Its location on the western edge of the Iberian Peninsula, a weak economy in the early 1900s and a military dictatorship that lasted for almost forty years essentially put Portugal in self-imposed isolation for most of the twentieth century. Without outside intervention, vineyards were left to their own devices —at a time when other European countries were playing Twister to see who could plant the most international varietals.
This is not to say that Portuguese wines were completely forgotten. Port and Madeira continued to thrive. And the semi-sparkling pink wines known under the Mateus, Casal Mendes and Lancers labels — a great wine-marketing success story onto themselves — managed to flourish through the turbulent times.
Even today, now that it’s fully part of the European Union and has complete access to everything wine-and-grape fashionable, Portugal still embraces its heritage and concentrates on native grapes — at last count some 500 or so. For reds, the top dog is Touriga Nacional, the backbone of Port and of increasing amounts of powerful, dry reds. Tinta Roriz (aka Aragonez, aka Spain’s Tempranillo) works well on its own, but is often blended, providing a D. Wade touch to Touriga’s Shaq.
The Baga grape’s best effort is in the centre’s Bairrada, where it is used to make deeply coloured reds, which are high in tannin (funnily enough, it also dominates the blend in Mateus rosé). In the south, there are two grapes of note: Castelao/Periquita, which produces flavourful, structured reds while Trincadeira lusts for heat, making intense, fruit-driven wines.
For whites, Alvarinho may be the most famous grape in Vinho Verde, but it only occupies a small percentage of the vineyards. Lourriero, the other white grape of the northern area of the country has come out of the woodwork and is garnering much praise for its elegance and freshness.
Encruzado is only found in Dão (east of Barraida), where it yields high-quality wines. The aromatic Bical is at home both in Dão and Bairrada. And in southern Alentejo, Anatao Vaz sits on a pedestal, often blended with Arinto to give some freshness.
The other distinctive factor of Portugal is its climate. With temperatures that range from hot to torrid, low yields and concentrated berries are generally the norm, which translates into quality wines. Indigenous has never tasted so good.
88 Terras de Felgueiras Rosado, Vinho Verde ($12.50)
Superb bang for the buck! Made from the red Espadeiro grape and left on its skins for a short time to obtain a light pink colour. Smooth and refreshing with strawberry, nuts and smokey flavours. Very good length.
87 Terras de Felgueiras Branco, Vinho Verde ($12.50)
You will be hard-pressed to find a sparkling wine of this calibre even at double the price. Made in the traditional method and left on its lees for nine months, it displays nuts, caramel and peach on the nose with a fruity finish that lingers. Superb value.
86 Herdade do Esporão Vinha da Defesa, Alentejo ($13.95)
A fairly aromatic wine with mineral, lime, peach and citrus flavours. The mouth feel is thick with a distinctive spicy finish. A blend of Antao Vaz, Arinto and Roupieros.
86 Sogrape Duque de Viseu Vinhos 2004, Dão ($11.95)
A blend of Bical and Encruzado that was partially aged in small barrels. The colour is pale yellow with a bouquet of peach, caramel, honey, melon, white flowers and spice. The palate shows much of the same. Very good length with a spicy/lemon finish.
84 Sogrape Quinta de Azevedo Vinho Verde 2004, Vinho Verde ($11.95)
Vinho Verde translates as “green wine,” in reference to its youth rather than its colour. The typical spritz associated with these wines is there, as well as peach, floral and citrus tones. The mouth is light and airy with lots of lemon peel. Good length. Ideal with salt-cod fritters.
89 Sogrape Callabriga 2003, Douro ($19.95)
From a fabulous vintage in the Douro Valley — think 2003-vintage Ports! This is a full-bodied offering with an impressive black colour and a purple rim. It showcases an intense nose of blackberries, black cherries, spice and mint. The palate delivers lots of sweet berry fruit, a long finish and a touch of heat. A hearty offering, which is ideal for those winter stews and casserole. Majority Tinta Roriz with Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca. Now to 2010.
87 Quinta da Alorna Trincadeira 2002, Ribatejo ($18.95)
Made entirely from Trincadeira. The wine displays a perfume of dark fruits, black cherries, spice and smoke. Soft palate, ripe and succulent. In one word-delicious!
87 Sogrape Quinta dos Carvalhais Colheita 2002, Dão ($18.95)
A blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and the more obscure Alfrocheiro. Medium-bodied with spicy, dark fruits (namely black cherries and blackberries) and violets. Very good length with a somewhat tannic finish that provides short-term aging potential. Now to 2009.
86 Vinhos D. Joana Encostas de Estremoz Touriga Nacional 2003, Alentejano ($17.95)
Made from 100 per cent Touriga Nacional. The wine displays a dark cherry colour and a nose of plums, cherries, spice, flowers and toast. Flavorful with lots of dark fruits on the finish.
85 Sogrape Duque de Viseu 2004, Dão ($12.95)
A soft and approachable red with lots of plums, cherries and black pepper. A balanced offering that finishes smooth and is ideal for an autumn BBQ.
85 Adega do Covilhã Piornos Jaen 2002, Beira ($18.95)
Black pepper, vanilla, dark fruit and leafy tobacco notes emerge from the glass. Mid-weight with nice density, but the tannins seem a little green, so drink with hearty foods. Made from Jaen, a grape local to the Beiras region.
84 José Maria da Fonseca Quinta de Camarate 2003, Terras do Sado ($13.95)
Light-bodied and a tad chunky with mulberry, spice, black cherry and plum flavours. Good length and perfect with linguica. A blend of Aragonez and Castelao.
83 Churchill Graham Vinho Douro Meio Queijo, Douro ($16)
Displays a peppery personality that meshes together with dark cherries and plums. A tad alcoholic on the finish.
83 Casa de Santar Tinto 2003, Dão ($13.95)
Lots of peppery strawberry aromas. Light body with a soft finish.
82 Quinta de S. João Batista Castelao 2000, Ribatejo ($15.17)
Mature and ready to pour. Red-berry fruit with a lingering finish. Drink now.