial and even Chardonnay. But the star of Bairrada is a red grape: Baga. It yields a very rich, tannic red with high acidity, a big red that requires aging to tame its strength! it usually features flavors of black plums, coffee, tobacco and smoke. We can find plenty of wines from international varieties here too, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Merlot etc.
Alentejo: is a source of fruity and easy to drink reds that are offered in many cafes and restaurants. Aragonêz (AKA Tempranillo from Spain) is the most popular variety here, but also, Alicante Bouschet, Alfrocheiro, Castelao (Periquita) and Trincadeira, all yield elegant reds. And of course there are blends of Aragonêz with international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, usually sold as Vinho regional Alentejano.
Setúbal: is known for its Muscat of Alexandria fortified wine (Moscatel de Setúbal), which is a rich, exotic dessert wine featuring notes of oranges, molasses, and caramel.
The Pamela DOC appellation produces wines from Castelão grapes, sometimes blended with Tempranillo (Aragonêz), Cabernet Sauvignon, Trincadeira and Syrah. Castelão yields fresh reds full of red currants and plum flavors, similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, but with riper tannins and balanced alcohol.
So, what do you think? should we give Portugal a try?
Below my recommendations: many thanks to Broadbent Selections, Ole & Obrigado, Vineyard Brands and Herdade do Esporao for providing me with samples.
Broadbent Vinho Verde NV, $11.99
Known for his wonderful selection of Madeiras and Ports, Bartholomew Broadbent has added a full line up of still Portuguese wines. His mouthwatering Vinho Verde is a blend of 50 % Loureiro, 40% Trajadura and 10% Pederna. This light and spritzy white shows elegant lime and grapefruit notes and lively acidity. Comes in a rosé version, too.
Broadbent Dao White 2019, $14.99
If you are looking for a different white you have reached the right spot! made from a blend of Encruzado, Malvasia Fina, Bical and Gouveio, this firm, medium white offers white peach, slivered almonds with herbal (tarragon and fennel) notes, ending smooth and creamy!
Broadbent Douro Reserva 2018, $24.99
Polished red featuring a blend of Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca, aged for 12 months in oak. Elegant combination of ripe black cherry and blueberry compote with layers of clove and vanilla notes that frame a lovely finish.
Nortico Alvarinho 2019, (Vinho Regional Minho) $14.99
Made from 100 % Alvarinho grapes sustainably grown, this light, refreshing white showcases nice yellow apple and grapefruit notes and an elegant touch of white stone minerality.
Macanita Douro 2018, $29.99
Velvety red featuring Touriga Nacional old vines (some over 80+ years old) and Sousao grapes. This wine is aged for 12 months in a blend of new and old French oak and features abundant plum and blueberry preserves aromas combined with scented floral notes.
Herdade Do Esporao Monte Velho Red 2019 (Alentejo) $9.99
An everyday red with substance, made from 40% Aragonêz (aka Tempranillo), 35% Trincadeira, 20% Touriga Nacional, and 5% Syrah. It delivers fresh red cherry and vanilla notes, subtle tannins tune up the finish.
Altano Douro White 2019 $14.99
A blend of organic grown Malvasia fina, Viosinho,Rabigato and Moscatel Galego. Tropical Pineapple and peach notes on this floral and bright white. Delish!
Altano Douro Red 2018 $12.99
Suave red made from a blend of Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz and Tinta Barroca. This tinto offers plum, glazed cherries and licorice notes that mark the spicy peppery finish.
Quinta do Ataide Douro Red 2015 $25.99
Concentrated red made from a blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Cao and Tinta Barroca. Aged for 10 months in French oak. It features prune sauce and brambly notes that complement the interesting fleshy finish. Cheers! Silvina