Everything you always wanted to know about wine in Portugal
Historically associated with the production of Port Wine, Portugal has been steadily establishing itself in recent decades as one of the world's leading wine producers. And it is no coincidence!
This achievement has been possible thanks to the enormous promotion that the Portuguese Government has made to advertise national wines across borders. It has also been the result of investment made by Portuguese wine producers, who have always known that it is not just about having a quality product, but also knowing how to create a strong brand to sell it internationally.
Good enough to fight… and to die for!
The origin of the first vineyards in Portuguese territory dates back to ancient times when the region was influenced by Phoenicians, Greeks and the Roman Empire. It was during the Roman domination over the entire Mediterranean Sea that the first organized cultivation of vineyards in Portugal took place.
However, it was in more recent history that the fame of Portuguese wines gained worldwide contours, namely its two most famous varieties: Port Wine and Madeira wine. There are many stories in which these two wines were present at some of the most important moments in world history.
In the medieval courts of Europe, Madeira wine was considered one of the most exquisite and was even used as a perfume for the noble ladies' handkerchiefs. Among some of the famous stories where Madeira Wine was involved in, there is the strange request from the Duke of Clarence who, in 1478, chose to die by drowning in a Madeira Malvasia cask as a way of serving his death sentence. The poet William Shakespeare also referred to Madeira wine, calling it a precious essence in his play "Henry IV" (Falstaff was accused of trading his soul for a chicken leg and a glass of Madeira wine!).
On the other side of the Atlantic, the taxation of imported goods, in particular wines from Portugal, is one of the elements that led the American colonies to start a revolution and declare independence from Great Britain. The founding fathers of the United States of America would always toast to important events with a glass of Madeira wine, from the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the inaugural of Presidents, a tradition that started with George Washington.
From ancient traditions to modern-day recognition…
Generations of winemakers have been able to bridge the gap between tradition and modern times, and today in various parts of the world there is increasing knowledge of the quality and diversity of wines in Portugal.
According to data from the Instituto da Vinha e do Vinho em Portugal (Institute of Vineyards and Wine in Portugal), in 2020, and compared to 2019, wine exports in Portugal recorded an overall increase, both in volume (+5.3%) and value (+3.2%) for a total of €846 million in sales.
However, it was not only demand that increased, but also the recognition of quality. Over the last 10 years, Portuguese wines have gained increasing international fame, with several brands competing internationally with the best wine regions in the world.
Portugal's unique grape varieties
Several factors contribute to the unique terroir of Portuguese wines, such as the soil; the location and altitude; the climate of the region; the viticulture work; the process by which the wine is made; the year of the harvest (relative to climatic factors); and the grape variety or varieties that compose each wine. And its this last factor that makes Portuguese wines truly stand out.
The where and why of Portuguese wine regions
Portuguese wines are acclaimed all over the world, but did you know each wine region has a very distinct identity and taste?
With over two hundred native grape varieties, grown in conditions as different as the "socalcos" of the Douro or the plains of the Alentejo, local grape varieties are responsible for giving Portuguese wines very unique flavours and characteristics. Even in wines made from a blend of several grape varieties, the palate is strongly influenced by the different varieties that compose it.
Traditional Portuguese grape varieties include:
Alfrocheiro - A red grape with a strong aroma of strawberries that gives the wine an intense colouring.
Antão Vaz - This is a white grape variety, used mainly in Alentejo. Its wines have a citrus colour and a ripe tropical fruit aroma.
Arinto - With high acidity, this white grape variety has an intense aroma of tropical fruits.
Bical - Bairrada and Dão are the main areas for this grape variety in Portugal. It grows well in all types of soil, producing good quality wines both in sandy and fresh soils and in dry, clayey soils. It is a white grape variety with low acidity.
Castelão - Red grape variety, also known as "Periquita". It predominates south of the Tagus river, especially in the Setúbal Peninsula area. With strong acidity, cherry and redcurrant aromas.
Encruzado - Dão's great white grape variety produces full-bodied wines with good alcohol content, moderate acidity and essentially very balanced. It has floral and mineral notes.
Fernão Pires - White grape variety, also called "Maria Gomes", known for its muscatel aroma and some notes of roses and lychees. It produces fresh and very aromatic wines, with low acidity.
Loureiro - Its birthplace is the Vinho Verde region (Lima River) and its bay leaf aroma is its main characteristic.
Tinta Barroca - Essentially a Douro grape variety, used in Port wine. It produces alcoholic, smooth and easy-drinking wines.
Tinto Cão - One of the five main Douro grape varieties, it has red fruit, menthol and resin aromas. Often used in Port wine.
Tinta Roriz - In the Alentejo, this grape variety is known as "Aragonez". It results in elegant wines with a lot of freshness and notes of plum, blackberry and cherry.
Trincadeira - Also known as Tinta Amarela, it has a positive acidity, the aroma of wild berries and some vegetal notes.
Touriga Franca - Balanced and sophisticated aroma of roses, wild berries and black cherry. It has a very intense colour and produces high-quality wines.
Touriga Nacional - Characteristic aroma of violets, bergamots, wild berries and rock-rose. Some hints of pine wood. Good ageing potential.
Verdelho - White grape variety. In the Douro, it is also known as "Gouveio". It results in highly aromatic and well-structured wines.
Viosinho - This white grape variety produces very fresh wines with a good alcoholic content.
Excellent quality, at a fair price…
And what's better than having high-quality and lots of variety... being able to purchase these wines at a more than affordable price! Any Portuguese "tasca" or restaurant will always have a good wine list with very affordable prices, which can be consumed by the glass or bottle. However, there are Portuguese wines that can cost several hundred or thousands of Euros!
Portuguese wines are on the rise worldwide and every month they are awarded in several international competitions where national winemakers are present. Not to mention internationally renowned wine magazines and television programmes that have brought Portuguese wines to the mainstream public.
A toast to Portuguese Wines!
Joe Fattorini is an award-winning marketer, a wine enthusiast and presenter of the popular TV program ‘The Wine Show’. He was recently in Portugal to film The Wine Show season 3…
Some of Portugal's most awarded wines...
Marquês de Borba Reserva - 2015
Poças Reserva Tinto - Douro - 2016
Pequenos Rebentos - Vinhas Velhas Edição Limitada - Reserva 2017
Villa Oliveiras Pedras Altas - Dão - 2014
Muros de Melgaço - 2018
Alambre 20 Anos - Moscatel de Setúbal
Vicentino Pinot Noir - 2016
Quinta Nova Terroir Blend - Douro - 2017
Maria Izabel Branco - Douro - 2017
Soalheiro Rosé - Alvarinho & Pinot Noir - Rosé 2018
Sandeman 20 Anos - Old Tawny Porto
Esporão Colheita 2017
Ravasqueira Vinha das Romãs - Vinho Regional Alentejano - 2016
Cortes de Cima 2 Terroirs
Grahams 2017 - Vintage Port
However, the story of Portuguese wines and their quality is not only made of awards and public spotlight! Even today there are small wine producers all over the country who cultivate vineyards passed down from generation to generation, maintaining traditional wine harvesting methods. Gathering family and friends in the "quinta" to pick and press the grapes is an age-old tradition that many families still keep alive.
Even when not producing wine themselves, the landowner sells the grapes to local cooperatives or other wine companies that make good use of the Portuguese people's pride in keeping traditions alive and preserving local grape varieties.
How to experience wine in Portugal:
From North to South of Portugal, there are several wineries and farms you can visit that offer from wine tastings to culinary experiences where wine is accompanied by traditional Portuguese food, as well as local cheeses and sausages. In some places, packages may include workshops and leisure programmes and accommodation.
In the Douro region, don't miss the opportunity to take a cruise along the river. There are options for various budgets and with durations ranging from one to several days, as well as different routes. Besides the experience itself, which offers unique views over the terraced vineyards along the Douro river banks, some cruises also offer wine tastings, listening to Fado on board or even staying overnight in one of the region's wine estates.
If you are in Portugal in late summer/early autumn, you can also participate in the grape harvest. Harvesting grapes by hand, in the community spirit of old, surrounded by fresh air and the laughter of others who share the taste for the ‘nectar of the Gods’... what an unforgettable experience!
If you’d like to try Portuguese wine and can't find a bottle in wine stores in your area, you can order online! Several online wine stores sell Portuguese wine to practically anywhere in the world.
Whichever way you choose to experience Portuguese wine, one thing is for sure: there's no wrong way to do it, simply raise your glass and enjoy! Or as we say here in Portugal... “à nossa"!