Wines from Portugal are making wine lists and magazine covers as of late, but how much do you know about this European nation and its winemaking history? Most of us can likely name some of the top producing regions in neighboring Spain, and certainly in nearby France, but how many regions outside of Porto can you name in Portugal? Let’s take a brief birds’ eye look at this 350-mile long country on the southwestern coast of Europe.
Throughout much of its history, and especially during the 1900s, Portugal was largely isolated from the rest of Europe with most of its wines remaining within the country. It has also long been one of the world’s number one nations in wine consumption per capita. For much of the 20th century, Portugal winemaking was led by government established co-operatives, which at one time numbered over one hundred. As was the case in many other co-op heavy wine industries, quantity reined over quality. However, since the country’s entrance into the European Union, many of the co-ops have since closed and those that do remain (less than 90) have begun to improve quality to match that of the single producers (of which 60% are female) and growing number of micro-négociants producing high-quality wines of both indigenous and international varieties and styles.
Portugal is most widely known as producers of the fortified wines, Port and Madeira, as well as the sparkling rosés that were all the rage in the Baby Boomer’s heyday, Lancers and Mateus; however, it also has a significant production of red wine blends and single varietals, and a growing amount of high-quality white wines. In fact, Portugal has 250 native varieties of grapes and the greatest number of indigenous grape varieties planted worldwide. Among the more well-known white wines are Loureiro, Alvarinho, Bicar, Encruzado, Rabigato and Gouveio. Red wines include those from Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Baga, Trincadeira and Alicante Bouschet.
Winemaking in Portugal dates back millennia with evidence of wine production as early as 2000 B.C. Exports were noted in the 12th century to England with whom Portugal enjoyed a lasting relationship. Even the wine laws predate most other European nations. The country’s first controlled appellation, the Douro, was designated in 1756. Many additional demarcations followed in the 20th century, but it wasn’t until 1986 when Portugal joined the EU that it was infused with capital investment and began to turn its eye to worldwide export of its wines.
Portugal is the southwestern-most country in Europe with the Atlantic Ocean to the west and Spain to its east. Roughly the size of Indiana, Portugal is only 350 miles long and 135 miles wide. Portugal also produces wines from its islands, including the archipelago of Azores with its nine islands, and the archipelago of Madeira, separated into two mail islands and two minor islands. It includes 14 wine regions (IGP) and 31 protected appellations (DOPs). Northern Portuguese DOPs include: Vinho Verde, Dão, Lafoes, Porto and Douro. Central DOPs include Lisboa, Tejo and Beira Interior with notable southern DOPs including Alentejo, Algarve, Tavira and Lagoa.
Portugal has a diverse range soil types and the largest number of microclimates in the world. It is influenced by the Mediterranean to the south where dry, hot summers and mild winters prevail. Inland areas are more continental with hot, dry contditions with higher altitude growing areas mitigating temperatures, while the coast, significantly influenced by the Atlantic Ocean, has a maritime climate with rain, moderate temperatures and cool, wet winds. The soils vary across the country and range from sand, clay and limestone to schist and granite. The nation’s varied climates and soils all lend to the distinctive and diverse wine styles produced.
Portuguese wines offer a diverse range of styles and varieties, many native to their respective regions. The wines often pair well with food and offer significant value for the price point. Quality is on the rise and the world is taking note, so don’t let the complicated names or unfamiliar regions deter, simply enjoy what’s in the glass.