The Wine Blog

Pour Portugal!

October 28, 2013


by: Amy Ullman

Pour Portugal, Europe’s best kept secret! Portuguese wine boasts a broad range of wines from sparkling Espumante and refreshingly delicate whites to rich robust whites and complex fortified options. Often overshadowed on the Iberian Peninsula by the glamour of Spain, and France’s prestige in the North, Portugal is a completely underrated in the wine market . Consumers often forget that Portugal has so much more to offer than velvety, sweet varieties. So don’t let another moment pass without trying some of what Portugal’s got to offer. Read on for six great varieties that are worth seeking out and trying now.

Late Bottle Vintage (LBV) Port


The first wine that often comes to mind when mentioning Portugal is the aptly named Port, a rich, heavy and fortified wine that is up to 20% alcohol. A little history: this wine was born out of necessity when England imposed a ban on French wine imports in the 18th century. Seeking solace from their sobriety  a group of wine lovers luckily found an alternative to their beloved Burgundies in the wines of Portugal’s Douro region. Unfortunately, these robust reds would often become baked during their long journey down the Douro River and across the English channel. In order to avoid this injustice to good wine, exporters “fortified” barrels of Portuguese table wine with a neutral grape spirit, known as aguardiente, prior to the end of fermentation. The result of this was, wines that are higher in alcohol and residual sugar than typical table wines. Enter Port.

There are a plethora of port styles, and doing justice to each of them would require an entire article. But let’s just keep things simple. If you haven’t done so already, definitely give a Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) port a whirl. They are just as drinkable as their Ruby brethren-teaming with bushels of berry fruit, and indeed, they’re much more complex owing to 4-6 years of aging in the barrel. And unlike their posh older brother Vintage port, these wines are made for drinking immediately rather than cellaring for 20 years. The best of both worlds… and did we mentions they are awesome with chocolate desserts.

Vinho Verde: The Summertime sip that stuns year round!


Vinho Verde translates to “green wine,” from Portuguese. This moniker derives not from the color of the Alvarinho, Loureiro or Arinto grapes from which this wine is made (Vinho Verde can in fact be rose or red as well), nor is it from their home in the lush green landscape of Northern Portugal (although yes, that is a really good guess). These wines are labeled “green” as in young, meaning, to be consumed within a year of bottling.

We will never forget our first sip: crisp, clean, refreshing, slightly petulant with just a hint of lime peel citrus. This is the kind of wine that screams summer, the beverage to reach for when it is almost too hot to reach at all.

We know what you’re thinking: “But why are you telling us about this when it’s almost November?”

Because, dear Drync-ers, wine like this has a place at your table year round! Decanter magazine named Vinho Verde the sexiest wine region in 2011. The entry level Vinho Verdes are generally under $10 a bottle and going north of that yields a stellar return on investment. Moreover, this is the perfect seafood wine, regardless of the weather outside. Each sip provides the perfect squeeze of citrus that complements whichever fish dish you are cooking up.

Espumante: We Got Bubbles


Although somewhat difficult to find in this country, Espumantes (pronounced Esh-pu-man-tay- a pronunciation that makes it difficult to tell if you have had too much of it….just kidding!) are well worth seeking out. Unlike many sparklers in the old world, Espumantes can be made using almost any method. And although they can also be made anywhere in the country the finest come from the following regions:

Douro (home of the majority of Port producers), Ribatejo, Minho (home of Vinho Verde), Alentejo, and Estremadura.

Yet, Portugal’s premier bubbly wines hail from Bairrada, where only the traditional or Champagne method of production is permissible. These wines are made using local grape varieties, such as the fragrant Fernão Pires, the steely trio Arinto, Bical and Cercial, or the super tannic red Baga grape.

Douro: The Birthplace of Port (that produces killer reds)


There is a reason that the English decided that the wines of the Douro were worthy of exporting in a French wine loving market. With it’s mountainous terrain, schist soils, proximity to the Douro river, and wide variety of grapes and old vines, this region was made to produce great wine. There are also a number of things that distinguish the Douro from most wine producing regions.

Some of these factoids you might not know (but do now!):

1) Much like their Port brethren, Douro DOC wines are blends of any number of grape varieties. This blending tradition is so pervasive that grapes are even mixed within the vineyards themselves.

2) Planning a vacation anytime soon? Include this on the itinerary: The Douro became a UNESCO heritage site in 2001.

Regarding the taste of the wines themselves, imagine the robust earthiness of Ribero Del Duero crossed with Bordelaise elegance. Beautiful wines at a great price. Enjoy it while you can folks – just across the Spanish border lies the cult wine producer, Vega Sicilia, and it’s just a matter of time before some producer or another taps into this region’s commercial potential by planting an international variety or two. In the meantime, enjoy the price point while you can.

Maderia: Portugal’s Unsung Fortified


True, the semi-tropical isle of Madeira is a far cry from the typical terroir of Portugal, but their wines deserve a shout-out in this list nevertheless. If only as a brilliant counterpoint to the typical heft of Port wines.  What makes these wines unique is the naturally high acidity of the grapes in this region and the Estufagem production process, which literally cooks the wine during the aging process. Once again, we know what you are thinking: “Why on earth would anyone want to cook their wines? Don’t retailers and restaurants take all pains to keep wine at a constant temperature?” While, yes this is true, the modern style of  Madeira was born out of long, hot sea voyages across the Atlantic. Much like Port and even India Pale Ales, this modern style is derived from somewhat primitive preservative measures.

Which Madeira will you select to grace your table this week? Don’t fret, only a handful of indigenous white grapes thrive in this hot and humid climate, so selection is a cinch:

Sercial wines are dry, crisp, and almondy, with a faint traces of citrus. A smokier take on a Fino sherry. This is the kind of aperitif that is killer with olives and almonds.

Verdelhos tend to be a shade richer, darker smokier and sweeter, closer to an Amontillado sherry. These also go well with almonds and olives, but to maximize tasting enjoyment, get smoked almonds, olives black and throw on some charcuterie.

Bual wines are made from the Boal grape. These wines bring us squarely into dessert territory. Pair it with any kind of nut tart or caramelized fruit desert (Bananas Foster anyone?)

Malmsey wines are the deepest, richest and sweetest of them all. The high-toned acidity, and bitter espresso flavors cut through the aromas of brown sugar and caramel.

So there you have it, an assortment of Portuguese wines that will take you from aperitif all the way through to dessert. Did we miss your favorites? Is there a classic pairing that deserves a shout-out? Let us know in the comments below.


Amy_Ulllman_e1374835166279Writer Amy Ullman is the irrationally exuberant founder of Wine for Rookies. She received a Bachelor of Liberal Arts from Harvard University in 2009 with concentrations in Economics and French. She holds the title of Certified Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers, a Certified Specialist of Wine through the Society of Wine Educators, and is currently working on her Diploma of Wine and Spirits via the Wine and Spirits Education Trust.