Before I get into any tastings, I’m sharing my Top Portugal 10—the top 10 ‘quick’ facts I’ve decided are the ‘need to know’ to master this wine producing country. In black are my ‘quick facts,’ as written in my notes. In pink are a few ‘fun facts’ I found in my supplemental reading materials.

What are your favorite Portuguese wine facts? Share with me—either in the comments below or contact me directly. Vamos la!

For a general overview on Portugal, please see Wine Region Overview: Portugal, based on WSET Level 3

TOP PORTUGAL 10 (This amp goes to 11…)

1. Accession to the EU in 1986 allowed for investment in innovative/advanced viticulture and winemaking.

“The British have always enjoyed an amicable relationship with the Portuguese. As early as the 12th Century, wines were being shipped to England from the Minho in the north west Portugal.” —The Oxford Companion to Wine (Fourth Edition). I love that line “amicable relationship” because, as we know from our text, at one point co-operatives took over, but the focus was always quantity not quality. With the accession to the EU, not only was there investment in technology, but vine pull schemes, too, helped quality-focused growers set their sites on more appropriate soils, reduce total yields, and grow grapes conducive to quality wine production. But without that “amicable relationship,” the time, effort, and money put into these better quality wines may have gone un-noticed in the export market. Thank you England for calling this to the world’s attention and keeping the Portuguese wine industry in business. 

2. Major DOCs: Vinho Verde, Douro, Bairrada, Dao, Lisboa’s Alequer and Bucelas, Tejo, Alentejo, Peninsula de Setubal’s Palmela DOC

  • Major VRs: Minho, Duriense, Tejo, Alentejano, Peninsual de Setubal, Lisboa

3. Both local climate and soils have impact on grape varieties grown and styles of wines produced:

  • Schist or granite are commonly found in the mountainous regions, such as Vinho Verde, Douro, and Dao, and on hilly outcrops of Alentejo

“Locked in by granite mountains and sheltered from the Atlantic, Dao benefits from long, warm summers and abundant winter rainfall (which supports the pine forests whose resin notes can be detected in mature Dao wines, especially reds, but also those made from encruzado.). Granitic sandy soils are well-drained (sometimes too well-drained—water stress can prejudice ripening in the lead-up to harvest). —The Oxford Companion to Wine (Fourth Edition). I much prefer this description to the one provided in our text. It actually gives contextual background as to why the climate and soils are what they are. Further, it makes sense that if the Dao is “landlocked” by granitic mountains, that these mountains (and their soils) would overflow into the neighboring regions of Douro and Vinho Verde. 

    • Regions near the coast, such as Bairrada, Lisboa, Tejo and Peninsula de Setubal have more varied soils: some with clay/limestone, others more sand. (Sand is often found at the beach 😉 )
    • There are also more fertile alluvial soils near the riverbanks, such as in Tejo

“Called Ribatejo until 2009 […] Its new name reflects a desire to distance it from its historic reputation for vast quantities of indifferent wine produced by its co-operatives from ultra-high yielding vines grown on the river’s fertile floodplains.”—The Oxford Companion to Wine (Fourth Edition)

“In the late 20th Century, soils not subregions have come to define the region’s best wines. Large, family-owned agricultural estates, which started to make wine themselves in the 1990s rather than selling to the co-operatives, led the migration to poorer soils, grubbing up vineyards along the river, and concentrating production on less fertile, well-drained sandy soils, calcareous clay, and sandstone. New plantings favored better quality vine varieties…”—The Oxford Companion to Wine (Fourth Edition)

Just a note that there are, indeed, better soils in the Tejo region…

3. Vintage variation: The last decade has seen variation as wide as 560 million litres to 710 million litres. With climate change, drought has been a notable factor in recent years, especially in continental, inland regions such as the Douro, Dao and Alentejo. Extreme weather events include hail in the Douro and wildfires in the Dao. Conversely, wet weather in the coastal regions increases risk of poor fruit set and fungal diseases. Trunk disease esca and the grapevine moth are common issues across the board.

4. Climate(s): Vinho Verde—moderate maritime; Dao—moderate Mediterranean; Bairrada—moderate maritime; Alentejo—moderate Mediterranean, Tejo—Mediterranean; Douro Baixo Corgo (west side—Atlantic influence, thus cooler, wetter than the other two regions), Cima Corgo (middle—warmer, drier), Douro Superior (east side—hot, arid)

5. Douro Vineyard Management: Socalos, Patamares, Vinha ao Alto

6. Grapes to know:

“Portugal’s vineyards have evolved in isolation. Only a handful of varieties have crossed international frontiers, leaving Portugal like a viticultural island with a treasure trove of indigenous grape varieties … Since Portugal joined the EU, the most promising have been identified and the overall quality and consistency of wines has commensurately improved.”

    • Douro
      • Touriga Nacional: “High-quality, concentrated, tannic, and perfumed dark-skinned Portuguese variety increasingly cast in a starring role.”*
      • Tempranillo (Tinta Roriz)
      • Tinta Barroca: “[M]eaning ‘black baroque.”* ; “Productive, vigorous, early ripening […] Medium-sized loose bunches that are prone to heat damage and shrivel.”* ; “[P]lanted mainly in the Baixo Corgo and Cima Corgo subregions as it does not like the heat of the Douro Superior.”* According to Wine Grapes (Robinson, Harding, Vouillamoz), its lack of acidity and tendency toward quickly fading color means the wines are at their best in blends.
      • Tinto Cao: “[M]eans ‘red dog’ but the reason for the name is uncertain.”* ; “[U]sed to breed the hugely successful coloring grape Rubired.”* ; “Low yields of small, thick-skined berries that are resistant to botrytis bunch rot. Very late ripening.”* ; “Tinto Cao is one of the five most important port grapes planted in the Douro, Portugal, often described as a little more feminine than, say Touriga Nacional, and although it is particularly valued for vintage port because of its capacity to age, it has never been widely planted—probably because of its low yields […] Now that yield is no longer quite such a critical attribute, plantings of this variety are on the increase.”*
      • Sousao: “High-acid, highly distinctive Portuguese variety making rustic, deeply colored wines in northwest Iberia.”* ; “In Portugal, Vinhao berries are thick-skinned, bunches medium-sized; in Spain, Sousao produces small compact bunches of small to medium -sized berries.” 
      • Vioshinho: “Low-yielding but high-quality aromatic Portuguese variety.”*
      • Rabigato: “Early budding and early to mid ripening. Thin-skinned berries.”* ; “Rabigato comes from the Douro in northern Portugal, where it is grown almost exclusively.”*
      • Gouveio (Godello)
      • Muscat Blanc
    • Vinho Verde
      • Alvharino,
      • Louriero: “Portuguese for ‘laurel,’ referring to the aroma of its berries, which is similar to that of laurel flowers and leaves.”*
    • Dao
      • Touriga Nacional (Fun Fact: According to the Oxford, the grape is thought to originate here),
      • Tempranillo
      • Mencia
      • Encruzado: “Encruzado has great potential—possibly more than any other white variety in Dao—but is a challenge in the winery since it is very prone to oxidation and the loss of its delicate aromas, which can be a complex mix of capsicum, roses, and violets, flinty minerality and lemon.”*
    • Bairrada
      • Baga: “Baga tends to either be loved or loathed—by growers as well as consumers.”* ; “Baga dominates the Bairrada region and DOC, the part of Beiras closest to the coast where Baga represents as much as 90% of the region’s red grapes, producing its best wines in the calcareous clay soils.”* 
      • Maria Gomez: I really wanted to be able to make some reference to a pop star here, or at the very least, some ancient queen or princess for whom it was named. Sorry. 
    • Alentejo
      • Tempranillo (Tinto Roriz),
      • Alicante Bouschet: “Productive, widely dispersed, red-fleshed southern French cross on the wane in France, but waxing in southern Portugal.”* ; “There was a surge in Alicante Bouschet’s popularity in France after phylloxera, in the late 1880s, due especially to its deep color and impressive yeilds […] Spain has an even greater area given over to this variety than France […] more than half of [the] total in Castilla-La Mancha […] Alicante Bouschet’s popularity is also increasing in Portugal, especially in the arid Alentejo in the south, where an increasing number of producers are taking the variety. more seriously and producing impressive, deeply colored and deep-fruited varietal wines.”*
      • Roupeiro: “Aromatic, light-skinned variety widely planted in Portugal under various names, with as many names but fewer wines in Spain.”*
      • Antao Vas: “Sturdy, vigorous and well adapted to the hot, dry Alentejo conditions.”*

7. Winemaking:

  • Some are reverting back to old techniques: Toneis: large Brazilian hardwood; Portuguese oak: large format—3,000—6,000 L; Foot-treading in lagares
  • Some are experimenting with new stuff: Fermenting and/or aging in clay; Fermenting wines on skins for both red and whites in clay is especially popular in DOC Vinho de Talha / Alentejo—Talha meaning ‘clay amphorae’; Pre-fermentation skin contact is common with premium white wines for texture and intensity, as is fermenting white wines on the skins.

8. In general, vineyard holdings are small; Increasing numbers of growers have sought to add value to their grapes by becoming producers themselves;

9. Negociants purchasing own land to diversify/increase quality

10. New Trend: small-volume winemakers who own no vineyards but select vineyards—often old and neglected in overlooked regions or planted to unfashionable native varieties—to source their grapes.

11. Co-ops, once major producer of high-volume, inexpensive wines that ruined reputation of Portugal wines are decreasing and/or adapting to modern tech and increasing quality. (According to the Oxford, pre-EU-accession, legislation actually made it so that only co-operatives could buy from individual grape growers. Meaning any independent producers essentially had to buy pre-made wine. Bummer).

PERSONAL LIGHTBULB MOMENT: Sometimes our text has this weird line when talking about a grape variety’s vine structure “best pruned short.” I just realized that vines that are “best pruned short” are those that have fertile basil buds. Vines with fertile basil buds are usually pretty productive (obvi), so for quality these vines are, indeed, “best pruned short.” Just thought I’d share. Any lightbulb moments you want to share?

*Quotes taken from “Wine Grapes” (Robinson, Harding, Vouilamoz)

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