Portugal has a long, storied history in winemaking. The country sits at the geographical crossroads of several civilizations, and its winemaking traditions have been shaped by Continental, North African, and English influences. Thanks to the latter, who centuries ago invented the method of adding brandy (or other distilled spirits) to Portuguese wine as a means of preserving (or “fortifying”) it over long distances and durations, Portugal is most renowned for sweet, fortified Port and Madeira. And not without justification, I might add; both can be truly sublime (and correspondingly expensive).
But today there’s much more to Portuguese wine than these old standard bearers. The country is actually one of the world’s largest producers of red and white (dry) table wine, and it’s well worth your while to explore what the current generation of Portuguese winemakers has to offer. Forget the cheap and drab brands like Mateus and Lancers, which had the unfortunate effect of tainting several generations’ opinion of Portuguese wine. Take note, instead, that the country’s wine industry is thrusting itself into the modern world, and we, fellow wine lovers, stand to be the happy beneficiaries.
Portugal is now producing – and exporting to the United States – more and more high-quality table wines. Many are made from traditional and often indigenous (at least to the Iberian Peninsula) grape varieties you may not recognize (but don’t be daunted); many are produced by wineries that have painstakingly modernized their operations and raised the quality bar in an effort to compete on the international wine stage (cause for celebration); and many are delicious, affordable, and increasingly available at fine wine merchants (you have no excuse not to try some).
Portuguese winemakers are taking production and marketing cues from their Spanish counterparts, who several years ago sparked an renaissance in Spanish wine that resulted in a dramatic surge in quality, brought traditional Spanish grapes varieties like Tempranillo and Albarino to the attention of the broader wine drinking world, and increased the availability of quality Spanish wines on store shelves in the United States and elsewhere. Spanish wines are now more popular in the United States than they ever have been; a model of success the Portuguese are eagerly pursuing.
The best Portuguese wines distinguish themselves by balancing Old World ingredients and craftsmanship with New World tastes. Portuguese winemakers are steadily succeeding in transforming an ancient, localized craft into a modern, export driven industry that respects traditional winemaking methods and showcases native grape varieties while satisfying the quality and stylistic demands of wine drinkers around the world. Relegated to the sidelines are the rustic, oxidized, and acidic Portuguese wines of yore; on the front line now are world-class Portuguese wines that are well-crafted, balanced, and a pleasure to drink.
By way of example, below are three red wines that provide a good starting point for exploring the new realities of Portuguese winemaking. Given their quality, all are terrific values.
At the lower end of the price ladder, try Ervideira Lusitano, 2008 ($10), from the Alentejo region in south-central Portugal. This is a fresh, young red brimming with ripe berry aromas and flavors framed by subtle nuances of toast, thanks to four months of aging in French oak barrels. Composed of three varieties – Aragonez (one of several Portuguese aliases for Tempranillo), Trincadeira, and Castelão — it’s soft, juicy and quite quaffable, and would make for a unique party red. To learn more about this wine and the winery, visit the website by clicking here.
At the mid-range try Quinta de Ventozelo Douro Tinta Reserva, 2007 ($20), from the Douro region of northern Portugal (where Port is made). This is a full-bodied, rich, and earthy red wine offering aromas of sweet cured tobacco and graphite that lead to heady flavors of dark chocolate and black fig. It’s an exotic, complex, and beautifully balanced mélange of several red varieties typical in Portuguese blends, including Touriga Nacional (60%), Touriga Franca (20%), and Tinta Roriz (another Portuguese alias for Tempranillo) (20%). The wine is aged in American oak barrels for a year. To learn more about this wine and the winery, visit the website by clicking here.
Finally, climb a rung or two up the price ladder and try Quinta do Vale Meao Douro Meandro, 2007 ($28), which is also from Douro. Made from fruit grown on a 134 year-old family-owned estate, this is a refined, elegant red featuring aromas of vanilla and cedar followed by luscious flavors of cherry, black tea, and spice. It’s a beautifully layered, seamless blend of Touriga Nacional (40%), Tinta Roriz (30%), Touriga Francesa (20%), Tinto Cão (5%), and Sousão (5%), aged in French oak barrels. A very fine wine at this price. To learn more about this wine and the winery, visit the website by clicking here.
If you live in Northern Virginia, you’ll find Lusitano at Rick’s Wine and Gourmet on Duke Street in Alexandria, and Quinta de Ventozelo and Quinta do Vale Meao at various locations of Total Wine. For those of you living elsewhere, check with your local fine wine merchant; if they don’t carry these particular Portuguese wines, they should be able to guide you to some that are of comparable quality.
If you would like to learn more about Portuguese wine, winemaking, and wine regions, visit the Portuguese Wine Trade Association by clicking here.