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Portugal is a small country, but it has an expansive history -- and wines to match. The varied geography is suitable for many different grapes, and wine, enjoyed today at an astounding rate of over 15 1/2 gallons (59 liters) per person each year, has been a staple of daily life at least since Roman times. The Portuguese have a rich tradition of world exploration and trade, and the resulting sense of independence allowed them to develop a wine identity quite separate from the rest of Europe. In a country that has exported quantities of wine since the twelth century, tradition is not easily tampered with. This has both good and bad consequences, but it has without doubt produced one enduring, endearing contribution: port, a sweet fortified wine of great power and depth. Portugal also produces hundreds of table wines ranging from the sublime to the forgettable, categorized in a system that can be hard to understand (though it is becoming more comprehensible). Since the country entered the European Union in 1986, its wine industry has advanced enormously, and today may be making its best table wines ever. Portugal's wines are not well-known, and getting to know them can be fascinating, as the majority are perfect partners for food.


Perched on the western edge of the European continent, Portugal has produced and received world traders as far back as the Phoenicians who brought the first grapevines around 600 B.C. They were followed by Roman (219 B.C.), Swabe, Visigoth and Arab invaders. But despite their seafaring heritage, few rural Portuguese ever traveled beyond the closest villages. Anchored to their land throughout the centuries, vintners maintained hundreds of historical varieties, some of which defy identification or occur nowhere else. In fantastically mixed vineyards and an absence of technical change, local tastes and methods gave rise to unique wines like Vinho Verde and the port wines of the Douro, which are produced within a few miles of each other and yet couldn't be more different.

Friendship between Portugal and England has been critical in the development of its wine industry, and indeed its entire history, and cannot be overemphasized. As non-wine-producers, the English recognized quite early the value of maintaining good relations with a wine supplier independent of France, their ancient rival. In the 1386 Treaty of Windsor they made the Portuguese-English friendship official, and the two countries have remained amicable trading partners ever since, virtually without interruption. This cooperation between the two countries was responsible for the creation of a new product, port, that otherwise might never have been created. It became the nation's gift to all wine connoisseurs.

In succeeding centuries England and France were frequently at war, and even during peace time trade between them could be very difficult. This virtually assured the Portuguese an English market, but Portuguese wines before the late seventeenth century were highly inferior to the French. Dozens of vine varieties were interplanted and dotted about the country almost randomly. Methods and standards were primitive, resulting in thin, sour white wines and reds that were overwhelmingly thick and inky but astringent and hard to drink. To help these unlikable dry wines survive the trip to England, early shippers conceived the idea of fortifying them with brandy. Around 1678, a wine merchant from Liverpool discovered an abbot in the Douro region added brandy during rather than after fermentation, creating sweet, heavy red wines that were much tastier. As the knowledge of the process spread, these new port wines were found to survive shipping and rough treatment and to develop with age into fiery, heart-warming wines unlike all others. The fortification process was applied to other wines as well, and gratified merchants found that some such as those of Madeira were actually improved by the warmth of extended ship travel.

Through tariff preferences, the English Methuan Treaty of 1703 specified Portuguese wines as replacements for French wines, and port commerce thrived. A number of English merchant families bought into port houses and became permanently intertwined with the country's industry. After the popularity and profitability of the new product led to corruption and adulteration, a scandal beginning in the 1730's ultimately prompted the Portuguese prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal, to implement strict new rules regulating port commerce. By delimiting areas in the Douro Valley which could produce port and strictly regulating their production standards, this act of 1756, one of the first historical instances of certifying origin, gave identity to a whole region, benefiting wine lovers ever since. Government regulation still remains critical to port production.

The phylloxera infestations of the late 1800's were particularly devastating in Portugal, and a number of areas never recovered from the blight. Though the geography remained ideal for viticulture, the wine industry -- particularly among table wine producers -- remained impoverished for many years. In the twentieth century, the forty year dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar between the 1930's and 1970's created a one-party state that emphasized centralization and impelled grape growers to sell to local cooperatives. Though this reorganization brought the industry somewhat up to date, it discouraged uniqueness and contributed to the decline of a number of historic areas. With the successful exception of the standardized light ros's Lancers and Mateus, few table wines were exported during this time.

In 1986, Portugal became a member of the European Union, bringing much-needed modernization of laws and procedures and allowing consumers greater confidence and exposure to Portuguese wine. Though not all wines are available on the world market, they have become more visible in a variety that has British wine expert Oz Clarke proclaiming Portugal "the last undiscovered wine country of western Europe." New investment is proving crucial as the industry joins other European countries in the modern era. Sogrape, the country's most important company and parent of the Mateus label, has compensated for decline in demand for its flagship product with diversification of varietals and development of new vineyard areas and facilities, especially in Alentejo. Results thus far are quite promising.


Portugal is roughly rectangular from north to south, about 360 miles long by 120 miles wide, and has nearly 988,000 acres (400,000 hectares) of vines. Vineyard geography includes coastal plains, mountains to several thousand feet, rolling hills and valley slopes. A moderating Atlantic influence on the west coast gives the northern part of the country a maritime climate (warm summer and cool wet winter), with normal rainfall in the north Rios do Minho (Vinho Verde) area as high as 78 inches (2,000 mm), and an average yearly temperature of 50 degrees Farenheight.

Moving south or east, however, the climate becomes much hotter and drier. The Douro and D'o regions, protected from marine influence by mountain ranges, have essentially Mediterranean climates. Southeastern interiors often experience summer temperatures over 95 degrees Farenheight. (35 degrees Celsius) and less than 20 inches (500 mm) rainfall per year.

Soils range from schistous shale and granitic to clay with lime or sand, and chalk. In combination with the varying sub-climates, soil variety contributes substantially to the character and winemaking possibilities of the over one hundred varietals. On the Douro Valley's centuries-old (and meticulously maintained) stone terraces, vines are trained onto wires between stakes of local stone. In other areas, grapes are interplanted with wheat or other crops. In the Minho (Vinho Verde) area, some grapevines are still trained up trees or onto ten foot granite posts called ramadas or latadas. This high overhead trellising minimizes humidity and creates shade for kitchen garden crops such as cabbage. More modern trellising systems include the t-shaped cross (cruzeta) five or six feet off the ground, or the French cordon method which suspends the vines on wires three or four feet high. The latter is the most compatible with mechanical spraying and picking, and provides uniform sun exposure and thus consistent ripening.

Varietal Information

The table wines of Portugal are not only unique; they are uniquely diverse. Old port vineyards in the Douro can contain thirty to forty ancient varieties within a single parcel. Compounding the confusion, Portugal often has its own names for varieties (such as Tempranillo, here called Tinta Roriz) that exist in other countries -- and the northern part of the country often uses a different name from the south! Research done in the last thirty years indicates that the best varieties for red ports are Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Frances, Tinta Roriz, and Tinto C'o, which offer varying flavor and aging components to the blend. For white port, the best varieties are Gouveio (Verdelho), Malvasia Fina, and Viosinho.

Among the best table wines we find some of the same varieties used for port plus a few local specialties: the reds Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz, Baga, Castel'o Frances (Periquita); and white grapes Loureiro, Alvarinho, Arinto and Fern'o Pires, as well as the fabled Muscat of Alexandria, here called Moscatel de Set'bal.

Port Vinifications

The traditional method of making port required a lot of manpower. Historically, the same vineyard workers who harvested grapes in the hot sun all day were expected to return to the quinta (vineyard estate) in the evening to tread grapes in large stone(usually granite) troughs called lagares. Traditional lagares, a few still used, hold from 1500-4000 gallons (most at the low end of the scale), and when full require twenty to sixty workers willing to tread the grapes for several hours. Though as history shows, the human foot is a perfect tool for extracting grape juice and flavor without crushing the seeds (which cause bitterness), labor and social changes now make it impossible to produce more than a very small amount of the most expensive port according to this centuries-old system.

Unlike more "natural" wines that ferment to dryness over as long as two weeks, port reaches the optimal 6-8 degrees Baum' (Brix) in only 24 to 36 hours, when the action of the native yeasts is artificially stopped by addition of neutral grape spirits (aguardente). This brings its alcohol content to 19-20%. To extract maximum color and flavor during its short fermentation, port must be stirred, trodden, or the juice "pumped over" the floating cap of grape skins and stems. In the 1960's, when it became necessary to replace the human-powered lagares system in a countryside with undependable electrical supplies, the ingenious technical response was the autovinification vat. The autovinifier works like a giant percolator. It is naturally powered by the pressure of carbon dioxide produced during fermentation (needing no external power source) and automatically pumps fermenting must over the cap. Traditionally, fermentation temperatures in the lagar or autovinifier can be quite high, but some producers are experimenting with temperature control on white port for a lighter style containing only 16.5-17% alcohol.

Once fermentation has stopped, most producers hold their new port at the quintas until spring, and then send it to the shippers' port lodges in the city of Vila Nova de Gaia on the coast to age (until 1986 this was required by law). The sea coast climate is gentler on maturing wines than the hot Douro Valley. The IVP regulates commerce strictly, allowing no more than one-third of a shipper's stock to be sold in any given year and requiring tasting and analysis before granting the certification that port needs to be exported.

Port Classification/Regulation

The success of government regulation in the port industry encouraged Portugal to remain one of the world's most carefully controlled wine producers. All port wines come from the valley carved by the Douro River, which runs approximately seventy-five miles from the Spanish border (the upper portion of the river is known as the Duero in Spain) almost due west to the northern city of Oporto. The region is divided into three official zones. Closest to the Atlantic coast is the Baixo or Lower Corgo (named for the Corgo river, which joins the Douro above the city of R'gua). It is cooler and wetter than those to the east, and produces lighter ports, including ruby and tawny. The heart of port country is the Cima (higher) Corgo. The source of the finest vintage, single quinta, tawny and Late Bottled Vintage Ports, it is centered around the village of Pinh'o. Furthest east, the driest and least developed area, Douro Superior, has traditionally been too hot and remote for large scale development, but is recognized as having fine port potential.

At all stages of production, port is subject to laws and requirements beyond the regular denominations. Vineyard and production practices are controlled by the Casa do Douro, while blending, aging and shipping are in the hands of the Instituto do Vinho do Porto (IVP). Other districts, whether they produce table or fortified wines, are also controlled by law and tradition, though more experimentation is allowed in areas with a less vigorous industry.

All port is fortified with brandy to around 18% alcohol, making it an unusually stable and long-lived wine. The majority of port is made with red grapes in a number of styles. White port is also made (though of good quality, it is less common and rarely exported). The main variables in all port production are blending and aging. Whether the vintner blends wines from different years and vineyards, ages in bottle or cask, or releases wine young or mature (between two and twenty years!), this assemblage will determine its characteristics and flavors.

Key to the port industry is the Casa do Douro-controlled process of "declaring" a vintage year, which normally happens three or four years out of ten, theoretically only in the finest years. In fact some improvisation occurs, since declaring several great years in a row would over-saturate the port market. Thus some fine years are made into the lesser status (and less expensive) categories.

The most famous and costly port is Vintage port. It is produced from red grapes and must come from a single declared year, though not from a single vineyard. It is usually bottled and released after about two years, and traditionally needs ten to fifteen years of cellar aging to mature and soften. In the process of maturing, it usually deposits heavy sediment and needs to be decanted upon serving.

In undeclared years, Single Quinta or Off-Vintage Ports are the next finest, but these must come from a single vineyard (quinta). With the same production and similar qualities to vintage ports, they also mature in the bottle, but may not be released until eight to ten years after the vintage when they are nearly ready to drink.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port contains wine from a single year but is aged four to six years in cask before bottling and release, when it is ready to drink. Its quality can vary considerably, depending on the vintage and producer. Those labeled traditional are unfiltered.

Crusted Port is made from a blend of several vintages and bottled young like Vintage Port. It leaves a "crust" (sediment) in the bottle as it ages and must be decanted, but is of good quality.

Though Tawny Port is delicious, it is unfortunately considered a less "serious" wine than Vintage Port. Produced in a softer, more approachable style and composed of wines from many years, it is aged in cask and meant to be drunk when released. Higher quality tawnies are age-designated ten, twenty, thirty or even forty years, the number indicating the average age of the component wines in the blend.

The designation Vintage Character is confusing but still offers some fine examples. It is a blend of several years aged in casks five to seven years until ready to drink. The finest use the best lots from several vintages for wines with the "character" or personality of Vintage Port -- without the need for extended aging or decanting (most are lightly filtered).

Ruby Port is considered less serious, though refreshing. It is the Beaujolais Nouveau of ports, often suitable as an aperitif, while more venerable ports are best enjoyed toward the end of meals. It is bottled and drunk young, and is fresher and less deep in flavor.

Table Wines - Classification

Among unfortified table wines, Portugal's wine classifications are less daunting. From simplest to grandest, they are:

Vinho de Mesa (everyday table wine - not for export)

Vinho Regional (regional wine)

Indica'o de Proveni'ncia Regulamentada (IPR), also know as Vinho de Qualidade Produzido em Regi'o Determinada (VQPRD)

Denomina'o de Origem Controlada (DOC), equivalent to the French Appellation Contr'l'e.

While more DOC areas are clustered in the northern regions (except for a few in the Algarve in the far south), the above classifications sometimes indicate more political than wine-making consideration and should be taken with a grain of salt. Innovation can be more common among the less exalted classifications, making the producer's name a more reliable index of quality than classification. This means that IPR and even Vinhos Regionales wines can be as exciting as anything with a DOC designation, though all three still tend to be reasonably priced.


The table wines of Portugal are not only unique; they are uniquely diverse. Old port vineyards in the Douro can contain thirty to forty ancient varieties within a single parcel. Compounding the confusion, Portugal often has its own names for varieties (such as Tempranillo, here called Tinta Roriz) that exist in other countries -- and the northern part of the country often uses a different name from the south! Research done in the last thirty years indicates that the best varieties for red ports are Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Frances, Tinta Roriz, and Tinto C'o, which offer varying flavor and aging components to the blend. For white port, the best varieties are Gouveio (Verdelho), Malvasia Fina, and Viosinho.

Among the best table wines we find some of the same varieties used for port plus a few local specialties: the reds Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz, Baga, Castel'o Frances (Periquita); and white grapes Loureiro, Alvarinho, Arinto and Fern'o Pires, as well as the fabled

Muscat of Alexandria, here called Moscatel de Set'bal.











Alentejo is a large, sparsely populated southeastern region famous for its cork forests, grain and olives, but recent investment on the part of large producers such as Sogrape has put a new spotlight on its wines. The best are full powerful reds with lush, velvety character from red grapes Aragonez (known as Tinta Roriz in the north and Tempranillo in Spain), Periquita, Trincadeira Preta, and Alfrocheiro. Among white grapes, the Roupeiro is considered the finest in Alentejo.

Apart from port, Portugal has a number of other fine fortified wines. The lovely Moscatel de Set'bal features the white Muscat of Alexandria grape brought by Phoenicians over 2,000 years ago. This wine has nine to ten percent residual sugar and is left on the skins for several months after fermentation. Fortified with brandy to 18% alcohol, it has a vivid muscat character with orange, almond and wild flower bouquet.


Historically Bairrada wines posed an economic threat to port and were sometimes blended or misrepresented as such. Consequently the Marquis of Pombal's 1756 delimitation of the Douro as the sole legitimate port region also ordered the destruction of the Bairrada vineyards. When they were eventually replanted, the red Baga grape became most popular. Today comprising over seventy percent of Bairrada's production, it traditionally produces dark, highly tannic wines, but with modern techniques can also produce softer, lighter wines (including ros's). Sixty percent of Bairrada's production goes into white, ros' and red sparkling wines; fine non-sparkling ros's are also produced, always entirely from red grapes. Maria Gomes (Fern'o Pires) and Bical are white varietals used for the white sparkling wines (these have no DOC status).


The dry, acidic white wines of Bucelas, produced from the Arinto and Esgana C'o (Sercial) varieties, have a history going back to Shakespeare (who mentioned them in Henry IV, Part II), the Duke of Wellington and Thomas Jefferson. The area had dwindled to only one wine producer, but since the early 1990's a few smaller firms are trying to revive the legacy of the area, just north of Lisbon. The Arinto variety has a slight bitterness, light acidity and a bit of sparkle.


Colares is best-known in the wine world for its sandy soil, which protected it from the nineteenth century scourge of phylloxera. It produces small quantities of an unusual red wine from the Ramisco grape.


Over eighty percent of the table wines of the Dao region are red, with Touriga Nacional the most respected varietal (twenty percent minimum content is required). The area is recovering from Salazar-era cooperative laws that discouraged private winemaking until 1989, but has fine potential. Its best reds are firm and tannic, though traditionally they have been overaged. White wines are made from a number of varietals including Malvasia Fina (here called Assario), Encruzado, Cerceal and Bical.

The garrafeira designation is used increasingly in the Dao region to indicate finer wines. The term, which means a private cellar or reserve, indicates wines from an exceptional year which have been aged at least two years in cask and one in the bottle for red wines (six months in cask plus six months in the bottle for white wines) and requires an alcoholic content 0.5 percent higher than the legal minimum for the DOC region. It is the table wine equivalent of the Single Quinta Port, though may also be a special blend from different regions (in this case the garrafeira will carry the name of its blender/shipper).


Since all areas of the country are suited to grape cultivation, Portugal encompasses a lot of diversity. The Douro, which alone cultivates more than eighty grape varieties, uses half its grapes to produce port. The rest of the harvest is vinified into fine table wines in styles ranging from light and fresh to deep, smoky and tannic. Like port, the finest are cultivated on ancient schistous shale terraces lining the river valley, and come from red varietals Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca, Touriga Francesa and Tinto C'o. White varieties, also used for white port, include Malvasia Fina, Viosinho, and Gouveio.


In the Atlantic 400 miles due west of the Moroccan coast and 625 miles from the Portuguese mainland lies the sub-tropical island of Madeira, discovered in the fifteenth century. Madeira DOC wines are cousins of other Portuguese wines but really deserve a category all to themselves. The capital Funchal has been heavily trafficked since the age of exploration, and as in the Douro, its trading history has created its finest products.

Like port, Madeira wines are sweet and fortified with brandy, but their unusually high acidity makes them the world's longest-lived. The finest can even be stored upright without risk of oxidation. These are the wines that traders first discovered improved with the protracted aging required on merchant sailing ships. Colonial era consumers created a fad for them, and were willing to pay higher prices for wines that had made the round trip sea voyage rather than being aged on the island.

The mellowness they appreciated in these Madeiras was created by gentle equatorial warmth over a long period, and since the beginning of the twentieth century, when ship travel became too costly, vintners have substituted other systems of "cooking" (estufagem) the wine for the same effect. The most basic entails heating the wine with stainless steel coils in concrete tanks (cubas de calor) as large as 13,200 gallons to a temperature of 40-50 degrees Celsius.(122 degrees Farenheight.) for at least three months. As with Tawny Port, aging in Madeira is an indicator of quality, and the finer the wine, the more extended the cask age. Gentler estufagem treatments for finer quality wines use smaller casks (600 liters/158 gallons) and longer time in "warm rooms" (armazens de calor) heated by steam pipes, or simply extended natural outdoor heat under the eaves of the lodges of Funchal. The latter vinhos de canteiro, the most rarefied, age in their casks for a minimum of twenty years.

Lesser Madeiras use large amounts of the basic white Tinta Negra Mole grape, while the better quality ones use the traditional "noble" varieties Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey (Malvasia), in accordance with Madeira Wine Institute regulations. Though in earlier years producers had more leeway, since 1993 the European Union rule requires any bottle listing a noble varietal to contain a minimum of 85 percent of the indicated variety and to eliminate the Tinta Negra Mole completely.