Under the Radar Value Bottles: Portugal


If you talk to the right people, you’ll learn very quickly that Portugal has controlled world trade for centuries, and is responsible for a myriad of inventions--including the compass, Christopher Columbus, the best sardines, and the croissant. (French bakers copied the Portuguese technique.) The Portuguese people who spin these tales are a distinct breed, ready to defend their tiny country and its plethora of food and wine traditions at any moment. Unlike the mysterious reasoning underlying their behind-the-scenes dominance on the political stage, the Iberian nation did start the practice of legally defining wine regions, forging international wine trade, and hooking the entire world on Port.
After the fall of the Salazar dictatorship in 1974, the wines from Portugal’s 13 official growing regions began entering the international market, leading the way by offering outstanding value and incredible diversity. These wines are often labelled as D.O.C. (Denominacao de OrigemCalificada) or simply as Vinho Regional. Wines with a D.O.C. label indicate stricter control in the vineyard and winery, and often a stronger commitment to indigenous grapes--not hard considering Portugal has over 250 unique grape varieties flourishing within its borders. 
Most vinho is labelled by region, which makes discovering your preferences easy. Here, we’ll focus on a few of the wines most widely available on the American market; those of the lofty Douro river valley, verdant Minho region, and parched Alentejo province. 
Not long after after Magellan circumnavigated the globe, Portuguese royalty were created the first officially regulated wine region to define and control the Port wine trade in 1756.
Named for the Douro River which runs west through the heartland of Portugal’s Tras-os-Montes region, this area is responsible for Portugal’s most famous, expensive and long-lived wines. Extremely steep, schistous slopes characterize the best vineyard sites, which are often terraced so precipitously vineyard workers are harnessed in during harvest. Though white wines are permitted under Douro D.O.C. rules, reds flourish in this moderate climate. The most popular grapes are Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, and Tinto Roriz which vinify into bold, full-bodied reds with lots of dark cherry flavors.
The Doural Tinto is a fantastic, easy-drinking example of Douro wine. This blend of indigenous grapes is labelled simply as Vinho Regional Duriense, and has bright red cherry aromas tinged with earth, as well as fantastic blue and red fruit on the palate. At $10/bottle, it represents an outstanding value. A great D.O.C. wine from the upper Douro, Veedha D.O.C. Douro Red 2009 offers an earthier, more age-worthy treat. Also a field blend, cocoa and red raspberry flavors direct this full-bodied wine. Soft, persistent tannins add interest to the long, smoothing. 
Many of the Douro’s fortified wine producers are also committed to using field blends--sometimes of over 40 grapes--to craft top-quality Port. In these instances, a true mélange of grapes are grown, picked, and vinified together before being shipped down river to age in Porto’s Vila Nova de Gaia neighborhood.
Books have been written on Port production alone, but to put it simply, these dessert wines are made by fortifying base wines with neutral brandy to increase the alcohol level to 18-20% ABV. Then, extended aging in large casks or bottle allows these wines to develop intriguing cooked fruit or bright, shiny raspberry flavors perfect for dessert or cheese courses. 
Though the Douro was the first official wine region, the wine traditions of Portugal date back even farther in the lush Minho area, where the popular Vinho Verde wines are made. Research shows evidence of winemaking as early as the 1100s, when Portugal’s capital was located Guimarães, a tiny city centered in the Vinho Verde D.O.C. 
Granite soils dominate this lush region, which receives more rain than any other growing area in Portugal. Extremely fertile soils define this area, and wine growers traditionally trained their small plots of vines enforcado or upward, around trees or high posts. 
Vinho Verde translates literally to “green wine,” which refers to the fresh, youthful style of wine produced among the green hills of the region. Extremely aromatic, and often lightly effervescent these inexpensive wines are ideal for light salads, spicy Asian food, and picnics, and aren’t designed for cellaring.
AnjosVinho Verde is one of my favorites, and its light, citrus-dominated flavors rarely disappoint. For something more complex, I recommend Anselmo Mendes Alvarinho--a complex, and mineral driven Vinho Verde with tons of lemon zest and floral tones on the nose. 
Far to the Southeast lies the hot and rural region of Alentejo, where tiny farms and cooperatives are replaced by massive estates. The boundaries of this region encompass nearly 1/3 of Portugal’s landmass, and the diversity among wines is extreme. Soils vary across the vast expanses of land between chalk, clay, and granite. 
These diverse microclimates yield unique wines like fresh, Arinto-based whites and bold, juicy red blends from the Trincadeira and Arragonez grapes. Unlike in other D.O.C. areas, irrigation is allowed in Alentejo, where rainfall is scarce and daily temperatures easily surpass 100 degrees. Even at large estates such as Herdade do Esporão (roughly 5,000 acres!) tradition still dominates, and grapes are often crushed by foot treading in huge marble or cement vats called lagares. 
I recommend the Herdade do Esporão Reserva white, an intriguing and complex blend of Arinto, Roupeiro, and AntãoVaz. Full-bodied, with tropical fruit aromas, subtle oak flavors, and a lingering finish, this indigenous blend is interesting enough for a fancy dinner, yet simple enough for afternoon sipping on the patio. 
Whether drinking on a budget is the goal, or simply exploring undiscovered wine regions, Portuguese wines are the answer. With their plethora of styles from dry, crisp sparkling Verdelho to bold, aged Touriga Franca and classic Port there’s a Portuguese wine for every palate and occasion.
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