Portuguese Wine Guide: What You Need to Know
It has a noble wine history and ancient vines to go with it. So why isn't Portuguese wine more iconic?
The Portuguese have been exporting wines since Roman times, and their famed Douro Valley is one of the oldest demarcated wine regions in the world. So how galling it must be that, while critics and consumers drool all over the Old World offerings of France, Italy and even Spain, Portugal is still a European outlier—in the not-invited-to-the-party sense, rather than the Gladwellian sense. In reality it’s something of a wine powerhouse—it’s only a seventh the size of Alberta, but is the world’s sixth-largest wine exporter—but ask most North American wine drinkers about it and they’ll list two things: port, which everybody loves and no one drinks; and budget wines like the diabetes-inducing Mateus or the rustic (and actually quite charming) Periquita. Both are huge sellers, but don’t exactly drape the country in Bordeaux-esque glory. Hopefully that’s set to change.
Leading the charge are the so-called Douro Boys, a collective of youngish, forward-thinking producers who are hell-bent on changing consumer minds about Portuguese wine. The poster child for these efforts may be Dirk Niepoort, whose family has been making port for five generations but whose early experiments with table wine helped convince other winemakers that money could be made in table wine. His Dialogo is a red-fruit powerhouse with great body and spice but few harsh tannins. More importantly, it solves the area’s two major problems—it’s relatively affordable and the label looks cool and contemporary. Neighbouring Quinta do Crasto has taken a more straightforward approach, the labels look serious and old world, but they likewise have been able to put out one fantastic wine at the $20 range (the simple Crasto) and a cellar-worthy offering with their $44 2009 Old Vines Reserva, a floral-powered genius of a wine that would have no problem going toe-to-toe with French wines at twice the price. Several other Douro wines are worthy of merit, among them the entry-level offering from Quinta do Noval, Cedro do Noval ($35), or the sublime 2008 Quinta Vale D. Maria ($40).
However, while these wines elevate the profile of the Douro, they don’t do much for the country as a whole. Take for example the Dão region. For years it was a workhorse of a region turning out well-made but mass-produced table wines. They’ve never had the prestige of port, and as a result it’s been more difficult for their table wines to garner much regard over here. It’s a shame, because they tend to have some of the great characteristics of the Douro—the touriga nacional grape has great fruit and an earthy appeal—at a slightly more accessible price point. Borges Quinta de São is one of the few examples available here and for $18 you get a low alcohol (12.5 percent) with crazy dense structure and dark cherry notes with a bit of a funky, but interesting, nose. And we haven’t even touched the emerging Lisboa district (where they dare to use international grape varietes like syrah) or the huge quality gains that have been made to Vinho Verde. Any one of these regions could be the next big thing—the trick is simply getting people to try them.