Thursday, December 14, 2023


In these heady times, when the demand is for more wine, there are still some growers and winemakers who find it difficult not to succumb to the pressure for more Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Among the holdouts is Portugal, an important wine producer that has resisted the international clamor for more of the same. In recent years, however, the Portuguese wine industry has yielded to pressure, adding a few French grapes, like Syrah, for limited use in some areas.

Portuguese winemakers appreciate the differences between, say, a California and a French Chardonnay.  But they want wine drinkers to know that Portugal does not rely on Chardonnay or Cabernet, preferring to focus on a range of unique wines.

Touriga Nacional & Douro Vineyards 

Indigenous grapes take pride of place in Portugal, with Portuguese wineries using  native varieties to make some of the world's best fortified and still wines. Port (Porto) is a world-beating benchmark for fortified wines. And a handful of the same grapes used to make Port also forms the base of an increasing number of excellent Portuguese still wines.

As of 2013, a Portuguese trade association counted 248 indigenous varieties grown throughout the narrow country that shares the Iberian peninsula with Spain. 

That unwieldy number was whittled down in 1986 when Portugal joined the European Union. Today, wineries work with red varieties like Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (the Spanish Tempranillo), Trincadeira, Alicante Bouschet and Baga, the latter grown mainly in Bairrada, a small region near the historic city of Coimbra. 

In 1970, Port producers, Cockburn and Ramos Pinto, narrowed a group of 80 grapes, traditionally used for Port production, to the five best red grapes: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cao. Since then, a growing number of wineries throughout the country are using the five grapes, especially Touriga Nacional, for still wines.   

Here's a breakout of six of the 17 wine regions in Portugal, including the Azores and Madeira islands; the six are in order of importance to domestic and export wine markets:

Douro: Long known for Port, perhaps the world's best fortified wine, today the Douro River valley in northern Portugal, has built a solid reputation for high quality still wines at reasonable prices.  The same five grapes used to make Port --Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Franca, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cao -- are also used to make Douro still wines. 

Vinho Verde: Portugal's largest wine region, west of the Douro, is best known for aromatic white wines, based mainly on Alvarinho, the Portuguese version of Spain's Albarino.  Many of the vines in this region are still trained on high pergolas.  There is a sparkling Vinho Verde known as espumante.

Dao: More than 80% of Dao wine is red, made mainly from Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz.  White Dao wine is made from the Encruzado grape. Dao is a large area south of the Douro and Vinho Verde.

Alenjeto:  Red wines from this small region on the border with Spain rely more on Aragonez, Trincadeira and Alicante Bouschet then Touriga Nacional.  Alentejo supplies more than half of all wine corks used worldwide.

Colares: Smaller yet, this coastal region, north of Lisbon, makes small quantities of distinctive fino Sherry-like white wines, from a type of Malvasia grape and a red wine that resembles Pinot Noir.  Colares vines, planted in sandy soils, are scattered in dunes along the coast.

Algarve: Famous more as a tourist mecca than for its wines, this region, along Portugal's southern coast, makes fortified wines from Portuguese and French grapes, including Negromoll, the most planted grape in Madeira.

Traditionally, red wines from areas like Dao, were available in export.  But since the Port house of Ferreira released Barca Velha a Douro red from Port varieties in 1952, the number of Douro still wines has exploded.  

Here are just a few wineries, most using Touriga Nacional as their primary grape.  Prices are about $20-$25, with a few as high as $50.

From the Douro: Delaforce, Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas, Graham's Quinta do Vesuvio, Symington Vinha do Arco, Quinta do Noval, Mary Taylor Wines Felipe Ferreira, Quinta do Roriz, Prats & Symington Chryseia. From Alentejo and Dao: Niepoort Alentejo, Cartuxa Evora Alentejo, Casa de Passarella Dao, Quinta de Saes Dao. 

The number of non-fortified still wines from Portugal became international best sellers in the 1990s and are still good alternatives, for value and quality, to Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Next blog: Champagne & Sparkling Wine

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