Moving down the coastline, as you approach Lisbon from Beiras, you come across Estremadura. This small province is tightly packed with 10 distinct appellations, each unique in its own way. Most intriguing are probably the fast-disappearing coastal vineyards of Colares. The sandy soil here has kept these vineyards free of the root louse Phylloxera, making these vines among the oldest in Portugal.
To the east is the Ribatejo, one giant (for Portugal) appellation. Recently renamed Tejo (from the river Tejo that dominates this appellation), this region is in a state of flux. It is one of the most dynamic regions of Portugal, but one that is still finding its footing as producers continue to experiment with international varieties, all the while exploring the depth of their own genetic material. Time is needed to see how everything shakes out here, but there is no doubt that some great wine will be made here from both the new and the old.
Further to east is the vast Alentejo, which sports the smallest percentage of land under vine of any of the Portuguese provinces. Estates here are large for Portugal, and the warm, dry climate makes farming rather easy, allowing for very reasonable prices and rich, well-fruited wines. There has been significant experimentation here with some of the international varieties, but almost always as blending grapes and almost always in a supporting role.
Between Lisbon and the Alentejo one finds the Terras do Sado with its two appellations, Palmela and Setubal. Palmela is made from one of Portugal’s great indigenous varieties known as Perquita. These are rich, distinctive wines, but they have to share the province with one of Portugal’s other treasures: Setubal. When one thinks of Portugal, one likely thinks of dessert wines, Port in particular, but that is not the only game in town. Setubal de Muscatel is another of Portugal’s sweet delights. Somewhat akin to a sherry, Setubal is complex, age-worthy and rare, making it ideal for the most adventurous wine lovers.
Completing the round-up of mainland provinces is the Algarve, Portugal’s playground that occupies its entire southern shore. Not many wines from the Algarve make they way to our shores, and truth be known, most are best consumed in the resorts along the coast. These are not particularly noteworthy wines but rather are the perfect accompaniment to the local cuisine, much like the wines from the Azores, whose wines I must admit I have never tried.
The final appellation in Portugal is Madeira. An island some 600 miles off the coast of Africa, Madeira is windblown and raw. The wines made in Madiera share that character, though centuries ago it was discovered that if left as the ballast in a ship making a trans-atlantic journey (or two), the wines mellowed and would become sublimely aromatic and complex. The current production methods for Madeira mimic that procedure by heating the wine. The results are indeed unusual, but are immensely compelling and worthy of being the last stop on our tour.
After all this exploring, it sounds like it’s time for tasting. That will have to wait. but I can tell you I am certainly looking forward to exploring all that Portugal has to offer. It’s going to have to be a big tasting!
Uniquely Português!Ancient wines of Madeira
Madeira is but one of Portugal's unique, iconic wines. These wines, sweet and dry, undergo a very unusual process whereby they actually get cooked! The end results are remarkably complex wines that are wonderfully aromatic and almost impervious to age or abuse.
The Portuguese must have a penchant for acidic wines. Madeira balances their high acids with some residual sugar, but Vinho Verde highlights the electric acid of the grapes (both red and white) used in their production! These are slightly rustic yet remarkably refreshing wines.