Portugal Winemaking — Varieties, Regions, Traditions
Author: Vasily Prytkov
Portugal is located on the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Europe with an area slightly exceeding 92,000 km2. A country of stunning beauty, it offers visitors a truly unforgettable experience. From the Algarve beaches in the south to the picturesque mountains of Vinho Verde in the north, this is a country of contrasts. Between them lie emerald valleys, hilly plains and cork oak groves that provide the whole wine world with high quality corks.
In the east of the country, the climate is dry and continental, while the west has a milder climate and more greenery, which is especially lush in the northeast. Today, the entire country is interconnected by a network of new roads that serve as a sign of the rapid development period the country experienced in the late 1980’s.
Now ancient buildings stand adjacent to large modern construction projects, and age-old traditions co-exist with the newest technological innovations. But still it is tradition that lies at the very heart of Portugal. Family gatherings are frequent, especially for dinners, in particular at Christmas. Friends celebrate life together, go dancing, listen to fado music, and pass the time in street cafes and traditional restaurants, which regardless of their class, always strive to offer delicious food and amazing local wines.
Traditional cuisine and wine are fundamental values here. Without taking certain modern restaurants into account, visitors can expect huge portions of local dishes, seasonal game, an abundance of fish and seafood, the beloved Bacalhau cod, plenty of bread, and local rice and potatoes. Dessert is a must, and it might seem like Portugal has 1,001 combinations of yolk and sugar.
Meals are always accompanied by wine, and always different depending on the dish and event. They accentuate and help open up new tastes, making each meal unforgettable. Portuguese winemakers are only conservative about their fidelity to grape varieties. But this comes as no surprise, asthey are so unique and diverse.
Portugal’s wine revolution
As for quality, no one here rests solely on the laurels of tradition. Twenty-five years of investment, education and learning new approaches has led to drastic changes in winemaking. Today, the choice of Portuguese wines has increased considerably. Alongside cooperatives and big companies, there are also lots of wineries making their own wines good enough to consistently conquer new markets. It is no surprise that Jancis Robinson, the enologist to the British Queen, calls Portuguese wines the world’s best!
Thanks to considerable investments and subsidies from the EU in the 1990’s, vineyards and wineries saw an influx of funds leading to an impressive increase in wine quality. Many private wineries began to construct facilities to produce and bottle their own wine instead of just selling their grapes or wines to cooperatives or big winemakers as before.
Over the centuries, sons would follow in their fathers’ footsteps and run the family wine business, thus preserving family traditions. Nowadays, new generations of winemakers are still in the family business and make use of their ancestors’ experience. The only difference is that these new winemakers are highly-qualified specialists with a new professional status on the domestic wine market.
Higher education institutes in Lisbon (Instituto Superior de Agronomia, ISA) and in Lisbon and Vila Real (Universidade de Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro, UTAD) are responsible for training this new generation of specialists. They have managed to change the mentality and introduce new methods and technologies across the country, thus accelerating the modernization of traditional and even contributing to the development of new winemaking regions. This new generation of winegrowers and winemakers considers themselves the keepers of a precious and unique national treasure: the rich diversity of autochthonous grape varieties that make Portuguese wines so special.
Portuguese winemakers were the first in Europe to consider the issues of wine quality standardization and the demarcation of areas where wines of a specified region of origin are produced. In 1756, Douro Valley, home of the famous Port wines, became the world’s first demarcated wine region with a specified border and production technology.
Today, Douro Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site recognizing the long winemaking history of the region and the outstanding natural beauty of its landscapes. In the late 20th century, Douro Valley and other regions were reorganized with support from the World Bank, and a new appellation system was introduced for regional and high-quality wines.
Portuguese wines are certified in three categories:
- DOC (or DOP)
- Vinho Regional (IG, IGP, VR)
DOC (DOP) is the «noblest» of the wine categories. Two terms are currently used: traditional local DOC (Denominacao de Origem Controlada—Controlled Designation of Origin) and new DOP (Denominacao de Origem Protegida—Protected Designation of Origin), both of which are equal.
Each of the 31 DOC regions have strictly defined geographical borders. DOC standards regulate the maximum yield, recommended and approved varieties, and other parameters. All DOC wines are officially tasted by authorizing commissions to ensure consumers get a product of guaranteed quality.
Vinho Regional (IG, IGP, VR). Traditionally, this category was called VR (Vinho Regional—Regional Wines), but modern EU standards have now also introduced the name IG (Indicação Geográfica—Geographical Indication) or IGP (Indicação Geográfica Protegida—Protected Geographical Indication). In the majority of Portuguese regions, the old VR name is still used today, but these categories are nonetheless equivalent.
Portugal is divided into 14 regional wine areas. Vinho Regional production rules are a bit laxer than DOC. The VR category includes numerous prestigious and excellent Portuguese wines. The main reason is that producers sometimes opt to use varieties (mostly international) not permitted for the DOC category, or use them in different proportions and combinations. Looser standards give winemakers more space for creativity, although VR wines must meet certain criteria regarding grape varieties, minimum alcohol content, etc.
Vinho is the category for the simplest table wines of Portugal, not restricted by the quality rules regulating senior categories. This category is often favored by winemakers who work outside the official rules and deliberately classify their product as table wine.
Winemaking traditions span the entire country, from the hilly region of Vinho Verde in the north, to the resort region of Algarve in the south, where vineyards were planted 4,000 years ago. Each of these regions has plenty of local varieties that make up their special national wine culture legacy.
Unique winemaking traditions can also be found on the archipelago of Madeira and the Azores. For example, in the Azores, grapes are grown in stone beds carved in rock. The roots of vines take hold in the stony soil, while the low stone walls create a natural windshield. Vineyards in the Azores have been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO together with the Douro Valley terroir, where the world-famous Port wines are made.
Every region excels in what makes it special and the varieties it uses, so it is hard to pick just one. But if we must choose the most significant and typical regions of Portugal, we cannot ignore Vinho Verde, Porto and Douro, the Dão river valley, Lisboa region, Setúbal Peninsula, Alentejo with its wide open spaces, and Madeira Island. In this issue of Code de Vino, we tell the story of each of these regions, be it about a special local technology, or a producer whose work we found especially captivating.
Now let’s turn to the wine regions of Portugal and their DOC and VR subregions.
Vinho Verde. Vinho Regional (VR): Minho. DOC: Vinho Verde.
This region is considered the birthplace of fresh white wines, but it also produces red ones that are no less worthy. The leading manufacturers of the region include Vercoope, Guapos, Caves de Montanha, Quinta de Curvos, Quintas do Homem and Casal de Ventosela. The amazing winery João Portugal Ramos also calls this area home.
Trás-os-Montes. VR: Transmontano. DOC: Trás-os-Montes.
A mountainous region to the west of Vinho Verde. Its granite and limestone soil create striking white wines from such rare varieties as Côdega de Larinho and Síria. Noteworthy producers: Quinta de Sobreíro, Valle Pradinhos, Quinta de Arcossó.
Porto e Douro. VR: Duriense. DOC: Douro, Porto.
A legendary region in the Port wine world. Trying to sum up this area in a few words is like boiling down War And Peace to the same length. This issue of Code de Vino features an entire separate article on this region and its famous wines. The only fact we’ll mention here is that the region is globally acknowledged today as the birthplace of excellent dry wines. Noteworthy producers in this respect: Secret Spot Wines, Symington, Quinta do Portal, Quevedo, Quinta da Sequeira, Dona Matilde, Quinta da Pacheca, Quinta de Curvos, Quinta do Cume, Quinta do Infantado.
Távora e Varosa. VR: Terras de Cister. DOC: Tavora-Varosa.
A small mountainous region bordering Douro Valley to the north and the Dão region to the south. Great material for sparkling wines grows in its granite and limestone soil with a continental climate known for its extreme temperature variations. This region was the first in Portugal to be certified for the production of sparkling wines. The best producers of such wines: Murganheira, Raposeira.
Dão e Lafões. VR: Terras do Dão. DOC: Lafões, Dão.
The Dão Valley is a unique terroir surrounded by mountains. Grapes here ripen slowly and uniformly, and the wines have a good acidity and elegant aromatics. It features poor granite soil, and the region was severely damaged by the 2017 fires, where forest farms were most seriously affected. Leading producers in the region: Boas Quintas, Quinta do Covão, Soito Wines, Magnum. The mountainous Lafões is a miniature version of Vinho Verde. White wines, which are best when they are young, prevail here.
Bairrada. VR: Beira Atlãntico. DOC: Bairrada.
A region to the west of the Dão Valley on the Atlantic side. With clay and limestone soil, partially sand, the main variety of the region—Baga—is often used to make monovarietal wines, a rare find in Portugal.
Bairrada winemaking was made famous in 1137 by the first King of Portugal, Alfonso I, when he ordered to plant vineyards along the public road and give part of the wine away to the people. Locals wines were also very popular in Brazil in colonial times. Local sparkling wines have also become popular in recent years. Adega de Cantanhede presents a wide range of wines of various styles.
Beira Interior. VR: Terras da Beira. DOC: Beira Interior.
This central region of Portugal on the border with Spain has been a winemaking center since Roman times. It is the region of Medieval fortress cities and ancient villas. Winemaking used to be such a crucial part of the local economy that in the 15th century, people attempted to introduce the first legal regulations to help protect production.
Its climate is continental, with hot summers and colder and longer winters compared to the Atlantic coast. Local red wines from the Bastardo, Marufo, Rufete, Tinta Roriz and Touriga Nacional varieties show excellent aging potential. Local producers Carlos Almeida Gama, Cobelcos and Horta de Gonçalparesare most deserving of mention.
Lisboa. VR: Lisboa. DOC: Encostas de Aire, Óbidos, Alenquer, Arruda, Torres Vedras, Lourinhã, Bucelas, Carcavelos, Colares.
Since ancient times, the capital region has been the center of the country’s winemaking culture. The climate here is determined by its close proximity to the Atlantic. This region has more subregional wine traditions protected by DOC than anywhere else. Wines of the Bucelas subregion are well known outside Portugal. In England, local white wines became popular in the 16th century. A number of top wineries of the region are located in the subregion of DOC Alenquer. DFJ Vinho is of particular note, in part for its charity and education projects. Bacalhôa, Adega Azueira, Encosta da Vila, Jose Repolho and Quinta da Casaboa also deserve mention
Tejo. VR: Tejo. DOC: do Tejo
The Tejo River Valley in central Portugal is one of the country’s oldest wine regions. Time seems to move slower here, with a marvelous atmosphere formed by numerous vineyards, olive groves, Medieval villages on hilltops, Roman-era ruins and ancient monasteries.
The terroir is characterized by limestone and clayish soil types. In the northern part of the region, soil contains shale deposits encouraging deep rooting. Noteworthy producers: Quinta da Ribeirinha, Quinta da Lapa, Quinta da Alorna.
Península de Setubal. VR: Península de Setubal. DOC: Palmela, Setubal (same borders, different types of wine).
Legend has it that the history of Setubal Peninsula winemaking dates back as far as Phoenician times, 600 BC. It is the birthplace of famous muscatels and also a region of noteworthy red wines. This issue of Code de Vino has two articles on wines from this region. The following producers deserve your attention: José Maria da Fonseca, Adega Cooperativa de Palmela (a cooperative of 300 small wineries), Adega Camolas, Malo Tojo, Quinta do Piloto, Xavier Santana.
Alentejo. VR: Alentejano. DOC: Alentejo.
A vast region in southern Portugal where cork oaks grow. Soils here vary widely in type, including shale, pink marble, granite, and limestone often found on a sublayer of clay to help retain water.
Local winemaking culture combines conservative traditions, such as wine aging in clay amphoras, with a considerable number of innovations. Red international grape varieties of the VR Alentejano category are quite popular here. Among white wines, we should mention Antão Vaz, which provides good acidity and fruity notes. Leading producers in the region: João Portugal Ramos, Casa Relvas, Paço do Conde, Altas Quintas, Wines by Ncampelo, HMR, Coelheiros, Herdade de Malhadinha Nova.
Algarve. VR: Algarve. DOC: Lagos, Portimao, Lagoa, Tavira.
With a mild and sunny Mediterranean climate in the most southern continental region of Portugal, Algarve is a stunning place not only for tourism, but also vineyards. The region stretches 20–30 km to the north from the coast where it borders Alentejo. It features various types of soil, including sandy, clay and limestone, with rare spots of shale on the mountain slopes in the north. Castelão and Negra Mole are the main red grape varieties. English singer Cliff Richard, who owns Vida Nova vineyards, is the winemaking ambassador of the region. Other producers include Quinta do Barranco Longo, Paxá and Quinta dos Vales.
Madeira Island. VR: Terras Madeirenses. DOC: Madeira, Madeirense (same borders, different types of wine).
Madeira is an Atlantic archipelago and technically a part of the African zone. Madeira is world-famous for its white fortified wine, which is the topic of its own separate article in this issue of Code de Vino. The Henrique&Henriques, Blandy’s, Sogrape Vinhos, D’Oliveira, Barbeito and Justino’s local winemakers stand out the most.
The Azores (Açores). VR: Açores. DOC: Graciosa, Biscoitos, Pico (various islands in the archipelago).
The unique terroir of this Atlantic archipelago is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The archipelago is located far out in the sea, approximately one-third of the way from Lisbon to New York. Its volcanic soil and location determine the terroir’s special character. The volcanic rock where the vines grow serves as protection from the wind and also keeps them warm at night. Wines from this archipelago are a true rarity. The most notable local producer is Azores Wine Company, who make an excellent red Tinto Vulcanico.
Autochthonous grape varieties
Perhaps only Georgia can compete with Portugal in its range of local grape varieties. The latter has over 250 identified and systematized autochthonous varieties! And this number continues to grow thanks to new scientific research. This expansive palette of varieties was introduced to Portugal in the course of its long and exciting winemaking history, with roots dating back to the Bronze Age, according to archaeologists. The ancient Tartessians, Phoenicians, Celtiberians and Romans all left marks of their wine culture here.
The ancient period was then followed by centuries of isolation when the peninsula was conquered by the Muslim Moors, thus bringing an end to the further exchange of grape varieties with other winemaking countries. Although the Moors introduced numerous new technologies in the country (including irrigation systems), winemaking was banned and many ancient vineyards were left unattended.
Some varieties grew on their own for decades, undergoing various changes and mutations. During the Reconquista when all new lands south of the Douro river were captured by Christians, it turned out that in many new grape varieties had appeared, some with common origins, while one and the same grape might look completely different in various regions. Even Italy fails to surpass Portugal in the slight genetic differences in a single variety.
National varieties add a unique aroma and flavor to Portuguese wines, giving them a distinct character which helps them stand out among similar wines produced in dozens of other countries all over the world. This diversity is now a topic of thorough scientific research, while in the past it was simply the foundation of Portugal’s unique wine culture. Therefore, Portuguese winemakers are focused on a search for the subtle nuances of taste and flavor of their own grape varieties.
The range of varieties with their own vibrant individuality is stunning, including Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Trincadeira, Aragonez, Baga, Castelão, Alvarinho, Arinto, Fernão Pires, Encruzado and many others that make Portuguese wines so special. The list of Portuguese varieties contains some quite exotic names, namely Esgana Cão (Dog Strangler), Amor-não-me-deixes (Don’t Leave Me, My Love), Carrega Burros (Donkey Loader), Pe Comprido (Long Leg) and others.
While the majority of global wine regions focus on Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, in Portugal, wine lovers have the chance to enjoy a genuinely impressive variety of tastes. Indigenous Portuguese grapes are a national treasure. They have been appreciated and enjoyed by many generations of Portuguese wine fans. Here is a modest list of the best and most common varieties:
Fernão Pires. Fernão Pires (or Maria Gomes) is used for making light, fruity, fragrant white wines with a taste similar to Muscat. It is the most widespread white grape variety in Portugal and cultivated throughout the country, especially along the west coast, including the subregions of Setubal (DOC Setúbal), Teju (DOC do Teju) and Bairrada (DOC Bairrada).
Its citrus and floral aromas are freshest and most pronounced when the grape is harvested early and the wine is drunk young. This variety is also used for sparkling wines, and sometimes can be harvested later to make sweet wines.
Alvarinho. Alvarinho is used for making rich, mineral white wines with a strong character and predominant peach and citrus notes, and sometimes tropical fruit and floral notes as well. This grape variety grows in abundance in the northern part of Vinho Verde on the border with Spain.
Alvarinho wines have a denser body and higher alcohol content than the majority of Vinho Verde wines and are often bottled as monovarietal wines (in which case the variety is specified on the label). These wines are very delicious right after bottling, but have aging potential as well. Winegrowers in other regions of Portugal acknowledge the quality of Alvarinho, and this variety is gradually spreading to the south (Setubal and Lisboa regions).
Arinto. One of the oldest autochthonous varieties in Portugal, Arinto is used to make elegant mineral white wines with predominant notes of apple and lemon. Arinto is the main grape of the famous elegant wines of the DOC Bucelas subregion in the Lisboa region. Arinto is a late-ripening variety, and is most well known for maintaining its pronounced freshness even in hot weather. It comes as no surprise that it grows in the majority of the country’s regions, especially such hot areas as Alentejo, to balance the lack of acidity.
Arinto often adds fresh elegance to the blends of other white grapes. It is also successfully cultivated in the chilly Vinho Verde region, where it is known as Padernã. Arinto wines age well in bottles, enriching their elegance and complexity. Its naturally high acidity is also excellent for making sparkling wines.
Encruzado. Encruzado is used to make elegant, well-balanced, full-bodied wines with delicate floral and citrus aromas, sometimes with an appealing minerality. These wines are deliciously pure without oak aging, but Encruzado also reacts well to fermentation or oak aging, producing serious, refined, well-structured wines that can age and gain complexity over many years.
You will most likely run across this variety in the Dão region (DOC Dão) in northern Portugal in monovarietal wines or blends, which are among the most interesting wines Portugal has to offer. Even in the hottest weather conditions at vineyards, Encruzado preserves its fresh acidity and fully ripens without becoming overly sweet.
Touriga Nacional. Arguably the most famous red grape variety of Portugal. It is used to make full-bodied, deep-colored wines with complex aromas and flavors reminiscent of violet, licorice, ripe blackcurrant and raspberry tones, as well as a delicate herbal note of bergamot. This is a northern variety by origin used frequently in Douro Valley for making Port wines, but now also grows all over Portugal. Wines from Touriga Nacional have excellent bottle-aging potential.
Baga. A late-ripening variety often used for light, tannic red wines, which can be tart when young, but with age gain complexity. In hotter years or with proper cultivation and the touch of a skilled winegrower, Baga red wines can be rich and thick, with cherry and prune notes that develop in the bottle. Thanks to aging, these wines can also reach milder but more complex tones of herbs, malt, cedar and tobacco leaf. Baga is the main variety of the Bairrada region (DOC Bairrada) to the south of Vinho Verde, but also grows further to the east in the Beira Interior (DOC Beira Interior) and Dão (DOC Dão) regions. It is also used as a foundation in sparkling wine blends.
Castelão. The most popular red variety of southern Portugal is used for making elegant wines with a raspberry and fruity flavor which further develops into cedar and cigar box tones. Wines from this variety suit anyone who likes the style of Italian Barbera wines, ripe Cabernet Franc, or full-bodied Tempranillo from Rioja. Castelão easily adapts to any climate and its outstanding versatility allows winemakers to use it for various signature wines, from easy-drinking red and rosé, to powerful and rich red wines intended for a long stay in cellars.
The best Castelão grapes grow in the Palmela region on Setubal Peninsula south of Lisbon (DOC Palmela). This area is sometimes called Periquita, although José Maria da Fonseca is the legal owner of this name.
Tinta Roriz. This variety is also known as Aragonez and Tempranillo. It is an undisputed Iberian (Pyrenian) classic and an old local variety. The Tinta Roriz name is common in northern Portugal. It is a main grape for Port and Douro wines, and is also important for the Dão region (DOC Dão). In Alentejo, it is called Aragonez and is usually used in blends with Trincadeira.
Tinta Roriz is used to produce refined and elegant wines with delicate and fine aromas of pepper, plum and blackberry with strong tannins to ensure excellent aging potential. In good years, wines from this variety are very aromatic, full-bodied and deep-colored.
Touriga Franca. Winemakers like Touriga Franca because it is resilient, easy to cultivate and produces steadily high yields. Touriga Franca wines have a bright ruby red color, are full-bodied and have delicate, yet rich floral aromas with blackberry notes.
It is one of the five officially recommended varieties for making Port wines, and is also used in dry wine blends in Douro. Relatively recently, cultivation of this variety began in the Alentejo, Tejo and Beira regions, and the regions near Lisbon. Despite its strength as a variety for blending, it can also make excellent monovarietal wines appreciated by all who adore Malbec, Merlot blends, or milder variants of Zinfandel.
Trincadeira. This is one of the most widely spread Portuguese varieties, but best develops its qualities in hot, dry and very sunny regions, which makes it perfect for Alentejo. It is quite difficult to grow, as it produces irregular yields and is highly prone to diseases. But in most years, Trincadeira wines are elegant with pronounced raspberry, prune, blackberry jam, spice, pepper and herbal flavors, a very fresh acidity and mild tannins. In the Douro region, this grape is also known as Tinta Amarela. It is perfect for fans of Carignan, Grenache or Dolcetto wines.
The art of blending
We have been focusing entirely on individual Portuguese varieties, but the winemaking tradition of Portugal is in fact based mostly on a combination of varieties rather than the production of monovarietal wines. With few exceptions, the strength of Portuguese wines lies in the art of making a final blend from two, three, four and sometimes dozens of different varieties. Wines from these grapes are unique, unlike the global mainstream trend of producing standard fruity wines from «international» grape varieties of French origin.
In some regions, winemakers can blend up to twenty different varieties to reach the needed balance. Some varieties add delicate fruity flavors, while others imbue the wine with ripe notes, accentuate freshness, and add more body and roundness to the aftertaste. Thus, the unique Portuguese style is formed, where the whole is bigger and better than the sum of its individual components.
This tradition has since seen its fair share of innovations. In the past, the composition of a final blend was often defined by the varieties of grapes grown in the vineyards (often mixed). But now, progress in winegrowing and the systematization of vineyards allows to estimate the quality of each variety separately during the vinification process and consciously craft a final blend, allowing the winemaker to develop the art of blending in comfortable laboratory conditions.
With such a huge range of available options, there is no issue finding a Portugal wine for any day or holiday, or to slowly sip on its own or accompany any dish, from appetizers to desserts. There are many examples of successful combinations, including the Arinto/Fernão Pires blend in the white wine category, which is now a classic in such regions as Bairrada, Beira, Lisbon and Tejo.
We should also mention the combination of Trincadeira/Aragonez typical for Alentejo. The first variety adds a depth of color, floral notes and a high aging potential, while Aragonez contributes red fruity flavors, notes of spice and an elegant finish.
We can also mention another reputable blend typical for Douro: Touriga Nacional (for floral violet notes, good balance and aging potential) and Touriga Franca (full of color, fruity flavors and well-pronounced tannins). Wines from this blend are full-bodied but elegant, such as the famous Barca Velha and other premium wines of the Douro Valley.
Portuguese varieties can also be blended with international types. While the former add structure and character to a blend, the latter almost always «spice up» the wines, creating notes which make the taste more complex. Blends such as Arinto/Chardonnay, Aragonez/Cabernet Sauvignon or Touriga Nacional/Syrah are often used in wines which are drunk young and are good for informal events.
Traditional blends by region
Vinho Verde Loureiro and Trajadura are a classic combination of two white varieties, where the structure and crispiness of Loureiro are softened by more delicate notes of Trajadura. An excellent wine for serving with light appetizers or as an aperitif.
Douro Valley. Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz and Touriga Nacional combine well in the Douro Valley. Touriga Franca adds rich, refined aromas, Tinta Roriz (Aragonez in Alentejo) gives the wine an aromatic structure and strength, while Touriga Nacional makes it more defined, suitable for different occasions and adds floral notes that go well with the wild red fruit flavors of the other two grapes.
Bairrada (DOC Bairrada). Sercial and Bical are two white varieties often used in quiet and sparkling white wines. Sercial is known for its delicate aromas and crisp acidity, while Bical has a richer aroma, making this a delightful blend.
Dão. Touriga Nacional, Alfrocheiro, and Jaen. These three varieties are the foundation of the Dão red grape legacy. Touriga Nacional needs no introduction, while Alfrocheiro has a rich color and is well balanced, accentuating the milder and more aromatic Jaen.
Lisboa and Tejo. Lisboa and Tejo are two regions that never fail to show the right way to combine the strength of Portuguese varieties with the acknowledged qualities of international grapes, including Arinto and Chardonnay, Touriga Nacional and Shiraz (Syrah). In the first case, the acidity and minerality of Arinto mixes well with Chardonnay’s body. In the second pair, Touriga Nacional adds structure and a depth of flavor which soften the rich notes of black pepper in Shiraz.
Setubal Peninsula (Peninsula de Setúbal)—Castelão and Touriga Nacional. Along with being the most famous Portuguese region thanks to its famous fortified muscatel wines, the Setubal Peninsula is also home to another signature variety used to make wines with excellent aging potential (comparable to those produced from the Baga grape in Bairrada). The «harshness» of Castelão can be softened by the balance and floral aroma of Touriga Nacional.
Alentejo and Algarve. Aragonez, Trincadeira, and Alicante Bouschet are the trio most often used for Alentejo red blends. Alicante Bouschet, a variety of French origin, found its second home in Alentejo, which is now the main terroir for this grape in Portugal. The grape is used to make wines with a concentrated color and structure, and good aging potential. Aragonez wines are full-bodied yet elegant, while Trincadeira adds floral notes and acidity. When skilfully blended, these varieties reveal in one another their best qualities. The most southern wine region of Algarvi followed the example of Alentejo and now also produces such blends.
The archipelago of Madeira and the Azores (Madeira, Açores) — Malvasia Fina and Verdelho. Verdelho is a white grape variety used in the best Madeira wines. It is also the main variety in the amazing vineyards of the Azores, which are so unique they have even been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The vines grow in special reservoirs called «curraais» carved directly in the volcanic rock. This grape makes incredibly aromatic and well-balanced wines. The addition of Malvasia Fina makes this traditional blend of Madeira and Azores moderately crisp and more rounded.
If you ever find yourself standing in front of a wine rack or studying a wine menu offering a choice of Portuguese wines, here are several simple tips on food pairings.
Acidity. Pick a crisp, white wine with high acidity if your dish is highly acidic as well, for example, salads with an acidic dressing, vinegar, tomatoes, lemon sauces or capers. A milder wine will be too weak against such bold flavors. White wines from northern Portugal will make a good pairing here: Vinho Verde, Dão, Bairrada, Beira Interior, Beira Atlântico, Lafões, Terras da Beira, Terras de Cister, Terras do Dão, Minho, or from the cool areas of the Lisboa winemaking region (Lisboa VR)—Bucelas (Bucelas DOC) or Obidos (Óbidos DOC). The high acidity of sparkling wines is also a good pairing with this type of food.
Sweet. A delicious dish with moderate sweetness (perhaps from vegetables, fruit or a small amount of honey) matches well with wines with a note of sweetness or rich fruity character. Try red or rosé Vinho Verde wines. Delicate red Alentejo (including VR) with pronounced fruity flavors make a great pairing as well.
Served with dessert, dry Portuguese wine will most likely taste flat. This is the ideal time for a glass of dessert (vinho doce) or fortified (licoroso) wine: sweet Muscatel from Setubal, famous Port wine or Madeira. Muscatel is an excellent pairing for many desserts, especially if they contain almonds, chocolate, coffee or citrus peel.
Try LBV Port wine with coffee cake or chocolate mousse. Madeira goes well with the local bolo de mel pie, tropical fruits, and desserts with nuts or milk chocolate.
Bitter. Red wines with strong tannins are tough to pair with food. Some ingredients can even accentuate the bitterness of tannins, such as egg yolks, cream, melted cheese, spinach, celery, dill and many spices. With these flavors, white or rosé wines are a better choice.
Refined, expensive red wines can be very tannic when young, but they become smoother with aging. Among Portuguese wines, the most tannic are the classic red wines of Barraida and Douro, which make a delightful pairing with cheeses, game, roast meat and other dishes with rich sauces.
As for meat (without which Portuguese cuisine is hard to even imagine), smoother and lighter red wines can be paired with white meat and the simplest red meat dishes. Powerful and tannic red wine might overpower the taste of these moderate dishes. Try smooth red Alentejo, light and easy-drinking red Ribatejo (Ribatejo DOC), elegant Palmela (Palmela DOC), Algarve (Algarve DOC), or Alenquer (Alenquer DOC), light red from the Obidos region (Óbidos DOC) or good, ripe red wine from almost any other region. The fresh acidity of red Dão (Dão DOC) can cut through the richness of many such dishes.
Powerful, strong red wines from Douro, Dão, Bairrada and Alentejo can overpower delicate tastes in food. While powerful tastes can completely hide the flavor of delicate white wines. Both white and red wines aged in oak can overpower dishes with refined flavors.
Wines with pronounced aromatics. Aromatic dry wines go well with seafood and slightly spiced Asian dishes, especially Indian or Thai, except for sweet and sour food. Such wines are an excellent choice if the dish contains onion, sweet pepper or ginger. In this case, choose wines containing the aromatic variety Fernão Pires, which is predominant among the wines of the Lisboa region, and in Bairrada is known as Maria Gomes. Other aromatic wines—white Alvarinho and Loureiro (Vinho Verde), and Muscatel, which is sometimes made dry (seco) in the Setubal Peninsula.
Seafood. It is a common belief that fish and seafood are best paired with white wines. But some white fish sauces make a good companion for red wines. If the fish is cooked in red wine, the pairing becomes even better. The Portugese prefer red wine with traditional salted cod (bacalhau), octopus (polvo guisado) or calamari (lula) in red wine sauce
Red wines (especially the monovarietal Baga from Bairrada) are surprisingly good with fresh tuna, while red wines from Vinho Verde (Amaral, Alvarelhão, Espadeiro varieties) go well with grilled sardines (sardinhas assadas). But it is believed that white Portuguese wines taste best with salmon and ocean herring. As an experiment, you might try pairing swordfish (espadarte) with a dry rosé.
Pairing with cheeses. There is a great diversity of cheeses with markedly different tastes. Many cheeses do not go well with certain wines. But some wine and cheese pairings are simply divine. The best wines for cheese include, for instance, dry or sweet white, red, Port or Madeira wines.
Baga from Bairrada is excellent with soft goat cheese, just as Tawny Port is with Serra da Estrela cheese (Queijo da Serra DOC) and walnuts.
Moderate consumption principles
Wine in Moderate is an EU program supported by the Wines of Portugal (ViniPortugal) association of Portuguese winemakers. The program is designed to promote responsible and moderate wine consumption. Wine is positioned as a premium product intended to be consumed slowly and in moderation. The program is designed to educate the population about the social risk and health hazards of alcohol abuse and supports cultural changes in the approach to wine drinking, making moderate consumption trendy.
ViniPortugal’s «A Copo!» (A Glass) campaign has been supporting this program since the end of 2010. As part of this campaign, wine is presented as a product meant to be consumed daily in a healthy way, at gatherings of family and friends, during meals or to unwind, setting a new trend of moderate and responsible wine consumption.