From its southern beaches to the breathtaking mountains of the north, Portugal is a land of contrasts and Portuguese wines are no exception. In this European country of incredibly beautiful landscapes, food and wine are fundamental. In fact, although the country has experienced a modernization phase in the last few decades, tradition is still proudly guarded.
In 1756 the vineyards of the Douro became the world’s first to be legally demarcated: the Região Demarcada do Douro was born. In December 2001, the Alto Douro Wine Region was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Keeping in with their traditional ways, winemakers in Portugal have prioritized and developed their indigenous varieties of grapes, which makes Portuguese wines quite unique.
When in Portugal, you will have the opportunity to try all the types of wine in the spectrum: from refreshing whites and rosés or elegant reds to sparkling and world-famous ports. Read on for some tips on where to drink what.
Arguably, the most famous Portuguese wine is Porto (“Port”), a fortified wine made of the unique blend of Portuguese indigenous grapes such as the Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa or Tinta Barroca. Seldom found elsewhere, these varieties are perfectly suited to the hot, arid conditions of the Douro Valley and are the source of much of Port’s unique and distinctive character.
Port wine is produced in Portugal’s Douro Valley, one of the oldest and most beautiful vineyard areas in the world. It is traditionally fermented in lagars (a type of winepress) where grapes are stomped on by barefoot people. Today, although most Port wineries have automatized their lagars with mechanical “feet”, visitors to the area can still take part in the original wine-stomping process during the harvest months. If this idea amuses you, be aware that you will depart the winery with great memories and… purple-feet!
To better understand Port’s many styles and characteristic flavors, visit one of the many open-to-the-public quintas (Portuguese wine producing estate) and take part in a guided tasting. You can try everything from a Reserve or a Late Bottled Vintage to an Aged Tawny or a deliciously complex Vintage one, while an expert shares the myriad of reasons that make Port one of the most famous wines in the world.
Long famous as the birthplace of Port wine, Portugal is now also renowned for its fine, unfortified wines, both red and white. In order to get a better understanding of where each is made, take a look at the main Portuguese wine regions:
Whether you know much about Port or nothing at all, a visit to Portugal’s wine country is not complete without a stopover in its birthplace, the Douro Valley.
The Douro Valley is one of the oldest and most beautiful European wine regions. Portuguese wines have been made in the area for at least two thousand years -when the vines were first planted. Viticulture developed over the centuries with the introduction of new grape varieties and winemaking techniques by the Ancient Greeks, Celts and Romans.
One of the most impressive things about the Douro Valley is the region’s iconic landscapes: the winding roads alongside the river provide a perfect view of the man-made terraced vineyards on the mountains. Picturesque quintas nestled up on the steep slopes complete the awe-inspiring scenery. Be prepared… driving up these curvy roads might get you dizzy even before you taste your first Portuguese wine!
This Portuguese wine region holds Portugal's highest wine classification: Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC) and while it is usually associated with Port, it also produces table wine (typically referred to as "Douro wines").
Lisboa is one of Portugal's wine regions northwest of the city of Lisbon, which makes it the perfect escapade for those spending some days in the namesake city. In 2009, the region was renamed from Estremadura to Lisboa to avoid confusion with the Spanish wine region of Extremadura and to capitalize on the internationally well-known name of the country's capital.
The region stretches from Lisbon to the Bairrada DOC along the Atlantic coast, and it is Portugal's largest producer of wine by volume. Lisboa is classified as a Vinho Regional (VR) region, a designation similar to the French “Vin de Pays”. Geographically, the two largest classifications are VR Beiras and VR Alentejo.
It is believed that Madeira's fortified wines keep nearly forever -they have been known to survive for more than two hundred years. What makes the island’s wine production unique is the estufagem aging process, meant to replicate the effect that a long sea voyage through tropical climates would have on the aging barrels.
This Atlantic island has oceanic climate with tropical influences and it enjoys mild temperatures throughout the year. Its landscape is extremely mountainous: that is why the vines grow on man-made terraces on the steep slopes of the deep valleys. Madeira’s soils are volcanic, fertile and rich in organic matter: grapes here have high acidity –a distinguishing feature of the island’s wines.
A little over three quarters of the vineyards of this insular Portuguese wine region are planted with Tinta Negra, which is used to make fortified wines.
Vinho Verde is the largest DOC of Portugal in the cool, rainy, lush northwest. The vines grow in fertile, granite soils which is why these Portuguese wines have a characteristic high acidity.
Although vinho verde literally means “green wine”, its name has nothing to do with its color but rather with its acidity and freshness, resembling unripe (green) fruit. In fact, vinho verde may be white, rosé, red, sparkling or even late harvest. They are usually light and crisp, easy to drink and mostly a blend of grapes. Some vinhos verde can be slightly fizzy but this is by no means a generalization, although many people still think this to be a rule that applies to all the wines produced in this Portuguese wine region.
The Vinho Verde region has a lot more to offer than just its wines: nature, history and traditional flavors will make for an incredible vacation in Portugal’s northernmost region.
Continental or insular, the wine regions Portugal offers are diverse and captivating. The country is covered in vineyards, from northern Porto to southern Algarve; from Setubal on the Atlantic coast to Alentejo on the Spanish border or the islands of Azores and Madeira. Wherever you choose to go to in Portugal, rest assured that you will find examples of the best and most typical local wines round every corner.
Saúde e boa viagem!