Portugal: a World of Wine

Portugal: a World of Wine by Richard Mayson

For a country so small, Portugal boasts a truly remarkable range of wines. It all comes down to having a diverse terroir; that nebulous mix of climate, soils and heritage.  As a result Portugal produces wines for all tastes and occasions.

Starting a vinous tour in the Atlantic north west, cool, crisp Vinho Verde embodies the granite soils and damp Oceanic climate. Low in alcohol, there is no better wine to drink with fresh fish: look out for varietal wines made from Alvarinho or Loureiro which offer both finesse and true Portuguese character.

Inland (but right next to the Vinhos Verdes) is the Douro. This spectacular river valley is the home to Port Wine (Vinho do Porto). It is one of the oldest demarcated wine regions in the world, a boundary having been drawn around its slate-like schistous soils in 1755. With a drier, more continental climate as you journey east, the wines are progressively richer and more full-bodied. Port comes in a variety of styles: Ruby, Tawny, Reserve, Colheita, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) and Vintage.  For warm summer days in the Algarve opt for either a White Port (refreshing as a long drink with tonic) or, better still an aged Tawny (10, 20, 30 or 40 Years Old), served cool from the fridge. Port can be either a summer or winter wine!  The same vineyards that produce Port also yield Douro wines. Increasingly well known worldwide, these are unfortified red and white wines made from some of Portugal’s leading grape varieties. The reds are generally powerful, well structured and full of flavour whereas the whites, mostly from the higher, cooler vineyards are fresh and fruit-driven with plenty of depth.

One of my favorite regions for both red and white wines is Dão. Here we are back on to granite and the wines have a touch of minerality and finesse about them reflecting their land-locked mountain terroir. Touriga Nacional and Encruzado are respectively the leading red and white grape varieties but, just as in the Douro, some of the best wines are complex blends from old, mixed vineyards.

Down on the coast, Bairrada is unusual in Portugal in that it is dominated by one grape: Baga. Depending on the producer and the year, Bairrada is capable of making some of Portugal’s most profound, age-worthy reds always with a streak of astringency that makes them the perfect match for the local leitão (suckling pig).  But don’t ignore the dry white Bairrada from Bical and Maria Gomes wines which have Atlantic freshness.

The central part of Portugal around Lisbon and the Tagus (Tejo) traditionally produced large volumes of white wine for thirsty locals. But over the last three decades there has been a dramatic improvement in quality with value for money red and white wines being made across the region. Some single estates around Alenquer just north of Lisbon are making ever more distinctive wines.  Then there is the historical curiosity of Colares, close to the most westerly point in continental Europe. It was the only region in Europe to survive the phylloxera epidemic which destroyed most European vineyards in the nineteenth century. Keep an eye open for fresh, rasping reds from the Ramisco grape.

Immediately to the south of Lisbon, the Setúbal Peninsula produces a huge range of red, white and fortified wines.  Reds from the Castelão grape (sometimes known as ‘Periquita’) grown in predominantly sandy soils, have a vibrancy and immediacy about them making them good to drink with spicy beef or pork. A tiny quantity of Moscatel grown on the footslopes of the Serra de Arrábida produces one of Portugal’s most luscious sweet wines (Moscatel de Setúbal) which gains wonderful concentration of flavour with age in cask.

The Alentejo east and south of Lisbon is Portugal’s ‘new world’ of wine. Stretching form the Tagus to the Algarve and reflecting the heat of the southern plains, the region is capable of making big, juicy reds and subtropical whites.  High altitude wines from the Portalegre region in the north tend to show more freshness and finesse. It is here where I chose to plant my own vineyard!

While basking on the beach don’t ignore the small quantity of wine made in the hinterland of the Algarve coast.  The hills inland have long been good fruit growing country and the region is proving itself well suited to making fruit-driven reds and whites.

Finally, offshore is the island of Madeira which has long been a holiday destination in its own right.  The volcanic soils and subtropical climate produce one of the world’s longest lived and most captivating of wines. Fortified wines labeled ‘Sercial’, ‘Verdelho’, ‘Bual’ and ‘Malmsey’ are progressively rich in style and cover the entire spectrum from aperitif to desert.  I can think of nothing more civilized than a mid-morning glass of madeira with a slice of fruit cake, or perhaps with a pastel de nata whilst holidaying in the Algarve!

richardMaysonRichard Mayson is the award-winning author of a number of books about Portuguese wines, including Port and the Douro (published by Infinite Ideas).  He produces a red wine called Pedra Basta in the Alto Alentejo.  In 2014 Richard was named ‘Louis Roederer International Wine Feature Writer of the Year’.