Personally, I find Portuguese wines a bit of a mystery. Although there are some excellent creations being produced, they don’t seem to receive the same notoriety as wines from Italy, Spain or France.
Because Portugal’s wine culture developed in relative isolation, there are many grape varieties that do not grow anywhere else in the world. There are over 250 indigenous varieties and a few imports that have adapted well to the Portuguese landscape. According to many wine experts, Portugal is the last frontier of wine in Western Europe explored. So with all the excitement this region offers, let’s take a look at what there is to know about the major wines and the regions.
DOC (or DOP) – DOC stands for Denominação de Origem Controlada and means the wine comes from a strictly defined geographical area with recommended and permitted grapes and maximum vine yields (to control quality). Technically there are 31 DOCs in Portugal although 3 of them overlap, making it seem more like 28.
Vinho Regional (or IGP) – Portugal is divided into 14 regional wine areas which have less strict rules for controlling which types of grapes are used, as well as maximum vine yields. While this implies that the wines will not be as high quality, many producers in Portugal use the Vinho Regional designation to create excellent wines using grapes or blends not allowed in DOC.
Vinho (Wine): The most basic classification of Portuguese table wine. These wines are generally not distributed outside of Portugal.
Each region is managed by a regional “Wine and Vine” commission, the Comissão Vitivinícola Regional (CVR). Each CVR supervises and controls the quality regulations in order to ensure quality and to maintain each region’s individual character.
Portuguese Wine Terms
Vinho Tinto – Red Wine
Vinho Branco – White Wine
Quinta – Wine farm. You’ll often find this word as part of a winery’s name on the label of wines.
The Wine Regions
Port is the most famous, and most copied, wine from Portugal and it grows in the Douro Valley.
Wines of Douro
Port – Fortified sweet wines; specifically LBV Port, Tawny Port, and Vintage Port wines which are the best and made by blending “port grapes” which include Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Barrocca and Tinto Cão among many others.
White Port and Pink Port – Beyond the red Port there are also Port wines made with the rare white wine varieties in the region. Rosé Port is relatively new.
Tinto Douro – Full-bodied red wines. The same red grapes of Port wine are used to create full-bodied, tannic, age-worthy red wines.
Douro Branco – Light-bodied white wines. Douro Branco are crisp, minerally white wines with very little fruity flavour, subtle flinty notes and salinity, and high acidity. Douro white wines are a little harder to find and include the white Port varieties of Rabigato, Viosinho, Gouveio, and Folgazão.
Terras de Cister (Távora e Varosa) Region
Terras de Cister – Sparkling wines
This area produces wines with much more elegance and acidity than Douro, making it ideal for sparkling wines. There are a growing number of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards being planted along with the regional varieties of Malvasia Fina (aromatic white), Cerceal (light white), Gouveio (light white), Aragonês (aka Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca (red) and Touriga Franca (red) among others.
Transmontano (Trás-Os-Montes) Region
Tinto Transmontano – Full-bodied red blends
The most common wine from this area is Transmontano, which is a regional red blend. Wines are full-bodied, punchy, with higher alcohol levels.
Minho (Vinho Verde) Region
Vinho Verde wines are best served young when the wine is at its peak of aromatics and crisp acidity.
Wines of Minho
Branco Vinho Verde – Light-bodied white wines. Wines often have a slight spritz and fruity, lemonade-like flavors with notes of melon, gooseberry and chalky texture. White Vinho Verde wines are made with a blend of several grape varieties including Arinto, Azal, Trajadura, Loureiro and Alvarinho (a.k.a Albariño).
Rosado Vinho Verde – Rosé. The Rosado wines offer red berry flavors with quenching acidity like lemonade. The reds/rosés of Vinho Verde are found primarily in the southern part of Minho in the sub-regions of Amarante and Paiva. Red grape varieties include Alvarelhão, Amaral, Borraçal, Espadeiro, Padeiro (quite rare).
The Alentejo region contains many progressive and modern wineries making red wines that offer generous fruit and mocha flavors with refined tannins from careful wood aging strategies. White wines from the Alentejo range from medium-bodied refreshers to full-bodied in a style similar to Chardonnay.
Wines of Alentejo
Tinto Alentejo – Full-bodied red wines that are typically blends made with Aragonês (Tempranillo), Trincadeira, Castelão, Alfrocheiro and Alicante Bouschet.
Branco Alentejo – Light-bodied and full-bodied white wines made with Arinto (fuller in style), Antão Vaz (fuller in style), Roupeiro and Fernão Pires (an aromatic white variety).
Alentejano (IGP/Vinho Regional) – Full-bodied red and white wines from a larger encompassing region that may include non-indigenous grape varieties (Viognier and Syrah are growing in popularity here).
There are many wines from the various regions in Lisboa (Alenquer, Bucelas) that are already making their way into stores internationally. While there is great quality found in Lisboa (Bucelas, Colares, Alenquer, Arruda) most of the wines you’ll find available are great for everyday drinking.
Wines of Lisboa
Alenquer – Concentrated, high tannin red wines made with Castelão, Alfrocheiro, Aragonês (Tempranillo) and Touriga Nacional
Bucelas – Light-bodied, citrus and beeswax-driven, age-worthy white wines made with Arinto. .
Arruda – Full-bodied red wines that often include international grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah
Colares – Very rare find. Golden colored, full-bodied white wines in an oxidative style made with Malvasia Fina
Óbidos and Lourinhã – Light-bodied aromatic white wines particularly with Fernão Pires
Torres Vedras – simple, low-alcohol refreshing white wines.
The region of Setúbal is famous for a fantastic rich, deep gold colored dessert wine called Moscatel de Setúbal
Wines from the Dão are lighter in style than in the Douro but have shown to age very well because of the tannin and acidity development from growing in high altitude areas with rugged soils of decomposing granite and schist (similar to Douro and Priorat).
Wines of Dão
Dão Alfrocheiro – Medium-bodied red wine with red berry flavors, licorice and spice notes
Dão Jaen (a.k.a. Mencía) – Full-bodied red wine. Raspberry and black cherry flavors with moderately high acidity and mouth-drying tannin.
Dão Touriga Nacional – Full-bodied red wine. Deep black fruit flavors with chocolate and mocha with refined tannins and medium plus acidity
Terras do Dão and Terras de Lafões – The Vinho Regional wines of the Dão with more experimentation and blends that include international varieties (Indi blends)
Tejo plants all kinds of grapes, from Alvarinho (the grape of Vinho Verde) to the full-bodied blackish Alicante Bouschet. This is a good region for getting super value from Portugal.
Wines of Tejo
Red “Indi” Blends – Blends consisting of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira and Castalão
White “Indi” Blends – Consists of blends with Fernão Pires (an aromatic white wine), Arinto, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay
Beira Atlântico (Bairrada) Region
Baga is the highly productive red grape of Beira, grown in Bairrada. From the aromatic and delightfully pink sparkling wines by Luis Pato to the soft, structured light-bodied red wines by Niepoort, this area is one of the new frontiers of winemaking for the Portuguese.
Wines of Beira Atlântico
Tinto Bairrada – Made from Baga and ranging from dense, tar-like, high acid reds to delicate, red fruit-driven wines with finely textured tannins and the ability to age.
Branco Bairrada – Made from the aromatic Fernão Pires (called Maria Gomes here), Bical and Arinto
Sparkling “Brut” Bairrada – Delicious beeswax-driven sparkling wines made with early picked Baga and Fernão Pires.
The Beira Interior
The most mountainous region in Portugal has one of the most challenging climates to produce grapes. With a shorter growing season the reds have red-fruit driven flavors with herbaceous smoky notes and a juicy finish while the white wines tend to be lean with chalky minerality. There are many old vines here as well as producers using native yeasts and organic viticulture.
Wines of the Beira
Tinto Beira – Red fruit-driven wines of Murufo, Bastardo, Alfrocheiro, Trincadeira and Touriga Nacional
Branco Beira – Lean, chalky white wines of Síria, Arinto, Malvasia
Madeira & Pico Island (Azores)
Verdelho is the main regional white wine grape. Wine from Pico is golden, viscous liquid that is hauntingly sweet, tart and somewhat salty with a smokiness from the volcanic landscape. Madeira, on the other hand, has the most collected and appreciated fortified wines in the world.
There are nearly 2500 acres / 1000 hectares of grapes in the Algarve. The wines aren’t designed to age, but there is hope in particular for red wines with Alicante Bouschet, Syrah and Aragonês (Tempranillo). These drought-climate varieties still manage to have juicy acidity and create more smoky sweet, dusty notes on the finish somewhat reminiscent to South Australia.
The wines of Portugal are well worth a try. The wines are both good and available at a favourable price point.