A Beginner's Guide to Portuguese Wine

portugal douro valley

Curious about Portuguese wines? Here are a few regions and grapes you should know. [Photograph cropped from François Philipp on Flickr]

Walking into my local wine shop a few months ago, I noticed signs for Italy, France, and Spain hanging above the rows of wine, but I couldn't see one for Portugal. "Can you point me to the Portuguese wine section?" I inquired, ready to explore the wonders of this beautiful Iberian country. "We just have fortified wines, and this one Vinho Verde," the sales guy said. It seemed that I would need to get my spelunking gear out to find the killer Portuguese wines that I'd tried at restaurants and wine tastings in other cities.

But it's worth putting in a request or tracking down a store with more Portuguese options: these are wines that should be appearing at your dinner table. If you have a favorite go-to wine, whether it's Malbec, Barbera, or Chardonnay, chances are that Portugal has a fresh alternative that might cost even less.

Port and Vinho Verde may be familiar to you, but have you ever heard of Castelão or Fernão Pires? These are just two of the many grapes that are native to Portugal, and not grown much anywhere else. Today we will introduce some of Portugal's grapes and growing regions so you can get started on your wine-drinking explorations.

What's on the Label?

Somewhere on a bottle of Portuguese wine, you'll likely see the words "DOC" and "Vinho Regional." The country is carved up into 14 different regions, whose wines fall under the "Vinho Regional" category. Within these regions, various DOCs (that stands for Denominação de Origem Controlada) have stricter laws and more particular geographic boundaries, which will generally—but not always—translate to higher quality.

You'll also see the word quinta on the label—this is what the Portuguese call a wine estate. Producers also tend to list grape varieties (called castas) as well: many Portuguese wines are made from a blend of several different types of grapes, so it's handy to have a list. A wine labeled as "Garrafeira" indicates that the winemaker invested in additional oak aging—it's a bit like "Reserva" in Spain.

Now that we know what's on the bottle, it's time to talk about what's in the bottle. Let's take a tour from north to south.

Vinho Verde

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[Photo: Wines of Portugal]

Let's start our journey in the same way we would start our meal—with the fresh, lively white wines of Vinho Verde. They're low in alcohol, popping with flavors of lime and white peach. Often these wines have a little spritz, making them an especially refreshing partner for seafood. Vinho Verde is a coastal region in the northwest whose name reflects the youthfulness and vibrancy of the wine: they don't usually see oak-aging and are meant to drunk right away. While there are red and rosé wines produced, most of the wines are the white blends from Loureiro, Alvarinho (the same grape as Spain's Albariño), Trajadura, and sometimes other grapes. The subregion of Monção e Melgaço specializes in wines made just with the Alvarinho grape.

There are a number of winemakers making tasty Vinho Verde that you could serve at your next party, but if you want to sample some of the region's more finely-tuned examples, track down a bottle from Anselmo Mendes or Aphros. (Want to get even more serious? Soalheiro offers a new perspective on the region—Vinho Verde that doesn't need to be gulped while fresh, and can take on Riesling-like characteristics after relaxing in the cellar for a few years.)

Douro

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Vineyards along the Douro River. [Photo: Rosino on Flickr]

The steep, terraced vineyards along the Douro River have been producing world class wines for centuries—mostly in the form of the famous dessert wine, port. In the last few decades, however, the dry wines are emerging from the shadows. Because there were already established vineyards and talented winemakers in the area, the region went from zero to sixty right away. Dry Douro wines can be red, white, or rosé and a wide range of grapes are allowed.

The red wines tend to be robust and full-bodied and often spend some time aging in oak. The same red grapes that you see in Port are mostly used for the dry wines, including Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, and Tinta Roriz (known as Tempranillo in Spain), either in a blend or bottled alone. Give these wines a try if you are a fan of Rioja, Ribera del Duero, or Brunello di Montalcino. Producers to seek out include Niepoort, Quinta do Crasto, and Quinta do Pôpa.

White grapes make up only a small fraction of the wines you'll find, and include Rabigato, Gouveio, Viosinho, and Malvasia Fina. Want to try a Douro white? Track down Niepoort's Redoma Branco: a full, minerally wine that'll be right up your alley if you like white Burgundy.

Dão

20140617daowine.jpgThe Dão enjoys a Goldilocks climate: not as hot as the interior, and not too close to the cold ocean breezes. This region's location is just right for the ideal balance of ripeness and acidity in wine grapes.

Many people compare the Dão's red wines to those from Burgundy in France—a comparison that has more to do with the graceful nature of the wine than any actual similarities to Pinot Noir. Made from Touriga Nacional, Jaen, Alfrocheiro, and Tinta Roriz, the wines will generally be full-bodied with flavors of black cherry, earl grey tea, and cocoa. See for yourself with a bottle from Quinta do Roques.

White blends are made in the area, but if you're going to try just one, seek out the tasty white wines made just from the Encruzado grape. Fans of dry Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay will also love the richness of Encruzado, which offers flavors of baked apple, lemon, and pineapple. Check out Quinta do Perdigão: just look for the chickadee on the label.

Lisboa

vines in Colares, Lisboa, Portugal

Vines in the sand in Colares [Photo: Wines of Portugal]

The tiny region of Colares sits right along the Atlantic Ocean outside of the capital city, Lisbon. It is one of many DOCs in the Lisboa region, making some truly standout wines from the Ramisco grape. The vines snake along the sand dunes to protect themselves against the harsh ocean winds. The grapes that persevere this extreme environment are able to make wines that retain fresh acidity to balance with their high tannins. Add that to their tart red fruit and the ability to age well and these wines draw an apt comparison to Nebbiolo from Italy.

There are also lots of good bottles to be found among the regional wines, labeled Vinho Regional Lisboa. The whites, often made with the Arinto and Fernão Pires grapes, are generally crisp and aromatic, somewhat similar to Gruner Veltliner and Albariño.

The reds are often blends based on Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, and Tinta Roriz and will remind you of your favorite Cabernet Sauvignon, with hints of blackberry, clove, and cedar. Casa Santos Lima offers a wide variety of wines that are an incredible value. One thing to note: this region used to be called 'Estremadura' and sometimes this name will still pop up in wine shops and on older bottles.

Peninsula de Setubal

If you love Barbera from Italy, try wines based on the Castelão grape from the Peninsula de Setubal, southeast of Lisbon. Castelão—the most planted red grape across Portugal—was once commonly referred to as Periquita, after a very popular wine made by Jose Maria de Fonseca. Like the Q-Tip or the Band-Aid, the brand became synonymous with the grape, but you'll likely see Castelão on the label now.

Alentejo

cork trees

Harvesting the bark from cork oaks. [Photo: Ryan Opaz on Flickr]

The wines of Alentejo will hit the spot if you enjoy Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon. This massive region is mostly known for its miles and miles of cork trees. But even though only five percent of the land is planted with grapes, wines from this region have started to generate a serious buzz.

If you're starting to get familiar with Portuguese red wine grapes, you may recognize a few of the biggies here: Touriga Nacional, Aragonez (AKA Tinta Roriz) often appear, as well as Alfrocheiro and Trincadeira. Some white grapes that you will see are Arinto, Fernão Pires, and Roupeiro. One common factor you'll see in all these wines is sunshine: riper grapes mean higher alcohol levels and fuller-bodied wines. For both red and white wines, check out Herdade do Esporão, a major player who is pushing quality in Alentejo forward.

The Fortified Wines of Portugal: Port

port

Cap it off with a glass of Port. [Photo: Charles Hoffman on Flickr (adjusted slightly)]

Now that we've gotten our fill of dry Portuguese wines, it's time for dessert!

Take a U-turn back up to the Douro so you can enjoy the area's famous confection: Port wine. Red port comes from a blend of grapes that usually includes Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, and Tinta Roriz. It's luscious and sweet, like blackberry and spice. The sweetness isn't from dumping a bag of white sugar into the tank: when the grape juice is only partially through its transformation into wine, the winemaker adds high alcohol grape spirits to the mix. The yeast can't keep working in that boozy environment, so the fermentation stops before all the grape sugar is converted into alcohol.

Ruby port is your most basic and least expensive port. Ruby ports are aged just a few years before being bottled and put on shelves. Vintage port is pricier and only made in exceptional growing years. It doesn't spend much time aging at the winery—you're supposed to stash it in your cellar for a few decades. Don't want to wait? Look for a Late Bottle Vintage port, or LBV. These vintage wines spend four to six years developing in the winery before being bottled, so they're ready drink when you buy 'em.

Tawny ports spend more time aging in wood before bottling than ruby ports, which gives them flavors of hazelnuts and vanilla. If you see a Tawny with an age designation, such as 20 years, the label is not indicating exactly how old the wine is. Instead, it's an evaluation of how old the wine tasted when the producer bottled it. A Tawny with a specific year on it is called Colheita—it was aged seven years at the winery before bottling. These can be fantastic values and a perfect pairing with a caramel sauce-drenched dessert. Since these Tawny wines have already seen aging in the winery, you can pop them open the day you bring them home from the store, or keep them awhile if you prefer.

You might see white grape-based white Port from time to time, mostly served as an aperitif or in a highball with tonic. White Port is a little sweet, since the fermentation is stopped by fortification, just like red port.

Another Fortified Wine You Should Know: Madeira

madeira aging

The cellar at Blandy's [Photo: Wines of Portugal]

To get to our final region, we'd have to book a flight. Madeira is an island that's just a short trip southwest—off the coast of Morocco. The wonderful fortified wines from Madeira break all the rules of wine storage. Madeira makers go through a process of heating up or 'cooking' the wine on purpose. Sometimes it's done through long-term aging in a winery's hot attic, though there's also the option of a faster process that involves heated pipes.

Why put the wine through this torture? It all comes back to history: Madeira wines traveled on long sea voyages, and their storage in those hot boat hulls transformed the wines, adding delicious nutty and dried fruit flavors through exposure to warmth and oxygen. Today, winemakers may not send their barrels to sea, but a little warm aging serves the same purpose.

An added bonus from this extreme process: What didn't kill it made it stronger. Madeira won't go bad the way regular wine will, even if you open it and expose it to air. So if you don't drink after-dinner wines very often, Madeira is a great choice: one bottle can last you years!

You'll likely see a number of different options when it comes to Madeira. The most affordable bottlings are often made from the Tinta Negra grape, and they're a delicious place to start. You'll sometimes see bottles labeled 'Rainwater' in the $10 to $15 range, which are light and medium-dry.

Want to find a special bottle of Madeira? Look for a grape name—Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, or Malmsey—on the label. Sercial is produced in the driest style and can be surprisingly good as an aperitif before dinner. Verdelho is a bit sweeter and known for its piercing acidity. Bual is medium sweet and aromatic, with candied orange and caramel flavors. The sweetest of the bunch is Malmsey, somewhat akin to tawny port with walnut and vanilla notes. The Rare Wine Co. makes a range of all these Madeiras, worth seeking out if you want to explore how each style compares.

Disclosure: Herdade do Esporão tasting sample provided for review consideration.

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