An Introduction to the Wines of Portugal - Miles Edlmann - One Hour Wine
An Introduction to the Wines of Portugal
With 14 wine producing regions in the country (including the islands) and 285 native grape varieties - of which they are extremely proud - the Portuguese have a general disinclination towards embracing too many foreign (or 'international') interlopers in their vineyards. As a result, Portugal produces a wealth of unique, very distinctive wines which may well seem unfamiliar initially. This can make wine lists appear intimidating, but chosing the right wine is actually relatively easy with a little help.
Guided by Lisbon-based wine expert, Miles Edlmann, we take a look at some of the more popular grapes, regions and wine styles.
Translating literally as 'foamy', espumante is simply the Portuguese term for sparkling wine, the local equivalent to Champagne, Prosecco or Cava. These wines are made all over the country, generally using a blend of the most popular white grapes from that region, although red espumante is also available to a lesser degree. There is no mystery when it comes to the labels, since the French terminology is used, running from the driest style, bruto, through extra seco, seco, and meio seco to the sweetest, doce. There is one other thing to look out for - método clássico means that the secondary fermentation is carried out in the individual bottles, in the Champagne tradition, ensuring a more sophisticated wine. If this isn't mentioned on the label then it is likely that the secondary fermentation took place in large steel tanks (the Charmat method) which usually results in inferior, but cheaper, wines.
Look out for:
The hub of espumante production is the tiny region of Távora-Varosa, perched in the hills above the Douro river. Excellent sparkling wines are also made in the Douro itself, in the Bairrada, and in the Alentejo.
Canapés, or on its own. In the Bairrada they also love it with whole roast suckling pig to cut through the richness of the meat.
Light and fruity white wines
The Vinho Verde region in the far northwest grows many of its grapes on high overhead trellises to shelter them, below the leafy canopy, from the considerable rain. The fruit's exposure to circulating air reduces humidity and protects the bunches from fungal problems. But fertile soils mean high yields, and along with the shading effect of the canopy the fruit often struggles to ripen - hence the 'green' wine. The wines are generally low in alcohol, high in acidity and often have a refreshing spritz of fizz. Expect light fruitiness from apple and citrus flavours, perhaps with a hint of minerality.
Note that Vinho Verde is technically a region and not a style of wine. Indeed, about a third of their production is actually red wine, deep in colour and sharp with acidity, to complement the region's unique gastronomy.
Look out for:
Wines based on the Alvarinho grape, often blended with Trajadura, or the bay leaf scented Loureiro. Some of the cooperative wineries are excellent value.
Perfect to accompany shellfish or grilled prawns.
Full-bodied white wines
White grapes are grown in all over the country but do particularly well in cooler climates. The high altitude vineyards of the Dão make some excellent whites but the relatively fresh maritime climate around the capital (Lisboa, Tejo and Setúbal / Palmela) are also suitable. Encruzado is the most versatile and complex white variety, but the remarkable Arinto grape has evolved perfectly to deal with the most brutal temperatures of the interior, holding on to its acidity throughout even the hottest summers.
Look out for:
Delicious, complex and buttery barrel-fermented Encruzado, from the Dão, or if you like your wines without oak, try the classic Alentejo combination of citrusy Arinto blended with tropical Antão Vaz.
Portugal's amazing fresh seafood.
Light and aromatic red wines
Again, search out wines from the cooler parts of the country. Dão, Bairrada and to a lesser degree Lisboa all tend to produce elegant, aromatic and structured reds which don't run the risk of high alcohol and overly jammy flavours that come from too much ripeness. If you're holidaying in the Algarve it's probably best not to be tempted to try the local wines yet - they still have some way to go...
Look out for:
Star grapes include the curious, austere Baga, and Castelão, which thrives on sandy coastal soils, with its notes of eucalyptus and pine resin.
The Portuguese don't really consider the ubiquitous bacalhau to be a fish so they always drink red wine to accompany it. A lovely spicy Dão red goes especially well, as it does with hearty chicken dishes.
Full-bodied red wines
Portugal's privileged climate allows the production of some of the biggest, most intense wines grown anywhere in the world, bursting with complexity and ripe fruit flavours. You will occasionally see Cabernet or Syrah on the label, but they always play second fiddle to native varieties which are better suited to our soils and weather. As with virtually all Old World wine producing countries, the most balanced wines are made from a blend of grapes.
Look out for:
The classic floral, gum-cistus flavours of a Touriga Nacional / Touriga Franca blend from the Douro Superior should be on everyone's must-do list. The divine Alentejo trinity of Trincadeira, Aragonês and Alicante Bouschet combine to make wines that, at their best, taste like chocolate-dipped dark cherries stored on a bed of wild flowers inside cigar box. Equally unmissable.
Pork is the national meat, but these wines work equally well with Alentejo lamb and with game.
Fortified and dessert wines
Our hot climate means that we can grow extra-ripe grapes, with plenty of the sugar required to make high-alcohol, sweet wines. And anyone who has tasted an old Port will be under no illusions that no other country in the world can come close to competing with us in the fortified category.
Madeira, with its curious but deliberate oxidation and high acidity is a unique experience, and the wines will last for over a century. Setúbal and Favaios both make delicious, honeyed and floral muscatel wines with hints of figgy flavours. And then there is the Douro valley - the oldest demarcated region in the world - with its 112 different grape varieties: the home, of course, of Port. Broadly divided into two categories (bottle-aged for more floral, fruit-driven wines, and barrel-aged for more nutty, toffee-like styles) it is truly one of the world's greatest wines
Look out for:
Where to start? Try them all! But in terms of sheer drinking pleasure, a well-cellared classic vintage port, three or four decades old, is absolutely unbeatable.
Chocolate-based desserts, nuts, and of course Stilton.
About the author:
Miles Edlmann is an award-winning viticulturist and winemaker with over 20 years of experience in the Portuguese wine industry. He is the founder of One Hour Wine, operating in and around Lisbon, which provides interactive, multimedia wine tasting courses. The most popular is a complete introduction to the wines of Portugal, which covers all the main grape growing regions, popular varieties and also includes food and wine matching suggestions. In short, he can teach anyone how to read a wine list like a local, in just one hour!
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