About Portuguese Wines
Portuguese wines have a long heritage and tradition in the UK, but with the exception of Port, they have been very difficult to market in the UK. Portugal has less than 1% share of a very crowded wine market in the UK, yet produces some of the highest quality, most exciting, and best value red wines in the world.
Portugal consistently punches above its weight in wine competitions, winning more golds proportionately than almost any other country. Yet, there is still little recognition for these wines in the UK, despite wholehearted support from wine writers and wine buyers. Part of the problem lies in the fact that generally the majority of the labels are difficult to read, and recognise. There is also relatively little understanding of the styles of wines, and almost no recognisable brand names, be those actual brands, or generic names ( similar to Rioja in Spain).
Apart from Port, there is some recognition for the light, zippy white wine of the north, Vinho Verde, and for Portuguese Rose, made famous in the 1970s by Mateus Rose. Apart from these, the only brand to have made any inroads whatsoever, into the consumers’ minds is Tagus Creek, a range of white, rose and red wines, with a modern label, pronounceable name, created by an Englishman, and easy to understand wording on the packaging! Despite this, market share for this brand is still minimal, and by default, because of the restricted ranges, Portuguese wines are often almost invisible on supermarket shelves.
The good news is that sales of Portuguese wines are growing very rapidly, despite the tiny base, with the majority of growth coming from the independent wine shops sector, where it is easier to handsell these wines, and explain to wine consumers what good Portuguese wine is all about!
The Country And Its Wine History
Portugal has a long history and tradition of winemaking, and also a long association with England. Winemaking was introduced way back in the days of the Phoenicians, and primarily the Romans. The strong ties with England began with the historic Methuen Treaty of 1703, which was a commercial and political agreement reached, as a result of the Spanish War of Succession. In essence, there was a beneficial tax system to both countries, which allowed Portugal to sell their wines to England, and for England to export its textiles.
The most famous wine region in Portugal is the Douro, an area of incredible beauty, and breathtaking scenery in the northern part of the country, and the home of Port. Whilst most people think of the Douro as the place where Port is made, there is now a high proportion of top quality table wines, being made on these steep, remote slopes.
Portugal produces a wide variety of wine styles, and has stayed very true to its indigenous routes, with a relatively low proportion of wines being produced from international varieties such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. This in itself may be one of the reasons why Portugal struggles to establish itself, especially for its reds, in the international market, because both the regional and varietal labelling on the bottles are difficult to understand and are not easily recognisable.
The climate and terrain differ widely from north to south, with the strong influence of the Atlantic prevalent throughout. Rainfall is generally high, although less so in the south, and more southern coastal regions have to be watchful about this natural irrigation to ensure that yields do not go too high, and impact on quality – Terrains and terroirs differ widely, from the steep slopes of the Douro, and the lush, verdant vineyards of the Minho in the north, to the sandy coastal plains of central Portugal, and the wide, flat plains of the Ribatejo and the Alentejo east and south of Lisbon.
Until the late 80s, it was the northern vineyards of Portugal, which were best known, with Dao and Bairrada, probably the best known of the red wines. Today, the emphasis has shifted to the south, to the vast plains of the Ribatejo and the Alentejo, where new styles are evolving, and where a host of international winemakers began making new styles of wine in the 80s; the centre and south of Portugal is now where much of the emphasis is.
Apart from Port, it is a sweet pink Portuguese wine, in a flask-shaped bottle, which has probably been Portugal’s best known wine for the last 30 years. Launched in the 1970s Mateus Rose shot to fame, as an easy-drinking rose wine, in a distinctive bottle, and was once one of the dominant wine brands in the UK. The other best known wine is the light, semi-sparkling Vinho Verde white, which has made some inroads in the UK.
Portugese Wine Regions
The wine regions of Portugal cover the majority of the country, and encompass numerous different soil types, topography, and climates, from the wet, cold, continental Minho, on the Atlantic, at the north of the country, to the sun-baked plains of the inland Alentejo and Estremadura in the central-south, and indeed as far south as Sir Cliff Richard’s estate in the Algarve!
The wide variety of wine styles, naturally fit to the weather patterns and overall climate, with the north producing, light, fresh, lower alcohol styles, mainly white, with reds dominating the south, although there is no general rule, with some fragrant, stylish whites now coming from the cooler climate regions of the central south of the country.
Grapes, Wine Styles And Food Matching
Portugal’s vineyards comprise a mix of indigenous and international grape varieties, and the majority of the wines are labelled by region, in the case of the northern half of the country and by grape variety in the south.
Here are some key style pointers:
The famous pink wine, in the short, stubby bottle has been made famous by Mateus rose. Now supermarkets all have their own brand version. The wine is made from a variety of grapes, much of it from the Baga grape, and is generally soft, medium dry, or medium sweet, with a fruity, bubble gum character, and a lively spritz.
What does it go with?
Drink chilled on their own, with a bowl of strawberries, or will just about cope with something like Coronation chicken, or a mild Korma.
Baga - Bairrada
The Baga grape is a small dark grape, with thick skin, which produces big, tannic wines. It needs careful handling, and at its best, produces full bodied, powerful, inky reds, but at worst, harsh, tannic reds. It is also one of the main grape varieties used in the production of the thousands of gallons of Portuguese rose that is produced.
What does it go with?
This is definitely a food wine, and needs a hefty, well cooked stew, or braised lamb to match the power of the grape and the wine.
Fernao Pires - Bairrada And Estremadura
This aromatic white grape, is indigenous to Portugal, and is one of a few white grapes which is not suited to cool climates, which makes it ideal for Portugal’s hot weather. Grown in Bairrada and Estremadura, it has a floral, tangerine and citrus aroma, and a soft, creamy, honeysuckle and lemon character. It is produced in both oaked and unoaked styles.
What does it go with?
The aromatic, creamy style of this grape, makes it a great match for richer fish dishes, such as salmon, chicken in a creamy sauce, pork with apples and herbs, and fruity, north African and Lebanese dishes.
Arinto is another Portuguese white grape variety, that has a high acid level, and is thus able to cope far more easily, with the hot, dry climate, of the region of Estremadura, where it is primarily grown, whereas more delicate white grapes, would crumble under the heat, and turn out flabby, alcoholic, characterless rubbish!
It has quite a unique, elegant style, especially when well made in its natural home, the area of Bucelas, in the Estremadura region. It is highly aromatic, with wafting scents of ripe white peaches, nectarines and pink grapefruit, with a similar spectrum on the palate, and yet, with a delightfully zesty, lime fresh edge on the finish of many of the wines.
What does it go with?
The food matches are similar to those for the similarly aromatic Fernao Pires – fish, chicken and pork in fruity sauces, sweetly spiced North African and Middle Eastern tagines, salmon with creamy, tarragon-infused hollandaise, and grilled white fish and sardines with lemon, orange and herbs.
Periquita - Ribajeto/Alentejo/Estremadura
This is the main grape grown in the south of Portugal, and is the star of the Alentejo region, where is produces, rich, spicy, dried fruit infused wines. It is known in the rest of the country as the Castelao, or the Trincadeira Preta. It produces dense, rich, yet soft wines, which are far less tannic than their northern counterparts, and is the most widely planted red grape in Ribatejo, Alentejo and Estremadura. Soft, velvety, with rich black fruit and chocolate spice, these are stylish, attractive wines and some of the most approachable and early drinking of Portuguese reds.
What does it go with?
These wines are superb food wines, and will happily partner roast lamb, barbecued meats, game, including pheasant. They are great with winter stews, steak pies, and rich braised dishes, as well as mature cheeses, and would also cope with mild Indian curries, due to their natural sweet spiciness.
Portugal also produces a host of other grape varieties, including many of the international wines – mainly Chardonnay, some Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and some Syrah.