Portuguese wine is on the rise. Portugal, as a winemaking nation, is somewhere that has made sure it never strays too far from the path of tradition even as it begins to modernise. In the world of Portuguese wine, you will still see the ancient process of foot-stomping grapes in huge ancient stone troughs, (which are known as lagares).
Through funding and increased infrastructure old dirt paths, previously trodden by oxcarts, have been turned into modern highways. Yet, the vineyards themselves remain unchanged. They represent a snapshot of life hundreds of years ago as work continues to be done by hand.
This desire to preserve tradition is largely linked to Portugal’s premier dessert wine – Port. This sweet and luscious offering has, in many respects, remained unchanged for several hundred years and is one of the world’s most sought after and recognisable beverages.
Portugal has vineyards across the whole nation and while Portugal is just a third of the size of the UK, it ranks 10th amongst wine-producing countries in the world and is home to a staggering 79 grape varieties, (MacNeil 510). Many are Ancient and most well known within the world of Portuguese wine.
Port is what Portuguese wine is most associated with. However, the times are changing and the still versions of Portuguese wine are garnering international recognition. Now, they are a source of world-class wine and near shockingly good value. Flavourful and fresh white wine, as well as bold and complex red.
We will begin this article on Portuguese wine by looking at the major wine regions of Portugal, before we take a dip into the dessert wines. We will round out the article with overviews of both Port and Madeira and by the end you’ll be able to plan a full dinner party with Portuguese wine pairings from start to finish.
Portuguese Wine Regions
We will begin by discussing the Minho region, which is most well-known for the classic Portuguese wine of ‘Vinho Verde‘. Minho sits in the north-west, just by the Spanish border. Here, you have green, rolling hills with fertile soil that boasts a wealth of produce and livestock. It is a hub for agriculture, which isn’t always a great indication for good wine. The most fertile parts of Veneto, for example, are not where one seeks out fine wine. Yet, many bold, fresh wines have found a home here, including one of the most well-known Portuguese wines – Vinho Verde.
This literally translates to ‘green wine’ and is most commonly associated with a light, low alcohol white wine that has a touch of effervescence. If you ever visit Lisbon, you’ll be able to pick up jugs of this with every meal and it is a treat with the local seafood.
The ‘green’ term actually doesn’t refer to the pale green colour, but rather to the fact that generally this wine was made to be drunk ‘young’. In fact, many winemakers didn’t bother to stick a vintage on a bottle of Vinho Verde as the assumption was that it wouldn’t be around for very long, (MacNeil 539).
Now, producers have also begun to label more serious and complex wines as ‘Vinho Verde’. It can be made from a whopping twenty-five different grape varieties, in any combination which the winemaker seems fit. Yet, the best will generally feature Alvarinho, Trakadura, Loureiro and Arinto quite heavily. The quality rise has been quick and steep, producing steely white wines that aren’t world’s apart from the Spanish region of Rías Baixas to the north, (MacNeil 540).
You also can find red and rosé ‘green’ wine, although these are exported less frequently. They again are fresh and some of the most bitingly acidic red and rosé wines you’re likely to come across.
While Vinho Verde may be the star of the Minho region, it is worth noting that this is just one sub-section of this Portuguese wine region. There are numerous other regions, as well as wines which will just be labelled as ‘Minho’. These ‘Minho’ wines will draw grapes from across the whole wine region. This a trend that carries on across Portugal.
Next up is the Douro. This is the world’s oldest wine region and viticulture in this region dates back to the 2nd century. This Portuguese wine region is most well-known for that sweet and sticky Port. Yet, there is a great deal of still Portuguese wine to be found in the Douro that we think is well worth a go!
You can find structured, powerful and dark red wines with notes of dark black fruit and figs. Port’s dryer cousin. They will often be aged in new French oak and give off peaty, smoky aromas which don’t overwhelm subtle floral touches. You can also get a pang of flint, from the schist-laden rocky hillsides of the Douro Valley.
Again, there are an astounding number of permitted grape varieties. Nearly forty grape varieties can be used in the Portuguese wines of the Douro Valley, but the primary ones will be the same ones which are used in the production of Port, (MacNeil 541). They most common are Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão.
Now, we move onto the Dão. One of the most promising Portuguese wine regions. Since the 1980s, there has been a surge in quality from the Dão region after a government law rescinded a restriction that all grapes from this Portuguese wine region must be sold in cooperatives, (MacNeil 541). After this practice ended, small and independent winemakers were left to do their own thing and the quality speaks for itself.
The Portuguese wine region sits around 30 miles south of the Douro River. The region is enclosed by mountains which shelter from the harshest Atlantic weather and give the region more of a Mediterranean climate. This stands in juxtaposition to the rest of the Portuguese wine world which has more of a maritime climate.
Again, the number of grape varieties which can be used to make the Portuguese wines of this region is vast. Almost fifty grapes are authorised for use in this region but it is Touriga Nacional which thrives here. Although, you should also keep your eyes out for Alfrocheiro and Jaén. The latter of which is known as Mencía in Spain. It is fresh and acidic and a must try for any Pinot Noir or Beaujolais lovers out there!
The name of this Portuguese wine region comes from the term ‘barro’. This is the Portuguese word for clay. This is due to the high percentage of clay which makes up the soil in this Portuguese wine region. It sits by the Atlantic ocean and is renowned for the juicy and strikingly acidic Baga grape variety, which needs to represent at least 50% of any red wine blend which is produced, (MacNeil 542). There are then a further fifteen grape varieties permitted within this Portuguese wine region.
This is also a good place for sparkling Portuguese wine, including sparkling red wine. Bairrada produces roughly 60% of the sparkling wine within Portugal. Check out one of our favourite bottles of Portuguese fizz below, (even if it isn’t from Bairrada)!
This is the biggest Portuguese wine region and covers virtually the entirety of the southeastern section of the county. It is hot. It is dry. Rolling plains in the sun-baked heat produce powerful and structured wines, but it is also home to some world-class olive oil and interestingly half of the world’s supply of cork – no screw tops here!
In terms of the terroir of this particular Portuguese wine region, you’ll get primarily volcanic soil, (not unlike large parts of Sicily). Expect to find granite, quartz, schist and chalk; these well-draining and rocky soils help to promote ripening in even the most tannic and structured red grape varieties.
Generally, the top wines will have a plummy and jam-like character, but not in a cloying manner. You’ll also get a spiced, peppery quality. The ageing of these wines in amphora is also not uncommon. This is a practice which has occurred since the times of Ancient Rome, when the lack of any forested areas made this a necessity. An ancient practice which likely originated from modern-day Georgia.
However, don’t think that’s all that thrives here. You can also find excellent fresh white wine in this Portuguese wine region – particularly those produced from Verdelho and Alvarinho. We highly recommend you seek out the wines of Dorina Lindemann. She is a fantastic family winemaker who lives and works in the Alentejo region and has built a reputation for producing world class wine and olive oil. You can learn more about her here.
Now, we’ll shift our focus to Port. Portugal’s most luscious of liquids. Port production is centred around the Douro Valley. Port production even earned the Douro Region the status of UNESCO world heritage site in 1991.
Port is a fortified Portuguese wine. In the context of Port, this means that a chilled grape spirit is added to the crushed grapes before they are down fermenting. This means that a great amount of residual sugar is left in the wine and gives it that sweet and succulent taste which all great dessert wines should possess.
However, before this step is where you’ll see the traditional treading and foot-stomping practiced. Workers link arm and stomp the grapes in large stone troughs called ‘lagares’. This is to maximise the extraction of colour and pulp.
It is a celebration of the new harvest and can regularly develop into parties for the community. Musicians frequently turn up to provide a rhythm for the workers to stomp along to. This part of the process is known as liberdade, (MacNeil 516), likely because they are liberating the juice from their grape skin cocoon.
There are a heap of variations of this particular Portuguese wine. You have ‘Vintage Port Wine’ perhaps the crown jewel. It is the most prestigious and rarest form of Port and a vintage Port is only produced, on average, 3 times a decade.
Another popular example is Tawny Port. Here, a variety of different vintages are blended together to add layers of character and complexity. It is then aged in wood barrels before it is released in increments of 10 years. You will find 10, 20, 30 and even 40 year old Tawny Port. For both this and vintage Port you can expect fresh red and black fruit flavours, to melt into cooked and dried fruit flavours. Then, waves of chocolate, toffee, coffee, caramel and similar sweet treats will also wash over you in a truly decadent Portuguese wine.
You also have what you can class as your ‘everyday’ Port. They aren’t aged in the winery and don’t benefit from long-term ageing in the bottle. They can be a great entry-level tipple if you’re looking to introduce yourself to the world of Port. You can look for these under the Ruby and White Port names. Beware, they won’t be anywhere near as complex as the few examples we’ve got below!
Before we leave you, we couldn’t discuss Portuguese wine without mentioning Madeira. Madeira itself is the primarily island, (in a collection of volcanic islands), in between Africa and mainland Portugal. Madeira is unsurprisingly its primary export, (along with Cristiano Ronaldo).
The terrain in Madeira is unforgiving. It is staggeringly steep and likely to leave the thighs of any winemaker burning after a long day in the fields. Not only that, but natural factors can cause havoc. It is regularly battered by oceans winds and rains which can affect the harvest. Regardless, in spite of this, another jewel of the Portuguese wine world is created on this small collection of islands.
Madeira, like Port, is a fortified wine. Again, a chilled grape spirit is added to the mix and it halts the fermentation while a large amount of residual sugar still resides in the mixture. The end result is luxurious. It is filled with notes of toffee, caramel and butterscotch. These wines can be something truly special and have an awe-inspiring ageing potential, leading some to dub it the ‘immortal wine‘. Wines from the 18th century have been purchased in auction.
Indeed, the history of this wine is clear and it is purported to be a favourite among the founding fathers of America. George Washington is rumoured to have drunk a pint of the stuff with dinner every night, (MacNeil 531)!
This has been our whistle-stop tour of the world of Portuguese wine. We covered the hits, but be sure to browse through the back catalogue. Portuguese wine is going from strength to strength and it can be hard to find a rival in terms of bang for your buck.
If you’re looking to pick some up, then be sure to browse our full range of Portuguese wine by clicking right here!
MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. Workman Publishing Company, 2015.
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