The splendid wines of Portugal

By Barbie Lichter - Lake Tahoe

(Originally appeared in Wine, Food & Friends Issue #99, Fall 2011)

The Phoenicians and the Celts were the earliest wine makers in Portugal. We can only guess at the sweet, probably maderized versions that they made some 3,000 to 6,000 years ago. We do know that unique grape varietals are so numerous that they must have been evolving for millennia.

England has had a 600-year-long love affair with Portugal’s wine. However, because of the distance and weather, spoilage on the long ship journey was a deterrent to full commerce. About the 17th century, fortification of Portuguese wine was discovered, giving longevity and resistance to deterioration. Port became the wine of choice of the British Isles, and Portugal’s other wines suffered. Over the centuries Oporto’s sister city, Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the Douro River, was the only place allowed by law to vinify Port grapes, creating the famous lodges of Ferreira, Fonseca, Graham’s, Offley, Symington, Taylor and others.

When you think about Portuguese table wine, you may remember the round, flat bottle of Mateus Rosé which was a product of post-World War II. At that time, by law, Portuguese grapes had to be bought en masse – good and bad – from all growers. The Sogrape consortium made Port from the best grapes. They blended the remainder of the grapes into the highly-publicized, indiscriminate light rosé that sold well.

For many years the Portuguese wine industry was complacent about its domestic market and could be described as “behind the times,” but that attitude has changed dramatically. The world’s tastes and the laws of Portugal changed too. Since Portugal joined the European Union, wine growers may create and age their own Port. This new freedom allows vineyard owners to produce wine from the unique varietals and introduce them to the rest of the world. Port may still be the king of Portugal’s wine exports since quality and price have compensated for decreased Port sales volumes, but the new market is sensibly-priced dry white and red wine.

Changes in legislation and politics in the mid-1980's changed the wine industry rapidly. As an EU member, Portugal attracted foreign investment for the installation of modern wine-making equipment and, of utmost importance, international wine makers who have brought their expertise to the country’s diverse wine areas. Wineries are now producing fine quality wines for all price levels.

Another change is the increasing number of wine estates or quintas. Grape-growing families who used to sell their crops to co-ops or to large exporting companies now are making and selling their own wine. Many small estates try to export their wine, but it is not easy because the quality revolution in Portugal’s wines is just beginning to reach the international market. Large merchant companies still control most of the exports.

Portugal now supports a smart new generation of wine consultants, often working for several wineries simultaneously. Traditional wine making techniques have been replaced or revised. The old Roman wine-stomping troughs, or lagares, are only used for a small percentage of Port and for some reds. Wineries have developed and use mechanical “foot stomping” machines that mimic humans. Stainless steel tanks with cooling jackets are used for the new generation of still wines.

There are 12 wine regions in Portugal divided into 30 separate Denominaçãos de Origem Controlada (DOC). Portugal has a wide variety of native grapes unknown to most Americans such as Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinto Roriz and Aragonez. Modern growing and vinification skills using Portugal’s many
indigenous grapes are making world-class wines. Thankfully, only a few areas produce the most appreciated wines; otherwise the litany of grapes and their producers would require a book-length dissertation.

Douro: The area currently getting the most publicity is the Douro River Valley east of Oporto where the traditional Port grapes are grown. These grapes are producing rich and powerful red wines and even better Port. Wine makers have dis-covered that the Douro’s traditional white grapes such as Viosinho, Malvasia Fina, Gouveio and Rabigato also make fine still and sparkling white wine. The steep vineyard terracing explains the precious nature of the wines, requiring arduous hand-picking and field-sorting to minimize human transportation.

For years, due to legal requirements, the Symington Family and other exporters were forced to buy large quantities of grapes unsuited for Port wine. Recently, with the help of superior vignerons, great and sometimes costly dry table wines from the Douro have received high marks for their quality and now may be found in fine wine shops.

The Douro is becoming a popular tourist destination with hotels, pousadas, quintas with guest houses, and gourmet restaurants opening. Noted wineries include pioneering Casa Ferreirinha with its 1952 launch of Barca Velha and the largest vineyard owner in the Douro, the Symington Family Estates, producing Chryseia and Altano. Other renowned wineries include Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Portal, Quinta do Vale Meão, Quinta do Vallado, Quinta da Ervamoira (Ramos Pinto), Quinta de Napoles (Niepoort) and many more. California’s Schramsberg winery has partnered with a company in Alijó and is selling its Vértice bubbly in Portugal and the United States.

Vinho Verde: In the North, the Minho is cool, moist and green with many forests and is densely populated with farms. The Vinho Verde area follows the river valleys from the eastern mountains to the sea. Vinho Verde can be a crisp, aromatic and slightly sweet and fizzy aperitif. It also can be a dry, creamy wine without fizz. With an average alcohol content of 9%, it is an “easy to drink” wine and pairs well with fish and shellfish.

There are nine sub-regions growing varieties of grapes with practically unknown names such as the red Vinhão, Espadeiro and Borracal as well as the white Loureiro, Azal Branco, Arinto, Trajadura and Alvarinho. Loureiro is the most widely planted grape. There have been many improvements in the last twenty years; and many small producers choose not to follow DOC rules, allowing them to use other grape varieties. Noted producers include Vercoope, a seven co-op organization of about 5,000 growers, which sells Via Latina Loureiro and Alvarinho. Quinta de Soalheiro grows Alvarinho grapes further inland with warmer, drier weather and produces wine which can be aged. Other co-ops producing quality wine are the Quintas de Melgaço and Produtores de Vinhos Alvarinhos de Moncão. There is a Rota dos Vinhos Verdes, and the Solar do Alvarinho in Melgaço is a tasting center which also sells hams, charcuterie, broa (corn bread) and crafts.

Beiras: The Beiras wine area (Bairrada and Dão) in central Portugal has the highest mountain range, the Serra da Estrela, where sheep and goat farmers produce the delicious creamy, melting cheese called Queijo da Serra Estrela and other cheeses. The Mondego River travels from these mountains through the forested Dão region, runs by Coimbra and enters the ocean at Figueira da Foz.

Bairrada: The Bairrada wine area, with its famous suckling pig capital of Mealhada, is centrally located on a flat clay region near the ocean, half way between Lisbon and Oporto. The main grape is the Baga, a very difficult grape to grow and ripen, with intriguing aromatics. Recent DOC revisions allow almost any grape. Red Bairrada has two rules. The modern one allows Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir, and various Portuguese grapes from other areas.
The other is more traditional, allowing Nacional and Alfrocheiro grapes, and labeling the wines as “Classico,” although not all producers use this label. Luis Pato, who has been a revolutionary winemaker for at least 20 years, planted French varieties, renounced them and now has returned to native grapes, especially Baga.

Bairrada also is a white wine region, and these rules have changed too. Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Verdelho are listed along with Arinto, Bical and Cercial. Caves do Solar do São Domingos started producing sparkling wine in 1937, modernized their vineyards and wine-making team in 2004 and their wine-making facilities in 2006. The Campolargo winery, the largest single grower in Bairrada, is a new-wave advocate for wines made with many native
and international grape varieties. Their new modern winery was built in 2004. Sixty per cent of Portugal’s sparkling wine – white, pink and red – is made in Bairrada. Look for highly rated Caves Aliança and Caves São Joãn.

Dão: The cool, dry Dão is bordered by granite mountains. Here higher altitude vineyards allow cooler, slower ripening and higher acidity. Only a small percentage of the area is planted in grapes, but Sogrape Vinhos bought a quinta and built a modern winery. Other companies have followed suit.

Grape sellers grow Tinta Roriz and Jaen with high yields, delivering them to co-ops and big companies. Wine makers grow at least half Touriga Nacional, a lower-yielding grape which can make fine wines by itself or be combined with other good grapes. The region has many savory white wine grapes, and Encruzado is the most well-known.Sogrape makes a wide variety of wine at its large, modern Quinta dos Carvalhais with its own grapes and more from about 600 other growers. Dão Sul, known for its high quality standards, makes its wine at Quinta de Cabriz in the Mondego River valley. The grapes are grown on its three estates in the Dão, two in the Douro, one in Bairrada and another in Estremadura.

Alentejo: Further south, the Alentejo covers about one-third of Portugal but has only one-twentieth of the population. Summer is blisteringly hot, and winters are very cold. Vast rolling plains stretch endlessly along with hills and mountains, often crowned by fortified towns along the Spanish border. The area has cork forests, olive trees and vineyards. Alentejo wines are very popular, accounting for about 50 percent of the domestic market. The large area has eight sub-regions with different soils and growing conditions. Main local grapes are the red Aragonez, Trincadeira and Castelão. Growing the white grape Roupeiro is difficult because of the hot summers. The area has a wellorganized Rota dos Vinhos. Most wineries now are thoroughly modern. Major wineries include J. Portugal Ramos, Dona Maria and Ázamor located near Estremoz. The large exporter, Herdade do Esporão, located near Reguengos de Monsaraz, has produced many highly rated wines . The Rothschild family (Château Lafite) has invested in Quinta do Carmo, a property near Évora built by King João IV in the 17th century.

Terras do Sado: The Terras do Sado wine region is located south of Lisbon on the Setúbal Peninsula. Wine grapes were grown here for centuries by the Phoenicians, Romans, and Arabs. DOC Setúbal is the famous sweet fortified wine made from the Moscatel. DOC Pamela grows mostly red Castelão grapes. In Azeitão, Bacalhoa Vinhos de Portugal is one of Portugal’s largest producers. The winery is very modern, and visits include a tour of the restored historic mansion with the largest collection of azulejo tiles in Portugal. Another large producer is José Maria da Fonseca, also located in Azeitão, where you can visit the Manor House Museum, wine cellars and gardens.

Portugal’s native grapes are unique and a taste treat. There are many varietals for you to savor. Portugal also is the land of cork. So, let’s uncork and taste some of these Portuguese gifts to the World of Wine.