Ask most people the last time they’ve tried a Portuguese wine and their likely response is that they haven’t had Port since the Holidays. But Portugal has been producing more than just dessert wines for centuries, and while those making these wines haven’t received as much play on the global scene, the table wines (and all Portuguese wines, for that matter) from the diverse wine growing regions of the country are worth exploring.
Sitting on the far western tip of Europe surrounded by Spain the vast Atlantic Ocean, Portugal is only 380 miles long and 140 miles wide. To put it in context with the United States, it’s about the size of the state of Maine. But despite its small boundary lines, it’s a country that is densely divided into a mind-boggling number of official wine regions. The country alone has more than 200 micro climates and 250 types of indigenous grapes, which is the highest density of anywhere in the world in terms of space and quantity of grapes planted. It’s diversity of grapes, terrain, wine styles and philosophies make it one of the most intriguing countries to explore.
Of the many grapes found here, the vast majority of them can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Moreover, the great diversity of soils and microclimates stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean mean you’ll also find an exceptional range of wine styles. You’ll find aromatic whites from Alvarinho and Fernao Pires and more steely styles of white wines from Aristo and Encruzado. Robust red wines come from Touriga Nacional, Baga, Castelao and Touriga Franca, while Trincadeira and Tinta Roriz (Aragones), which is also Tempranillo, brings fruitiness and elegance to red wine blends.
Much of the world hasn’t yet experienced a wide showing of Portuguese wines--particularly in America. But the tide is beginning to turn. Much of the exposure to new wines comes with exposure to the cuisines that correspond to where they are from. There’s no shortage of French, Italian, or Spanish restaurants throughout most of America; by extension, the wines from these countries are fairly recognized. Portuguese are fare is a bit more of a challenge to find. That, coupled with the fact that many of the grape names are difficult to pronounce, has resulted in relative obscurity for the wines in the USA. However, tasting through a sampling of different wines from Portugal will reveal that a little bit of effort offers a lot of reward.
“When you taste a variety of Portuguese wines at once, particularly with food, you begin to see that they’re particularly well-architected for food,” says Eugenio Jardim, the US Brand Ambassador for Wines of Portugal at a recent tasting lunch with Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein. “These wines have the uncanny ability to be full-bodied, yet elegant with beautiful florallity,”
Few may realize it, but much of the modern western world has Portugal to thank for the many foods we eat today. Because most of the trade routes went straight through the coastal country, it was the Portuguese who first brought tomatoes, potatoes, chiles, and coriander from South America and began using them in their foods. Spices from India found a home in Portugal. For this reason, you could make a simple argument that many of the varied cuisines we enjoy today would pair well with the variety of wines from Portugal.
But the beauty of these wines with food is also much more complex than that and much of it is a result of the amazing acidity retained in wines. With red wines in particular, this acidity abound along with robust, ripe fruit and often sturdy tannins. With a decidedly hot ripening season where temperatures can reach well over 100 degrees, grapes, wines from such conditions should naturally produce wines that taste baked, sweet, and for lack of a better term, flat.
But Portuguese wines seem to defy this logic. The secret, as Master Sommelier Devon Broglie, Associate Wine Buyer for Whole Foods Market revealed at a seminar on Portuguese wines, is the unique soils--particularly in the Douro Valley. The dramatic canyons created by the Duoro river over centuries of flowing has forced the sub strata of schist soils to shift into a diagonal position. The benefit is that the roots--which would otherwise be extremely stressed from the substantial arid heat--are able to deep into the ground and find both water and cooler soils to help cool the plant. The result is the vine’s ability to retain an amazing amount of acidity. It’s a quality that reveals itself in the wines
“If there’s one bird dog you should always go to when pairing wines with food, it’s acidity,” says Goldstein, who praised the virtue of Portuguese wines to pair well with a number of different foods. “Acid cuts fattiness, highlights unique flavors, and is the only element you can use to put up against other high acid ingredients. That’s what makes Portuguese wines so unique in the sphere of food and wine pairing.”
Beyond their delicious food pairing aptitude, Portuguese wines offer amazing value. When you look at the increasing prices of big wines in places like Bordeaux and Napa Valley--which aren’t likely to go down any time soon--it’s become increasingly difficult to find wines that carry as much gravitas or aging potential that are approachable to the average pocketbook. But as Broglie points out, Portugal may be the answer.
“These wines show incredible vans as an equation of quality for the price,” says Broglie, who has championed an increasingly wide selection of these wines for Whole Foods. “ You can bring anyone to the table for the value these wines offer.”
Broglie would argue that value is just an entry point for exploration. Because of the great diversity of grapes throughout the country, there’s a great deal to discover.
“I think that’s the most exciting thing about Portuguese wines. They are made from such an array of indigenous grapes from each specific region that they really speak to the place from which they came, that’s key quality to evaluating great wines from around the world.”
Despite Portugal’s longevity as a winemaking country, its relatively young life in the current global wine market provides a unique opportunity for wine experts and amateurs alike; another quality that brings everyone to the table.
“These wines have an individuality that’s specific to their regions, but there’s a commonality to all of them that’s decidedly Portuguese,” says Broglie, who adds that in a world where we’re given expectations for what wines from Bordeaux, Napa, Italy, or Argentina are supposed to tastes like, the definition of wines from Portugal has yet to be written. “Right now they’re creating a conversation before anyone else can tell us what we’re supposed to be tasting.”