Sharing a 754-mile border with Spain and fringed by the Atlantic coast, Portugal is small, isolated and refreshingly immune from the pressures of winemaking conformity. However, her wealth of indigenous grape varieties often makes wines from Portugal (outside of port) slightly challenging to understand. A journey into Portuguese red and white wines is much needed to discover some of the country’s most most delicious wines and regions.
An excellent way to explore the wines of Portugal is in the same manner meals begin, with wines that are clean and fresh, lively and low alcohol.
A classic Vinho Verde, the youthful and refreshing “green,” is also the name of the northwest region where the wine is produced. It has garnered a solid reputation. The pale lemon-hued wine, with refreshing flavors of citrus and stone fruit, often with a surprising little spritz, is generous with cheer.
Being a coastal wine-growing region, it makes sense that Vinho Verde is a refreshing partner to seafood, particularly regional dishes such as dry, salted cod (bacalhao) or shrimp served with rice. Most of the wines are blends from the Loureiro, Arinto and Alvarinho (Albariño in Spain) grapes, but a single variety Vinho Verde is something to seek.
Even more interesting is a Vinho Verde made of a grape called Azal. Quinta de Linhares, in Penafiel in the demarcated region of Vinho Verde, uses the rustic and little-known grape. Delicate citrus flavors, energized by high acidity, make this mouthwateringly tasty for sunshiny day-sipping.
Finally, there’s red Vinho Verde, which mostly stays in Portugal. The tart and inky wine has historically been more widespread than white in Vinho Verde. It remains an everyday wine at the dinner table.
Moving on to another region that deserves great attention is Tejo, one of Portugual’s oldest wine producers. Located a short drive from the capital city of Lisbon, Tejo pulses with a rich heritage. The country’s only landlocked region is known for its vineyards, cork forests and olive groves. The Tejo River has defined its landscape, microclimates and economy for centuries and contributes to a distinctive terrain.
The river’s cyclical floodwaters have become part of the Casal da Coelheira estate. The sandy soils retain small quantities of water and every year the vines work to reach for the limited water, which in turn creates wines of complexity and elegance.
Mythos is a perfect red for someone who is just beginning to dabble in Portuguese wine. It is a blend of two native Portuguese grapes — Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca — and a familiar international grape, Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is rich, but bright, beautifully aromatic with violets and chocolate and generous in flavors of ripe red berries. It’s so special that it’s only produced in exceptional vintages, using only top-quality grapes from the estate’s 35-year-old vineyards.
Finally, there are the wines from Douro, port country that hugs the Douro River and rises high on steep schist cliffs abruptly into the sky. Its sweet, fortified wines aren’t the region’s only vinous treasure. Douro also has a growing reputation for excellent red wines made from a wealth of different traditional grape varieties, particularly the country’s superstar, Touriga Nacional.
Not surprising is the jammy fruit and spice flavors, the definite acidity and tannins that are a little reminiscent of port. These distinctive qualities make these wines also reminiscent of the plush-and-fruity genre of international wines. The red wines of Douro are luscious, concentrated and dense. The best examples have a line of firm tannins that allows them to age for 15 years or more.
Some of the most authentic winemaking traditions, dating back to the Roman era, are found here. Alongside these traditions, though, vine-growing and winemaking advancements by a new generation of well-educated winemakers have propelled Portugal into the modern era.
Less known and also harder to find are the white wines of Douro, which are found above the river on the plateau where it’s cooler. Just as the region’s red wines are typically blends, so are the white. They draw from Gouveio, Malvasia, Viosinho and Rabigato grapes, among others. These wines are made in the style of light-bodied, crisp and slightly flinty flavors with salinity.
Up and down this wine-soaked country, there are treasures of white and red wines in regions not as well known. For anyone seeking authenticity, history and uniqueness in the form of delicious vinous pleasures, Portugal offers a wealth of discoveries.