With a unique diversity of indigenous varieties and micro-terroirs, Portugal is a true wine-lover’s dreamland. For too long underappreciated and misunderstood, the country has finally met a newfound recognition of the true potential and character of its wines.
A vibrant community of winemakers is now reappraising the country’s viticultural history and making idiosyncratic pours at the crossroads of tradition and innovation.
Portugal has one of the oldest and most well-documented wine histories. It was in the Douro that, in 1756 the Portuguese Prime Minister defined a perimeter around the vineyards of the Douro valley to protect the authenticity of Port, thus legislating on one of the wine world’s first examples of geographical delimitation and protection.
Because the country was, until the 1980s, fairly isolated both geographically and politically, its winemaking history and viticultural lineage remained rather faithful to themselves and largely untouched by external trends. The exception being, of course, the Port wine industry, mostly developed by the British community of shippers.
The late 1980s and early 90s saw the country open to international markets and many producers believed they should follow a commercial strategy based on generic styles and focused on international varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Chardonnay…).
The past two decades have been a moment of reappraisal and recalibration. International critics and press also motivate winemakers, as they on the country’s own varieties and historical styles. Because they are the core of Portuguese wine’s true soul! It is truly amazing that a small country can be home to such a rich mosaic of terroirs, each with marked identity and their own local varieties.
Having evolved in isolation in the Portuguese vineyards, not many of the local varieties crossed borders. The country therefore has an incredible wealth of indigenous grapes (about 250 identified so far).
Among the most prominent are:
Loureiro and Alvarinho (in Vinho Verde), Bical (Bairrada), Encruzado (Dão), Arinto (Bucelas and blends throughout Southern Portugal), Antão Vaz (Alentejo), Rabigato, Códega do Larinho, Viosinho and Gouveio (Douro)
Touriga nacional (mostly in Dão and Douro but found country-wide), Tempranillo (known as Tinta Roriz in the Douro and Aragonez in the Alentejo), Baga (in Bairrada), Trincadeira, and the French cross Alicante Bouschet (Alentejo).
Main Regions to know
Vinho Verde – home to refreshing, mineral, Atlantic-influenced white pours with subtle aromatics and crisp acidity. Vinho Verde reds, although lesser known, are also delightful.
Douro – undoubtedly the most famous of all Portuguese wine regions, with it’s impressive and sinuous landscape. Although the region’s reputation was built upon the production of fortified Port, Douro dry wines are increasingly being recognised for their character, structure and elegance.
Dão – a favourite among collectors and terroir-geeks due to the high-altitude sites on decomposing granite and schist soils. The once over-powering reds are giving way to lighter styles that focus on this mineral profile.
Bairrada – a ‘winemakers’ region’, home to Baga, a local grape from which super elegant reds and crisp sparklings are made. It has become a sandbox for winemakers from other regions (and countries!) who fall in love with the potential of the myriad old vineyards.
Tejo – formerly known as Ribatejo, this alluvial region that follows the bank of Tejo river was mostly known for good-value, entry-level pours. Quality is increasing as the focus shifts from international to local varieties.
Lisboa – the region that has the country’s capital as epicentre is made of a lively community of young winemakers pushing the boundaries of Portuguese winemaking. The region’s whites, grown on fossil-rich limestone soils have become wine bar favourites worldwide. It is also within Lisbon’s area that Colares, a rare sweet oxidised wine made from Malvasia Fina, is produced from but a few hectares of vineyards.
Alentejo – a big expanse in the country’s south mostly known for robust table reds. There’s an increasing interest in the many ancient vineyards and field-blends. The region’s white wines are also gaining recognition for their robustness and structure. Alentejo has a very old tradition of wines fermented in clay (called locally as ‘Talhas’) which is seeing an important revival.
Madeira – some of the most sough-after and long-lived fortified wines in the world come from Madeira. Their intensity and characteristic flavour profile are not for everyone, but once you understand their specificity and the labour that goes into their production it’s hard not to fall in love. Terrantez, Verdelho, Sercial and Malvasia are the local varieties that go into these precious nectars.
Azores – this archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic has a fascinating – and challenging – volcanic terroir where vineyards grow in intricate systems of stone walls that protect the plants from ocean winds. With such hard-growing conditions and limited vineyard area, the Azorean wines are as limited as they are unique. Mineral, salty, elegant – islands in a glass!
Classification & Labelling
DOC or DOP
At the top level of the Portuguese (and European) wine hierarchy, Portugal has 31 DOCs/DOPs. At the moment, they use both these terms in Portugal: the traditional local ‘DOC’ (Denominação de Origem Controlada) meaning Controlled Designation of Origin and the new pan-European ‘DOP’ (Denominação de Origem Protegida/Protected Designation of Origin). Each of these regions has strictly defined geographical boundaries. DOC regulations also prescribe maximum grape yields, recommended and permitted grape varieties and other aspects related to winemaking. All the wines have to be officially tasted, tested and approved.
IG or IGP (Vinho Regional)
Portugal is divided into 14 ‘Regional Wine’ areas. Wines from these bigger regions were previously labelled as Vinho Regional (VR). The European Union has introduced new titles for this category: ‘IG’ (Geographical Indication) and ‘IGP’ (Protected Geographical Indication).
Most Portuguese regions have however, chosen to keep the old denomination, VR. Rules for making Vinho Regional are much less stringent than those that govern DOC wines. Nevertheless, many prestigious Portuguese wines are classified as Vinho Regional. This is often because the producer has chosen to use grape varieties that are not permitted for the local DOC, or at least not in those particular combinations or proportions. The looser regulations for Vinho Regional give producers greater scope for individuality and experimentation, although they still have to abide by certain (grape variety, minimum alcohol content , etc).
Vinhos (Wines) are Portugal’s simplest wines, subject to none of the rules stipulated for DOC or IG wines. Note, however, that they label very few really stunning wines simply as table wines. These tend to be from ambitious growers who have chosen to work outside the official rules and have deliberately classified their wine as table wine.