Although Portugal is best known for its two world class fortified wines, Port and Madeira, Portugal’s table wines are made throughout the country and as winemaking improves, the best of these are now gaining recognition. With over 250 indigenous grape varieties and 31 distinct wine regions, Portugal represents a fascinating and sometimes infuriating wilderness, sometimes described as the ‘last frontier’ of European wine. Wine has been made here since ancient times, the Greeks and Phoenicians introducing the forerunners of many of the now native varieties. Modern winemaking technology has been slow to take hold, but is now resulting in fresh and elegant wines from the cooler coastal areas like Lisboa and powerful, expressive wines from the mountainous interior areas like the High Douro. Until very recently mains electricity and running water were not common in the more remote parts of the Douro and ‘mod cons’ like temperature controlled fermentation tanks were not the norm. Thankfully, the coming of modern winemaking techniques has not diminished the unique Portugese identity of these wines, all of which offer unique and distinct flavours.
The vineyards along the Douro River in Portugal (which starts life in Spain as the Duero) are best known for producing Port. The region lies in three parts, Baixo Corgo (below the Corgo, a tributary of the Douro), Cima Corgo (above the Corgo) where most of the steeply terraced port vineyards are to be found and where much port is made, and the Douro Superior, the hottest section which runs up to the Portuguese border and is a potential new source for wine. Red table wine is made from some of the same grapes as Port, mainly Touriga Nacional, and Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo) and white wine from Gouveio, Malvasia Fina, and Rabigato. Port vineyards are usually on schist, whilst granitic soils suit table wine better. International varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay can be found but they do not qualify for the DOC.
Other Portuguese regions
The Vinho Verde area, which lies in the north, produces fresh (sometimes piercingly so) mainly white wines whilst further south, in both Dao and Bairrada, there is a preponderance of decent, although sometimes quite austere, reds. There has been a lot of investment in Alentajo, which lies to the south of Lisbon not far from the border with Spain, and some excellent reds are being produced there, some made from Tempranillo which is known in the south of Portugal as Aragonês. Just below Lisbon, the Setubal Peninsula is famed for its rich, luxuriously sweet Moscatel de Setubal. Historically there have always been a large number of small wine growers in Portugal, rather than large privately owned estates, and these have been served by well-established co-operatives. Increasingly, the more confident and forward looking growers are turning their backs on this system and are beginning to make their own wines. This can only bode well for the future.
Portuguese’s grape varieties
Loureiro: a white variety grown in the Rias Baixas region, in North West Spain, and also in the north of Portugal where it is the main grape used to make Vinho Verde. Produces delicate, aromatic wines with fresh acidity.
Fernão Pires: a white Portuguese grape grown in the central part of the country, notably Bairrada (south of Oporto) and Tejo (north east of Lisbon). Makes aromatic, slightly exotic wines best drunk young.
Touriga Nacional: one of the principal varieties used to make Port, admired for its weight and structure. Also makes table wines in the Douro Valley and the Dão region. Has a dark colour, full tannins and a strong varietal character.
Tinta Roriz: the Portuguese name for Tempranillo.
Tinta Bairrada: a tannic red grape variety with good acidity, also known as ‘Baga’, grown in Portugal’s Bairrada region.
Tinta Barroca: a red variety, grown in the Douro Valley in Portugal. Used as one of the varieties to make Port. Also cultivated in the Western Cape in South Africa.
Touriga Franca: one of the primary varieties used to make Port. Grown in the Douro Valley and the Dão region it is also produces table wines which are full bodied and stylish with rounded tannins.