Last month I had a story published in the Singapore Airlines inflight magazine, SilverKris, about Portugal’s table wines. You see, everyone seems to know about port (which you may remember from my post Interesting facts about Portugal is exclusive to Portugal, much like Champagne is exclusive to its namesake region in France). But Portugal isn’t just good at port, and has been making mighty fine table wines as far back as Roman times.
While the Douro Valley is starting to make a name for itself in mainstream wine circles, the whole of Portugal is actually a patchwork of wine regions producing very diverse wines. The country has over 300 grape varieties in active production and is a master of blended wine, so you’ll rarely see single varietals such as shiraz or chardonnay. Think of Portuguese wines to be like highly sophisticated grape cocktails.
Portuguese wine – good, cheap and underrated
Wine is a central facet of Portuguese culture. Menus of the day nearly always include wine, and it’s nothing to have a glass or two at lunch or dinner, plus a port aperitif or nightcap. Wine quality in Portugal averages on excellent, and better still, is dirt cheap. If you start your budget around €4 per bottle when browsing the supermarket shelves you’ll rarely be disappointed, and if you spend upward of €10 you’re top shelf ;-) Don’t be afraid to order the house wine in a restaurant either, as you’ll find it’s nearly always very drinkable.
So why does Portuguese wine live under a veil of secrecy, particularly outside Europe? I think it’s because the Portuguese are quiet achievers. They tinker away at their craft without much need for external validation … and if I can make a broad-brush statement, they aren’t always the savviest marketers. Port wine gained its foothold on the international wine scene largely thanks to the British, and when Mateus shot to worldwide fame circa 1970 (counting Queen Elizabeth II and Jimi Hendrix among its fans), few would have realised the lightly sparkling rosé was Portuguese.
But that’s why a trip to Portugal can be such a delight, as you’ll discover many amazing things you’d likely never heard of.
I’d recommend you have a read of my article in the January 2018 edition of SilverKris, which you can download from the app store, for more info about the story behind Portugal’s wines.
You can also find my pick of the best wine bars in Lisbon on the Singapore Airlines website.
The best Portuguese wines to try
In the meantime, I’ll give you my two cents' worth about which wines I think you should try in Portugal (or you know, try them all, whatever).
Personally, my favourite Portuguese wines come from the Dão and Alentejo regions. I’m also a big fan of the Douro Valley’s port – particularly white port in a Porto Tonico or port tonic (ask for it in any bar in Porto).
I’d also recommend hunting out some of the wines unique to Portugal, as listed below.
Colares sits in a windswept, sandy outpost by the Atlantic and is one of Portugal’s oldest wine growing regions. It preserves an almost 100-year-old custom designed to protect the purity of the Colares ramisco and malvasia grapevines, which were spared Europe’s devastating phylloxera attack in the 19th century. Under this system, select growers pool their grapes, which are then made into wine by a cooperative before being redistributed to the individual wineries for ageing.
This wine is produced in an unusual way, as the grapes are grown on Madeira Island's steep slopes before being heated and oxidised (wine torture in most circles). The resulting wines can be sweet or dry. Madeira wine was used to toast America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776 as well as the inauguration of George Washington.
Vinho verde (green wine) is exclusive to Portugal’s northern Minho region. It typically has a slight fizz and is consumed young. This isn’t always the case however and more and more wineries are starting to experiment with aged green wine. Although it seems like an oxymoron, green wine comes in white, red and rosé varieties.
Another uniquely Portuguese wine is moscatel roxo, made with rare purple grapes that once neared extinction. You can visit the country’s oldest Moscatel de Setúbal producer, José Maria da Fonseca, 30 kilometres south of Lisbon to try this sweet purple wine. It’s similar to white port but has a distinctive taste.
There are many port wine lodges in Porto (sometimes called port wine caves) offering tastings, so you’re spoilt for choice. (Technically the lodges are in Porto’s neighbouring city of Vila Nova de Gaia, but you can catch the yellow line metro or walk across the Dom Luís I bridge to reach Gaia.)
If you want to do a port wine tasting I’d recommend calling ahead to check when tours are on, as most cellars have set schedules but don’t always publish them online. Most of the time you’ll get onto someone who speaks English, but if you’re at a hotel, you can ask the reception to ring for you.
Tours usually include a guided cellar visit, and generally conclude with a tasting of three or four ports. Some include a video about the company’s history. Prices tend to differ between high and low season and tours often stop over winter or are run on demand. You can sometimes pay more to taste the highbrow vintages, but expect to pay between €6-12 for a standard tour.
Here is where you'll find some of the best port tours in Porto
Ferreira: Antonia Ferreira was an incredible businesswoman who played a key role in developing Portugal’s port industry. You can learn about her story at Ferreira's port house.
Ramos Pinto: Adriano Ramos Pinto was a cheeky marketeer, who, like Ferreira, brings an interesting backstory to this winery.
Taylor’s: This is one of the largest port houses and has a great audio guide with lots of detail about Portuguese wine history and the company’s port making processes. The facility is lovely for a post-tour drink, and from the garden you can sneak around the corner to sit on the terrace where there’s a wonderful view.
Porto Cruz: This is a modern facility that glows a funky blue at night. I listed this as one of my favourite bars in Porto in an article for Lonely Planet because the views from the rooftop terrace are amazing.
From the horse's mouth
Here are a few parting thoughts about Portuguese wine from the experts.
Crash course in Portuguese wine terms
(because the last thing you want is to sound like a doof at the bar, right?)
Vinho = wine
Tinto = red
Branco = white
Verde = green
Quinta = a country or wine estate
Saúde (health) or à nossa (to us) = cheers
Copo = glass
Garrafa = bottle ... yeah, go for the bottle ;-)
The Portugal Wire is the blog of Australian travel writer, copywriter and photographer Emily McAuliffe.
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