Portugal and its wines have come a long way in a relatively short forty years time span. Always famous for its magnificent Port and Madeira wines, the reality of Portuguese classically dry red and white wines was quite another story altogether. As recently as the 1970s, the dry wine scene was limited to mostly big brands, cooperatives and a few higher quality “garrafeirera” wines (where the Portuguese word garraffa means bottle, so bottle or wine cellar), but these wines wines generally held little interest for wine lovers; by contrast, today there are hundreds of quality wineries making highly interesting wines from many different grape varieties and regions. Single vineyard (single-Quinta) wines have become commonplace, as are mono-variety wines in which the qualities of each grape variety is allowed to come to the fore and shine.
The grape varieties
With over 250 officially recognized grape varieties, most of which are native to the country, Portugal boasts the fourth-largest number of wine grape varieties used to make wine in commercially viable numbers of any country in the world, behind only Italy (the runaway leader in this particular pony race), France and Spain (actually, Spain or Greece, depending on whom you believe). Even better, the number of high-quality Portuguese wine grapes is high, with many sporting names that are becoming increasingly well-known to wine lovers everywhere, much as their delicious wines are too.
A short list of white grape varieties includes Alvarinho, Arinto, Boal, Fernão Pires, Loureiro, Terrantez, and Verdelho, while red grapes of some prominence include Baga, Jaen, Tinta Amarilla, Tinta Roriz, and Touriga Nacional. Some of these names are more famous than others, and there is no doubt that Alvarinho is one of the noblest of all Portuguese wine grapes. It is the same grape grown in Spain and known as Albariño (at over 6,000 hectares, Spain’s plantings are actually almost three times more than those of Portugal). A truly remarkable variety, Alvarinho is capable like few others to give wines that are at once intensely fruity and mineral, with a noteworthy ability to age well (fifteen years and more is not at all a stretch). I have no difficulty saying, and writing, that some of the most interesting, memorable and downright best white wines I have had in the last ten years that weren’t from France, Italy or Germany were aged Alvarinho wines from Portugal (and Albariño wines from Spain). That’s how good they are. Alvarinho wines exude aromas and flavours that are at once delicate but complex, and that will remind you of a very refined mix of fresh citrus (tangerine, orange, grapefruit), lemon balm, tropical fruit (passion fruit, lychee), flowers (jasmin, orange blossom), herbs and spices (chamomile, licorice) and minerals. The most famous Alvarinho wines are those of the Vinho Verde wine region, that can range from crisp to rather creamy and layered wines, but are generally more fuller-bodied and creamier than the Albariño wines of the Galician region of Spain (think Ríais Baixas), which is cooler and wetter (hence in the Vinho Verde region the Alvarinho grapes are trained lower to the ground, while in Spain they tend to be trained higher up in pergola-type canopy arrangements). Especially those of the Vinho Verde region’s Monção and Melgaço subregions tend to give fuller-bodied, richer wines that are higher in alcohol and lower in acidity than most (thanks to a more sheltered terroir and hence a slightly less extreme oceanic climate). Thanks to its overall high acidity levels, Arinto is mostly used in blends and in sparkling wines, where besides freshness it contributes notes of lime, lemon and green apple. The best Portuguese Arinto wines are most likely those of Bucelas (for many local experts where the best Arinto wines are made), Alentejo and Tejo. Encruzado is the big up-and-comer of all Portuguese grapes, as it is ideally suited to making bigger, richer, deeper wines of real ageworthiness and noteworthy complexity (hints of resin, minerals, and white fruit are common). Currently it is mostly planted in the Dão wine region, but it is likely, given its as yet untapped but huge wine grape potential, that Encruzado will be increasingly planted elsewhere in the country. Long viewed as a rustic variety and blending agent at best, Loureiro has recently been reevaluated and its wines are becoming increasingly fashionable. It is named after the bay leaf or laurel the aroma of which its wines are reminiscent of (along with those of green and yellow apples, nectarine, acacia and lime blossoms). Historically, Loureiro was mostly blended with Arinto (Pedernã), Alvarinho, and Trajadura, but given its new found popularity it is being increasingly made as a single-variety bottling. Pedro Araujo of the Quínta do Ameal was one of the first, if not the first, to focus on monovariety bottlings of Loureiro wine, and though everybody thought he was foolish to do so at the time (Loureiro was originally not thought to be a noble variety) his outstanding wines have helped everyone come full circle since then. Among the many other quality white grapes worth knowing are Trajadura (a fairly aromatic grape that gives wines of lower alcohol and bigger body than most of those typical of the Vinho Verde region) and Verdelho (mosly grown on Madeira and used to make fortified wines). Importantly, do not confuse the Verdelho of Portugal with the Verdejo and Godello varieties of Spain, or the Verdello of Italy, all of which are distinct wine grapes.
Of the red varieties, Baga is abundant in the Bairrada wine region, though pockets of it exist elsewhere throughout the country. It has only recently been emerging as a quality wine grape, given that for the longest time it was viewed as giving more problems than it was worth. Small berries with thick skins mean highly tannic wines, but unfortunately not often endowed with large gobs of fruit. Add that Baga’s tightly-packed bunch is prone to rot and that it is a late-ripening variety that in pre-climate change times had trouble reaching optimal physiologic ripeness in most vintages, and you understand why the grape had been reduced to an afterthought in the minds of many of those in wine. Of late, things have changed for the better, and there are now many interesting and highly satisfying Baga wines being produced, with the caveat that these are wines that need to be aged accordingly so as to give the grape’s inherent boatload of tannins a chance to soften appropriately. When you do come across a good Baga wine, chances are high you will come away impressed by its austere (“plump” is something Baga wines are not) but rather elegant mouthfeel and aromas and flavours of dark plums, dark berries, cocoa, coffee and hay/tobacco.
Whether it is native to the Douro or the Dão is the subject of current debate, but the quality of Touriga Nacional is undisputed: simply put, the variety is fast gaining a place in the pantheon of great world grapes, right up there with the Cabernets, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Merlot, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. Small berries and thick skins ensure wines can be made of real tannic heft and aging capacity, but unlike other grapes, Touriga Nacional also infuses its wines with a panoply of rich aromas and flavours (blackberry, black-currant, blueberry, herbs, licorice, cedar) that make for wonderful red wines of real class and concentration. Touriga Franca is the most planted variety in the Douro and is a mainstay of Port blends, but its richly fruity, nobly tannic and ageworthy wines are excellent when made as classically dry reds too. Tinta Roriz, also called Aragonez in Portugal, is the local version or biotype of Spain’s famous Tempranillo variety: the wines made in the two countries are similar. Grown throughout Portugal, the Tinta Amarela of the Douro is the Trincadeira of just about anywhere else in the country and especially in the Alentejo where it probably gives its best wines. It is one of my favourite Portuguese grape varieties and I love its vibrant, red-fruited, spicy wines, that are quite unlike most of those made with the country’s many other red varieties. However, Tinta Amarela/Trincadeira is a difficult grape to grow, one that needs plenty of heat units (otherwise it fails to reach full physiologic ripeness: for this reason it does best in the warmer parts of the Alentejo or the Tejo) and plenty of vineyard work so as to rein in its natural vigour. There are however some really good wines made with it that I encourage you to hunt down.
The wine regions
Portugal’s lowest level of wine, simply called Vinho, is rarely seen outside the country. Next , the Vinho Regional, are those sporting the name of one of the country’s officially recognized wine regions. The top category of wines are those labeled with the Denominacao de Origem Controlada (DO, DOC or DOP for short), of which there are technically thirty-one different ones.
Like every other wine producing country, Portugal has well-defined wine regions, some of which are much more famous than others. The wine regions are: Alentejo, Algarve, Azores, Bairrada, Beia Interior, Dão (and Lafões), Lisboa, Madeira, Peninsula de Setubal, Porto e Douro, Távora e Varosa, Tejo, Trás-Os-Montes, and Vinho Verde.
Undoubtedly, the best wine of Portugal is Vinho Verde, a name that might derive from green fruit-like characteristics of freshness and juiciness or because the area’s vegetation is so lush and verdant. Vinho Verde is also the name of a specific wine region that is subdivided further into nine sub-regions (Amarante, Ave, Baião, Basto, Cávado, Lima, Monção e Melgaço, Paiva, and Sousa) that is located in the northernmost part of the country. Indeed, when you visit the vineyards of Melgaço, you are really literally only a stone’s throw away from the vineyards of the Ríais Baixas in Spain, right across the Minho River in front of you. At 24,000 hectares and counting it is the country’s largest wine region: situated in the country’s northwest, it is a unique terroir marked by its coastal location with the influence of the Atlantic Ocean absolutely unavoidable, such that the climate is humid, cool and wet. Not surprisingly then, most of the vineyards are concentrated along the river valleys. The most common varieties grown in Vinho Verde are Alvarinho, Arinto (locally known as Pedernã), Avesso, Azal, Loureiro and Trajadura; noteworthy red varieties are Borraçal, Brancelho, Espadeiro and Vinhão.
The wines of the subregions of Dão (and Lafões) are coming on strong of late. Vineyards are planted on very poor granite soils at a variety of altitudes, ranging from 200 to 1000 meters above sea level. More than most other Portuguese wine regions, the Dão is afforded greater shelter from the elements thanks to the surrounding mountain ranges (on three sides: the Serra da Estrela, the Serra do Caramulo and the Serra da Nave), the region is protected from the influence of the Atlantic Ocean. Thus, the local climate remains temperate. The summers are dry and hot, while the inverse, cold and rainy, with great thermal amplitude. The soils are sandy, of granite and schistous origin, well drained. Commonly planted wine grapes there include Bical, Cercial, Encruzado, Malvasia Fina, Rabo de Ovelha and Verdelho (white grapes), and Touriga Nacional, Alfrocheiro, Jaen and Tinta Roriz (red grapes). Touriga Nacional’s wines are becoming especially popular: people everywhere just seem to love them. Recently, other red varieties of the Dão, such as for example Baga, Bastardo and Tinta Pinheira, are earning their place in the sun: in my experience, there are some truly lovely wines being made with the first of those two especially (Bastardo is a Portuguese biotype of the Jura’s Trousseau). The wines of Lafões, in contrast with the fuller-bodied wines of the Dão, are closer in style to those of Vinho Verde (meaning they are crisper and higher in acidity than those of the Dão). The grape varieties used in each area also differ somewhat, with Arinto, Cerceal, Dona Branca, Esgana Cão and Rabo de Ovelha preponderant amongst the white grapes and Amaral and Jaen the most common red grapes used (beware that there are many different Jaen grapes grown in the Iberian peninsula, and no, they are not one and the same). Differently from Dão and Lafões, the up-and-coming Barraida wine region is another one that is heavily marked by its Atlantic climate. Flat and coastal in location and topography, it is characterized by a cool and rainy climate. These weather conditions are perfect for the production of sparkling wines (high acid, fresh, low alcohol) that the region is famous for. The most commonly planted grapes are the white Fernão Pires (locally known as Maria Gomes), followed by Arinto, Bical, Cercial and Rabo de Ovelha. Red grapes include Alfrocheiro, Baga, Tinta Pinheira and Touriga Nacional; of those, it is Baga that is by far the most planted. However, Barraida is one part of Portugal that is very much devoted to international grapes too, so here you will find both monovariety and blended wines made with the likes of Chardonnay and the Cabernets, for example. Another very big and essentially flat to rolling vineyard expanse is that of the Alentejo: so big in fact it is subdivided in eight subregions (Borba, Granja-Amareleja, Évora, Moura, Portalegre, Redondo, Reguengos, and Vidigueira). The climate is Mediterranean (so tendentially, hot and dry), but being such a large wine region means that there is a vast diversity of soils and climates within the Alentejo. The Portalegre sub-region differs somewhat because of the cooler mesoclimate offered by the nearby Serra de São Mamede; the wines are also differ than most others from this subregion because of its mostly granite soils. The subregions of Granja-Amareleja, Moura and Vidigueira have slightly warmer macro- and mesoclimates, while those of wines from Borba, Évora, Redondo and Reguengos benefit from slightly more balanced weather conditions. All these Alentejo subregions are associated with truly noteworthy wines, even though they logically differ in styles and profiles. And though the Douro wine region is mostly associated with Port, there are in fact numerous outstanding classically dry wines being made in this wine region nowadays (very good wines indeed, though prices are creeping up). Very rugged and extreme, terraced vineyards are a common sight. There are three subregions: Baixo Corgo (the coolest and wettest, as it is closest to the Serra do Marão), Cima Corgo and Douro Superior (the warmest and driest). Super-intriguing is the wine of the Azores (Açores, in Portuguese), an archipelago of nine islands that are characterized by one of the world’s most unique wine terroirs. It’s cool, volcanic and extremely windy, and essentially like really nowhere else grapevines are grown. The landscape is peppered with the corrals, areas englobed by stone walls that help protect the vines from the onslaught of the wind but also to increase microclimate warmth by having the stones capture sunlight and heat and then release it back to the vines when temperatures drop (such as is the case come night time). The Azores have three DOs: Gracioso, Pisco and Biscoitos. Madeira is of course the home to two DOs, Madeira and Madeirense, one of the world’s greatest wines of virtually limitless aging potential, and these will be the subject of another report of mine to be published shortly here in the TerroirSense Wine Review (similarly, I will be tackling Port in another upcoming article).
Portuguese wines: the state of the art
Up until recently it was hard for many of the world’s wine lovers (say those who live in Argentina, Canada, France, Italy or New Zeland, for example) to find large or even small selections of Portuguese wines (other than Port, clearly) in their local wine shops or state monopoly stores. However, that state of affairs is slowly starting to change: increasingly, Portuguese wines can be found outside of their nation’s friendly confines. Part of this is undoubtedly due to Portugal’s lively tourism scene: without doubt, the numerous tourists that flock to the beautiful country’s rugged mountainous and beachside ocean vacation spots come away impressed not just by the scenery and the food but also by the country’s wines too. Time and again over the years I have been told this by not just visitors and vacationers to the area, but also by local restaurateurs and foreign wine importers. In fact, most importers I have talked with over the years in various countries (Australia, Canada, China, France, the USA) believe, or sense, that there is an opportunity for them. In other words, that the market is beginning to accept Portuguese wines increasingly. Many of these wine professionals look for wines made by promising winemakers and/or those offering the best value for money. Given the reality of Portuguese wine status in the minds of many wine consumers, the most famous and/or most expensive wines often fail to garner much interest outside of Portugal, but those wineries that consistently make the best wines across all price ranges generally fare very well. Certainly, there are some styles of wine that Portugal does very well, and happily, these are very much in fashion currently. Vinho Verde is an encouraging case in point. Its sales are doing well in both North America and China, for example: easy to drink, charming and delicious, these wines initially did very well thanks also to a clever use of residual sugar. But nowadays most importers that’s ell Portuguese wines will tell you that sales of the top cuvées are really picking up. Though potentially a very crisp and mineral wine, Vinho Verde is appealing because it can offer much more than that, with the best examples boasting a glycerol richness and a hint of sweetness while remaining a classic dry wine. More often than not, a delicate effervescence is also much appreciated, as it makes the wines seem even fresher and lighter on the palate. Vinho Verde can really can be a sublime aperitif wine or late afternoon sipping wine, besides matching heavenly well with numerous dishes.
The wines in the tasting.
The wines in this report were tasted in October 2022 in Shanghai at various wine shows, my office and courtesy of CWS, one of China’s leading importers and most likely the number one importer of Portuguese wines in the country.