Portuguese Wine Deserves Your Attention

It's one of the most traveled countries in the world, but for some reason, sommeliers are ignoring its beautifully crafted wines.
vineyard on one of Esporão's properties in Portugal
vineyard on one of Esporão’s properties in Portugal

It’s easy to get a serious case of wanderlust while reading a wine list. Bottles from famous regions within France, Italy, Spain, Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, South Africa, California, Washington State and Oregon all rest in the cellars of prestigious wine bars and restaurants, and these areas also happen to be major travel destinations. However, for some reason, sommeliers tend to overlook Portugal when it comes to building their cellars, with the exception of Port or Madeira. One rarely sees good Portuguese still wine represented on a list unless dining in a Portuguese restaurant. Why is that? The wines can be exceptional – elegant, complex and age worthy. Lisbon has made it in the top 10 best travel destinations on almost every major list for 2017, and many of the wines have won awards in blind tasting challenges. So why is the wine still so unfamiliar outside of Portugal?

It’s time Portuguese wine becomes a thing already.

Beyond Vinho Verde

OK, maybe the problem starts with Vinho Verde. Go to any wine store or read any list at a casual wine bar, and Vinho Verde – the young, crisp, quaffable and typically dirt cheap super inexpensive (sometimes under $10 for a magnum!) white wine is almost always there. It’s one of the first things people think of when they think of Portuguese wine (if they haven’t already asked if they make anything besides Port). It can be very good stuff when vinified with some finesse, but the Portuguese wine story shouldn’t end there.

vineyard in Lisboa, courtesy Wines of Portugal
vineyard in Lisboa, courtesy Wines of Portugal

If you can say “Albariño,” then you can say “Alvarinho” (not to mention “Verdelho”)

Part of the problem is that Portuguese, while quite mellifluous, is not an easy language for novices to speak. The star wine grapes of the world are popular because of their cognizability, but also because people know how to say them (even if it can sometimes be excruciating to hear them pronounced) – malbec, shiraz/syrah, cabernet, sauvignon, blanc, pinot, noir, grigio, chardonnay, nebbiolo, sangiovese, etc. However, Portuguese grapes can be a bit of a tongue twister. “I’d like a glass of alfrocheiro, please. Oh, you’re out of that? How about the trincadeira?” It’s really not that hard with a little practice, but humans are an impatient lot.

However, what’s so hard about saying “touriga nacional” (“to-reega nash-i-o-nal,” as common and accessible a red grape in Portugal as tempranillo/tinto fino is in Spain) or “baga” (pronounced just like it reads)? The popular Spanish white wine albariño wine can go for upwards of $18 a glass, but one could also sip alvarinho (same grape) from Portugal, and get something just as crisp, aromatic and zippy and save quite a few shekels. Or if one prefers a more full-bodied white wine style, like chardonnay, try verdelho, especially one that’s had some oak contact. Like the perfuminess of viognier? Try a loureira (“loo-rye-ra”) blend.

This could go on for days with the reds. Better to spend our time taking a little tour of some of Portugal’s best wine travel destinations and taste some reds along with whites, rosés and sparklings there.

Lisboa

It’s the capital as well as Portugal’s most traveled city, near some beautiful beaches. But did you know Lisbon is also a quality wine region? Perhaps not, since the wines were previously, confusingly known as Estremadura. Either way, it is home to 9 DOCs, so while taking in some sun and sightseeing, one could also visit terrific vineyards.

Pedras do Monte: DFJ Vinhos is a company that produces wines throughout Portugal, but one of its most successful is Pedras do Monte (which means “rocks of the hill”), from winemaker José Neiva Correia, made in the Peninsula de Setúbal (formerly Terras do Sado) VR. The 2014 vintage of their single variety Casteláo won gold in the 2016 NY International Wine Competition for its balance of lightness and approachability mixed with layers of earthiness and spice, similar to a Napa pinot noir.

Casa Ermelinda Freitas: Located in the Palmela DOC within Peninsula de Sétubal, the winery itself is fairly modern and plain looking from the outside, but wines are excellent. For a refreshing taste in warm weather, try Doña Ermelinda Blanco (another NYIWC 2016 gold medal winner), a blend of 30% fernão pires, 30% arinto, 20% antão vaz, 20% chardonnay. The regional grapes harmonize into ripe peach and tropical flavors, with some bright apple from the chardonnay, and a caramelized finish.

Quinto do Gradil: This fetching estate located in the foothills of Serra de Montejunto produces some top quality wines within three labels. Castelo do Sulco is its most prestigious. A fun one to try is the 2015 Colheita, a red blend made up of touriga nacional with syrah and petit verdot – which is reminiscent of an earthier style of Côtes du Rhone or a Languedoc, and perfect with roast meats and cheeses.

Dão

Barão de Vilar is another fun Dão wine that's perfect for gatherings, photo by Amanda Schuster
Barão de Vilar is another fun Dão wine that’s perfect for gatherings, photo by Amanda Schuster

This is one of the oldest established regions in the country (since 1908) and one of the best for wine tourism. The wines from here are typically blends of indigenous grapes, often several varietals in one wine to give them structure. More modern styles also contain familiar grapes like cabernet, merlot and syrah for reds and chardonnay for whites. I have personally tasted Dão red wine that was over 40 years old and it still had a ton of fruit and tannins left in it, even more so than a Bordeaux of similar maturity served at the same dinner.

Julia Kemper: Kemper inherited this family winery from her father Melo Kemper, and has catapulted its success since 2003. One of the most intriguing wines in the portfolio is the White Reserve 2011, made from a blend of malvasia fina and encruzado. It is aged in both stainless steel and oak which gives the orchard fruit and floral notes just the right amount of depth, much like a white Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Quinta de Lemos: On the plateau of the Beira Alta sits this winery known for its consistently high quality. For around $30, one can drink the 2005 “Dona Santana”, from a vintage heralded around the world as one of the best ever, especially in Europe (however purchasing one from another region could now set one back well into the high hundreds or even thousands in some cases). It’s a blend of touriga nacional, tinta roriz, jaen and alfrocheiro, with ripe, dark fruit, espresso, tobacco and some floral accents.

Bairrada

This area is Portugal’s answer to Catalonian Cava or Franciacorta sparkling wine. It is located in the western part of Beiras between the Dão and the Atlantic. With some hilly areas, much of the wine is made in the flatter plains which receive the cool mountain air from the Dão, rain and maritime influences from the nearby ocean. The main grapes grown here white, such as the aromatic Maria Gomes (sometimes also called fernão pires) as well as the dry, acidic arinto, bical and cercial. One might also see a version of blanc de noirs or rosé using the red baga grape.

Luís Pato: This is one of the leading Bairrada sparkling winemakers, using traditional methods to appeal to modern palates. The Maria Gomes is 95% of that grape with 5% sercialinho. Though it is technically non-vintage, the grapes for the latest release were harvested in 2014. This dry, flirty wine is all stainless steel aged. If one enjoys the finesse of a Txakolina from Spain but craves a bit more carbonation, this is a perfect wine to try.

Douro

The region is named for the river that twists below its high mountains, through its rugged valleys and passes along varied microclimates. It is best known for producing the fortified wines of Port, but excellent still wine has been gaining more attention from the region in the past few decades.

murcas reservaEsporão: This is one of the top wineries not only in the region, but in Portugal in general (their main location is in Alentejo, more on that later). Gold medal winners in the 2015 NYIWC, they have been making affordable wines of very high quality at the Quinta dos Murças estate, an 18th century property they purchased in 2008. I recommend these to get a sense:

  • 2012 Assobio red- made from touriga nacional, tinta roriz and touriga franca (the trifecta of star indigenous red grapes), this fruity and expressive wine named after its vineyard in Quinta dos Murças pairs beautifully with smoked meats and barbecued ribs.
  • 2011 Quinta dos Murças Reserva – made from touriga nacional, tinta roriz, touriga franca, tinta amarela, tinta barroca and sousão, it is aged 12 months in a mix of American and French oak, then 2 – 3 years in bottle before release. It has a wonderfully floral and cassis nose, with ripe red currant, honeysuckle and cedar flavors on the palate. It would be fabulous with a cheeseburger!
  • 2016 Assobio rosé – made from touriga nacional, tinto cão, tinta roriz and rufete grapes, this salmon pink wine has the tart freshness and herbal delicacy of a Provencal rosé.

José Maria da Fonseca: Though, much like Esporão, the main base of this winery is more southerly, its Douro wines are very focused. 2013 Domini Douro is a plush, velvety blend of touriga nacional, tinta roriz and touriga francesca. This is a red to sink into like a comfy sofa, with a strong tannic backbone to keep it propped up.

Alentejo

For many years, this region (the name means “beyond the Tejo river”) southeast of Lisbon within the Reguengos DOC was associated not only for beautiful beaches, but also cheap, bulk wine production. However, in the 1980s, producers like Esporão sought to elevate the region’s reputation by taking advantage of its warm climate and distinct granite, schist and clay soils to make wines with more finesse.

photo by Amanda Schuster
photo by Amanda Schuster

2016 Herdade do Esporão Verdelho – unlike many other regions, there is a trend of producing Alentejo wine as single varietals. This one features 100% of the verdelho grape, which is characterized by tropical and candied fruits with bright acidity. This all stainless steel matured wine would be a delightful change from New Zealand sauvignon blanc, as it has quite a bit more roundness of flavor but still packs that refreshing, citrus acidity people crave.

2015 Esporão Reserva White – this regional blend of arinto, roupeiro, antão vaz and semillon is aged on the lees for six months to achieve that elegant, creamy quality and depth of fruit flavor found in a good white Burgundy.

João Portugal Ramos: This is another winemaker with locations throughout the country. In Alentejo, the Vila Santa Winery produces some exquisite wines. For a lighter style of red for warmer months, the Ramos Reserva 2013 is just the ticket. Made from trincadeira, aragonez and a bit of syrah, this velvety smooth, jammy and spicy style akin to a Spanish Priorat, but far less pricey, would be fine match with a summer pasta, baked salmon and/or charcuterie.

 

These examples are just a fraction of the fine wines available throughout Portugal. Times are tough and life is short. Why are we not drinking more affordable, elegant wines that also happen to be delightful to sip? Somms, you need to get on this!

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