Portugal has become a hot spot for white wine
Beyond Port, and echoing the rise of dry red wines, the white wines of Portugal are currently the most exciting thing happening on the Iberian Peninsula.
Portugal will forever be known as the land of Port. The historic and ageworthy fortified wines of the Douro were amongst the first in the wine world to be granted official appellation status, back in 1756 when the Região Demarcada do Douro was created by the Marquis de Pombal. More recently, Portugal’s dry red table wines have been having a heyday, propelled by progressive collectives like the Douro Boys, whose deep winemaking roots and family trees reach back to the 17th century. Facing declining Port wine sales worldwide in the early 2000s, the Douro Boys realized they needed to focus on dry table wines to continue telling the unique stories of their dramatic and ancient slate and granite terroir, extreme climate and autochthonous grapes. Grapes are thought to have been grown in the land that is now Portugal for at least 4,000 years. The Phoenicians most likely introduced winemaking to the south, and the Romans spread vine cultivation and winemaking farther north as they drove out the northern Celts.
Portugal’s coastal location helped its vineyards grow as they supplied thirsty England, a political and military ally. England drew on Portuguese wine supplies often throughout the 15th century, and especially during England’s frequent battles with France. The 1386 Treaty of Windsor gave rise to much trade in wine from the cool northwest of Portugal to England, mostly high-acid, light red wines exported out of the port of Viana do Castelo, in today’s Vinho Verde. Of course, the English merchants were the ones to build and solidify the Port wine trade and make the Douro Valley world renowned, but even then, more than 200 years ago, dry wines were being made in the Douro. Traditions and export markets for table wines dried up as the Port wine market took off, while phylloxera and World Wars I and II took strangling hold of the land and manpower. To invigorate viticulture, beginning in 1937, the Junta Nacional do Vinho established more than 100 cooperatives in less than 20 years. The consequence of this system, imposed by the government, was the high-volume production of poor-quality wines. Thankfully, when Portugal joined the EU in 1986, independent quintas were allowed the freedom to act under their own authority, and since then wine quality and personality rose, steadily, through to the current day.
Today’s Portuguese table wines are amongst the most interesting and exciting on the planet. Partner the country’s 250ish autochthonous grape varieties with keen and educated winemakers, viticulturists who care about place and sustainability, and a drinking public around the world interested in what is new and authentic, and you can realize the potential. Quality producers are rediscovering ancient varieties and revitalizing historic properties, while moving quickly forward to modernize production and style. The overripe, over-wooded and overwrought table wines of the past are being replaced with pure-fruited, site-showcasing styles, many highlighting ancient varieties in transparent, low-interventionist ways.
I’ve seen a massive shift in focus to white wines in the last couple of years, with producers seeking out cooler sites where these varieties can thrive in the basking Iberian sun. There’s also a big push skywards, for higher-altitude plantings, as well as attention paid to cooler soils, coastal breezes or windy rivulets, and earlier picking dates to preserve the freshness of grapes like Arinto, Azal, Trajadura, Códega, Alvarinho, Cercial, Bical, Encruzado, Gouveio, Jampal, Larynho, Rabigato, Verdelho, Viosinho and others.
From north to south, here are four regions that are excelling with white wines that you need to know about.
If you were to ask someone to name a region in Portugal for white wine, chances are they’ll come up with Vinho Verde. In this verdant, hilly region in north-western Portugal, the temperature is cooler and marine influenced, reflected in lighter-bodied, fresher wines. Grape vines know no political boundaries; many of the whites of Vinho Verde are also grown across the border with Spain, in Galicia. Portuguese Alvarinho alters to Albariño, Trajadura turns into Treixadura, and Gouveio goes to Godello. The vines mostly grow in fertile, granite soils along rivers that flow from the mountains of the east out to the Atlantic, carving out nine distinct sub-regions, of which Monção e Melgaço, the farthest north, reigns supreme. Though the whites are mainly blends of local grapes (and the cheaper Vinho Verde’s often carry spritz), there are many serious single varieties found which are quite distinct.
Anselmo Mendes Muros Antigos Alvarinho 2016, Vinho Verde ($20)
You think Vinho Verde is fizzy simple juice? Think again. Anselmo Mendes is one of Vinho Verde’s icons, and this is from northern Vinho Verde’s Monção and Melgaço subregion, regarded as a “cru” in quality. Its sloping granitic hillsides imbue a bright freshness into this fuller Alvarinho. Confident but quiet, with creamy herbal bosc pear, pear blossoms, meadow herbs and a filigree of sea salts lining the juicy palate, one buoyed with an easy, natural acidity. Precise mineral pixels frame and carry this VV, one of the more serious and ageworthy ones you’ll see.
Quinta do Ameal Loureiro 2016, Vinho Verde ($15)
This single-variety Loureiro is from the Vinho Verde subregion of Ponte de Lima. Pedro Araujo focuses on serious, long-lived wines, farms organically and specializes in the ancient and elegant Louriero grape. Yields are very low from the sloping granitic soils, and the grape is handled gently from picking to pressing. Up to 6 months in stainless steel, and low oxygen exposure, preserves the delicate freshness of the grape, one usually blended into Vinho Verde wines. On its own here, the wine is light and crisp, with subtle pear blossoms, shining grapefruit acidity and a lick of anise. What shines brightest is the lime pith and minerality on the finish. Light bodied (11.5%) and vibrant, and perfectly suited to light white fish and shellfish.
When I was in the Douro for the 2016 harvest, I was struck by how many new high-altitude plantings I saw, almost all of which were for white grapes. At the regal and majestic Quinta do Crasto, perched on the right bank of one of the most spectacular spots in the Douro Valley between Régua and Pinhao, talented winemaker Manuel Lobo has planted vineyards at the highest and coolest elevations of the property, at 500 metres altitude. The highly schistose-soiled, steep and windy site is entirely dedicated to white grapes, a focus going forward for the quinta. Some of the field blends of historic grapes that had traditionally gone into White Port have been repatriated for chiselled, mineral and structural whites. Gouveio, Malvasia Fina, Moscatel, Rabigato and Viosinho are finding a new calling in the hands of the next-gen Douro.
Niepoort Dialogo Douro Branco 2016, Douro Superior ($20)
This youthful white may have a comic on its label, but make no mistake, this is a serious wine, from one of the world’s top winemakers, Dirk Niepoort. From schistose, mica-flecked vineyards on the right bank of the Douro, between 550 and 700 m, this blend of indigenous Portuguese white grapes is native-fermented in a split between stainless and older French barriques (30%), no MLF, and where it remains for 8 months. In 2016, the blend is 20–50-year-old Rabigato, Códega do Larinho, Gouveio, Dona Branca, Viosinho, Bical and others. Tight, mineral-laced green fig, lemon thistle, meadow herbs and fine salts over a creamy bed of lees, all youthful and highly quaffable.
Quinta do Crasto 2015 Superior Branco, Douro Superior ($20)
Viosinho and Verdelho from the Douro Superior spent 6 months of bâttonage on the OXOline, with 60% new wood and 15% headed with acacia barrel tops. The effect is certainly felt in this full-bodied, powerful and structured white. Herbal, waxy acacia lines the creamy body, with lemon curd, thick lees and cloves. A welcome, strong and fine backbone of acidity helps keep this voluminous wine from overwhelming at this young stage. A few years in the cellar would be welcome.
In the western part of the Beiras, tucked between the mountainous Dão and Atlantic beaches, spills the hilly region of Bairrada. The mild, maritime climate sheds much rain on the flatter vineyard lands, most of which are divided between the two main soil types of clay-limestone, and sand. High-quality sparkling wine is made in this region, as the white grapes can clasp onto the cooler climate’s fresh acidity and thrive on the limestone-studded soils, both ringing qualities in the steely, streamlined, long-lived dry whites. Maria Gomes is predominant amongst white grapes, along with Arinto, Bical, Cercial and Rabo de Ovelha.
Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas Branco 2017, Beiras ($25)
Luis Pato’s family has been producing wine since the 18th century, with his father João the first to bottle wine in Bairrada DOC after it was officially demarcated as an appellation. Together they are credited with bringing Bairrada back to life, legitimately. Unoaked and raised in stainless steel, this bright trio of indigenous Becal, Cerceal and Sercialinho grapes reflect their pure-fruited nature and chalky clay soils like a mirror. Smoked stone, herbal white grapefruit, pear skin and lemon pith on the nose carry to a creamy, oily, leesy texture with ripe bitter melon, white peach and Asian pear, quince, wild honey, pine nuts and a perfumed elderflower blossom. Beauty freshness and energy, tempered by a bitter edge.
Filipa Pato 2016 Nossa Calcario Branco, Bairrada ($25)
Want to really confuse your wine geek friends? Pour this 100% Bical from the legendary village of Oís do Bairro (Filipa’s hometown) and watch them all go for top-tier Burgundy. Filipa is Luis’ daughter, and scion of the legendary Bairrada wine family, but she has more than proven her worth and gone her own way, making wines that reflect the historic terroir and grapes but through a fresh vision. 10% of this wine spent time on skins in amphora with the remainder aged in older French barrels. Native-fermented, it streams wild herbs, green apple, bosc pear and pixelated citrus along a mineral-driven, textured palate. So much energy, in such a streamlined form; such a delight to drink.
This long, thin coastal region climbing up alongside the Atlantic used to be known as Estremadura. Coastal winds are prevalent and strong, turning coastal vines hardy quickly. Inland, past a spine of chalky hills and chains of mountains, vines are offered protection and warmth to build body and ripeness. There are nine subregions in Lisboa, notably the two tiny coastal ones at the very bottom, Colares and Carcavelos. Once famed for their table and fortified wines, they have, in recent years, lost vineyards to real estate and development. Interestingly, the subregion of Bucelas is demarcated solely for its white wines, produced from the grape varietal Arinto, a highlight of the area. Fernão Pires, Malvasia and Vital make up most of the remaining white vine plantings, used both in various blends and as solo wines.
Quinta da Murta Bucelas 2013, Bucelas, Lisboa ($18)
Bucelas, northeast of Lisbon, is one of the most famous regions of Portugal for dry whites. It was here that arinto was first cultivated by the Romans 2,000 years ago, and where the grape still shines today, with the coastal limestone and marl soils ideally suited to this local citrus and herbal-driven white. Quinta da Murta’s biodynamic vineyards are located at around 250 m in the chalky hills. After a spell of skin contact and gentle pressing, this light-bodied white was tank-fermented on full lees for up to 6 months, resulting in crisp, saline-brisk lemon, pine nuts and hay woven amidst finely creamy lees. Subtly textural, humming with acidity, with ample saline notes on the lingering finish (a beauty 12.5%). Tastes of the sea; pairs with oysters, gooseneck barnacles or any fresh shellfish. Drinking beautifully now, and with capacity to age. Fantastic value.
Quinta do Sanguinhal 2015 Quinta de Cerejeiras Reserva Branco, Lisboa ($35)
Sanguinhal is one of the oldest wineries in Lisboa, and this wine is only made in the best vintages, living up to its Reserva name. Oak plays a major role here, cushioning the palate and structuring this serious, full-bodied blend of estate sandy/clay soiled Chardonnay, Arinto and Vital. Sanguinhal uses no chemical inputs in their vineyards, adopting some biodynamic philosophies and ample integrated pest management. The Chardonnay was fermented and aged in 600 L French oak, with the remainder spending time in stainless for 8 months, after which all was blended and transferred to stainless for tightening prior to bottling. Honey, orange curd and a creamy mid come courtesy of the Chardonnay, while the brisk acidity, herbal citrus and pine-nuttiness are a tip to the Arinto and Vital. Quite complete now in youth, and at an impressive 13.5 %, this is certainly age worthy.