With exquisite wines and picturesque scenery, Portuguese Wine Regions are a lesson in merging historic and modern viticulture methods.
Wine production in the Iberian Peninsula, home to Spain and Portugal, dates back to 2000 BC. That’s when the Tartessians cultivated the first grapes in the Tagus region, near modern Lisbon. The Phoenicians brought more varieties of vines and new winemaking techniques between 1000 and 900 BC. Then, around 700 BC, the Greeks settled in the area of Portugal. The Romans made their mark during the turn of the century from 219 BC - 400 AD and expanded winemaking across the peninsula. Some of their techniques are still used today.
Portugal is known for Port, a fortified wine that traveled moderately well. Trade with England was pivotal as winemaking expanded in Portugal. England and its colonies were major trading partners, as well as Portugal’s colonies in South America and Western Africa. The island of Madeira, off the coast of Portugal, was a major stop on the trade routes to Western Africa and around the Great Horn.
Portuguese port wines originated in the Douro Wine Region. This region has defined and regulated the production and sale of port wine since 1756. Most of the port wine seen on U.S. shelves comes from U.S. production and is often, in a word, meh. Portuguese port wine can be an experience. Some of the best are “bottle-aged” rather than barrel - and they can spend years there. This creates complex combinations of flavors and notes, including berries, figs, clove, caramel, cinnamon, and chocolate. A new style, rose port, smells of strawberry and violets.
Vineyards and Villages at the Slopes of Douro Valley in Portugal
Ports come in three different varieties. White is made from white grapes. Then there’s ruby, a sweeter port with notes of berries and chocolate. Tawny is a port with nutty caramel notes when aged in barrels. Fine tawny ports, aged 30 years or more, have been known to develop hazelnut, almond, graphite, and green peppercorn flavors.
But Portugal is more than port and Madeira. Its twelve wine regions showcase the best of old and new. They mix native vines and more worldly cultivars, traditional and modern cultivation, and ancient and current winemaking methods.
Portugal is a thin slice of the Iberian Peninsula bordered on the north, east, and south by Spain and on the west by the Atlantic. Our tour of their wine regions starts in the north.
The northernmost wine region, Transmontano - which translates to “behind the mountains” is a land of hot summers and frigid winters. Vineyards are planted everywhere, but yields are low due to the lack of rainfall. Paradoxically, this helps the region produce some spectacularly complex reds and whites. Their primary reds are Bastardo, Touriga National and Franca, and Trincadeira. Most white varieties are Malvasia, and a local vine called Codega do Larinho, which is made into a light, low-acid, floral wine.
An unusual gem of the region is a Sparking rosé, known locally as Rosada. If you can find it, it is a must-have.
Below the Trás-os-Montes is a mountainous region with great soil and sun, but also lacking in rainfall. As the vines root deep, searching for water in the granite and schist soils, the grapes ripen slowly, creating complex flavors.
The Douro is famous for its port wines. The area has been producing wine for over 2,000 years. Its vineyards sit on steep hills on man-made terraces, continuously maintained for hundreds of years. It is no wonder the area is listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Not to mention, most of the region's grapes are still pressed by foot.
Man-made Terraces in Douro Valley Portugal
The primary white varieties grown include Malvasia, Rabigato, and Viosinho. The reds include Tinta Roriz (better known as Tempranillo), Touriga Franca, Tinto Cão, and Barroca used to create their famous ruby and tawny ports.
At the same latitude as Transmontano and Duro, but closer to the Atlantic Ocean, sits the wine region of Vinho Verde. The soil is a mix of granite, sand, schist, clay, and slate suitable for various red and white grapes. Their whites, Alvarinho, Arinto Avesso, Azal, Loureiro, Trajadura, benefit from the cool, damp climate. These are known for their “fresh and floral” flavors and high acidity.
This area embraces new viticulture techniques, such as planting rows of vines that increase exposure to the sun and cool ocean breezes. But some of the vineyards still grow their vines up trees.
Reds grown in the area include Alvarelhão, Amaral, Borraçal, Espadeiro, Padeiro, Pedral, Rabo de Anho, and Vinhão.
In the center of the country sits the Dão wine region, surrounded by several mountain ranges with vineyards on steep slopes of granite and schist. The climate is milder here than in the northern wine regions, which allows for late harvesting. Many vintners still prefer early-harvest grapes with minimal aging. But a few embrace the late-season harvests and create wines with more complex flavors.
The region's jewel is their Touriga Nacional--a local vine that produces fantastic red wine.
Our next region is snuggled up against Portugal’s border with Spain (you can read about Spanish wines here). The Beira Interior wine region is the most mountainous in the country. It is known for its complex, aromatic, and herby wines. Fonte Cal is one of their most popular whites, with its honey notes and crisp taste. Other whites grown in the region include Síria, Arinto, Malvasia, Fernão Pires. More recognized grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Riesling, are making inroads. Some winemakers mix them with local vines, creating new flavor profiles.
As we continue our tour of Portugal’s wine regions, we come to Bairrada. This is a flat stretch filled with vineyards, not far from the Atlantic Ocean. This region has also been in continuous cultivation since the Roman occupation. The clay soil combined with its Mediterranean climate makes it a perfect place to create big tannin-heavy reds. Made from the local Baga grape, they boast flavors of black currant and bell peppers.
The Mediterranean climate (hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters) isn’t found just in the Mediterranean. Wine regions that share this climate include parts of California, Oregon, and Washington in the U.S., Chile, and Cape Town, South Africa. All these wine regions sit between the 30th and 45th parallel on the western edges of the continents.
The Bairrada region is diversifying, adding global grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Syrah. Local varieties include Touriga Nacional, Merlot, and Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo). Whites do we’ll here too, including local Bical, Fernão Pires, Cercial, and Sercialinho, along with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
The Lisboa Wine Region, formerly called Estremadura, is just north of Lisbon's capital city along the coast. Like Bairrada, Lisboa has a Mediterranean climate, but the soil is limestone rather than clay. The misty nights combined with sandy and limestone soils create juicy, easy-drinking wines. Naturally, they pair well with many of Lisbon’s culinary specialties like Cozido a Portuguese, Bifana, and Chicken Piri Piri.
Lisboa is Portugal’s second largest wine producing region, with almost all of it imbibed in the capital city. Local reds like Castelão, Tinta Miúda, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, and Trincadeira and whites Arinto, Fernão Pires, Malvasia, Seara-Nova, and Vital, rarely make it outside the country.
Tejo is an incredibly picturesque region. It sits inland from Lisboa and is nicknamed “the land of vineyards.” The River Tagus bisects gentle rolling hills. Soils range from alluvial and sand to clay and limestone. The land to the west of the river has a coastal maritime climate similar to Lisboa. Vineyards to the east are more like the Columbia River Valley in the U.S., with its semi-arid climate.
Reds grown here include Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira, Castelão, and Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo). Whites are represented by Verdelho, Albariño, Arinto, and Fernão Pires.
Moving farther south, the wine region of Setúbal is famous for its Moscatel de Setúbal, a fortified wine aged up to 50 years. Viticulture here took off in the 12th and 15th centuries. The region is mostly flat except for the Serra da Arrábida, a small limestone mountain chain.
Sometimes referred to as “sun in a bottle,” Moscatel de Setúbal has notes of orange blossom and flavors of honey, dried fruit, and citrus. It is usually made from Muscat Alexandria or Moscatel Roxo grapes. Blends can use up to 30% other grapes. These may include Arinto, Boais, Diagalves, Fernao Pires, Malvasia, Olho de Lebre, Rabo de Ovelha, Roupeiro, Talia, and Tamarez.
Castelão, a native red, and Fernão Pires, a pink-skinned grape, are standouts.
Landscape in wine region Alentejo at sunset, Portugal
Moving back into Portugal’s interior, the wine Region Alentejo covers nearly a third of the country. Vines here are interspersed with stands of olive and cork oaks. The climate is sunny and warm, and the area’s gently rolling hills have soils made up of granite, clay, chalk, and schist. The wines of Alentejo tend to old vines, with the local vintners preferring quality over quantity. Like Lisboa, this is another region that supports the Lisbon market.
This is also one of the few regions that still makes Vinho de Talha, a traditional wine aged in amphoras and processed in the ancient Roman way. Favorite vines of the region include the reds Alfrocheiro, Moreto, Periquita, Trincadeira and the whites Antão Vaz, Fernão Pires, Rabo de Ovelha, and Roupeiro.
Algarve is the most southern of Portugal’s wine regions and is situated on a narrow strip right next to the sea. The region's fertile soils are a mix of sand, clay, sandstone, and schist. Vineyards here are mixed in among orchards of avocados and citrus.
Not much of the wine makes it out of the region, and given its beautiful beaches, limestone cliffs, and the wine, we can imagine why. The region's reds are renowned for their smoothness. They include Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Negra Mole, Trincadeira, and Castelão. At the same time, the white varietals like Siria, Arinto, and Malvasia Fina are vibrant and fresh, perfect for a summer’s day.
Madeira is a small tropical island off the far southern coast of Portugal and not a place you would typically expect to be a significant wine region. The island is mountainous, the soil volcanic, and the climate is considered by many to be too hot and wet for wine. But for centuries, the island has produced Madeira and aged fortified wine.
Madeira, the “world’s longest-lived wine,” was loaded aboard ships and lasted longer than its unfortified cousins. Winemaking on the island dates back to the 15th century when it was a stop on the shipping trade routes. Madeira bottled in the 1800s is still drinkable if you are lucky enough to get your hands on it.
Historically Madeira was barreled and then left to sit in the sun with the barrels' heating and cooling continuing for 20 to 100 years. Modern methods use stainless steel vats which are heated to 45-50 degrees Celsius for a minimum of three months. The wine is then allowed to rest for three more. Madeira ranges from dry to sweet and is made of a limited number of grape varieties that can tolerate the warm humidity of the island. These include Tinta Negra Mole, Malvasia, Sercial, Verdelho, and Bual or Boal.
There is a saying, “it isn’t that you don’t like whiskey; it's just that you haven’t found the whiskey that you love.” The same can be said for some of the historic wines of Portugal. It isn’t that you don’t like Port--it is just that you haven’t found the port that you love. Sampling some of Portugal's ancient vintages is like dipping into history. Its more modern wines showcase what can be done when a historic wine-growing region flexes its muscles.
The next time you visit your favorite bar or restaurant or wander down the wine aisle, take a moment to see what Portuguese wines they have on offer. You might find a gem!
If you do, let us know in the comments.