Are you dreaming of an island? Or at least cliffs, mountains, a coastal strip? Yea, we’ve been binging on Game of Thrones, and now I’m slightly dreaming of sipping some chilled white wine overlooking the ocean on the cliffs in King’s Landing, braided hair and my silk chiffon dress dancing in the breeze, . . . cut to my son throwing a handful of goldfish crackers into the air in an attempt to catch one in his mouth and I’m running for the broom and–“DON’T YOU DARE STEP ON THOSE!” And we’re back. But hey, Portugal is a slightly magical place with steep cliffs, oceans and mountains that is producing some excellent wines that don’t hurt the wallet. Wait. What? You can find a wine for $10 that is good, enjoyable and capable of transporting you to Kings Landing (before Winter arrives of course)? YES. YES and YES.
Lately, I have found myself reaching for more and more Portuguese wine, as well as reaching for the hand sanitizer, although I prefer the former over the latter. If you are with me, say “Cheers” and join me in a little trip into Portugal. If you’re thinking, wait – doesn’t Portugal only make Port?, the answer is NO. For years there has been a rise in dry wine making – some with port grapes. You will be surprised and happy to try something new. Trust me, this is better than goldfish or apple juice or water or basically any kids’ beverage you’re serving up lately!
A quick overview on the region and what to buy: Let’s just say, look for the regions on the label – you won’t be able to pronounce and probably won’t know the grape! It’s like a tongue twister for adults! You may not find much Portuguese wine on the shelves yet, but more and more will be appearing.
Here are some regions to look for:
These are the regions you will most likely find on the label and in a wine store. There are lots more to explore, but let’s start with the basics.
VINHO VERDE/MINHO REGION
Have you ever had a white wine from Portugal? Guess what – this is probably what you drank. Think crisp, refreshing, citrusy chilled white wine with a slight spritz. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Then this is the wine for you! This region is known as the “Green Coast” and has long been producing a naturally fizzy wine: red, white or rose. The name of the wine, Vinho Verde (green wine), refers to the youth of the wine, rather than to the grape. Vinho Verde until the 1990s was a fizzy red wine (mostly). Now, VV typically comes from a white grape called Alvarinho (known as Albarino in Spain), or from Loureiro (laurel scented) – look for single varieties or a blend. Traditionally, Vinho Verde was given a carbon dioxide (FIZZ) treatment to reduce extremely high acid. Now carbon dioxide is injected to help keep the spritz alive. The white wines are light-bodied and dry with high acidity and fruity flavors – melon, gooseberry – and a slight fizziness. Some quality producers are beginning to make a more serious example of this wine minus the Co2. But the standard examples of VV wines typically cost $8-12. Try with seafood! Red (Rosado) Vinho Verde wines are still produced too, but not much is seen here on the export market.
Looking for a full-bodied red wine similar in style to a Cabernet Sauvignon but even more meatier? Check out wines from the Douro region. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its fortified Port wines, and it is increasingly turning out some high-quality non-Port wines.
This region makes a dry wine called Tinto Douro (tinto means red), and the classified wine here is labeled Douro DOP, Minho IGP (or Vinho Regional if labeled in Portugal) or Vinhos de Mesa (aka table wine). There is more to all the labeling, but the long and short of it is that DOP is the highest classification, indicating the highest quality – although that is all relative. That’s another blog for another day.
Quality can still vary here, given the only recent focus on crafting dry wines, but the Douro is nevertheless producing some of Portugal’s more consistently high-quality red wines. You will find most Douro wines as a blend (with over 100 approved grapes allowed for use here) but look for wines made from the Port grapes mentioned below for extra points, and perhaps including Sousao. These wines can be found for around $10-12 a bottle; you can also find quality wines for around $30-50. These are full-bodied, concentrated wines with flavors of strawberry, raspberry, cherry, figs, plum and herbs. Also, look for a more rural region called Tras-os-Montes, which is producing some full-bodied reds in mountainous areas, thanks in part to the country’s rural development initiatives, which helped restructure abandoned vineyards.
Douro white wines can be harder to find, but these are surprisingly crisp, fruity wines, mostly made with traditional Port grapes as well (Rabigato, Viosinho, Gouveio and Folgasao). Look for the Port houses’ examples of dry wine: Sogrape, Niepoort, Wunita do Crasto and Ramos Pinto (these are producers whose names will be on the label). Also, look for wines from the Douro Superior estate, Quinta do Vale Meao.
This region had some hurdles to overcome in terms of quality. A previous co-op monopoly had caused the region’s quality to decline, but Portugal’s inclusion in the EU in the 1980s ended that, and with some investment from large producers, quality began to improve.
This region produces mainly 80% reds, with wines lighter in style than in the Douro (due to higher elevation). The best grapes are Touriga Nacional, Tempranillo (often labeled Tinta Roriz) and Mencia (often labeled Jaen), with quality on the rise and well-structured wines showing promise. Worth a try, and maybe compare Dao and Douro wines and let me know what you like best!
Referred to as the ‘California’ of Portugal. Might be hard to find wines from this region, but if you see it, try it!
If you want to be a superstar in terms of knowledge, here is a little help with navigating the grapes that typically you find only in Portugal and Spain. You may not recognize the names of the grapes, but there are a few important ones to know in order to understand what grows in which region!
This grape is popular in NW Portugal in the region Vinho Verde. There are a few styles of wine made with this grape, but don’t be surprised when this grape makes a wine that has some fizz.
Light to medium bodied, high acid, with white peach, grapefruit, citrus flavors, mainly un-oaked.
This is an aromatic grape, “laurel scented,” with flavors of apricot, citrus and aromatics. This grape is also popular in Vinho Verde.
Port Grapes: The most typical grapes used to make Port are Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz and Tinto Cao. These are now also being used for still wine with fantastic results.
A quality grape that is commonly used in a blend with other Port grapes or separately with Tempranillo; it can be higher in alcohol than some other red wine grapes. This grape is increasingly turning out quality wines in both the Dao and Douro regions, often with a style and taste comparable to a bold Cabernet Sauvignon. In the Dao region, it must be 20% of the red wine blend. Dao has a higher elevation than Douro, so those wines can be a little lighter bodied, with slightly higher acidity.
Tempranillo (called Tinta Roriz in Portugal) also gives big, bold, high alcohol wines.
Baga is a grape that has been around for a long time in Portugal. In the region of Bairrada, 70% of the wine must be from this grape. A large amount of this grape ends up in rose.
Let me know what you try! There are lots of wines to taste from Portugal, so this is just a start for your exploration.