Welcome to Portugal! Due to its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, the majority of the country’s grape growing regions have a moderate maritime climate. However, there are inland areas that experience hot, dry weather patterns, thus are categorized as continental. With the various climatic conditions, it comes as no surprise that the range of grapes grown and wines produced vary from region to region.
[Information based on WSET Level 3 material]
No, this is not, as I thought, the name of a grape. Vinho Verde is, in fact, the most northern and western region of Portugal. As such, it has that moderate maritime climate, with the biggest vineyard risk being high annual rainfall that will promote mildew, rot, and fungal diseases, especially on those grape vines that experience excessive canopy growth. INTERESTING ANECDOTE: Traditionally, to mitigate these risks, vines were planted on a pergola system—which totally makes sense, as it keeps the grapes and leaves off the soggy ground and encourages airflow. However, with modernization, most vines today are spur-pruned VSP. This also assists with airflow, but also allows for the use of vineyard mechanization.
When it comes to the wines made, its white wine that rules: off-dry, high acidity, but low alcohol (8% to 11% ABV—makes sense given the weather pattern) is the typical description. However, it is noted that if a grape variety, sub-region or an authorized quality labelling term is mentioned on the label, the wine can have up to 14% ABV.
Grapes to know:
- Loureiro and Arinto: known to have a slight sparkling sensation that enhances freshness
- Alvarinho: or Albariño in Spain, is grown in a small, designated sub-region called Moncao e Melgaco; it has slightly higher alcohol (11.5% to 14% ABV) and riper, more tropical aromas.
Note: Black varieties are also grown for the production of both red and rosé wines. Red wines are typically deep-colored and tannic; rosés fresh and fruity.
FUN FACT: Douro is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world. That’s cool. Now, most people think of Port production when they think of Douro—I know I sure do. But while the region is dominated by Port production, both red and white non-fortified wines are produced.
The Douro Valley is located inland of Vinho Verde, and, as such, is shielded from the cooling influence of the Atlantic Ocean; the area is defined as a continental climate. That being said, it is noted that the region is not uniform: The Baixo Corgo in the west is the coolest and wettest (probably because it’s the closest to the ocean); the vineyards then become progressively hotter and dryer the further east and inland you go. Consequently, the types of wines each region produces are a bit different as well: In Baixo Corgo, the wines are some of the lightest; Cima Corgo is where the greatest number of vineyards are found; Douro Superior is actually sparsely planted, but is the renowned source of top-quality wines.
The biggest vineyard risks are spring frosts and rain during flowering. Conversely, summers are very warm and dry and overall rainfall during the growing season is quite low. GOOD NEWS: The region’s soil composition consists of schist bedrock, which fractures vertically, allowing water preservation and for vines and roots to be able to reach that reserved winter rain.
Vineyards in both Baixo Corgo and Cima Corgo are planted on very tall, steep slopes—the base of which is the Douro River. There are clear temperature differences between the top and bottom of these slopes (due to altitude). Grape growers also have options as to the aspect at which grapes are planted—here, because of the hot conditions, many growers actually opt for north-facing vineyards to avoid direct sunlight. Traditionally, vines were planted on narrow terraces called socalcos, which were supported by stone walls. As you can imagine, this was not conducive to good vineyard spacing, not to mention mechanization. Though the system is still used, a more modern vineyard technique is called patamares: these terraces are built without the retaining wall and with a wide enough spacing that tractors can actually get through. Where slope angles are low, an unterraced system called vinha ao alta is often used: vines are planted up and down the slope and accessed by roads cutting across the slope. The downfall to these two new systems is that they are particularly prone to erosion, thus not viable options on some of the steepest slopes.
Grapes to Know:
- Touriga Nacional
- Touriga Franca
- Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo)
- Tinta Barroca
- Tinta Cao
Of all those listed above, it is Touriga Nacional that is the most important and considered the highest quality. Note: These are the grapes utilized for both red port and non-fortified red wines in Douro. Also Note: white wines are also produced from grapes grown in the higher-altitude vineyards.
Moving south, we hit the region of Dao, which is noted for its slopes and hillsides. Here, we hit the continental climate, as the area experiences cold, wet winters and warm, dry summers with significant temperature variation between day and night. Fortunately, this all adds up to a well-rounded grape-growing experience.
Unlike the red wines of Douro, which are described as deep colored, full bodied, with high tannins, and black fruit flavors, the red wines of Dao are delicate with red fruit aromas, soft tannins and high acidity. (Again, makes sense given the environmental conditions.)
Grapes to Know:
- Touriga Nacional
- Tinta Roriz
- Jaen: Known as Mencia in Spain
- Alfrocheiro: deep-colored, red wine with intense aromas of blackberry and strawberry
- Encruzado: white variety that produces wines in a range of styles
We’re back near the ocean with a moderate maritime climate, rainy winters, and warm summers. The key term here in Bairrada is late-ripening. Those rains can sometimes occur during harvest time and impede the final growing stages of late-ripening varieties. The main grape grown is Baga, a late-ripening red wine grape that is small, thick-skinned, and produces wines that are deep in color with high amounts of tannins. These grapes truly benefit from late picking to ensure softer texture and the full intensity of its black fruit flavors.
Other Grapes to Know: Touriga Nacional, Alfrocheiro, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot (for the red wine grapes), Bical, and Maria Gomes (is that a popstar?) (for the white wine grapes).
This large, southern Portugues region is spread out over eight sub-regions. Overall, Alentejo has a warm growing season, but as you can guess with the size of this place, small climatic differences will be found among the sub-regions, providing a range of different wine styles to be produced.
The typical red blend is made of Aragones (Tempranillo) and Trincadeira (a drought-tolerant grape with spicy red berry flavors and high tannins), and sometimes Alicant Bouschet. Other grapes used: Touriga Nacional and Syrah. White wine grapes to know: Arinto, Antao Vaz, and Roupeiro—fruity and floral white wines with medium to high levels of acidity.
This is the word used in Portugal for PGI wines. The largest Vinho Regional region, in terms of production, is Vinho Regional Alentejano, based around the Alentejo DOC. Winemaking regulations are more liberal (as per usual with PGI wines) as are the types of grapes that can be used—particularly regarding international varieties.
Other Vinho Regional regions to know: Lisboa, Peninsula de Setubal, and Tejo.
No wine reviews today, I don’t know that I would even know where to source a Portuguese wine or what to try first! Any wines you’ve tried that you’d like to recommend? Let’s hear it. Anything you want to add or ask about this regional overview? Thanks again for playing with me!
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