The Dry Wine Varieties of Portugal

Portugal is justifiably famous for its great dessert wine, Port. But gradually, wine lovers are discovering the other dimensions of Portuguese wine — its dry wines, especially its reds. Most of these wines come from native Portuguese grape varieties, of which the country has hundreds.

Portugal’s highest rank for wines is Denominação de Origen (DO), which has been awarded to the wines of 32 regions. The table wine category includes eight Vinho Regional (VR) regions, equivalent to France’s Vin de Pays, and the simple Vinho de Mesa (table wines).

The following terms may appear on Portuguese wine labels:

  • Tinto: Red

  • Colheita: Vintage year

  • Quinta: Estate or vineyard

  • Reserva: A wine of superior quality from one vintage

  • Garrafeira: A reserva that has aged at least two years in a cask and one in a bottle if it’s red; six months in a cask, six months in a bottle if it’s white

Portuguese red wines

Possibly the best dry red wine in Portugal, Barca Velha, comes from the Douro region, where the grapes for Port (officially known as Porto) grow. Made by the Ferreira Port house, Barca Velha is a full-bodied, intense, concentrated wine that needs years to age — Portugal’s version of Vega Sicilia’s Unico, but at a considerably lower price ($65 to $70). Like Unico, not much is made, and it’s produced only in the best vintages.

Fortunately, the Port house of Ramos Pinto (now owned by Roederer Champagne) makes inexpensive, top-quality, dry red Douro wines that are readily available. Duas Quintas (about $12) has ripe, plummy flavors and a velvety texture; it’s surprisingly rich but supple, and it’s a great value.

The Douro region boasts other terrific dry red wines, most of them fairly new and based on grapes traditionally used for Port. Brands to look for include Quinta do Vale D. Maria, Quinta do Vallado, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Cotto, Quinta de la Rosa, Quinta do Vale Meão, Quinta de Roriz, Quinta da Leda Vale do Bomfim and Chryseia.

Portugal’s white wines

On hot summer evenings, the most appropriate wine can be a bottle of bracing, slightly effervescent, white Vinho Verde. The high acidity of Vinho Verde refreshes your mouth and particularly complements grilled fish or seafood.

The Minho region, Vinho Verde’s home, is in the northwest corner of Portugal, directly across the border from the Rías Baixas wine region of Spain. (The region is particularly verdant because of the rain from the Atlantic Ocean — one theory behind the wine’s name.)

Two styles of white Vinho Verde exist on the market. The most commonly found brands (Aveleda and Casal Garcia), which sell for $7 or $8, are medium-dry wines of average quality that are best served cold.

The more expensive Vinho Verdes ($15 to $20) are varietal wines made from either the Alvarinho grape (Rías Baixas’s Albariño), Loureiro, or Trajadura. They’re more complex, dryer, and more concentrated than basic Vinho Verde, and are Portugal’s best whites. Unfortunately, these finer wines are more difficult to find than the inexpensive ones; look for them in better wine shops or in Portuguese neighborhoods — or on your next trip to Portugal!

The majority of wines from Vinho Verde are red. However, these wines are highly acidic; you definitely need to acquire a taste for them.

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