Besides the well-known port and Madeira, Portugal produces many excellent wines, both high-end and age worthy, as well as honest and straightforward youthful ones that you can buy inexpensively. If you’re looking to try something different, Portugal has more than 300 different native grape varieties in use, which makes for an endless procession of delicious experiments. Portuguese wines also come in a wide variety of wine styles, including sparkling, still, rosés, dessert, and fortified wines.
In 1756, the Marquês de Pombal demarcated the wine regions, geographically delineating growing areas and controlling their output and marketing; the Port-making region of Douro was the first to be demarcated with stone borders and thus, the first-ever demarcated region in the world. Today there are currently 25 Denominações de Origem Controlada or DOC (controlled origin denomination for wines whose originality and individuality is related to a certain region) and four others waiting to be upgraded, resulting in 12 general regions—Minho (DOC Vinho Verde), Transmontano, Duriense (DOC Douro/Porto), Terras do Dão, Beiras (DOC Bairrada), Lisboa (formally Estremadura, DOC Colares and Bucelas), Tejo (formally Ribatejo), Peninsula de Setúbal (formally Terras do Sado), Alentejano (DOC Alentejo), Algarve, Terras Madeirenses (Madeira), and Açores (the Azores). The official body that regulates wines production is the Instituto do Vinho e da Vinha (Institute of Wine and Vine), based in Lisbon. ViniPortugal, the Portuguese wine trade association, promotes Portuguese wines abroad and has free tasting rooms in both Lisbon and Porto.
Algarve and Alentejo
Algarve wine is largely red and is quite smooth, fruity, and full-bodied. Among the better producers are Quinta do Barranco Longo and Marques dos Vales Grace.
Alentejo wines and their producers are now among the best in Portugal—Esporão, Cortes de Cima, Malhadinha Nova, Redondo, Borba (with its lovely dark color and slightly metallic astringent flavor), Monsaraz, and Vidigueira. The reds are rich in color and ripe fruits, the whites are pale yellow, citrusy, and fruity. These wines tend to be higher in alcohol than other regions, usually between 13.5% and 14.5%, which go well with the rich Alentejo cuisine.
The Setúbal Peninsula and Moscatel de Setúbal
Wines produced on the Setúbal Peninsula are known abroad, mainly through the 150-year efforts of the house of José Maria da Fonseca, based in Azeitão. The Moscatel that Fonseca—together with the small vine growers who make up the local cooperative a few miles east of Azeitão in Palmela—produces is best known as a fortified dessert wine, aged with a mouthwatering taste of honey. If you find some that is 25 years old, you’ll see that it has developed a licorice color; enjoy its sweet scent and taste. José Maria da Fonseca produces many other wines besides the Moscatel—fine reds (notably one called Periquita, or "little parrot," made from the native Castelão grape), rosés, of which Lancers is often exported, and some clean, crisp whites, great with the local fresh seafood. Other notable producers on the peninsula include Quinta da Bacalhõa, Casa Ermelinda Freitas, and Pegões.
Bairrada and Dão
South of Porto is the coastal DOC region of Bairrada, producing some notable reds and sparkling reds, mainly from the local Baga grape. They have an intense color, with a delicious earthy nose and a smooth taste. They mellow with age and go well with stronger dishes such as game, roasts, and pungent cheeses. The sparkling reds (espumante tintos) are best with a popular local dish, leitão à Bairrada—roast baby pig served with a spicy black pepper sauce. Notable Bairrada producers are Luis Pato and Quinta do Encontro.
Much of the wine here is red and matured in oak casks for at least 18 months before being bottled. When mature, the Dão wines have a dark, reddish-brown color, a "complex" nose, and a lasting, velvety taste and go well with roast lamb and pork. Look for Quinta de Cabriz, Casa de Santar, and Vinhos Borges.
Vinho Verde (Minho)
This region to the north of Porto is Portugal’s largest demarcated region. The name vinho verde, which translates to "green wine," refers not to the wine’s color but to its youthful freshness from its particular production methods. Made from a mix of native white grapes, generally Alvarinho and Loureiro, it is gently sparkling due to its high acidity, with a delicate, fruity flavor. Vinho verde goes well with any kind of seafood and can even age well while still maintaining its sprightliness. Vinho verde also comes in full sparkling, both white and rosé and even red, which has an intense red color and flavor, while still being tart and foamy. Notable producers are Aveleda (Quinta da Aveleda, Casal Garcia, Follies), Quinta de Gomariz, Afros, and Soalheiro.
Douro and Port
DOC Douro is home to port wine and some incredible red and white table wines. Reds are usually made from a blend of the native grape, Touriga Nacional, and are of a deep ruby color, very fruity with a bit of spice and a rounded taste. They go well with richer foods, a variety of meats, casseroles, and stews well flavored with herbs. The whites are dry, have a pale-yellow color with a full nose, pairing well with salads, appetizers, and chicken dishes. Some of the most respected producers of table wines in Douro are a group of five producers called the "Douro Boys"—Quinta do Vallado, Quinta do Vale Dona Maria, Quinta do Vale Meão, Quinta do Crasto, and Nieport.
Port is a fortified wine that can only truly be labeled port if it’s produced in this region under the strict regulations designed for the area. Port can be made from up to 48 different native Portuguese grape varietals and can be divided into two major categories, ruby and tawny. Ruby has its namesake ruby red color, which is restrained to maintain the fruit and strength of a young wine. It is sold in the following categories, in ascending order of quality: Ruby, Reserve, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV), and Vintage, the last two are the finest and good for storing, as they age well in the bottle. Not every harvest year is declared a vintage, only the most notable ones, and the vintage may only be declared between three and five years after the actual year in question, while LBV may be declared between four and six years after.
Tawnys are made from a combination of different wine years that have been aged for different lengths of time in casks or vats. With age, the tawny color slowly develops over time and gets darker and nuttier in flavor. The port is sold as Tawny, Tawny Reserve, and indicated aged Tawnys of 10, 20, 30, and 40 years old. These wines are ready to drink when they are bottled. Another lesser known type of port is white port, which is recommended as an aperitif rather than a digestif, and comes in both dry and sweet styles.
There has also been another recent addition to the port world, the rosé port, made known by the Croft house who first came out with their Croft Pink; it’s currently being marketed as another aperitif port or used to make port cocktails. Along with Croft, other notable producers include Taylor’s, Sandeman, Ramos Pinto, Quevedo, and Nieport.
Madeira is a fortified and often blended wine produced on the Madeira Islands. It’s produced in four distinct styles with a main grape varietal representing each style. Boal andMalmsey (or Malvasia) styles are sweet and heavy, and make excellent dessert wines;Verdelho, not so sweet, is a nice alternative to Sherry; andSercial, dry and light, makes an excellent aperitif. Producers to look for are Blandy and Leacock.
Portugal has an astonishing variety of landscapes and habitats for so small a country. In the south, cork oaks dot the Alentejo, which are periodically stripped of their bark in a practice that may be the best way of protecting the region from desertification. In more thickly forested regions, thirsty eucalyptus trees dominate commercial plantations, but traces of primeval forest remain, with evergreen holm-oaks harboring much wildlife. The Peneda-Gerês National Park in the Minho is the best example of this.
Despite Lisbon’s infamous hills, a network of cycle paths debuted in 2012, including a wonderful riverside route connecting Belém to downtown, and farther east toward the Parque das Nações. Bikes may be hired downtown at Bike Iberia (Largo do Corpo Santo 5, Baixa, 1200-129 21/347–0347 www.bikeiberia.com) and at the Parque das Nações from Tejo Bike (21/891–9333 www.tejobike.pt).
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