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Portugal’s maritime heritage had a defining role in its history, Portuguese navigators were among the first to circumnavigate the globe, and in the 16th and 17th centuries the country’s empire stretched to India and parts of Asia, deep into Africa and across the Atlantic Ocean. The country retains links with its former colonies, and its islands in the Atlantic Ocean are important producers of wine. These include the volcanic Azore Islands and the island of Madeira, famous for its Madeira sweet wines.

On my first trip to Portugal, I went by tram to Setubal outside Lisbon and watched the huge waves from the Atlantic rolling in and breaking over the promontory that jutted out into the Atlantic. It was an awe-inspiring sight. The Atlantic has played a huge part in Portugal’s history, but the maritime aspect is only part of the story. The country’s many rivers are a magnet for the vineyards, notably the Douro (known as the Duero in Spain) which runs all the way inland from Oporto into Spain.

The origins of the name Portugal are debated, but it is generally believed to come from the Arabic word for orange, which is burtugal. Arabic influence, often referred to as the “moorish” heritage, was also strong in southern Spain. The Umayyad dynasty invaded the Iberian peninsula during the first great expansion of Islam in the 8th century, and Arab rule lasted in the south until the 15th century. Although alcohol consumption is not allowed in many Muslim countries, the Quranic texts forbidding drinking are ambiguous and wine was widely consumed in the period of Arab rule in the peninsula.

Macroeconomic Overview

Portugal’s economy was in the doldrums for many years, but the government has boosted the private sector and the country is making a reputation for cutting-edge technology and knowledge-intensive business. The GDP is $271 billion and the population is 10 million. The country shares a border with Spain, but the two have a distinct colonial heritage with Portugal closely linked to Brazil, whereas Spain has closer links with Chile and Argentina. This reflects the respective linguistic links.

Viticulture, Climate and Terrain

The Atlantic Ocean has the biggest influence on Portuguese viticulture. This brings an abundance of rain to coastal regions, although inland the moderate maritime climate gives way to regions that are hotter and with a dry continental climate. This variation and variability of weather and climate give the country a range of micro-climates that allow for diverse styles of wine-making.

The damp maritime air can be problematic for vines, which in the past have used pergola trellising to improve air flow through the vineyard and to avert fungal diseases. Nowadays, this is giving way to modern trellis systems that allow for mechanical grape harvesting. Spur-pruning with Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP) has become the most widespread system.

While viticulture is subject to the influence of the Atlantic Ocean, the country’s rivers have a big impact inland, and the climate becomes hotter and drier further to the east. The land becomes hit and dry on the border with Spain.

Phoro of red and white grapes in back of truck

Black Grape Varieties

Portugal’s red wines are distinctive for their use of several indigenous black grapes, as well as the use of Spanish varieties that have their own Portuguese names. There are also some plantings of international varieties, although this is still fairly limited. Touriga Nacional is the standout success here, and its use has been encouraged by the government. It makes wines with intense colour and black fruit flavour, although it is a relatively low-yielding variety. Other indigenous black grapes include Touriga Franc, Touriga Barroja, Touriga Cao and Alfrocheiro. There are also grapes such as Baga which are of regional importance. Tinto Roriz is among the Portuguese names for Tempranillio and is also widely used. The Jaen grape, popular in Dao, is known as Mencia in Spain. Many red wines are blends of different grapes; a typical supermarket wine might be a blend of as much as half Touriga National, with other grapes blended in to give balance and flavour. International grape varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, although these are not widespread.

 

 

Photo of bunch of black grapes hanging on vine

White Grape Varieties

Portugal’s white grape varieties are as varied as the black varieties. The country’s best known white wines are the slightly petillant zesty white wines often called Vinho Verde. The Alvarinho.grape, now trendy in Spain where it is called Albarino, is used for higher alcohol Vinho Verde production, much of which is exported. Loureiro and Arinto are often used for the lower alcohol Vinho Verdes that are so popular at home. Specific varietals are used in various regional appelations including Encruzado, which is widespread in the Dao region, Bical and Maria Gomez in Bairrada, and Antaovaz and Rupeiro in the Alentejo region.

Photo of bunch of white grapes hanging on vine

Regional Analysis

Northern Portugal

Vinho Verde

The Vinho Verde DO is in the northwest of Portugal Douro. This region produces slightly fizzy white wine with low alcohol of 8-11.5% abv. These cheap and cheerful petillant wines are often off-dry and served in restaurants with food. These wines are typically made from indigenous Loureiro and Arinto grapes while the higher alcohol variants that are more often exported are made from Alvarinho, and these can have alcohol up to 14% abv.

Wine production in Vinho Verde DO is heavily influenced by the moist breezes from the Atlantic Ocean, and vines are subject to fungal infections. Trellising systems used are designed to maintain airflow through the vines. Pergola and VSP are used to achieve this.

Port

Oporto is the home of the fortified red wine known as Port. The port warehouses are concentrated to the south of the river Douro, which runs through the town into the Atlantic. These date back to around 1760 when Britain was at war with France, and the supply of Claret was cut off. Many of the Port warehouses have English roots, including well known names such as Taylor’s and Cockburn’s. It is worth visiting these; most offer tours to the public, and the rich family history is usually interesting and well documented.

The Douro region

The Douro river stretches inland from Oporto, and is the main wine-growing region in the north. This region lies 80 km inland from the coast and extends from the Marao mountains across as far as Spain. It supplies grapes for fortified wine production, which is made on the coast at Oporto, but also grapes for unfortified red wine. The producers here have perfect conditions, and vines are less at risk from disease as you head inland. Douro DO is the oldest in the world, dating back to 1760 when Britain and France were at war, and is among the five main regional PDO districts in Portugal. The red wines from Douro are made from a variety of grapes, often based on Touriga Nacional with a blend of other grape varieties such as Tinto Roriz, Touriga Franc and others. The wines are mostly deeply-coloured with black fruit flavours, and often use new oak to create depth. White wines are fruity and full-bodied, with good acidity.

Central Portugal

The wine regions of Dao and Bairrada are located to the south of the Douro, but above the river Tejo. Both have PDO status, with wines labelled Bairrada Do and Dao DO.

Dao

The Dao region lies 80 km south of the Douro river and lies inland. This region has low mountains that rise 200-400 meters above sea level, so the vineyards benefit from a wide annual temperature variation as well as large diurnal temperature range. These region makes felty red wines with soft tannins and black fruit flavours, as well as zesty white wines with fresh citrus flavours and acidity. Red wines come from Touriga Nacional, Tinto Roriz, Jaen and Alfrocheiro grapes, while the whites are often based on Encruzado.

Bairrada

Bairrada lies to the west of Dao, and has a maritime climate with rainy winters and warm summers. The red wines from Bairrada rely on the Baga grape, a thick-skinned grape that is late ripening and has small berries. It produces intense, deeply-coloured wines with strong tannins but if picked too early it can produce sharp wines with astringent flavours. It benefits from gentle pressing and is often blended with other grape varieties to soften the flavours. Touriga Nacional, Alfrocheiro and international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah are used. White wine is also made in the region from indigenous varieties such as Bical and Maria Gomez.

 

Southern Portugal

The Alentejo is a large region extending from the south of Lisbon down towards Faro and the Algarve,  the country’s most popular tourist destination. The climate ranges from the cooler, wetter parts in the north to hotter drier zones in the south, and there are eight separate sub-regions. The wines here include both those from the PDO region of Alentejo DO and the regional wines (Vinho Regionau) from the wider Alentejano region. A huge variety of grapes has been used, and different names are used for familiar grape varieties: for example, Tempranillo here is known as Aragones. An even greater variety of grapes is used in the Vinho Regionau, outside the DO region.

The red wines from the Alentejo are often full-bodied, tannic and with deep black fruit favours. As well as ubiquitous Touriga Nacional and international varieties such as Syrah, Alentejo producers use Trincadeira, Aragones and a tannic grape called Alicante Bouschet.

White wines have fruity and floral flavours, good acidity and are sometimes aged in oak to give greater flavour complexity. White grapes used include Arinto, Antaovaz and Rupeiro.

 

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