Portugal has lost its fair shares of wars, but one war it has most definitely won: the war against the French grapes. French grapes pushed their international way into Spain, Italy, Germany, Greece—all of Europe, except isolated backward-looking Portugal. As a result, Portugal’s indigenous vine varieties pressed their own way into the 21st century, validating the country’s grapevine and wine structure and even doing some international colonizing of their own. Some of the most important of these grapes are those used to make Port wine. The same Port grapes are now used to make some exciting still dry wines. Touriga Nacional has taken its place as Portugal’s signature red grape. Touriga Franca is also leading red blends. In the world of white wines, Portugal is also making a statement, with Vinho Verde and the white grape Arinto of Bucelas, Bical of Bairrada, and Encruzado of the Dão. Even though Portugal is small, it enjoys great diversity region to region.
Portugal has three quality levels, almost identical to those of France. The lowest level wine is Vinho or Vinho de Portugal. The “H” is pronounced like an “I” in English. You then have IGP, Indicações Geographicas Protegidas. The highest level is Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC).
The Vinho Verde region is in the northwest, mostly in Minho province. The title “the Minho” is sometimes used for the region. The “Verde” in Vinho Verde refers to the fact that the white wine is a young wine, released within six months after harvest. The Minho region, of course, actually is green, since this is Portugal’s wettest landscape. The wine is characteristically low in alcohol (the percentage is often in single digits), with vibrant fruit and determined acidity. Alvarinho, with its peach and apricot, floral and citrus notes, and a mineral edge, is the most highly regarded grape used in Vinho Verde. Richly floral Loueiro is the most widely planted. Trajadura adds a certain delicacy. Avesso, Azal, and Arinto are also used.
Trás-os-Montes in the northeast, produces wine under the title of Transmontano VR (Vinho Regional), but has smaller areas within the region that qualify as Trás-os-Montes DOC. The name means “across the mountains.” The extreme continental climate here brings long hot summers and long cold winters. At high altitude and climate extremes, red wines of all styles are made from Bastardo, Marufo, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional and Trincadeira (Tinta Amarela), whites from Côdega do Larinho, Fernão Pires, Gouveio, Malvasia Fina, Rabigato, Síria (Côdega) and Viosinho.
The Porto/Douro region produces the red grapes that are used to produce the fortified wine Port (in the city of Oporto by the ocean), as well as still dry red wines. The five most widely used grapes for red Port wine are Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional, and Tinto Cão. This is difficult land, with very little soil, on steep slopes that usually need to be terraced. The region along the Douro river divides into three parts: Baixo Corgo on the western edge, Cima Corgo in the middle, and the highest altitude Douro Superior edging up to the Spanish border. In the past, dry wines were made for local consumption, likely from the grapes not deemed good enough for the major Port houses. This was before modern techniques like fermentation temperature control came into currency. Nowadays, the army of small growers here are likely to plant grapes specifically for still wines. High altitude vineyards that face north are the most highly prized.
The Távora-Varosa DOC is situated directly south of the Douro. In this mountainous region, white Malvasia Fina leads in production with Bical, Cerceal, Fernão Pires and Gouveio among the whites. Reds are Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional. In these high altitude conditions, the tannic red grapes have a harder time ripening than the whites.
The granite hills of the Dão support vineyards at 1300 to up to 2600 feet above sea level. Mountains shield the region from Atlantic influence and from the hot African winds coming from the southeast. As in much of Portugal, the Dão produces a range of grapes, for fruity reds and aromatic age-worthy whites. Major red grapes are Touriga Nacional, Alfrocheiro, Aragonez, and Jaen e Rufete. Whites include Encruzado, Bical, Cercial, Malvasia Fina, and Verdelho.
Bairrada to the west of the Dão is a damper area closer to the Atlantic, benefitting from low rolling hills with clay-limestone soils for primarily red wine production. The indigenous high tannin high acid Baga grape is the leader. Bical leads the whites, and both varieties support traditional method sparkling wines.
Beira Interior is a mountainous region by the Spanish border. During the hot summers, sugar level and hence alcohol level can be excessive, leading often to harvesting before tannins have had time to ripen, but careful vineyard techniques can compensate for this. Red grapes, many from desirable old vines, are Bastardo, Marufo, Rufete, Tinta Roriz and Touriga Nacional. The signature white wine is the acidic Cova da Beira, made from the hyper-local Fonte Cal grape. Other white varieties include Arinto, Malvasia Fina, Rabo de Ovelha and Síria.
In contrast to the mountainous regions in northern Portugal, where small holders predominate, the vast arid region of Alentjo in the south is one of industrial sized estates. Much of the wine here is sold as Vinho Regional Alentejano. Aragonez (Tempranillo) is the most widely-planted red grape. Plantings of Cabernet and Syrah are appearing in parts. Other grapes supporting the region’s usually easy drinking reds include Borba, Évora, Redondo and Reguengos. Antão Vaz is the major white grape of the region, showing firm acidity and tropical fruit. Other whites include Arinto and Roupeiro, both with impressive acidity.
Ribatejo’s wine regions straddle the Tagus River, Iberia’s longest. Two appellations apply: the Do Tejo DOC (formerly known as Ribatejano) and the less restrictive Tejo VR (formerly known as Ribatejo). The top wines from both appellations are red, blends of Portuguese and international varieties. The aromatic, gently spicy Fernao Pires leads the region’s white wines.
The Lisbon area presents a long thin line of vine appellations that face two major menaces: the Atlantic winds and property development. The winds affect primarily the extreme western coastal areas. The eastern areas have some hill protection. Alenquer and its neighbor Arruda benefit from this wind protection. They are both red wine specialists using the classic Portuguese reds from Aragonez, Touriga Nacional, and Touriga Franca. Torres Vedras, east of Alenquer and cooler, produces similar wines. These three appellations now allow some international grape presence with Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
Behind protective hills just south of Alenquer is the white wine region of Bucelas, which gives us a crisp, dry, mineral white, made with primarily Arinto, with Rabo de Ovelha and Sercial, in still and sparkling forms.
Palmela focuses on red wines, particularly from the Castelão Frances grape variety.
DOC Óbidos on the coast is windy and cool, perfect for some of the country’s best sparkling wines. Lourinhã is even cooler, challenging ripening and yielding a high acid grape that does its best work in brandies.
Colares and Carcavelos were once renowned coastal appellations, but property development has compromised them badly. Carcavelos still makes a few cases of a sweet fortified wine from local grapes, both red and white. Colares makes high-acid, tannic wines from red Ramisco grapes, planted in sand dunes, and Malvasia–based aromatic whites.
Setúbal DOC on the Setúbal Peninsula is best known for its fortified Moscato. The grape, called Moscatel de Setúbal here, is better known as Muscat of Alexandria.
The far southern region of Algarve has four DOCs – Lagos, Portimão, Lagoa and Tavira. Wine here is mostly red from classic Portuguese varieties like Castelão and Touriga Nacional, with some international varieties like Syrah. At just 125 miles from Africa, Algarve has a warm climate, and a reputation for wines high in alcohol.