Learning about Portuguese wine has been overwhelming, but fun!
Back in 2009/2010 I worked for a company called Vinfolio. If you appreciate, purchase, enjoy and/or collect fine wine, you should check them out. When I joined Vinfolio they offered three primary services, 1) a cellarage operation, 2) online store, and 3) Vincellar, a free cellar management system (hence the name “vin folio”). The week I started, they launched the first ever wine marketplace allowing individual collectors to sell all or parts of their collections via a seller-controlled auction process.
Vinfolio was only five years old at the time and still going through a lot of growing pains. If you have ever worked at a start-up you’ll know that it typically involves long, grueling days as you establish and continually refine all the necessary business systems, processes, and protocols required for a successful operation. The office, located in the Mission District of San Francisco, California, was set inside a cavernous old Hellman’s mayonnaise factory with an insufficient number of grimy old windows, a concrete floor, and bad lighting. A large oval table sat in the middle of the open floor of cubicles. At the end of most days, the buyers would pull together a selection of wine and conduct tastings at that table. Oftentimes, other team members would stumble over, slump exhaustedly into a chair and be revived with a glass of some delectable nectar of the gods. OK…that was typically me, but hey, if you’re going to commit yourself to the demands of a start up, one devoted to fine wine certainly helps get you through the tough times!!
In addition to the tastings, Vinfolio offered me the chance to attend wine-related events in San Francisco and at wineries in the nearby Napa and Sonoma valleys. I even bought a few bottles of fine wine to enjoy with Won. One of those bottles was a 50th birthday present for him. Since it was a milestone year, I splurged on a 2000 Barca-Velha from the Douro Valley of Portugal. At the time, Portugal had no special meaning to me. It was just a small country on the edge of western Europe. Little did I know that ten years later I’d be living there.
Next to its more famous wine-producing neighbors, France, Spain, and Italy, Portugal might easily be overlooked, but that would be selling them short. Wine has been made in Portugal since at least 2000 BC when the Tartessians planted vines in the Sado and Tagus valleys. Subsequent centuries saw the influence of the Phoenicians, Ancient Greeks, Celts and Romans on wine-making practices. I won’t drag you all the way back to the Tartessian time period and try to explain the history of wine making in Portugal so you can stop clenching your teeth now, but I do think it is important to say that Portugal first became known for it’s fortified wine called port when the British had a spat with the French back in the 1700s and needed an alternative beverage option.
In the mid-to-late 20th century, sweet, slightly sparkling rosé brands from Portugal became immensely popular. Do you remember Mateus and Lancers? Maybe you’re too young, but when Portugal joined the European Union in the mid-1980s, a flood of financing and grants reinvigorated the Portuguese wine industry. These new investments paved the way for upgrades in winemaking technology and facilities. Renewed interest in the abundance of unique Portuguese wine grape varietals shifted focus to more premium wine production with a portfolio of unique dry red and white wines being marketed on a global scale. Today, Portugal is the 9th largest exporter of wine in the world with port wine, Vinho Verde and madeira wine at the top of the list. Surprisingly, France buys the most Portuguese wine in the world.
Let’s circle back to that reference to Portuguese wine grape varietals. My plan was to name them here, but then my eyes nearly popped out of my head when I found a list of them. Yikes! It turns out that since the early 1980s, when the effort to catalogue them began, 343 varietals grown in Portugal have been recorded and of those, 230 are native to Portugal or the Iberian Peninsula. What’s even more unbelievable is that there are still dozens of grape varietals that have yet to be identified! Conversely, in the USA about 82% of the wine comes from less than 10 grape varietals. During my research I read that grape varietals like chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, and syrah are making their way into Portuguese winemaking. Really? Like there weren’t enough grape varietals from which to choose??? Sheesh.
On the plus side, I have learned that the following grape varietals are some of the more popular currently being used:
Alvarinho | fine, mineral, tropical fruits and flowers
Fernão Pires / Maria Gomes | floral and fruity
Arinto / Pedernã | lemony, steely and mineral
Encruzado | fine, full-bodied Dão white
Touriga Nacional | aromatic, herby, full-bodied
Castelão | firmly raspberry-fruity, cedary with age
Touriga Franca | dense, fragrant, with velvety tannins
Baga | firm, long-lived, intense reds
Tinta Roriz / Aragonês | appealing, red-fruited
Trincadeira / Tinta Amarela | bright, raspberry-fruity
Wines from Portugal are categorized and controlled in the following ways:
- There are 31 DOCs/DOPs. At the moment, both of these terms are used in Portugal, the traditional local ‘DOC’ (Denominação de Origem Controlada) meaning Controlled Denomination of Origin, while the new pan-European ‘DOP’ (Denominação de Origem Protegida) means Protected Denomination of Origin. Each of these regions has its own strictly defined geographical boundaries. DOC regulations also prescribe maximum grape yields, recommended and permitted grape varieties and various other things, and all the wines have to be officially tasted, tested and approved.
- The whole of the country is divided into 14 ‘Regional Wine’ areas. Wines from these areas have for years been labelled in Portugal as Vinho Regional. Now the European Union has introduced new titles for this category of wine: ‘IG’, meaning ‘Geographical Indication’ or ‘IGP’ – ‘Protected Geographical Indication.’ Most Portuguese regions have chosen to keep the old denomination, VR. Rules for making Vinho Regional are much less stringent than those that govern DOC wines. Nevertheless, many prestigious Portuguese wines are classified as Vinho Regional. This is often because the producer has chosen to use grape varietals that are not permitted for the local DOC, or at least not in those particular combinations or proportions. The looser regulations for Vinho Regional give producers greater scope for individuality, although these wines still have to fulfil certain criteria as to grape variety, minimum alcohol content and so on.
- Vinhos de Mesa (Table Wines) are Portugal’s simplest wines, subject to none of the rules stipulated for quality or regional wines. Note, however, that a very few really stunning wines are labelled simply as table wines. These tend to be from ambitious growers who have chosen to work outside the official rules, and have deliberately classified their wine as table wine. I think the message here is don’t judge a book, or wine label, by it’s cover…
I found a map that lays out the wine regions of Portugal and lists the DOCs (interchangeable here with DOP) and IPRs:
As you can see, wine is produced all over the country. Fun fact: vineyards represent 10% of all land devoted to agriculture in the entire country. For comparison purposes, vineyards represent less than 2% of all land devoted to agriculture in California.
To help kick you off, it’s good to know some basics. If you find yourself in the North, Vinho Verde is famous for light, slightly fizzy white wines. If you are in Porto, port is an obvious must, but the Douro also produces many fabulous dry red and white wines. If you are in Lisbon, the Alentejo offers an opportunity to taste rich red wines. Clearly, it doesn’t matter where you are in Portugal there is always good wine and good food available to you.
If all of this is just too much to remember and you just want to order a glass of wine, simply ask for one of the following:
- Vinho Tinto Red Wine (pronounced “veen-you teen-too“)
- Vinho Branco White Wine (pronouned “veen-you bran-koo” – be sure to roll the “r”)
By the way, if you ever see an ‘o’ at the end of a word, it is pronounced as “oo.”
When Won and I moved to Portugal we had to decide what to do with the wine we had accumulated. In the weeks and months before our departure, we drank nearly all of it and gave away some of it. However, there were two bottles we decided to bring with us… in our luggage and wrapped like they were made of spun sugar. One was the 2000 Barca-Velha and the other was a bottle of Loxton Década Tawny desert wine. This wine holds a very special place in our hearts. The winemaker has been a part of our family for more than 10 years and is, essentially, my de facto brother-in-law, Chris Loxton. Chris has been making superb wines since 1996 and established Loxton Cellars in Glen Ellen, California in 2004. The wine we brought with us gets its name from the Portuguese word for decade – the length of time it is aged. The Década is exquisite and reminds us of home with every delicious sip.
We still haven’t opened the Barca-Vehla. It was our plan to do that on Won’s birthday last year, but the country was in complete lockdown. We will have to look for another auspicious time before we open it and taste the history of Portugal.
I want to thank Adam (my brother-in-law), for suggesting this as a topic. It pushed us to learn more about Portuguese wines, which turned into a bit of a buying spree to support ongoing research in this area. I’ll keep you posted on how things progress…
Until then, please stay safe, stay healthy, and stay in touch! Cheers!
From Portugal with love,