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Portugal boasts some of the best wines in the world. You’ve likely heard of one of the most common: the Port, named for where it came from. However, there are many others that you should know and you’ll likely grow to love.
Portuguese wine culture was developed through years of isolation from the rest of the world, meaning that many of Portugal’s native grapes are only found in Portugal. The wines they make are unique, and it’s understandable that you may be unfamiliar with the varieties listed on the label. That means it’s exclusive and delicious.
There are more than 250 wines indigenous to the country and they’ve been adapted to grow well in the landscape, making them some of the most wonderful wines in the world. Many grapes are still being crafted into excellent wines, so there’s much to be discovered on the last wine frontier of Western Europe.
Portuguese Wine Varieties
Common terms for Portuguese wine include Vinho Tinto, or red wine, Vinho Branco, or white wine, and Quinta, or wine farm. The key terms you should take away from this are Tinto and Branco because they’re included in many of the names of wines from Portugal.
Wines from Portugal are expansive. They cover a wide array of flavours, colours, textures, qualities, and prices. Many are exported, but some you will only find within Portugal’s borders, making it very exclusive, and a great reason to take a vacation.
Perhaps Portugal’s most famous variety, and known all over the world, is the sweet, fortified Port. This wine is reproduced in many places throughout the world, but its origins lie in the Douro region.
Port wines are rich. They’re often served as dessert wines and come in several styles including red, white, and rosé. There’s even a 30+ year aged variety called Tawny Port. While true Port wines are only made in Portugal, you can find other varieties that are affordable and good for sipping in many places.
Port’s flavors include blackberry, raspberry, chocolate, cinnamon, and caramel. Red Ports have more chocolate and berry flavors while tawny Ports have more nutty and caramel flavors. Aged Vintage Ports and Tawny Ports can also have hazelnut, butterscotch, almond, graham cracker, green peppercorn, and graphite.
Pink Port or rosé varieties are rare and relatively new. They are great in light cocktails because they feature more subtle flavors and less body.
See some Port Comparisons here:
Also found in the Douro region, Douro wines come in red and white varieties. The red grapes used to make Port are also used here to create full-bodied, tannic Tinto Douro wines that are perfectly age-worthy, just like the Port. They’re relatively inexpensive, but higher quality red Douros can cost a pretty penny.
Douro Branco wines, or white Douro, are light-bodied and crisp. They are minerally with subtle salinity and high acidity, with very few fruity flavors. These are not as common but include varieties such as Rabigato, Biosinho, Gouveio, and Folgazão.
Sometimes this wine is spelled Cercial or Sercial, but it shouldn’t be confused with the Sercial from the Madeira region. It is a light grape grown in the Dao, Bairrada, and Tejo regions, but is primarily found in Terras de Cister. It’s commonly used as a blending ingredient with Baga, Encruzado, or Bical.
Alone, Cerceal is straw-coloured with mineral aromas and little fruit. Sometimes you may catch a hint of grapefruit or lime. They are acidic and refreshing, and they can age well up to ten years. After ageing, they produce fennel and honey aromas, and can sometimes be smoky.
This white grape can be found in the Douro Valley and Alentejo. It can make dry blends or be used as an ingredient in the Port Branco we mentioned earlier. While many used to think that Gouveio was a synonym for Verdelho, it’s actually its own variety.
These wines are fresh and lively with good acidity and lots of body compared to other whites. It has a strong citrus aroma, and lime is common when the grapes are grown in cooler climates. It may also have a spicy aniseed note. It ages well after bottling.
This grape ripens early and produces high yields. The grapes themselves are medium-sized and packed tightly in small bunches. They are very sensitive to disease so they thrive better in dry areas which is why they’re primarily found inland.
This wine variety comes from Douro, Dao, and Beira. It’s a subtle wine that’s light and refreshing. Moderately complex flavours like molasses, nutmeg, and beeswax may be present and a smoky flavour may present itself even if not aged. It’s usually used for blending, but can be a base for sparkling wines from cooler areas, especially if harvested early.
The yields for Malvasia Fina are hard to predict and relatively inconsistent because it’s so prone to mildew, rot, coulure, and oidium. This grape is incredibly sensitive so production varies quite a bit from year to year.
This grape grows in both Portugal and Spain and is called by several different names. The Spanish call it Tempranillo and the Portuguese sometimes call it Tinta Roriz. It is grown in the Dao and Tejo regions. It makes a lively, rich wine that is elegant but robust. It has a fruity, spicy flavour.
In Spanish, the term Tempranillo means early variety, and that’s what this grape is. It grows vigorously and can adapt to many different soil types and climates. It prefers the hot and dry but can grow almost anywhere.
It’s used commonly in blends like Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Alicante Bouschet, and Trincadeira.
The Tinta Barroca red wine is the most common variety in the Douro Valley behind Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz. While it doesn’t excel well on its own, it makes a fantastic blending component and is found often in Port. This task suits the grape well because of its naturally high sugar and alcohol content.
It produces generous yields and is popular with many growers. However, it tends to shrivel in hot weather, so vintners are careful to plant it on high slopes where it’s cooler and doesn’t face the hot afternoon sun.
The only place you’ll find varietal Tinta Barroca wines is in South Africa. It’s a trademark of the Western Cape to produce incredibly ripe, high-alcohol content wines that have intense flavours.
This grape has similar characteristics to the Tinta Barroca. It is used commonly as a blend; however, unlike the Tinta Barroca, it can stand well on its own as a varietal and is similar to a Malbec, soft Zinfandel, or Merlot blend.
This wine is dense, but elegant, with floral notes like roses and wildflowers, and a lot of blackberries. The velvety tannins help it age well and it is resistant to disease and pests in the vineyard, making it an incredibly healthy crop.
From the region of Minho, the name of this wine is often used as a term for the region itself. However, there are several different kinds of Vinho Verde that hail from the region of Minho including Branco Vinho Verde and Rosado Vinho Verde.
Branco Vinho Verde is white and light-bodied. It is fruity with citrus flavours like lemon and melon. It can also contain gooseberry or a chalky texture. It is usually made from a blend of several different types of grapes including Azal, Arinto, Loureiro, Alvarinho, and Trajadura. You may rarely find single varietals of Azal, Alvarinho, or Loureiro.
Rodao Vinho Verde is a rose with red berries and an acidity similar to lemonade. The red grapes used in these blends include Amaral, Espadeiro, Padeiro, Alvarelhao, and Borracal.
Alentejo wines are wines from the region of the same name. The reds are full-bodied and typically found in blends containing Trincadeira, Aragones, Castelao, Alicante Bouschet, and Alfrocheiro. The Branco Alentejo wines can be light-bodied or full-bodied and made with Antao Vaz, Arinto, Fernao Pires, and Roupeiro.
The Baga grape is an incredibly productive red grape in the Beira region. Wines made with Baga grapes used to be driven by dense blackberry flavors with high acidity. They aged slowly into more refined wines over the course of a few decades.
Today’s vinification techniques have produced a wider variety of Baga grapes that are very different from the old varieties. They often produce pink, sparkling, aromatic wines or light-bodied reds.
The Tinto Bairrada is made from Baga grapes and can produce tar-like reds with fine tannins and ageability. The Branco Bairrada is aromatic and pleasant. The Sparkling Bairrada is typically picked early and contains beeswax flavors.
Madeira comes from Madeira Island and is a fortified wine. It’s made from five different grape varieties and aged under heat. It can be made sweet, medium sweet, medium dry, or dry. As a result of the volcanic climate in which they grow, they are acidic wines made from grapes harvested by hand.
This wine is a crossing of Grenache and Petit Bouschet grape varieties and was first cultivated in 1866. It has intense coloring, generous yields, and is easy to grow. It has a thick skin which makes it easy to transport. It’s so juicy that the grapes have to be pressed several times to prevent juice waste.
The wine is fruity and balanced. Grapes ripen early, so they can lack alcohol content and depth in some cases. It’s important that vintners carefully pick the yield and control its growth to achieve the best results.
Portuguese Wine Regions
Portuguese wine varieties are categorized by quality. You can find the variety by looking at the label of any genuine Portuguese wine. These levels include DOC, or Denominação de Origem Controlada, IGP, or Vinho Regional, and Vinho, or wine.
DOC wines grow in a limited geographical area with many restrictions to ensure the best quality. There are thirty-one DOCs throughout Portugal, three of which overlap, so in some cases, you’ll see twenty-eight instead of thirty-one. The grapes used to make these wines have recommended vine yields with a maximum yield permitted to control their quality.
Vinho Regional wines grow in a larger geographical area with fewer restrictions. There are fourteen of these regional wine areas. The rules still include which types of grapes can be used and maximum vine yields, but they’re not as strict, which means the wine isn’t as high quality. However, you’ll find creative winemakers here producing excellent blends that aren’t allowed in DOC regions.
Vinho wines are considered common table wines. You won’t find these outside of Portugal. The classification for these wines is very basic and each region has a commission called the Comissão Vitivinícola Regional.
The CVR controls the regulations regarding quality and to ensure each region maintains distinct characteristics. The CVR also grants permission for irrigation based on carefully monitoring water scarcity in the region. These wines aren’t bad, they just don’t meet the same stringent quality standards as the other two.
The Douro Valley is home to Portugal’s most famous wine, the Port. The beautiful hillsides on the banks of the Douro River are terraced and worked by hand. Since the time of Jesus, this stair stepping manicuring has been producing delicious Port. This region is a UNESCO world heritage site.
The wines from this region include traditional Port, Pink Port, White Port, Tinto Douro, and Douro Branco.
Terras de Cister (Távora e Varosa)
Terras de Cister translates to Cistercian Lands. This tiny mountainous region is directly south of the Douro region and the first people to plant it was Cistercian monks. These are the same group of monks to start making wine in Burgundy, France.
The Terras de Cister get cold at night, making it hard to ripen grapes. This produces differences in wine that make it more elegant and acidic. These characteristics are great for making sparkling wines, which is what this region is known for.
Regional varieties include Cerceal and Gouveio, which are light whites, Malvasia Fina, which is an aromatic white, Aragonês, also called Tempranillo, and Tinta Barroca and Touriga Franca, which are both red. It’s also rapidly becoming more common to plant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir because of their attraction to bubbles.
North of the Douro and through the mountains lies the Trás-Os-Montes region. It’s small but expansive. It produces only Transmontano, which is a full-bodied red wine with higher alcohol content and a lot of kick.
Residing in northern Portugal, the Minho region has a little bit of everything. With rolling vineyards, lush mountains, sweeping beaches, and charming towns, the Minho region is rarely visited by tourists, which is unfortunate, given its mesmerizing beauty. It is one of the many UNESCO world heritage sites in Portugal.
Much like California, the Alentejo region is hot, has a lot of sun, and features wheat-filled rolling hills. The marked difference may be the marble castles that are distinctly European. The wineries here are modern and feature wines that have a lot of fruit and mocha flavors. They use wood aging strategies that have been crafted over years of experimenting for refined tannins and refreshing styles. These wines are medium and full-bodied, similar to Chardonnay.
Wines from this region include Tinto Alentejo, Branco Alentejo, and Alentejano.
This region varies more than any other. It starts at Lisbon and runs north along the coast. Many wines from this region have reached international stores. The wines from this region offer great quality at affordable prices which make them great for drinking every day.
Wines from this region include Alenquer, Bucelas, Arruda, Colares, Torres Vedras, and Óbidos and Lourinhã.
This region for one wine, and one wine alone. The Moscatel de Setúbal is a deep, gold, rich dessert wine. Previously named Terras do Sado for the River Sado that runs directly through it to the sea, the Setúbal peninsula hot, dry summers, and mild, wet winters. It’s flat and sandy except for the Serra da Arrábida mountains on whose slopes the grapes are grown. These grapes make Moscatel de Setúbal wines that are sweet and fragrant when young and nutty when matured.
This region has lighter wines than in the Douro, but they age better because the tannins and acidity are more developed. This region is higher in altitude and has rugged soils with decomposing schist and granite. Collectors have identified the Dão region as the region to pay particular attention to quality. It’s unique but very good.
Wines from this region include Dão Alfrocheiro, Dão Jaen, Dão Touriga Nacional, Terras do Dão, and Terras de Lafões.
This region used to be called Ribatejo. It’s flat and produces large areas of lower quality wines. The wines here are simple, but the types of grapes planted are vast. They range from the grape of Vinho Verde to a full-bodied Alicante Bouschet. The wines here are affordable, and as you move from the river, through the hills, and toward the outer edges of this region, the wines improve. You’ll find the best value here.
Wines from this region include Red Indi Blends and White Indi Blends.
This narrow coastal region is west of Dão in northern Portugal, but features extensive geography with oceanic properties and two mountain ranges; the Caramulo mountains and Buçaco mountains. It also permits a variety of grapes comprising its Baga and Bairrada wines.
Wines from this region include Tinto Bairrada, Branco Bairrada, and Sparkling Bairrada.
This region features the most mountainous terrain in Portugal. It even snows here. This is a challenging climate for producing grapes. There’s a limited growing season, but it does get very hot for a short time. There are red wines that are driven by red fruit flavors and smoky, herbaceous notes. The white wines are lean and chalky.
This region will improve with producers leaning on native yeasts and organic winemaking processes. Old vines are also prevalent and vintners work hard to maximize the fruits of the small growing season.
This region produces Tinto Beira and Branco Beira wines.
The Azores region is home to Madeira island and Pico Island. Pico Island is a UNESCO world heritage site and is covered in stone walls that protect the vines of Verdelho, which is the region’s main white wine grape. The volcanic soil here produces a viscous liquid that is golden in color, sweet and smokey, with tart and salty flavors.
Madeira is quite different. It has a history riddled with strife, struggle, and disappointment. Madeira wines are some of the most collected wines in the world. It has a very distinct flavor that people tend to either love or hate, and it is not a casual sipper. You purposefully set out to drink wines from Madeira because they’re best suited for oenophiles with elevated tastes.
This region is home to Verdelho and Madeira wines.
Algarve is on the coast, featuring sand and sun. The 2500 acres of sunbaked vines grow reds that aren’t destined to age because it’s too hot. However, the wine made here is surprisingly juicy for a drought-riddled climate. They’re smokey, sweet, and dusty.
Wines produced here include Syrah, Alicante Bouschet, and Tempranillo.
Portuguese Wine Recommendations
If you’ve never tried any Portuguese wine, there are plenty of places to start. You won’t run short on options no matter where you go, but here are some of my favourites.
Blandy’s Bual Madeira
This red wine is bottled ready to drink, but the great thing about it is that it keeps for a few months after opening, so you can savor it instead of drinking it all right away. It goes great with desserts like cake, pudding, fruit, and cheese.
It has a clear amber color with intense dried fruit fragrances like prunes and figs. You may also notice oak, almonds, vanilla spice, and toffee. It’s complex with a nice aftertaste that sticks are for a while.
Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Port
If you’re going to try wine from Portugal, you should definitely try a Port. This wine is a high-quality Port that is great for every day drinking. While vintage Port ages in the bottle, the Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Port is bottled when it’s ready to drink, after aging in the barrel for four to six years.
It has a deep ruby color that smells like black cherry with vibrant, fresh fruit flavors. You’ll taste blackberries and plums with tight tannins and an elegant finish.
Quinta do Crasto Douro Superior
This wine wears the name of the region from which it comes. It is balanced and fresh with notes of gum cistus, cocoa, and dark fruits with a long finish. Enjoy this wine while overlooking the Douro Valley to complete the experience.
This wine is lush and complex with ripe black fruit, prune, and cassis aromas under notes of spices and violet. It has balanced acidity with a full body and firm tannins. The finish is long and elegant.
Real Companhia Velha Douro Porca de Murca Red
This wine is popular in the Douro region because it has plenty of freshness and character. It accompanies daily meals with a beautiful and clean bright ruby color. It smells faintly of cherry and red berry with intense ripe fruit flavours, great balance, and velvety texture.
There are more wine options than you’ll ever have time to drink. We dare you. If you do venture forth to try the exclusive wines that Portugal has to offer, you won’t be disappointed. We suggest travelling from region to region and trying the particular wines they have to offer close to home. There are many different varieties, flavours, and aromas to choose from, plus beautiful historical sites to see.
If you prefer to stay close to home, there are many wines from Portugal you can get outside of the country. Check your local store in the Portugal section for a vast array of genuine Portuguese options. These wines are a must-try for every wine lover.