A recent trip that AdVINEtures took with Iberian Wine Tours through the wine regions of Portugal taught us that this is an important region for wine-lovers to know more about. The region offers a great diversity of wine styles, from white to red, still to sparkling, table to dessert, and all at very fair prices. It is also a stunningly beautiful region of steep valleys covered in terraced vineyards that fall down to shimmering blue rivers.
Portugal sits at the western end of the Iberian Peninsula, bounded to the north and east by its only neighbour, Spain, to the west by the Atlantic Ocean, and to the south by the Mediterranean Sea. It is a mountainous terrain with many rivers running through it that create steep valleys. Vineyards have been planted in the country for 4,000 years. Given its relatively small size and isolation, it surprised us to learn that it is the 11th biggest wine producer in the world.
If you wanted a key concept that speaks most to the wines of Portugal, we would have to say diversity would be the one. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, Portugal produces wines of just about every style. Over 250 indigenous grape varieties are grown there in addition to a few other international varieties. It has a climatic diversity that few other wine regions can match, cool and wet in the north becoming warmer and drier as one moves inland and south.
Though Portugal is modernizing, our observation when touring wineries and meeting with winemakers in the region was that history and tradition trump innovation and trendiness. Wineries tend to be older and more filled with huge oak foudres rather than shining stainless steel tanks, and traditional foot stomping of grapes is more prevalent than modern pneumatic presses.
There are 3 levels of quality among the wine regions of Portugal. The top is DOC which stands for Denominacao de Origin Controlada and 31 geographic area have this designation. The next level down is IGP or Vinho Regional which covers 14 regions and has less strict rules than DOC does for matters such as vine yields or the types of grape varieties that can be grown within their boundaries. The remainder of table wine in Portugal is classified as just Vinho, its most basic classification, which is primarily consumed by locals and seldom leaves the Portuguese borders.
There are 5 primary regions to focus on in Portugal. Starting at the north coast we have Vinho Verde. Vinho Verde sits just below the great Spanish wine region of Rias Baixas and the two regions produce a similar style of wine. Like its Spanish neighbour, Vinho Verde (literally meaning green wine) is a cooler, damper climate that produces white wines of modest alcohol and fresh acidity. The Alvarhino grape is the most common in the region and it produces a wine that mirrors the Albarino as it is called in Spain and some examples reminded us a bit of Grüner Vetliner or even Italian Pinot Grigio. Think flavours of citrus and grapefruit, medium light in body and thirst quenching.
As you move south and inland from the Atlantic coast you encounter the region of Douro and the city of Porto.
This is where Portugal’s most famous wine, Port, is grown and vinified. Named after the Douro River that runs east to west and carves the most picturesque region through the rugged Serra do Marao mountains. For its singular and stunning beauty, the region has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Here is grown just red grapes, such as the Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca; small, thick skinned grapes that can sometimes possess a tannic rusticity. They are the primary grapes used to make Port, a sweet wine fortified with brandy that makes a heavenly dessert wine of deep blackberry and caramel flavours. At the mouth of the Duoro where it meets the Atlantic Ocean is Portugal’s second largest city, Porto. This is where the Port Houses are located, famous names like Taylor, Dow, Croft, and Burmeister that turned exporting this sweet wine into a major industry.
South of Duoro is Dão. This is another inland region characterized by warm climates in rugged mountains at elevations from 200 metres to 1,000 metres.
The Touriga grapes are grown here as well but are vinified into table wines as opposed to sweet wines. Poor, granitic soils characterize the area and both white and red grapes are grown here.
Towards the coast from Dão you have Bairrada which has a completely different terrain from its neighbour. Bairrada is a flat coastal region with marked Atlantic influences: cooler temperatures and heavier rainfall. Here we find mostly white wines, and this is the region of Portugal to look for sparkling wines.
South of Bairrada, staying along the coast, you encounter the region of Lisboa. This region plays home to Portugal’s’ capital and largest city, Lisbon, which marks the south end of the region. The Atlantic Ocean is the dominant influence in the region, but it has its own character that reflects the calcareous soils as well as the rolling hills that are found throughout the region.
Portugal’s largest wine region is that of Alentejo, which is an inland region. Protected from the cooling influences of the Atllantic, Alentejo is a warm region with a Mediterranean climate. Poor soils and a warm, dry climate allow the region to produce red wines that have a soft palate with good depth. There are numerous plots of old vines in Alentejo and these generally offer the most complex wines.
No discussion of Portuguese wines would be complete without at least a brief discussion of Port. While the dry tables wines we encountered showed very good quality and very fair prices, the star of the region are their fortified sweet wines, the wines they call Port. Port is made by picking very ripe grapes and fermenting them to a point where some residual sugar is left in the finished wine, giving it a sweetness. Then a distilled spirit, often brandy, as added to the base sweet wine to fortify it and make it into Port.
Port can be a red wine or a white wine, though white port makes up only a tiny fraction of the annual production. White Port is generally a more simple wine, and not as age worthy as the Port made from red grapes. We were treated to a white Port cocktail when were visited Quinta do Noval. A simple blend of white Port, tonic water and mint leaf served over ice, this makes for a delicious and refreshing cocktail or aperitif!
Red Port comes in two primary styles. Tawny Port is aged in large casks and is exposed to oxygen as it ages. This causes the wine to take on a “tawny” colour that can be amber in its youth and move to a deep, burnt sienna look as it ages. Tawny Port is often made as a blend of many different harvests. If it is made from a single vintage, it will have the word “Colheita” on the bottle. In contrast, Ruby Port is aged in small barrels with minimal exposure to oxygen and shorter barrel ageing, allowing it to preserve its ruby red colour. When made from a single harvest it is referred to as Vintage Port. Port is a fascinating wine with many different stories to be told, so look for the Primer we will publish shortly on Port Wines.