Wines from Portugal: A World to Explore For Value and Diversity

I initially wrote this article on wines from Portugal following a tasting organized in early April by my friend Aileen Robbins for Gourmet Retailer.

I’m not sure how well the link is working so I thought I would just post the entire article. Unfortunately I didn’t take many pictures of that beautiful country. Many years ago I went on a long car trip through the Algarve and I must say I think I am in need of another visit. In the meantime, I can always taste great wines from Portugal here at home.

Anyway, here’s my article:

The world of wine is extremely varied and diverse and nowhere is this more evident than in Portuguese wines. These wines, both white and red varieties, were the subject of a big trade show in Manhattan on April 1 at Cipriani 42nd Street. Professor Michael Weiss of the Culinary Institute of the Arts gave an in depth seminar on Portuguese wines entitled “A World of Difference.”

Portugal has been a wine producing country for centuries, even going back as far as the Phoenicians who introduced the vine to Portugal in the 7th century. Portuguese wine traditions are still quite evident in its wine making. In some areas grapes are still pressed by stomping on them in bare feet in Lagares. However, there are a lot of producers making wines in a more modern style, trying to appeal to international palates. Portugal spent many years under the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, from 1932 to 1974. After Salazar’s death, the country began to modernize and in 1986, it joined the European Union which eventually provided funding to improve Portugal’s vineyards.

There are more than 260 grape varieties native to Portugal. Portugal has a very long tradition of wine Making, separated into distinct categories. One extremely important part of Portugal’s history is the Port trade. Port is a fortified wine. In another category are the sweet wines made on the island of Madeira, and the sweet wines of Setubal. Port has been famous for centuries, thanks to the relationship between the Portuguese and the English, who signed the Treaty of Windsor as far back as 1386.

Portuguese still wines only really came into their own in the late 1980s. Portugal is less than 400 miles long and 125 miles wide but has a plethora of climates, soils and of late, wineries. Nowhere is this more evident than in the stunning Douro Valley where Port is made. The Douro was the first wine region in the world to be demarcated, in 1756.

In the 1970s, two Portuguese wines were the most widely drunk wines in the United States – Lancer’s and Mateus. The new Portuguese wines have very little in common with those wines which were a fixture in many homes, including mine, although my mother shudders thinking about her earlier wine days.

Portugal has both white and red varieties which are made into interesting wines. The whites can be light and floral and are made with Alvarinho, Encruzado and other varieties. The reds tend to be more full bodied. The premier red variety in Portugal is Touriga Nacional. Baga, another indigenous variety, makes some of the most heavily tannic still wines in the world, rivaling Italy’s Amarone, according to Weiss. International varieties are also grown in Portugal and some producers are experimenting with blends of both.

Most Portuguese wines are sold in retail stores for somewhere between $10-$25 dollars. There are wines that are more expensive and some are absolutely worth it but you can get a great bottle of wine for the lower price as well. Garrafiera is an important term to know when reading a Portuguese wine label. It is used for red wines mostly and means that the wine has been aged for at least two years before bottling and has spent at least a year in the bottle. White wines that use the term are aged for at least six months before bottling and then have to spend at least six months in the bottle after.

Portugal has a number of wine regions but some of the most famous are the Douro Valley, the Minho, the Dao, Beiras, Bairrada, Ribatejo and the Alentejo. The wines from the Minho are just on the border with Spain and share a lot in common with their Spanish brethren. Vinho Verde, a light white wine comes from this area. This easy quaffing wine is quite low in alcohol and can be served with a variety of dishes as well as for an aperitif. Quinta is another important word in the Portuguese wine world and means winery. Qunita Aveleda is quite famous for its Vinho Verde, which can be made from a blend of twenty five white grape varieties. The best wines use Alvarinho, Trajadura and Loureiro. All three varieties are also found in Spain in Galicia. Vinho Verde is slightly frizzante thanks to the addition of carbon dioxide.

The Douro Valley is undoubtedly one of the finest regions for making not just Port wines but also still red wines in Portugal. That is due to the rocky schist soil which helps to produce great wines the world over, and to the Douro River which runs through it creating the perfect microclimates for grape growing. Still wines are made from the same combinations of grape varieties that can be found in Port wines such as Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (known as Tempranillo in Spain), Tinta Barocca, Tinta Cao and Touriga Francesca.

The Dao region also is known for its great red wines. It is close to the Douro and is sheltered by mountains which creates an interesting almost Mediterranean climate and protects the area from the chilly breezy coming off of the Atlantic Ocean. Touriga Nacional is grown in this area as well as Tinta Roriz.

Another wine region in Portugal is the Bairrada which lies to the West of the Dao. The area is known for its clay soils and the Baga grape. Most of Portugal’s sparkling wine is also made in this area.

Alentejo, a region farther in the Southern part of Portugal is the largest of the wine regions. It is hot and is an agricultural center for cereal grains, olive oil and most of the world’s cork. The soils in this area are a mixture of schist, volcanic ash and limestone. Many red wines come from the Alentejo where the principal grape variety is Aragonez, another name for Tempranillo and from Sousao.

Portugal is a fascinating country to discover and its wines hold a whole new world of flavors. Many of the red and white wines displayed an incredible minerality. This is due to the soils on which the grapes are grown. We will surely be seeing many more Portuguese wines gracing our tables as a nice alternative to better known wine regions.

Tasting notes from Wines of Portugal Event on April 1, 2010

Quinta da Aveleda Alvarinho from Minho region 2009
Fruity and floral with great acidity, this wine would go well with fish, white meats or as a stand alone aperitif.

Casa Santos de Lima Sousao Lisboa region (Estremadura) 2008

This wine was rich and complex with great black fruit aromas and flavors, liquorice and tobacco, pepper and spice. It also had a long length.

Esporao Touriga Nacional Alentejo 2007

This wine was oaky and round on the palate with hints of vanilla and black fruits.

Quinta de Ventozelo Touriga Nacional Douro Valley

This wine was truly exquisite, elegant and refined with layers of aromas and flavors. Very well integrated and balanced, it was long and persistent on the palate. A great wine.

Quinta do Mondego Encruzado Dao Region

This delicious white wine was very reminiscent of Chardonnay with toasty noted and white fruit aromas. It was very refreshing with a considerable body.

Espirito Lagoalva 2007 Touriga Nacional and Castelao from Ribatejo

This red wine was complex and varied with red and black fruit notes as well as mineral notes. Very pleasing to the palate, this is an everyday wine and is food friendly.

SO Touriga Nacional 2006 from Bacalhoa from Terras do Sado region (Setubal Peninsula)

This wine was quite floral with red fruit notes and a lot of minerality on the nose and palate. It was well integrated and balanced with good acidity.

One comment

  1. Reblogged this on avvinare and commented:

    Looking back on this post from a few years ago, certainly much has changed in the wine landscape of Portugal and lucky for me, amazingly, I am going to get a chance to see what they are offering now in the Douro. Sometimes dreams do come true…

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