A Beginner’s Guide to Portuguese Wine

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From Porto to Madeira, we take a wine-influenced road trip through one of the world's most popular travel destinations.

When it comes to Portugal’s wine production, you probably know of Port, and you may have even heard about Vinho Verde. But with over 250 native grape varietals growing on a piece of land about the size of Maine (plus a couple of islands on the Atlantic), most foreigners don’t know much about the world of Portuguese vinhos. “Variety is the keyword when you’re talking about Portuguese wine,” says Rui Falcão, the founder of Must Fermenting Ideas, the wine world's equivalent to TED Talks. “Here, you’re going to find varieties you won’t find anywhere else in the world.”

 “There’s a gap between Portugal and Europe, which means we stick to the way things have been done here for hundreds of years,” Falcão explains. Practices, including field planting and specializing in blended wines, are just two things you need to know about Portuguese winemaking. 

Below, DEPARTURES speaks with some of Portugal’s top wine experts to help guide you for the next time you’re staring down a Portuguese wine menu.


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Sparkling

Of all the wine categories, Portugal’s sparkling production is the least well-known. In the Centro region, there is a tradition of pairing leitão, or suckling pig, with a glass of espumante (sparkling), typically produced from the nearby Bairrada wine country (located between Lisbon and Porto). But modern-day Portuguese sparklings are on-the-rise.

“Producers are increasing the quality of sparkling wines in the last decade, and we see almost all wine regions producing a nice quality sparkling,” says Ivo Peralta, sommelier at chef Vincent Farges’ recently opened Lisbon dining room Epur, where the wine list features 100 different Portuguese labels. Peralta is especially excited about what producers are doing in Bairrada, where the bubbles are softened to more delicate levels, making them sophisticated enough to potentially compete with champagnes. He recommends José Carvalheira’s Hibernus Brut Premier from 2016—a blend of five grapes (including chardonnay, arinto, and baga) that delivers citrus notes and some refreshing acidity thanks to the baga, one of the Bairrada’s most oft-planted grapes. 


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White

It’s in the whites where you can truly taste the diversity of the Portuguese terroir. “In such a small country, it is impressive how we can offer such a great number of different white wines,” says Acácio Peixoto, the Wine Director at the Six Senses Douro Valley, where the wine menu is a mammoth 78-page book. “The variety in white-wine grapes is multiplied by factors like soil, altitude, sun exposure, and even the impact of the Atlantic Ocean.” So whether you’re trying bright alvarinhos from Vinho Verde or discovering the salinity of the arinto from the Azorean island of Pico, when it comes to whites, the range of personalities that can be extracted from Portugal’s grapes is seemingly limitless.

Peralta recommends white wines from Dão, a sandy granite plateau near the city of Viseu (about three hours north of Lisbon), where you’ll find “minerality, sometimes more influence from oak, and, generally, more complex styles [of winemaking.]” Automático 2016 from Ribeiro Santo, which Peralta pairs with seafood appetizers at Epur, is made from the rare encruzado grapes. To extract as much flavor from the grapes as possible, winemaker Carlos Lucas ferments them in stainless steel vats with minimal treatment. “The idea here is less is more,” says Peralta. The end result? A silky, floral white wine that has that perfect balance of acidity and creaminess.

If you’re looking for something special, Peixoto recommends tracking down a bottle from Buçaco Palace, a historic hotel located just north of the university city of Coimbra. Made from grapes planted in both Dão and Bairrada, these wines aren’t easy to find. Until recently, they were only available during mealtimes at the hotel. Peixoto is especially impressed with how well these wine age. “If you come across a really old Buçaco white—production started in the 19th century by Alexandre de Almeida—grab it,” he insists. The Six Senses occasionally stocks them as part of the resort’s winter wine list that returns in October.


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Red

For Andre Ribeirinho, the Portuguese wine expert responsible for Adegga, a local wine guide that also organizes an annual event that connects consumers to producers, the secret to the world-class quality of Portuguese red wines is the planting strategy that wineries have been implementing in the country for centuries. “At the finest level, [there are] really old vines [in Portugal] with field blends of 20 to 30 native varieties,” he explains. Rodolfo Tritstão, the award-winning wine director at Lisbon’s only two Michelin-starred restaurants, Belcanto, agrees. “Portugal is known for its field blend terroir, which is a plus, considering there are regions in the world that end up having just one or two grape varieties at most,” he adds.

Historically, bottles of Portuguese field-blend reds wouldn’t even list the names of the grapes used, because there were so many (it would, however, be labeled based on appellation).“Sometimes, the winemaker might not even know what’s in there because of the field planting.” Falcão adds. It wasn’t unheard of for a bottle of wine to have up to 30 different varietals, which added to the complexity and depth that are typical of Portuguese reds.

To truly understand field blends in the world of Portuguese reds, Ribeirinho recommends Casa da Passarella’s O Fugitivo Vinhas Centenárias, made of grapes picked from 100-year-old vines from the Dão region. Alfrocheiro, baga, touriga nacional are just some of the native grapes you’ll find in this wine, which is made in a traditional stone lagar and then aged in the bottle for two years resulting in a richly concentrated flavor plus dark tannins. “It represents a new vision for Portugal that includes going back to our roots,” says Ribeirinho “It's a great example of the best we can do here.”


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Dessert

Portugal’s position as a leader in dessert wines is no secret, but if you’re planning on sticking to just Port, you’re in for an exciting discovery.

The island of Madeira has a similar history to the Douro Valley in that winemaking there was also heavily bolstered by English investment, which also explains why the tourism from England has always been so strong. Madeira Port has the added influence of the Atlantic Ocean, which enhances these fortified wines with a lot of surprising qualities. Tritstão recommends a 10-year-old madeira from Barbeito. “[The vineyard’s] proximity to the sea gives [this wine] salty notes and a minerality that sometimes softens its [caramelized] sweetness.”

You might also want to try a moscatel from Setubal, a winemaking DOP located about 30 miles south of Lisbon. Essentially these are fortified muscat wines, and like other fortified wines, the fermentation process here is characterized by the addition of brandy once the desired sugar level has been reached.

While the vineyards in which the Moscatel de Setubal grapes are planted is quite small, which would explain why these wines are still relatively unknown outside Portugal. Peixoto recommends starting your education right at the top with the Alambre Moscatel Roxo by Jose Maria da Fonseca, the oldest moscatel producer in the country. What makes this stand out is that is made entirely with moscatel roxo grapes, which were so rare that the varietal almost became extinct. Peixoto calls out its balanced sweetness and acidity and compliments the elegant aromas of roses, peach, tangerine, and caramel. “It’s an intriguing wine,” he adds. “For me, it’s the best alternative to Port.”