Value & Variety: Portuguese Wine Guide

To be honest with you, before we booked our trip to Portugal, you’d be hard-pressed to find me looking for the Portuguese wine section of my local wine shop.

Sure, you’ve probably heard of Port, but there is a TON of variety here outside of Portugal’s famous fortified wines. They have fantastic alternatives to your favorite cab, chardonnay and even champagne, and it will cost you a whole lot less. You can find really amazing wine in the sub-$15 range here.

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Chances are, you probably won’t recognize some grape varieties on a Portuguese wine label, which is expected, because many of them developed in isolation and don’t grow anywhere else in the world. There are more than 250 indigenous varieties, as well as some imports that grow well on Portugal’s varied landscape. From the southern beaches to the northern mountains, encompassing hot, cold, wet and dry climates, there is much to be tasted and explored.

First things first, there are a couple things to look for to determine quality. Including the exotic islands of Madeira and the Azores, there are 14 different growing regions in Portugal where the wines fall under the “Vinho Regional” category. Within these regions are various DOCs, or Denominação de Origem Controlada, where the wines have strict laws and specific geographic boundaries (AKA, higher quality). Wines simply labeled “Vinho” are the most basic table wine, and you won’t find these outside of the country.

Some terms to know – “tinto” means red, “branco” means white, “quinta” is a wine farm (you’ll see this word as part of the winery name on the label), and “castas” are grape varieties. Wine labeled “Garrafeira” indicates additional oak aging, similar to “Reserva” in Spain.

I’m not going to go into all 14 regions, because there’s Wikipedia and Vivino for that, but here’s the dirt on the major ones you should know (see what I did there?).

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Vinho Verde

Some of you might be familiar with Vinho Verde. If you’re like me, you’ve probably made the mistake of thinking it is a type of wine rather than a region. I actually spent the whole first week of our stay in Portugal just ordering “Vinho Verde,” expecting the wait staff to bring me a refreshing, somewhat bubbly, white wine. Definitely one of my more embarrassing “a-ha” moments. Sort of like when I was asking someone about a camiseta (shirt) but accidentally said camisinha (condom). Oops.

Anyway, Vinho Verde is the biggest DOC, situated in the cool and rainy northwestern part of Portugal. The cool, wet weather makes ripening more difficult so, true to its name, most Vinho Verde wines are very youthful and meant to be drunk immediately. Historically, vines in this region were trained along pergolas or up trees in order to free up what limited space there was in the fields for other crops, which, as you can imagine, also made for difficult ripening. While some (really) smallholdings still have vines trained this way, most modern vineyards in the area are now low-trained on wires giving better exposure to the sun and allowing for longer ripening, which is great for us, because if you can find an older Vinho Verde, it’s pretty incredible.

Most Vinho Verde is highly acidic, but flavor varies depending on the varietal, or combination of varietals used, such as the floral Loureiro, creamy Avesso or mineral-tasting Alvarinho. Most of what you’ll find in Vinho Verde are white blends, often light, crisp and aromatic, some with a slight fizz of bubbles. Reds in Vinho Verde are typically darker in color, with high acidity and low alcohol, and most are made with the Vinhão grape. There are rosés made here as well, as the region permitted fully sparkling wines in 1999.

Douro

Vineyards in Douro have produced world-class Port wine for centuries, but the region is now also renowned for its unfortified, dry, full-bodied reds and whites. Some of our favorite wines that we tasted in Portugal came from Douro.

The region is wild and rugged, as the Douro River winds through the mountainous section of northern Portugal from the border of Spain, to about 100 km up-river from Porto. The vines seem to defy gravity along the river’s steep banks, and in the center of the region, the stone-walled vine terraces have been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Douro reds make cabernet look wimpy. They are incredibly robust, and typically made from a lot of the same grapes that produce Port, including Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, and Tinta Roriz (the same as Tempranillo in Spain. If you like Rioja, you’ll like this wine.

White grapes are a small fraction of what is produced here, including Rabigato, Gouveio, Viosinho, and Malvasia Fina. If you like Burgundy, these are right up your alley.

There’s a wide variety of grapes that are allowed here, and they can either be mixed together or bottled alone. Douro’s hot, dry climate makes the wine incredibly concentrated, so it can be aged for 10 to 20 years depending on the producer.

A little secret we learned is to drink Douro reds out of a large glass, as we found them a bit overpowering in a standard wine glass. We actually prefer to drink Port this way as well. Before, we didn’t care much for port because it was so sweet, but with a bigger glass, the flavor expands to your entire palate and isn’t so overpowering on the tip of your tongue. Next time you have Port, try it this way and compare it to the traditional small glass. Let us know what you think!

Dão & Lafões

The Dão region is a high-altitude, temperate climate – not as hot as interior Portugal, and not as cool as the coastal regions – which produces well-rounded wines with a perfect balance of ripeness and acidity. Really similar to Burgundy reds. 

Reds are full-bodied and include Touriga Nacional, Jaen, Alfrocheiro, and Tinta Roriz grapes. Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc fans will like Dão whites, which are made mostly from the Encruzado grape, with supporting varietals including Bical, Cercial, Malvasia Fina, Rabo de Ovelha and Verdelho.

Lafões is a tiny region wedged between the northwest corner of the Dão region and southern edge of the Vinho Verde region. These wines are highly acidic, similar to Vinho Verde wines, using Arinto, Cerceal, Dona Branca, Esgana Cão and Rabo de Ovelha for white grapes, and Amaral and Jaen for reds.

Távora-Varosa

Situated in the remote, mountainous area of northern Portugal, the Távora-Varosa is a small region that borders Douro to the north and Dão to the south. The climate is extreme, with huge swings in temperature, and vines grow at 500-800 meters above sea level. Grapes here are perfect for sparkling wines, which is fitting, since this was the first region in Portugal to be demarcated for sparkling wine in 1989.

I consider myself to be a bit of a champagne snob, but I had a bottle of Espumante from Távora-Varosa (more on that below) that totally knocked my socks off.

Távora-Varosa has had plantings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for nearly a century, but Malvasia Fina accounts for about half of the older vineyards. Other varieties include Bical, Cerceal, Fernão Pires and Gouveio.

Given the success of their neighbors in Douro, producers in Távora-Varosa are also planting more of the top Portuguese red grapes, including Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional.

Trás-os-Montes

Trás-os-Montes is a region in northeast Portugal. It is cut off from the coast by a series of mountain ranges, giving the area an extreme continental climate with long, hot summers and equally long, icy winters.

There are three sub-zones that make up this region, and those are Chaves, Valpaços and Planalto Mirandês in the center, and Planalto Mirandês on the plateau of the Serra do Mogadouro in the southeast, bordering on Spain. Depending on where the wines are produced, they can range from light-bodied in the cooler, high-altitude areas to full-bodied and highly alcoholic in the lower altitudes.

There is a variety of grapes in the region with reds made from Bastardo, Marufo, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional and Trincadeira (Tinta Amarela), and whites from Côdega do Larinho, Fernão Pires, Gouveio, Malvasia Fina, Rabigato, Síria (Côdega) and Viosinho.

Alentejo

Alentejo wines will hit the spot for any Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon aficionado. Despite grapes only making up five percent of this huge region (the rest is planted with cork trees), Alentejo wines are seriously buzz-worthy. The reds are rich and fruity, and beloved in Lisbon’s cafes and restaurants. Whites are more difficult to grow in the area, but with a hefty amount of T-L-C, they are very good – refreshing and full-bodied, similar to Chardonnay.

There are eight sub-regions here, but they are rarely indicated on the label since it makes the most sense to just leverage the name “Alentejo”.

Aragonez (tempranillo) is the most widely-planted red grape, with the French grape Alicante Bouschet often lending itself as the backbone for the blends. Other red grapes include Borba, Évora, Redondo, Reguengos, Alfrocheiro, Castelão, Trincadeira, Moreto, Tinta Caiada and Tinta Grossa.

The white Antão Vaz is also a star of the region, with crisp, acidic and tropical flavors. Other varieties include Arinto, Roupeiro, Diagalves, Manteúdo, Perrum and Rabo de Ovelha to round out the blends.

Imports like Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon have also made their way into the region as of late, and are incorporated in many of the ‘new generation’ Alentejo reds.

Lisboa

Lisboa is a dynamic region that runs west and north from Lisbon along the Atlantic coast. There are nine sub-regions, many of which produce wines that are being exported internationally. These are good quality wines, and you can find most of them in the sub-$10 range, so we got really familiar with them.

Alenquer makes concentrated, high-tannin reds with Castelão, Alfrocheiro, Aragonês (Tempranillo) and Touriga Nacional.

Arruda, just south of Alenquer, makes full-bodied reds and, along with DOC Torres Vedras, have relaxed their rules a bit to include new varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Touring Franca, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Between Arruda and Lisbon sits the small, high-quality region of Bucelas, famous for its age-worthy whites. DOC Bucelas is made with a minimum of 75-percent Arinto, sometimes rounded out with Rabo de Ovelha and Sercial. There is also sparkling wine here.

Óbidos makes some of Portugal’s best sparkling wine.

Lourinhã, sitting between Óbidos and the Atlantic, is very cold and windy so the vines have great difficulty ripening. This DOC is restricted to brandies.

Encostas de Aire is the largest DOC region within Lisboa, and traditionally makes low-alcohol, high-acidity wines.

Wines from Colares and Carcavelos used to be famous, but are rare finds nowadays as very little wine is made here anymore. Colares, located next to the famous Guincho Beach, makes highly acidic, high-tannin reds from Ramisco grapes, and gentle whites based on Malvasia. Carcavelos makes a small amount of fortified wine from red or white local grapes.

Peninsula de Setúbal

This region is famous for the dessert wine, Moscatel de Setúbal. Wines based on the Castelão grape are also popular here, which can be similar to Barbera from Italy.

Tejo

Tejo is in the heart of Portugal, just a short drive from Lisbon. Vineyards have existed here since the Romans. Producers focus on quality and balance in an array of styles, making Tejo wines some of the best-value wines in Portugal.

Blends include indigenous and international grapes. In reds, look for Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira and Castelão. White blends have Fernão Pires, Arinto, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Bairrada

A very hilly region, so most of the vineyards are divided into small plots on flatter land. The two main types of soil, clay limestone and sandy, each influence the style of wine.

Bairrada’s cool climate is perfect for sparkling wines made with early picked Baga, Fernão Pires, Maria Gomes and other grapes.

Baga is the major red grape, producing high-tannin wines that are rich, dense and fruity if they are ripened enough.

Beira Interior

This is the most mountainous region in Portugal, and one of the most challenging to produce grapes. The climate is extreme, with very hot summers and cold winters, so sometimes alcohol levels can shoot up before tannins are fully ripe. Balanced reds can be made, though, with a lot of skill.

Some producers have been using more native yeasts and organic viticulture, so this could be an up-and-coming region to watch.

Algarve

Portugal’s southernmost region is perfect for growing grapes. It’s not too hot, not too cold, and there is an abundance of sunshine. A chain of mountains running from the Spanish border to the the Atlantic coast protects the Algarve from extreme temperatures found in the Alentejo, its neighbor to the north.

The region’s four major DOCs are named after popular towns in the area: Lagos, Portimão, Lagoa and Tavira. New wine estates are making Vinho Regional Algarve from national and international grapes Touriga Nacional and Syrah, Aragonez and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Trincadeira, Alvarinho, Chardonnay, and Viognier.

With many new wineries springing up here, this is another region to watch.

Madeira

These fortified wines keep, pretty much, forever. The island of Madeira is south of Portugal, just west of Casablanca. Vines are trained on traditional pergolas and the grapes are highly acidic. A small bunch of historic Madeira grapes are known as the ‘noble’ varieties. These include Sercial (more dry), Verdelho (medium dry), Boal (medium sweet), Malvasia (sometimes called Malmsey) and the rarer Terrantez (sweet).

The most interesting part about Madeira wine is undoubtedly the history that went into making it. During the Age of Exploration, Madeira was a standard port for ships heading to the New World and West Indies. On long sea voyages, the wine would be exposed to excessive heat and movement. When an unsold shipment returned to the islands after a round trip, it was discovered that the flavor was completely transformed by the journey. That process is mimicked to this day, with producers heating the wine in stainless steel vats.

PHEW! Now that you what’s what about Portuguese wine, it’s time to taste. It was a painstakingly long process to organize all of our tasting notes and decide which ones we liked best, but we put in the effort (and hangovers) for all of you. So without further ado, here are our five favorite Portuguese wines:

Murganheira Vintage Bruto, 2007 – I can’t get over this Espumante from Távora-Varosa. It is a pinot noir-based sparkling wine with a light salmon color, and full-bodied and mature flavor of red fruits, apricot and peach. It was served as an aperitif with dinner, so I immediately researched it when we got home and was blown away at how reasonable it was – €26-30 per bottle. I’d take it over Veuve Clicquot any day.

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Fafide Reserva Branco, 2014 – This is a fantastically bold white from Douro. For a restaurant price of €12, the value doesn’t get much better. It has a mineral aroma, exotic fruits, and a full-bodied, buttery texture similar to Chardonnay, with a soft finish.

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Quinta dos Plátanos “Ponto Cego”, 2013 – One of the most unique reds I’ve ever had. From the Alenquer DOC of the Lisboa region, this wine had an unmistakable aroma of pepper and vinegar and tasted malty with strong hints of balsamic. A huge finish, but still well-balanced and not overly tannic.

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Quinta da Ponte Pedrinha Reserva, 2011 – A bold red from Dão, we paired this wine with a very rich, tender piece of steak and it was perfect. I’m not sure we would drink it on its own, or if I could handle more than one glass, but the way the flavors changed to perfectly complement the food was fantastic. A great option if you’re ordering by the glass to go with dinner.

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Barbeito Verdelho Old Reserve – This was our first shot at Madeira wine, and we actually loved it. We don’t usually like dessert wine, but this one was a medium-dry and not overbearing. It was perfect with our somewhat-savory dessert. We would order it again.

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Of course, we have to do a shout-out to Luciana at Cais do Vinho for giving us an INCREDIBLE afternoon of tastings. If you are in Lisbon and want to learn all there is to know about Portuguese wine without leaving the city, this is the place!

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Cheers!

– PS

Cais do Vinho
Rua da Alfândega 110, Lisbon, Portugal
Tel. (00351) 213 570 478
caisdovinho@gmail.com

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