A few years ago, I found myself utterly impressed in Portugal by how much variety and diversity there is among the country’s still wines. If the average American were asked to name a wine from Portugal, the number one answer would likely be, "Port." Port is arguably Portugal's best-known wine, but this fortified marvel with a noble history deserves a column of its own—at another time. My focus here is on the many other beautiful wines this southern European country is producing, ones that are well worth a mission of discovery on your part.
Portugal's winemaking heritage is well-established. For starters, the country produces nearly 50 percent of the world's cork. Porto, made with grapes sourced from the Douro Valley, is the world's oldest regulated wine region, and other areas like Alentejo, Dão, and Bairrada have been producing wine for centuries. Though Portuguese winemaking dates to ancient times, demand for Portuguese wine reached its height in the 17th and 18th centuries, upon Britain's "discovery" of Port wine. However, political struggle throughout the 19th and most of the 20th greatly hindered modern winemaking. It wasn't until Portugal joined the European Union in 1986 that truly modern Portuguese winemaking began.
Adventurous consumers will find much to love about the wines of Portugal, its colorful history, and its diverse pool of indigenous grape varieties. The Instituto da Vinha e do Vinho (Institute of Vine and Wine) lists almost 350 grape varieties virtually unknown in other countries. One of the great virtues of Portuguese winemakers is their embrace of indigenous grapes rather than embracing international grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. This tiny country also offers an extensive range of geographical and climate differences.
Like most European wines, Portuguese bottles are often labeled by region rather than grape variety, making the perfect pronunciation of "Alfrocheiro Preto" totally unnecessary. And despite vintners beginning to include some grape varieties on labels, it's easier to discover new favorites by region. Drinkers of bone-dry, high acid whites or robust, powerful reds will each find a Portuguese wine to love, often at a much lower cost than similar wines from neighboring countries, giving consumers more bang for their buck.
By no means is this a comprehensive overview of Portugal's styles and regions; instead, it is a sampling to discover the far-too-underrated world of Portuguese wine.
The Minho is located in the northwestern corner of Portugal, just south of the Spanish region of Rias Baixas. This is the coolest and wettest part of Portugal. The majority of the area's production is for Vinho Verde denominação de origem controlada (or DOC), the primary category for quality wine. Vinho Verde wines are usually made from a blend of approved native Portuguese grapes that give them a crisp, bright flavor. Vinho Verde is typically low-alcohol and slightly sparkling, and known to some as a "porch pounder." However, young producers have bucked the traditional production of these inexpensive wines in favor of more robust, serious offerings. As a result, these wines are not Vinho Verdes as we typically know them. They're not low in alcohol, lightly fizzy, or off-dry. Instead, they're rich, intense, and often bone-dry expressions of the terroir.
The Douro Valley is Portugal's oldest wine region and among the first demarcated wine regions globally, with its boundaries defined in 1756. Although primarily known as the home of port wine, the Douro is well-regarded for a new breed of winemakers taking unfortified wines in a new direction. Douro wines can be white, red, or rosé, though the reds are most widely produced, ranging from fresh, clean examples meant to be drunk young to rich, long-lasting wines. The best bottles showcase a fine balance of luscious fruit, lifted freshness, and distinct minerality from the Douro's classic schist soils.
Located just south of the Douro, Dão's production is about 80 percent reds that are complex, full-bodied, and blended from multiple grapes, including Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Alfrocheiro Preto, and Jaén. This is the heart of Portugal, boasting unique blends and classic wines built for aging.
A diversified appellation, Bairrada produces white, red, rosé, and most of the country's blended sparkling wine. The region is famous for its innovative winemakers like famed producer Luis Pato and his daughter Filipa who are taming the Baga grape, a finicky variety typically compared to Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir. Pato has used the indigenous red variety to produce world-class wines since the 1980s.
West and north of the city of Lisbon, this area produces a great deal of Porgual's regional wine. There is a deep roster of talented winemakers here turning out fresh whites and reds. If you like Grüner Veltliner and Albariño, give the whites here a try.
Only about 50 acres remain (as the area is fast succumbing to development), spread over a narrow swatch west of the Sintra area. The region offers unique wines that seemingly age forever — high acid, high tannin reds based on the Ramisco grape variety, and aromatic whites based on Malvasia.
The Alentejo region is the country's largest (just an hour drive from Lisbon). The region is known for its renaissance of amphora winemaking and the rise of artisanal producers and diverse styles. The wines here tend to be rich, fruit-forward, and full-bodied with a great acidic backbone.
The Azores is a chain of nine islands approximately 1,000 miles off the west coast of Portugal. Three islands have their own DOCs: Biscoitos, Graciosa, and Pico. Protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2004, Pico's vineyards are planted on volcanic soils and surrounded by dry-stone walls made of black basalt stones. White wines are made primarily from Arinto grapes, along with Verdelho, and Terrantez do Pico grapes, whereas red wines are made from Merlot, Syrah, and hybrids.
Portuguese Wines to Try:
Azores Wine Company, Branco Vulcanico, Azores, 2018
($38, imported by Olé & Obrigado): This mineral-driven white is 50 percent Arinto dos Açores and 50 percent Verdelho. It is insanely terroir-driven. Like Santorini, the Azores are volcanic islands comprised entirely of black basalt. The wine has an alluring bouquet of pineapple and passionfruit that gives way to a lip-smacking impression of saltiness on the finish. This is a wine that performs beautifully with all sorts of seafood. 92 Points
Gota Prunus Red Blend, Dão 2017
($15, La Luz Productions): A small production blend of Touriga Nacional, Jaen, Alfrocheiro Preto and Tinto Roriz. This medium bodied wine has complex notes of deep cherry, blackberry, cocoa and leather backed by earthy tannins and extending into a lengthy finish. 91 Points
Luis Pato, Baga Vinhas Velhas, Bairrada, 2015
($30, Wine In-Motion LLC): The 2015 Vinhas Velhas is a beautiful expression of the Baga grape and the region, offering concentrated dark blackberry and plum flavors with spiced wood-based notes of cedar, vanilla, and peppercorn. This delicious wine is dense and structured with good acidity and is undoubtedly a wine for the cellar as it will gain complexity over the years. 93 Points
Luis Seabra, Douro, Tinto "Xiso Ilimitado" 2018
($28, Obrigado): Produced from a blend of Touriga Franca, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Malvasia Preta, Luis Seabra's Xisto Ilimitado shows a terrific balance between fruit, acidity, and savory notes. The wine oozes with peppery flavors of dark fruit, smoked meats, and soiled earth. Smooth tannins and vibrant acidity make this wine insanely easy to drink. 90 Points
Vale da Capucha, Lisbon, “Fossil” Branco 2017
($18, Selection Massale): Vale da Capucha wines are grown on the Lisbon coast, near the Atlantic Ocean. The vineyards are planted on clay and composed of indigenous varieties – Arinto, Fernão Pires, Alvarinho, and Gouveio. The 2017 blend of Fernão Pires (known as Maria Gomes in other regions), Arinto and Castas Regionais is focused and palate-coating, with notes of white peach, pear, lemon zest, and white flowers. The fuller-bodied style is well suited for the remaining days of spring, but the acidity and brightness are enough to awaken your palate to the warmer and brighter days ahead. The baseline of minerality and salty finish make this perfect to pair with oysters. 93 Points
Alexandre Relvas, Art Terra Amphora (Herdade de São Miguel) Alentejo 2020
($23, Quintessential Wines): The Art Terra Amphora is a 50/40 blend of Aragonez and Trincadeira, with 10 percent Moreto, aged for three months in clay amphora. It is vibrant and lively, showing delicious rich red fruit with some hints of eucalyptus, herbs and earth from the amphora. The tannins are pithy and structured adding wonderful frame to the fruit. This is a very expressive Alentejo red gem. 90 Points
More wine columns: Miranda Franco
Connect with Miranda on Twitter: @Miranda__Franco