I recently attended a fantastic wine event hosted by Wines of Portugal. I was excited about it, because my knowledge of wines from Portugal is ridiculously limited despite the fact that I passed the Certified Specialist of Wine exam a few years ago. In fact, here are the two most significant things I knew:
- Portugal is where Vinho Verde comes from — aka the “green” wine (well, really, it is a white wine – they call it “verde” because it is best drunk when it is “green,” or young. It’s a fresh, light – wine that is perfect for warm weather and seafood.
- Portuguese wines are frequently known as “kitchen sink” wines because you rarely find a Portuguese wine made from a single varietal. They are mostly blends, often with five, six, 10 or more grapes!
So I was eager to pick up some intel on the wines from this country that I am dying to visit!
Sommelier and wine educator Eugenio Jardim and Chicago-based master sommelier Alpana Singh taught three seminars which were smartly and simply focused on The North, The Center and The South. My schedule only allowed me to get to two of them but WOW, did I learn a lot.
So allow me to drop a little knowledge on you about the wines of Portugal, because they are not only freaking delicious and well-made, they also are a fantastic value for the money.
- Portugal has more indigenous grape varieties than any other country – more than 250. Most winemakers rely on about 60-70 varietals for their wines, although there is one wine that contains 107 varietals -whaaaa? I would love to taste that!
- Portugal has been making wine for more than 2,000 years. In 1986, when Portugal joined the EU, there was an influx of investment into the country’s wine industry, enabling regions to ramp up everything from facilities to marketing, and attracting a new wave of young winemakers from around the globe. So, 30-something years later, Portuguese wines – which have a legit heritage – are on the scene, around the world.
- About 60 percent of Portugal’s winemakers are women – which, if you think about it – can be credited for a different sensibility in the winemaking, because women have superior palates (It is scientifically proven, my friends! Women have a keener sense of smell, and more tastebuds and taste receptors than men.) I think this is kind of cool in a country that is rooted in tradition, but embracing new things, especially in an industry like wine, that has been male-dominated for so long.
- Portuguese is a hard language – it’s like Spanish, but definitely not Spanish – and that means things can be hard to pronounce for plenty of folks. That, in turn, means that the wines can be difficult to place on restaurants wine lists and store shelves. Regions can be hard to pronounce, grape names, wine names – everything. My advice: don’t let a little thing like a lot of syllables or accents stop you from finding these wines!
- The Blending Thing is Intentional! While there definitely are some single-varietal Portuguese wines, like Alvarinho (a fresh, high-acid white wine) and Touriga Nacional (a big, bold red wine packing some handsome tannins), it’s the blends that are Portugal’s true signature. And now I get it – with a “toy box” of so many types of grapes to play with, winemakers are able to flex their muscles, and create really interesting, individualistic and exciting wines! You’ll find some wines containing two grapes, but some others can contain 10 or more grapes! Portugal truly has a culture of letting winemakers exercise their creativity when it comes to making wines.
So now that you know five new things about Portuguese wines, maybe you want to know the names of a few popular Portuguese grapes for your next wine shopping trip.
Top Portuguese White Grapes
Alvarinho (all-va-reen-yo) Yes, this is the same grape as Spain’s Albariño. All peachy on the nose, and zingy on the palate, Alvarinho is a little fuller bodied than most Vinho Verde and so good with seafood (think sautéed or grilled shrimp, crab cakes … mmmm).
Arinto (ah-rin-to) – aka Pedernã Bursting with sweet apple-y aromatics balanced with lemon peel. A little higher in acidity than Alvarinho, making it taste crisp and refreshing.
Fernão Pires (fair-NOW PEA-ress) – aka Maria Gomes – You’re going to get a little honey on the nose here and then a wave or citrus fruits and floral notes. This is almost always a rue crowd-pleaser. Anyone who likes Sauvignon Blanc, Chablis, Pinot Grigio – get some Fernão Pires!
Portugues Red Grapes
Baga (Bah-gah) This is going to make for a lean, tannic wine that will mature in the bottle to reveal richer flavors of plum, cherry and dried herbs. It’s a fun one!
Castelão (Kass-tell-ownh) This is the most-planted red grape in southern Portugal and makes a taut, raspberry-driven wine that also have that leather/cedar-y / cigar-box character. Great with beef or pork.
Tinta Roriz (Teen-tah Roar-eeze) aka Aragonez aka Tempranillo – This grape makes wine with black fruit and firm tannins (ever had Rioja? That’s Tempranillo). A great steak wine!
Touriga Nacional (Too-reegah nass-ee-yo-nahl) Ooh, this is one of my personal faves. It makes a deep red wine with a richness that carries a wave of black currants, raspberries, dried violets, dried herbs like thyme. Great with meat, stews, even a burger.
If you want to know more, the Wines of Portugal website is a really good one. Lots of info, easy to navigate. I am glad to have amped up my Portuguese wine knowledge and hope you are too. Now I just have to get myself there to see and sip it all for myself!
Felicidades – or “Cheers” in Portuguese!