The Wines of
While the most prestigious wines exported from Portugal are the Portos, the
country does produce a range of good quality table wines.
Years ago, in the 1960s and 1970s, the most ubiquitous wines were the
Portugal. Along with other European "fine wines" (I'm thinking of Blue Nun
Liebfraumilch, Mouton-Cadet Bordeaux and Riunite Lambrusco), the other famous Euro-exports
were Lancer's and Mateus rosés. People buying these sorts of wines were thought of
as "bon vivants," being some sort of wine "expert."
Today these wines cannot be found in a serious wine shop (we'll special order them for
you, if you like).
wines are, for the most part, unknown to the San Francisco wine drinker. In fact, few
outside of Portugal are very familiar with the wines of this Iberian Peninsula country.
While the typical wine connoisseur most certainly has bottles of Bordeaux, Burgundy and
Napa Cabernet, other than a bottle of Port, you're not likely to find Portuguese wines in
The Portuguese have had a system of wine regulations in place longer than France, for
example. Wine regions were demarcated and standards were instituted, but the Portuguese
didn't keep up with the times. As a result, there are but a few Portuguese wines which
fetch premium prices. This will change, as we're starting to see a few very fine
bottlings from Portugal. Also, many Portuguese producers are now venturing to the
U.S. in hopes of creating a market for their wines.
In 1985 there were but 10 demarcated regions. Today there are 55. Things are changing.
Portugal's entry into the European Union is good news. Monies became available to
upgrade the vineyards and wineries. While we still taste some rustic (or rusty) wines from
Portugal, some positive signs (and wines) are showing up here.
Though there are nearly 200,000 winegrowers in Portugal, the bulk of the business is
done by cooperative wineries (of which there are a few more than a hundred) and large
The past decade has seen major changes and Portugal is
producing some great "value-priced" bottlings and there are numerous
deluxe, high-priced efforts, too. The landscape is changing, with a number
of good, small, privately-owned estates. But some of the large wine
companies make lovely wines and with their names often being difficult to
pronounce, these are overlooked by many American buyers.
Happily, the producers don't require us to be able to say their names correctly
to be able to buy a bottle of their wines.
This is the region from Oporto at the south to the Spanish
border at the north.
Though the region produces something like 70% red wines, it's the mildly fizzy white wine
called "Vinho Verde" which is amongst the most famous wines of Portugal.
There are several important sub-regions , including Amarante and Penafiel (near Oporto),
Braga (see the map above), Baião, Lima, Cávado, Sousa and Monção. It is in this latter region
where one finds the Portuguese version of Albariño, "Alvarinho". Some contend
this is a sort of "Vinho Verde", though we find it considerably more
Located in the Beiras region
(a nouveau style)
Dão Clarete (bigger than Novo, lighter than
The center of this region is Viseu and it's some 50 miles
south of the Douro. There are three rivers along which you'll find vineyards, the Alva,
the Dão and the Mondego. There are 50,000 acres of vineyards and, until recently, I read
that there is but one "estate grown and bottled" wine in the entire region!
of the wine is red although white Dão is somewhat simple, and steely-dry.
We usually find
the reds from Dão to be somewhat on the order of a little French Minervois or Fitou, for
The red grapes include Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Alfrocheiro Preto. Jaen,
Tinta Pinheira for the reds. White varieties include the Encruzado, Assario (known as
Malvasia Fina in the Douro), Cerceal and the Bical.
Located in the Beiras region
Though the Dão has a head-start in selling its wines around
the world, Bairrada is a challenger in terms of really good quality wines, along with the
Douro. This region is north of Coimbra and south of Oporto, just west of the
cities of Mealhada and Anadia are the main towns in the Bairrada region. You'll find
mostly reds here (it's quite a warm area).
The main grapes are Baga (for the reds) and
Bical (for the few whites).
The reds tend to be rather strong and have a firm backbone of
tannin. The Castelão is often used to soften the Baga wines. Another red variety, Preto
Mortgua (the Touriga Nacional of the Douro and Dão) is also found here.
Cerceal are two other white grapes currently being cultivated.
This is a rich agricultural area
inland from the Estremadura and north and northeast of Lisbon.
Grape varieties include the Aragonez (or Tinta Roriz), Baga, Camarate, Castelão,
Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Trincadeira for the typical
reds. There's some Pinot Noir in the Ribatejo, as well as Cabernet
and Syrah. Whites include Arinto, Fernão Pires (sometimes called
Maria Gomes) and Rabo de Ovelha.
Sub-regions include Cartaxo, Santarém, Almeirim, Coruche, Tomar and
The Estremadura is a stretch of
land north of Lisbon and bordered on the west by the Atlantic Ocean.
It's a large region which supplied, for many years, inexpensive bulk wine
to other regions.
There are many very good wines now coming from the Estremadura and these
are often attractively-priced.
Carcavelos is a tiny appellation, not far
from the famous Estoril resort. This area produces and off-dry dessert (or aperitif, if
you like) wine which is reminiscent of a Madeira.
Colares is a red wine
of some fame. It's produced from a grape called Ramisco and is grown in the sand dunes
west of Lisbon between Sintra and the sea. The vines are ungrafted as phylloxera can't
deal with sandy soil.
Bucelas is slightly better known and a larger appellation, located
about 10 miles north of Lisbon. White wine of little distinction tends to be produced in
this region. Arinto is the grape in this region.
Alenquer is a particularly interesting region. The region
is the home of many apple and pear orchards, as well as fine
vineyards. Soils are varied, with limestone and chalk dominating in
the west. Not only are local grape varieties prominent, we found
unusual grapes such as Sangiovese, Syrah and Aglianico here are well!
The smallest in terms of actually size,
but the largest in terms of vineyard plantings (15,000 hectares of
vineyards). It is the most westerly area, with cooler temperatures and
CIMA CORGO The middle area or the heart of the Douro...it has about 13,000
hectares under vine and is slightly warmer than the Baixo Corgo and a bit
DOURO SUPERIOR The "Upper Douro" has a mere 5,000 hectares of its more than
110,000 hectare landscape planted to vines. It's much drier and
significantly warmer than the other two Douro sub-regions.
The Douro is a remarkable region, capable of
making wines comparable to the finest in the world. Its calling card
for the past couple of hundred years has been the fortified wine called
"Porto" or "Port." This was created by adding
alcohol to the juice or wine from the Douro to make them more stable for
shipping and export.
With alcohol consumption decreasing, the sale of high-octane Ports has
slid. Producers are adjusting to these conditions and today we find
an impressive range of table wines coming from this rugged, remarkably
The Ferreira Port firm makes what has been the most prestigious (and expensive)
Portuguese red, Barca Velha. Now many vintners are making wines capable of
competing in international markets. Names such as Niepoort, Van
Zeller, Wine & Soul, Quinta do Crasto and others are turning out top
The grapes include Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Touriga
Francesa, Tinta Cão and Sousão for the reds. White varieties are
the Malvasia Fina, Viosinho and Gouveio.
TERRAS DO SADO
Setúbal is the peninsula some 20 miles south of Lisbon and legend has
it that it was settled by one of Noah's son, Tubal. The Phoenicians brought Muscat to the
region and its wine became a favorite of Louis XIV. Today the Muscat of Setúbal
famous, though on these shores, seriously under-appreciated. This is (or can be) one of
the world's greatest dessert wines.
Palmela covers much of the same ground as Setúbal, but extends a
tad further east to Montijo. The major red grape is Castelão, which
had been called by many producers "Periquita." It was
finally established that Periquita is a brand of wine and so today only
one winery, Jose Maria da Fonseca, offers "Periquita."
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah are now cultivated
This is a large area occupying the southeast part of Portugal. It is said
that half the world's cork supply comes from this region.
Portalegre is a northern area, right on the Spanish border. The main
variety here is the Aragonez (known as Tempranillo in Spain), along with Trincadeira
Preta, Castelão and Grand Noir. Whites made from Arinto, Fernão
Pires and Síria.
Borba is planted primarily with Castelão. You will also find a bit of
Trincadeira Preta and Moreto. White wines are often made of Arinto,
Síria and/or Antão Vaz.
Reguengos and Redondo are predominantly
Castelão, Alfrocheiro, Aragonez and Trincadeira Preta. Whites tend
to be Arinto, Antão Vaz, Síria or Fernão Pires.
Vidigueira is the home of the Alfrocheiro Preto, a variety more common to
the Do. Some Aragonez, Castelão and Trincadeira Preta are now cultivated.
The Romans aged their wines in clay amphoras and these are still to be found in the
Don't forget Évora and Moura.
The region also features a significant number of cork trees.
This is the southern coastal area of Portugal.
The appellations include Lagoa, Lagos, Portimo and Tavira.
Red wines in the region tend to be mostly Negra Mole, while whites come from the Crato