Portuguese wines are ascendant. Wine lovers are discovering the country’s unique varieties, exquisite terroirs, great value, and food-friendly versatility. The wines have recently enjoyed explosive growth in Sweden, China, the US, and elsewhere, and even during the global challenges and lockdowns of 2020, Portugal gained new fans who are exploring its diverse wines from the comfort of their own homes.
Here are just a few reasons why Portugal is wowing wine lovers.
Expressive terroir identity
Portugal’s wine regions span dramatic landscapes from mountains to sea — terroirs that ultimately influence the wine. Take the wild, volcanic islands of the Azores, for example, with its salty, mineral-driven wines produced from gnarly old bush vines growing in black basalt meters from the Atlantic Coast. Not only do Portugal’s wines reflect their terroir, but in a sense they enable the drinker to travel virtually through its many different landscapes, climates, and wine regions.
Before the pandemic, Portugal’s booming tourism industry whetted the appetite of visitors and drove demand for Portuguese wines in the US, a trend that has continued today. “In the last few years, or at least up until March 2020, the USA discovered the charms of Portugal,” says Rui Abecassis, the founder of Olé & Obrigado, a specialist importer of Portuguese wine to the US since 2011. “The wines of Portugal are part of that discovery. Although people knew of Madeira, Port, and Vinho Verde, over the last decade they have discovered everything in between: wines from the Azores, the Douro, the Dão, Lisboa, and Barraida. And even during the 2020 crisis, the wine loving crowd used wines as an exploration tool, and Portugal is now part of that exploration.
A plethora of native varieties
A rich tapestry of native grapes also makes Portuguese wines unique. With over 250 indigenous grape varieties, Portugal has more native grapes per square mile than any other country in the world, according to Wines of Portugal. Even the most adventurous wine drinkers can discover something new while exploring the wines of Portugal.
“So many grapes are distinctive and unique to this part of Iberia,” says Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein, a longtime advocate of Portuguese wine. “People can find something unique that they enjoy and run with it — Alentejo’s Alicante Bouschet or Antão Vaz, Barraida’s Baga or Bical, Setubal’s Moscatel and take on Castelão — and when you wrap that in such value for the quality, food affinity of these wines, and the authentic only-could-be-from-Portugal flavors. Portugal is known as a wine country that consistently punches above its weight class.”
Touriga Nacional, for example, has become so renowned for its quality that it is now being planted worldwide, including in Bordeaux, but its most unique expression still springs from its heartland, Portugal. “Touriga Nacional is one of our oldest grapes and so we have a huge genetic diversity of the variety in our vineyards,” says Carla Tiago, winemaker at Quinta da Boavista, whose sought-after old-vine Touriga Nacional field blends, Vinha do Ortatorio and Vinha do Ujo, retail for $145. “In our field blend vineyards we actually don’t know exactly what we have, and that is part of the charm of these wines.”
Portugal has so much on offer for adventurous palates, and often the price is extremely low for the quality.
The red blends of the Douro, with their deep violet color, pronounced floral, graphite, and forest berry aromas, and firm, fine tannins, full body, and refreshing acidity, are among the brightest stars of Portugal’s fine wine revolution. The white wine counterpart, made from Encruzado in the mountainous Dão region, can be akin to white Burgundy with its defined citrus, floral, and mineral notes and its complex and refreshing finish.
Many native varieties also have a great capacity to age. The fortified wines of Madeira and Port have long been celebrated for their unparalleled aging capacity, but Portugal’s fine dry wines can also offer a memorable tasting experience for those patient enough to wait. The rare coastal wines of Colares, where barely a few dozen acres remain, are particularly renowned for taking 30 years more to come into their stride, and they age gracefully for over a century.
Excellent value and artisanal quality
Portugal’s unique varieties are a draw for wine lovers, but so is the artisanal nature of production of many wines. “Many ancient winemaking techniques have not only survived but also remain common: foot treading of grapes, the use of field blends or large clay pots (talhas) are traditions that never died out,” says wine writer Simon J. Woolf, who is writing a book, with Portugal-based wine expert Ryan Opaz, called Foot Trodden: Portugal and the Wines That Time Forgot. “Now there is renewed interest in these ancestral methods, but not as historical remains, rather as living traditions. Portugal has so much on offer for adventurous palates, and often the price is extremely low for the quality.”
5 Portuguese wines to try:
The Azores have a microclimate similar to Santorini, and the Arinto from these coastal, volcanic vineyards have an intense maritime character: vibrant acidity, explosive aromas of lime peel and mango, and tangy salinity. This is one for oysters.
Harnessing the power of old vines from a field blend in the Douro, this age-worthy wine is filled with notes of graphite, exotic spice, violets, and black plum. Its grippy texture and peppery tannins segue to a lingering finish.