In a way, the story of Portuguese wine is one of lost opportunities. This goes back at least to 1679, when the government of England banned the import of French wines—in turn handing their loyal trading partner, Portugal, a near monopoly. That should have been a remarkable gift, and for a time it was, one that ultimately led to the rise of the Port shippers and a centuries-long British fascination with that drink.
But other Portuguese wines didn’t fare so well. They quickly caught a reputation for being defined more by volume and cheapness than quality. In the end, the quality of French wine—and a growing English fondness for gin—would prove Portugal’s undoing, at least in what at the time was the world’s biggest wine market.
This is the sort of story I could tell about a lot of places (Australia, say, in the early 2000s), but Portugal in particular seems to have a wine history marked by setbacks. Certainly that history is important; this is the country that not only makes Port but supplies most of the world’s cork. But a similar quality problem arose in the mid-20th century—if anyone remembers wines like Mateus and Lancer’s—made worse by difficult politics that held back Portuguese wines at least until 1986, when the country joined the EU and finally began to modernize.
This perhaps is why most of us don’t immediately think of drinking Portuguese wines. We at PUNCH are especially sentimental about them, but even as we sat down for this latest tasting, I posed a question: When had any of us had last ordered a bottle? And… crickets.
In other words, Portugal may be the most obscure wine region that everyone already knows. We know it for Port, of course, as well as Madeira, the country’s other important, if under-loved, fortified wine. And many of us are familiar with Vinho Verde, the country’s slightly effervescent white wine (although that’s not its full identity). Yet there is a universe of other dry wines from Portugal, most made from a roster of little-known grapes that have survived the whiplash of globalization. They are largely produced in a clean and tidy style. Often they’re remarkable values. And they come from a country that embodies what we modern wine lovers claim to want: historic regions, tradition and just enough of an embrace of modernity to make the wines compelling, without tipping toward soullessness.
And still, we seem to communally pass them by.
Perhaps we’re not getting proper enticement. For one thing, the Portuguese prefer to discuss their dry red wines, probably because they’re usually made from the same grapes used in Port, and they seem to think we still care about Port. (Not so much.)
But let’s talk instead about the country’s white wines, which can offer complexity and a lack of fussiness, and tend to be the sort of wines you want in hot weather. Naturally, the conversation must begin with Vinho Verde. Its reputation has been as a cheap and spritz-y affair, to be drunk ASAP. That style has been around for a long time—essentially, txakoli before txakoli became a thing.
However, that’s not really the state of the art with Vinho Verde, which is actually less a type of wine than an appellation (it translates not to “green wine” but to “young wine”) from parts of the Minho area, on the border with Spain. A range of far more serious examples is made today, from grapes including loureiro and trajadura, but most importantly alvarinho, better known as albariño on the other side of the border. The alvarinho-based whites from this northern, cooler area often have more ripeness and spice than those across the river in Rías Baixas. They should be Portugal’s breakthrough wines.
That’s just one facet, though. The Douro itself, Port’s home region, has seen the light on white wines, and today produces a handful of refined examples from grapes like moscatel, viosinho, cerceal (not the same as Madeira’s sercial) and arinto; Dirk Niepoort, of the famous Port-producing family, has rallied to make Douro whites with a Burgundian level of obsessiveness. The Dão region just south of Minho, known for its reds, also turns out serious whites, as does the neighboring Bairrada area, using local grapes like encruzado and bical. And just outside the capital of Lisbon, the Lisboa region—formerly known as Estremadura—is transforming itself from a producer of cheap plonk into a more serious place. Not far away is the Colares region, once considered on the brink of vanishing, which is staging a modest revival as well. Even hot, inland Alentejo, near the Spanish border, has been making inroads, although it remains mostly red-wine territory.
But is there a coherent trend line to be found behind any of this? Probably not. While the country deserves enormous credit for preserving their many indigenous grapes, their unfamiliarity can be a barrier. Indeed, the many ampelographic puzzles that seem to converge in Portugal can quickly ramp up the dork factor. For instance: Why is white muscat, familiar in France and Italy, known in Portuguese as moscatel Galego—“Galician muscat”—and how did it get there?
Our conclusion, at least from this latest tasting, is that it’s best to not overthink the context, and just enjoy these wines for what they are. It was especially heartening to see that most current fads in white winemaking—new oak barrels, amphorae—haven’t made inroads in Portugal. The few examples of that sort that we did encounter reaffirmed that Portuguese winemakers do their best by not succumbing to fads.
Of course, that also means Portugal may not be a place to discover the sort of revolutionary changes appearing in today’s wine world. But perhaps it doesn’t have to be. After a long history of missed opportunities, perhaps it’s just enough for its wines to be an uncomplicated pleasure.
The Classic | Tie
Soalheiro Primeiras Vinhas Vinho Verde Alvarinho
Soalheiro was the first in Vinho Verde to focus on alvarinho as a single variety, and it remains a benchmark today, run by Maria Palmira Cerdeira and her children. They make a range of wines, including a new Granit bottling from higher-elevation plantings, but the Primeiras Vinhas (“first vines”) comes from some of the original parcels planted in the 1980s, including portion on its own roots. It’s fermented and aged until late the following spring in a mix of steel and old oak, and it has a glossy, polished side, with sunny fruit flavors, a dark mineral aspect and the green notes (bay leaves, green papaya) that give alvarinho real distinction.
- Price: $22
- Vintage: 2015
- From: Wine in Motion
Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas Beira Atlantico White
Pato and his daughter Filipa have been pioneers in the Bairrada region, battling at times to modernize and revitalize its wine industry. Their old-vine white is a fine example of mixing tradition and modern, precise winemaking. Made from bical, cerceal and sercialinho (a high-acid crossing) on a mix of chalky and sandy soils, it’s bracing and reflective of a nearby marine influence. Kelp and green apple scents are balanced by a chewy, tactile side, reminiscent of the high-quality Muscadets being made today in the Loire.
See also: Aphros Daphne, Quinta do Feital Dorado
- Price: $15
- Vintage: 2016
- From: Wine In Motion
Adega Regional de Colares Arenae Malvasia
Colares—a tiny, wind-whipped seaside appellation northwest of Lisbon—offers a rare sort of history in the bottle. The region’s glory days largely faded in the early-20th century, but somehow Colares retained old own-rooted plantings of varieties like malvasia, preserved in part by phylloxera-resistant sand. Arenae is made by the local co-op, currently run by Francisco Figueiredo, who has added finesse to the local winemaking. It’s soaked on skins for six hours, then aged for 18 months. Reminiscent of fino sherry, its bracing and saline with a citrus-blossom flourish amid the kelp and sea-salt flavors. You’d be hard-pressed to find another wine like it, which is exactly the point.
- Price: $42 (500ml)
- Vintage: 2011
- From: Jose Pastor Selections
The Star | TIE
Niepoort Redoma Douro White
Dirk Niepoort makes a remarkable case for what can be done with Douro whites. In fact, if there’s any skepticism, it’s that some of his wines can seem almost too good an interpretation of the techniques and precision found in white Burgundy. (This isn’t conjecture. His effort to make a rich, barrel-fermented white is called Coche, which could easily be construed as an homage.) The Redoma is on the approachable side for his wines, also barrel-fermented, and made from rabigato, códega do Larinho, viosinho, donzelinho and gouveio (since you asked) grown on mica schist. There is a reductive and slightly oak-marked aspect the wine, not much different than in modern Côte de Beaune. But the fruit is warmer, with fig flavors and a pleasing bite on the finish.
See also: Filipa Pato Nossa Calcario, Paulo Laureano, Anselmo Mendes Alvarinho Contacto
- Price: $22
- Vintage: 2015
- From: Martine's Wines
Alvaro Castro Dão White
Castro has become one of the leading lights in the Dão, having revived old family winemaking traditions in the 1980s. Today the wines are increasingly made by his daughter Maria (who apprenticed with Niepoort, among others). Their white, a mix of bical, malvasia, cerceal and encruzado, is savory in its yellow apple and aloe flavors, with a ripeness that recalls really good Soave.
- Price: $14
- Vintage: 2016
- From: Domane Select
Folias de Baco Uivo Douro Moscatel Galego
Given how much the Douro is controlled by the large Port interests, it’s a pleasure to find someone like Tiago Sampaio, who started just a decade ago in the central Douro area of Cima-Corgo, harvesting old varieties and parcels. This is his primary white wine, and it’s a warm, sun-baked version of muscat—that variety’s distinct blossomy side mixing with a strong biting wintergreen note that underscores its freshness. Another masterful bit of work with texture, especially for having made the wine in steel vats, it’s dense and stoic, and never quite gives into the louche side of muscat that can seem frivolous. We were equally enthusiastic about Sampaio’s Vinhas Velhas Reserva, a mix of viosinho, rabigato and gouveio from 80-year-old vines.
See also: Quinta das Bágeiras Garrafeira
- Price: $17
- Vintage: 2016
- From: Savio Soares Selections