Portuguese Wine Buying Guide

Terraced vineyards in the Douro Valley.
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Map showing the regions of Portugal's wine producers.

In a world where international grape varieties like Chardonnay dominate, Portugal stands out from the crowd by growing mainly local grape varieties. Port and Madeira have been exported to the UK for many centuries but now it’s time to discover some of Portugal’s best-kept secrets – their up-and-coming red and white wines.

The last 20 years, since Portugal joined the EU, has seen a huge transformation. Methods and machinery have been brought up to modern standards, with stainless steel fermentation tanks now sitting alongside the traditional ‘lagars’ where the grapes were trodden by foot. Thankfully the native grape varieties have been retained, giving Portuguese wine a true identity.

Waitrose is renowned for its extensive range of Portuguese wine and was awarded the title of National Portuguese Wine Retailer of the Year for 2005 by ICEP (The Portuguese Trade and Tourism Office) and ViniPortugal (the Portuguese wine trade body).

Portuguese wine really has taken a step up, and this buying guide demystifies the subject, making it easy to enjoy some superb wines that are excellent value.

Region by region

Vinho Verde

This wine region is named after its most famous export - Vinho Verde - which translates as ‘green wine’. This doesn’t directly refer to the colour of the wine but it’s so-called as it’s made to be enjoyed while green and youthful. The region borders Galicia in north-west Spain and the climate is similar. This means a heavy rainfall (60 inches annually) combined with a long, warm ripening season.

Vines were traditionally trained up on pergolas around the edges of fields or even up poplar trees to help the grapes ripen though more conventional wire-trained vines are more typical now. The style of Vinho Verde is typically lower in alcohol and higher in acidity, making it very refreshing and perfect for enjoying chilled on a summer’s day.

Douro

The Douro Valley is the home of Port production but producers are increasingly diversifying and making some high quality reds from grape varieties such as Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz, traditionally used in Port blends. Visually, it’s a stunning location and is now a World Heritage Site. Terraces for vines are carved out of the hillside on each bank of the river, making it very labour intensive and therefore more expensive to produce wine.

Many winemakers produce both Port and red wine, and they will choose which of their grapes to make each one from. Like Port, the wines are transported to the town of Vila Nova de Gaia, where ageing takes place in long, low buildings called ‘lodges’. A typical Douro red will be full-bodied, and have flavours similar to Port, but there will be a perfumed fragrance too.

Dão

This region has been reinvigorated since Portugal joined the EU in 1986. The vineyards are planted in clearings in the forests, their location being dictated by areas less prone to spring frosts. The granite soils are poor quality which makes the vine work harder, producing lower yields but higher quality. Touriga Nacional is the primary grape variety so the wines are similar to the Douro but a little softer in style like the full-bodied Sogrape Pena de Pato. This very approachable wine is soft and packed with rich fruit flavours.

Ribatejo

Further inland, the Ribatejo region flanks the River Tagus and the vines grow on its alluvial flood plains. It’s dominated by large co-operatives but a number of single quintas (wine estates), like Terra de Lobos, are making wines that stand out from the crowd. Native grape varieties include the rich and spicy red Castelão. International varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are also planted here.

Setúbal

South of Lisbon lies the Setúbal peninsula. Periquita is an unofficial name for Castelão though it was trademarked by José Maria de Fonseca to become one of Portugal’s best-known red wines, having been available since the 19th century. The cooling influence of the Atlantic and the revised blend of Castelão (70%), Trincadeira (20%) and Aragonez (10%) make Periquita Terras do Sado a supple, juicy, medium bodied wine that’s easy-drinking.

Alentejo

The Alentejo region in southern Portugal is spearheading the worldwide emergence of the new breed of Portuguese wine. Eight distinct areas produce the majority of the wine though the entire area from the River Tagus to the Algarve, some 300 kilometres, is designated Vinho Regional Alentejano. Most of the vineyards are planted on a large, undulating plain where summer temperatures can reach 40°C.

The wines we have chosen from this region are typical of the higher quality, modern-style reds now being produced. The Cortes de Cima vineyard has taken a New World approach, with an Australian viticultural expert advising on improved methods. The wine is aged in stainless steel and made in a youthful, fruit-forward style from Aragonez and Shiraz grapes.

Another winemaker of note is João Portugal Ramos. His focus is clearly on quality, and he’s also followed the New World by clearly stating the grape varieties on his bottle labels. He uses local grape varieties such as Trincadeira and Aragonez to make full bodied wines in a New World style.

Algarve

While its beaches draw holiday maker, growers are beginning to appreciate the region’s wine making potential. Consequently vineyards are being planted, cellars modernised and production methods updated. In the early 1990’s a former vineyard in the Algarve was rejuvenated by none other than Sir Cliff Richard. ‘Vida Nova’ means new life, and that is exactly what has happened in the vineyard. It’s a serious wine, made from newly-planted vines by a top Australian winemaker. The latest 2004 vintage was awarded an IWC Bronze medal in 2005.

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Grape Guide

Most Portuguese wine is made from grape varieties native to Portugal, and others are made from grapes found elsewhere but with local names. International grape varieties such as Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are occasionally used in a blend.

Aragonez / Tinta Roriz

Known as Aragonez in the Alentejo region and Tinta Roriz in the Douro, this red grape is in fact the same as Spain’s Tempranillo. It ripens early to produce wines with the taste and smell of spices and red fruits.

Alvarinho

Used in Vinho Verde, it’s the same as Albariño, found just across the Spanish border in Galicia. It’s an aromatic white grape with a taste and smell of apricot, peach and citrus fruit.

Castelão

Found in the southern half of Portugal, Castelão is also unofficially known as Periquita. It produces medium-bodied reds packed with raspberries and spices.

Touriga Nacional

This variety is considered to be the finest grape used to make port. It also makes fantastic full-bodied reds in the Douro and Dão regions. The wines have a deep colour, an intensely fruity aroma and red fruit flavours, with hints of roses and violets.

Trincadeira Preta

Popular in the Alentejo and Ribatejo regions, this red variety is similar to Castelão. It produces full-bodied, fruity wines with hints of cinnamon and cloves.

Other local varieties

Alfrocheiro Preto and Jaen are fruity red grapes occasionally added to blends in the Dão region. Alicante Bouschet and Grand Noir are red grapes used in blends to add body and especially colour, particularly in the south.

Vinho Verde also uses blends of a number of native varieties for its white wine, including Avesso (a high yielding grape), Azal (a black grape that adds flavour and structure) and Trajadura (a white grape with fresh lemon and lime aromas).

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Classifications

Portuguese wine classifications have changed greatly in the last 20 years, and they are now classified into four categories:

  • Denominaçãode Origen Controlada (DOC) - This is the Portuguese equivalent of the French AC and signifies quality wine produced in a specified region. It replaced the Região Demarcada (RD) category in 1990.
  • Indicação de Proveniência Regulamentada (IPR) - An intermediate category of regions introduced in 1990, though all but five have been promoted to DOC level.
  • Vinho Regional (VR) - Much wine is produced in this category, particularly in the south where grapes are sourced from a wide area. The classification is similar to the French ‘Vin de pays’. Portugal is divided into seven VR wine regions.
  • Vinho de Mesa - Basic table wine.

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Learning the Language

Portuguese words may look a little tricky to pronounce at first glance but it’s a little easier knowing that most are pronounced phonetically, with just a few being altered by ‘diacritics’. Italics below indicate syllables which should be emphasised.

ã (tilde) denotes a nasal sound e.g. Dão is pronounced (dow); Castelão (cas-tel-ow)

ç (cedilla) changes a hard ‘c’ to sound like an ‘s’ e.g. Indicação (in-dee-cas-ow)

ê (circumflex) places stress on the syllable and makes the vowel sound close e.g. Proveniência (prov-any-en-see-a)

ú (acute) places stress on the syllable and the vowel sound is more open e.g. Setúbal (se-too-bal)

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Selected Portugese Wine


Tagus Creek Grande Vinho 2006 Ribatejo, Portugal

Tagus Creek Grande Vinho 2006 Ribatejo, Portugal

This is a fine blend made predominately from Shiraz and the Portuguese grape variety Touriga Nacional. A full-bodied wine with a rich and powerful palate of black fruit flavours, grippy tannins and an intense, smoky finish. Enjoy with spicy pork sausages.


Altano, Douro

Altano, Douro

Modern vinification produces a supple, juicy red wine with true Douro character, made from traditional Port grape varieties.


Tinto da Anfora, Alentejo

Tinto da Anfora, Alentejo

A blend of six native grape varieties, this medium bodied wine was the first Portuguese red to be matured in new oak.


Waitrose Douro Valley Reserva Quinta de la Rosa

Waitrose Douro Valley Reserva Quinta de la Rosa

Delicious Portuguese red made from traditional grape varieties.


Cortes de Cima Syrah, Alentejo

Cortes de Cima Syrah, Alentejo

This wine has been made in true Syrah fashion, with extended skin maturation providing a deep colour and seven months in oak barrels adding the finishing touch.


Vida Nova 2006 Algarve, Portugal

Vida Nova 2006 Algarve, Portugal

This high-quality red wine is produced from a variety of indigenous and international grapes varieties in Sir Cliff Richard’s modern state-of-the-art Portuguese winery. The wine shows dark berry aromas and flavours with a robust and slightly savoury palate.


Quinta Do Vallado, Touriga Nacional, Douro Valley

Quinta Do Vallado, Touriga Nacional, Douro Valley

A rich, big and bold red made from indigenous grapes such as Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca, which are also used for port production. This wine shows intense damson and plum flavours with good length of flavours and a richness that lingers.


Quinta de Covela - Escolha Minho

Quinta de Covela - Escolha Minho

A lovely white wine showing floral notes on the nose and juicy tropical fruit on the palate. This dry and well-structured wine has mineral notes on the finish and is a great partner to seafood.