Guess Who is Coming to Dinner? – Portuguese Wine
Portugal has undergone something of a wine revolution in the past couple of decades, updating its winemaking technologies, styles and attitudes. This archetypal Old World country has long been famous for little more than its fortified wines (Port and Madeira) and tart, light Vinho Verde. But it is now attracting a great deal of attention for its new wave of rich, ripe, table wines – particularly reds from the Douro Valley.
One might argue that Portugal’s place in the wine world has centered more around its cork production than its wine, but this depends largely on which period of history one chooses. In the 18th century, when the supply of French wines to England was threatened by deteriorating international relations, Portugal’s vineyards proved more than capable of filling the void. It wasn’t until the 20th century, when international demand for Portuguese wines had dwindled to almost nothing, that Portugal rose to dominate world cork production. In the 21st century, the Portuguese cork industry is struggling (due to the ever-growing popularity of plastic corks and metal screwcaps), but the nation’s wines are once again on the rise, led by dry reds from the Douro and Dao.
Portugal’s many vine varieties and their countless regional synonyms are the bane of ampelographers. Some are endemic to Portugal (e.g. Touriga Nacional), while others are shared with neighboring Spain (e.g. Tinta Roriz/Tempranillo). An increasing number are the ever-popular ‘international varieties of French origin (e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay). Happily, the current success of Portuguese wines has not become dependent on the latter category – a fact which has played to its favor; by retaining their indigenous grapes, Portugal’s winegrowers have maintained a certain uniqueness in their wines, which is a valuable asset in the world’s increasingly demanding and competitive wine market.
Portugal’s temperate, predominantly maritime climate has a great deal to offer ambitious vignerons. The country’s portfolio of terroirs is not as broad as that of, say, France or Italy, but there is significant variation nonetheless between its mountains, river valleys, sandy littoral plains and limestone-rich coastal hills. The high levels of rainfall that blow in from the western Atlantic are a boon to those seeking high yields from their vineyards, but they come at a price: the significantly increased risk of fungal problems in all but the best-ventilated sites.
Provided the risk of disease can be effectively managed, producers in coastal regions such as Lisboa (formerly Estremadura) and the Setubal Peninsula have little problem generating prolific yields. Quality can be achieved in these fertile environments only by limiting quantity through careful canopy management and judicious green harvesting. Sheltered, inland wine regions, such as Transmontano and Douro, are typically better equipped for the production of quality wines as their drier climate and alluvial soils force vines to dig deep, strong root systems. Illogical as it might seem, stressed vines make quality wines.
Alentejo is a well-known, highly respected wine region in eastern Portugal. This hot, dry area is best known for its red wines, the best of which are sold under the and Alentejo DOC (Denominacao de Origem Controlada) title. These wines are typically made from Aragonez (Tempranillo), Castelao, Trincadeira or a rich, ripe, jammy blend of the three. Although famously diverse in its portfolio of wine grapes (navigating the many names and their synonyms is a challenge), Alentejo has not been sluggish to adopt such globally popular varieties as Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. One of the most remarkable things about modern Alentejo winemaking is its ability to create a uniquely Alentejano wine style from quintessentially French grape varieties.
The region is named for its position south of the Tejo river, which bisects Portugal, entering the ocean near Lisbon. Alentejo extends across about a third of Portugal, with only the Algarve region separating it from the southern coast of the country. Even the briefest of glances at a population density map of Portugal shows that this area of the country is only very sparsely populated, in stark contrast to the northern coastal areas around Oporto. Land here is used (somewhat intensively) for the production of various cereal crops, and the cork for which Portugal is so famous. Whereas the cork plantations of the north are quite small, here in Alentejo there is sufficient free space for the thick-barked Quercus suber trees to sprawl out all over the countryside.
The size of Alentejo means that there is a wealth of terroir, and it is fairly difficult to generalize about the region as a whole. Broadly speaking, Alentejo has a gently undulating topography, which protects much of the land from the cooling effects of the Atlantic. This lends the land to the production of rich, easy-drinking red wines, as ripeness is easy to achieve in these conditions. However, there are some anomalies – the sub region of Portalegre is in the foothills of the mountains in the northeast of Alentejo, where the climate is considerably cooler.
Alentejo has its own DOP title, as well as a wider Vinho Regional Alentejano designation. The DOP has eight sub-regions, which span from the mountains to the hot, dry center of the region: Portalegre, Borba, Évora, Redondo, Reguengos, Granja-Amareleja, Vidigueira and Moura.
Alentejo has been a key center of Portugal’s wine renaissance over the past few decades. Although wine production here was once dominated by a handful of government-supported cooperatives, the quantity of premium wine now generated by the region’s independent smallholdings is impressive. The European Union, which has been involved in various wine improvement schemes around Europe (most obviously vine-pull schemes in France and Italy), has been quick to provide assistance here. Few in the wine world can be ignorant of the impact that Portuguese wine is now having in the market place, a great deal of which is down to this aid, and the new focus the country’s wine industry has adopted.
Proudly, Alentejo is leading the charge. Although temporarily suffering from the “value for money” tag that dogged Chile and its wines for so long, Alentejano wines have already shown their ability to take on the crus of France, the big-name reds of Spain, and even the most highly respected DOCG wines of Italy.
How Alentejo’s upwards trajectory continues is something only time can tell. Similarly, whether the region’s wine fortunes are inextricably linked to those of Portugal as a whole remains to be seen. For now, whatever the case, Alentejo continues to offer some of the best value Old World wines available.
Beiras (Beira) is a traditional administrative region in the northern half of Portugal. It is also the name of the IGP, or Indicacoes Geograficas Protegidas, wine classification (formerly known as Vinho Regional) which covers the region as a whole. A wide range of wines are made in Beiras – red wines from the region are typically rich, deeply colored wines made from Baga, Castelão, Rufete (Tinto Pinheira), Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Touriga Nacional, and are sometimes fortified to emulate their more famous Oporto cousins. Whites are most often based on Fernão Pires and Bical, the latter being a small-berried variety with the affectionate nickname Borrado das Moscaos (‘fly droppings’).
Beiras is relatively wide, as Portuguese regions go, and stretches from the Atlantic coast right to the border with Spain (about 100 miles/160km). It was traditionally a single region, but was later split into Beira Litoral (coastal Beira) and Beira Interior (inland Beira). The region encompasses several DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada) titles, among them Bairrada, Beira Interior and the famous Dão.
Terroir varies greatly in the Beiras region, which touches both sides of Portugal and takes in coastline, rivers, valleys, lakes, plateau and low mountains. The same is true of the climate – although heavily influenced by the Atlantic in the maritime west, the continental draw of Spain’s hot, dry center is strong in the east. In the west are the sandier soils of the coast, slightly inland are the limestone and clays of Bairrada, and the center has the alluvial soils of the Dão, Mondego and Ceira river valleys.
Baga is arguably the most important red wine grape in Beira. It typically makes up the lion’s share of red wines, particularly in Bairrada, where it accounts for more than three-quarters of the red plantings. Prolific and late ripening, Baga’s large crops are often threatened by the risk of autumn rains blowing in from the Atlantic, one of the more significant challenges facing the region’s vignerons each vintage. Baga-based wines are typically deeply colored, highly acidic and very tannic – a consequence of their small berries and thick skins. French grapes Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah are increasingly popular across Beiras, as they are the world over, and are often used to soften Baga wines and make them more immediately appealing to those wine consumers not yet seduced by classic Portuguese wine styles.
For centuries Beiras has suffered the repercussions of a significant event in the wine history of Bairrada, its westernmost viticultural area. In the early 18th century the British appetite for port (produced in the nearby Douro valley) was reaching fever pitch, creating significant commercial opportunities. A number of Bairrada producers were caught exporting their Bairrada wines as port, and a number of legitimate port producers were found blending Bairrada wines into their own to increase output. Wine legislation and regulation was in its infancy back then (Tokaj and port were among the first), but so valued was the port name that the Portuguese government took immediate action to maintain its purity; Sebastião José de Carvalho, the country’s vehemently nationalist First Minister, ordered that all vines in Bairrada be uprooted. The stain on Bairrada’s reputation lasted well into the 20th century, and only in 1980 was the area finally granted official recognition as a Portuguese wine region.
Dão is one of Portugal’s most prominent wine regions, located just south of the famous Douro Valley. It has suffered from a bad reputation in the past but international wine media attention and improvements in production (and marketing) have helped the region to start shining. The top Dão wines are now some of the most highly rated in Europe, winning consistent praise on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Dão viticultural region is in the north of the country. It takes its name from the Dão river, along which the majority of the region’s vineyards are located. The Dão is a tributary of the larger Mondego (Portugal’s longest river) and several other rivers also flow through the region. However, only the Dão is significant enough to have the local DOC named after it – mostly due to the tough, crystalline granite that the river has carved its path through for many millennia.
To the north, south and east of the Dão Valley are the granite mountains of eastern Beiras. These are the same peaks which separate Beira Litoral (coastal Beira) from Beira Interior (inland Beira), and the Dão and Douro rivers. As a result of this protected position, the climate along the Dão is relatively mild, stable and consistent between vineyard sites. Naturally, this creates a homogenization of the region’s terroir; whether this is a bad or good thing is open to debate.
The majority of Dão’s quality vineyards are situated at altitudes between 500-1500ft (150–450m) above sea level. This elevation raises the vines out of the valley’s shadows and towards all-important sunshine, allowing them to maximize their photosynthesis time during the day. It also increases diurnal temperature variation, helping the grapes cool down at night, which they must do to retain the acids so desirable in wine.
The biggest name in Dão wine production is Sogrape, the first wine company off the mark after Dão’s restrictive wine laws were lifted at the time of the 1989 vintage. Sogrape also happens to be the largest Portuguese wine producer, having firmly established itself in the second half of the 20th century through the remarkable success of its Mateus rosé wine. The company invested heavily in the Dão area, most obviously at the Quinta dos Carvalhais (The Oaks Estate), which now processes several million liters of wine each vintage. The quinta (‘farm’ or ‘estate’) has only a modest acreage under vine and much of its wine is made from grapes bought in from the surrounding area, much like the old system created under the Salazar regime.
Arguably, the finest red wines from Dão today are deep reds made from Tinta Roriz and Touriga Nacional, two of the key grapes used to make port wines. Jaen and Alfrocheiro Preto are two other common red wine grapes here, along with large quantities of lesser grapes such as the memorably entitled Bastardo and the Baga that dominates plantings in Bairrada to the west. White wines are also produced in Dão, with the finest examples based on Encruzado, the region’s most widely planted light-skinned grape variety.
The Douro region of northern Portugal is the home of Port. It takes its name from the Douro river, which flows east to west from the Spanish border to Oporto, where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. Though Douro is best known for its fortified wines, total production here is fairly evenly split between port and non-fortified table wines.
The viticultural zone covers the steep slopes along the banks of the lower reaches of the river, which is one of the longest on the Iberian Peninsula. From its source in northern Spain, where it is known as the Duero, it flows through the famous vineyards of Ribera del Duero before finding the Portuguese border and becoming the Douro. From here, it cuts through the landscape, creating a unique and historic wine region before meeting the ocean at Oporto.
The Douro’s most unifying trait is its mountainous terrain, although the area covers a broad array of terroir with any number of different aspects, altitudes and soil types. Typically, however, the vineyards stretch up the steep, dry slopes on either side of the river and its myriad tributaries on narrow rocky terraces – a sight that has been classified as a Unesco World Heritage site (a honor that has also been bestowed on the similar landscape of the Wachau wine region in Austria).
There are three recognized sub-regions of the Douro, each covering a section of the river as it flows toward Oporto. These sub-regions each express different aspects of the area’s hot continental climate. The Douro Superior region is the furthest inland, sharing its border with that of Portugal itself. This emerging sub-region is covered in terraced vineyards and takes up about 20 percent of available vineyard land in Douro.
The central part of the Douro region, centered on the village of Pinhão, is known as the Cima Corgo region, where most high-end vintage port originates. Cima Corgo is the largest of the Douro’s three sub-regions, and accounts for almost half of the valley’s total wine production. The steep vineyards of Cima Corgo are predominantly composed of schist with sizable granite deposits. Vines nearer the river tend to ripen much earlier than those at higher elevations, as the river holds warmth more readily than the air. This discrepancy in the climate means that the harvest is often completed in multiple sweeps of the same vineyard.
Nearest Oporto and the coast is the Baixo Corgo (Lower Corgo) sub-region, the area best suited to the production of table wines. The area is cooler and wetter than its neighbors, but also more accessible, meaning that more bulk-wine operations are possible.
The river has had an enormous impact on the region, not just in terms of the terrain, but also in making the terroir accessible to human enterprise. Fortified wines have been made on the steep banks of the Douro since the 17th century, although vines have grown there for much longer. The ports were shipped in barrel down the river to Oporto on small boats called rabelos, where they would be aged in cellars at Vila Nova de Gaia. While the boats have long been replaced with trucks, the cellars at Vila Nova de Gaia remain and are still used for the maturation of Port.
The history of still wines in the Douro has been plagued by poor quality until only recently, starting with the ‘blackstrap’ wines that were popular before Port took off in the 1700s. In 1979, the Douro’s official demarcation was extended to include still wines along with fortified wines, and in the 1990s, production increased considerably. Today, Douro makes some of Portugal’s most prestigious red table wines, from the area’s array of indigenous grape varieties.
The Douro’s wines – both still and fortified – can be made from more than 80 different grape varieties, but in practice the vineyards are dominated by five key varieties: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cao and Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo). Of these, aromatic Touriga Nacional is the most highly regarded, and Touriga Franca the most widely planted. Vineyards tend to be an eclectic cross-section of port grape varieties, often with more than 20 present within a single vineyard. Often, the winemaker will not even be sure of the exact proportion of each variety in a given wine.
A number of international varieties have also found a home in the Douro valley, particularly for the production of table wines. Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer are among the more common non-native grapes planted here
Estremadura – Lisboa Wine
Lisboa (formerly Estremadura) is a prolific wine region located at the center of Portugal’s Atlantic coast. Despite being one of the country’s most productive vinicultural areas, its name remains relatively obscure in wine terms, as its wines have traditionally been labeled with the names of the local sub-regions, which include Alenquer, Bucelas and Colares. The region is also home to Portugal’s capital, Lisbon.
The region fell under the VR (Vinho Regional) classification until 2008, when the category was renamed IGP (Indicaciones Geográficas Protegidas) to bring it into line with the rest of Europe. When the switchover happened, the Portuguese wine authorities took the opportunity to rename the Estremadura appellation as Lisboa after Lisbon, which marks the region’s southern boundary. There are nine DOCs in Lisboa, but many are more famous for their history than their modern wine industry. The most prestigious wines from the region fall under the Alenquer and Bucelas DOCs.
The region’s position on the coast gives rise to the broad terroir that shapes the local wine industry. The Serra de Montejunto hills run north from Lisbon, and effectively divide Lisboa in half. Along the coast, the Atlantic batters the vineyards with high winds and autumn rains, making viticulture a challenge. The most notable DOC on this side of the hills is Colares, which is more famous for its phylloxera-resistant soils than its robust red wines made from Ramisco. The cool, wet conditions also shape the Lourinhã and Óbidos DOCs, famous for brandy and sparkling wine, respectively.
On the other side of the hills, the terroir is more forgiving, and is responsible for some of the region’s best wines. Complex, full-bodied wines made from a range of classic Portuguese grape varieties like Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz typify the Alenquer DOC, while Bucelas makes fresh, minerally white wines from the Arinto grape variety. Further inland again lies the more famous region of Ribatejo.
Overall, the industry in Lisboa is dominated by a number of large cooperative wineries, although the current surge in Portugal’s wine industry has created scope for several smaller outfits to thrive. Wine cooperatives are renowned for their commercial focus (there is little room for individual creativity and passion), so Lisboa wines have tended towards the practical rather than the expressive, and towards quantity rather than quality. As a result, the vine varieties planted in the region have been selected for their high yields and disease resistance, with very little emphasis on varietal expression or traditional stylistic considerations.
More than 30 grape varieties are used (Portugal rivals Italy in the diversity of its vine portfolio), the majority for white wine production. In the past few decades the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon and its Bordeaux stablemate Merlot have increasingly been used, as have Portugal’s traditional (and superior) varieties Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz.
Minho – Portugal’s northernmost wine region – is known for one wine style above all others: crisp, light, white Vinho Verde. It is located on the Portugal’s Atlantic coast to the north and east of Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city and the home of Port. It occupies a roughly rectangular area about 60 miles (100km) from north to south, which reaches about 30 miles (50km) inland.
The key grape varieties to be found in white Minho wines are Alvarinho, Avesso, Loureiro, Pederna (Arinto) and Trajadura. Their red counterparts are based on Alvarelhao, Espadeiro, Caino Tinto and the globally popular Cabernet Sauvignon.
Minho’s proximity to the Atlantic is the reason why its land is so prolific for agriculture, including viticulture. In fact, this part of Portugal is known as the Costa Verde– a reference to its lush, green (verde) countryside. It has this in common with Spanish Galicia, immediately to the north. Rain-bearing winds blow in from the ocean, enabling the vineyards to produce much higher yields than those in drier, inland regions like neighboring Transmontano.
Aside from the Vinho Verde DOC, Minho has to its name the regional Minho IGP title, whose looser production laws allow more diversity in the average winery’s portfolio. IGP Minho was formerly known Rios do Minho before Portugal’s Vinho Regional category was updated to IGP in 2008 (to fall in line with EU-wide wine labelling conventions).
Minho is named, as are several Portuguese wine regions, after an important local river. The river Minho, which rises in the hills of neighboring Galicia (north-western Spain) forms the border between Spain and Portugal. Not just a vital source of water and transportation, the river’s power is harnessed to produce a respectable proportion of Minho’s electricity needs.
While the region’s northern edge is marked by one important river, its southern edge is traced by a far more famous river; the famous Douro (Spain’s Duero). The Douro bisects Minho’s southern one-fifth, as it approaches the end of its long journey from the hills of Castilla y Leon. The Douro occupies a key position on the Portuguese wine map, connecting Portugal with Spain and the city of Porto with the vineyards of the Douro Valley.
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