What better place to finish this summer’s Grand Tour than sunny Portugal? Although frequently overshadowed by neighboring Spain, I happen to think Portugal is putting out some of Europe’s most interesting wines at the moment. Will you have to do a little digging? Sure, but isn’t that what the Grand Tour is all about? This August, I want to highlight four of my favorite growing areas in this small yet fierce country: Minho, Dão, Colares, and Alentejo.
There’s so much more than meets the eye in the world of Portuguese viticulture. The wine production is extremely diverse for such a small country, ranging from poppy, effervescent whites to big-boned, boisterous reds (and a ton of sweet fortified wines in between, of course). Portugal's viticultural roots run pretty deep. Like many European countries, the land that comprises modern day Portugal was first cultivated by the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans, the latter of which exported wine to foreign destinations. As the centuries passed, production expanded (halted briefly, of course, by the phylloxera epidemic), and more stringent appellation designations were put into place by the late 20th century. Today, Portuguese wine production is more versatile than ever, with over 250 varieties planted and a slew of vinification styles implemented.
Surprisingly, Portugal’s Douro region actually created an appellation system to designate high-quality bottles from table wines nearly two full centuries before the French did. The designations that the country adheres to today (in descending order) are: Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC), Vinho Regional (VR), and Vinho de Mesa (Table Wine.) In terms of regions, Portugal has about 14, give or take how you break them down. With this month’s Grand Tour, we’ll focus on four of my top picks.
First, there’s Minho, where wines dubbed ‘Vinho Verde’ call home. The region’s name technically translates to ‘green wine,’ but the phrase has nothing to do with the color of the juice and everything to do with the age of the wine (think ‘young wine’.) Here, Loureiro and Alvarinho reign king, though a bunch of other indigenous varieties are cultivated among these two big players. The region’s climate is rather mild, though annual rainfall is higher than in other parts of the country. Vinho Verde wines are known for their effervescence and low ABV, creating fresh, spritzy wines that are perfect for afternoon sipping. Planning a park picnic or beach outing beneath the sun? Slap a nice chill on this bottle and be sure to bring it along!
Head south from Minho and you’ll hit Dão. Unlike Minho, nearly 80% of Dão’s wine production is red. In fact, the region is home to Portugal’s signature red wine grape, Touriga Nacional. Here, fruit grows at higher altitudes in sandy schist and granite soils, creating lighter-bodied wines than neighboring regions.
Continue farther southwest and you’ll hit the overarching Lisboa region where Colares is located. Colares is home to some of the oldest vines in the world, thanks to its sandy, phylloxera-resistant soils. Yep, that’s right -- when nearly all of Europe’s viticulture was wiped out from the pest, only a few sandy-soiled regions held fast. Colares was one of them! Colares’ climate is moderated by its proximity to the Atlantic, which also provides an abundance of saline-tinged breezes throughout the region’s vineyards, which are mostly dedicated to the region’s signature variety, Ramisco. Portugal’s southeastern area is home to the well-known Alentejo appellation, synonymous with scorching temperatures, cork production, and robust red blends.
Personally, I find that Portuguese wines are some of the best for late-summer sipping, perfect for barbecues, beach parties, and simple get-togethers outdoors. For refreshing, low-alcohol whites at lunch, looking to Vinho Verde is a no-brainer. For simple aperitifs on the patio, sipping an unoaked, refreshing bottle of Portuguese red is key. And for backyard barbecues with friends, a structured, well-balanced red from southern Portugal is an ideal selection for burgers, red meat, and all things grilled.
As the locals would say, saúde!
Dustin Wilson, Master Sommelier
Niepoort ‘Dócil’ Loureiro Vinho Verde 2016
The Niepoort family has been crafting high-quality wines in Portugal since 1842, highlighting the unique terroirs of various Portuguese regions for more than 150 years. Brother-sister duo Dirk and Verena Niepoort represent the family’s fifth-generation and have extensively grown the business, beginning with the acquisition of Dirk’s own vineyards in Cima Corgo. Fruit for ‘Dócil’ grows in granite soils and is hand-harvested, fermented, and aged five months in stainless steel to preserve the grapes’ natural freshness. The final wine shows flavors of citrus and white flowers, marked by mineral-driven undertones, vibrant acidity, and a saline-tinged finish.
PAIRING IDEAS: Loureiro’s lively acidity and
delicate flavor profile make it perfect for pairing with fresh salads, salty shellfish, and a variety of Asian cuisines.
Adega Regional de Colares ‘Chão Rijo Tinto’ 2015
The Adega Regional de Colares was first created in 1931 and was deemed the primary producer of regional wines. Today, the ARC is headed by Francisco Figueiredo, a young and passionate viticulturist dedicated to maintaining regional traditions in Colares wine produc- tion. Here, untrained vines, many of which are more than 100 years old, are rooted in sandy soils. All vineyard work is done by hand, fermentations are done with natural yeasts, and only neutral wood is used during the aging process. ‘Chão Rijo Tinto’ is a Castelão dominant blend rounded out with 20% Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo). Fruit ferments with 20% whole clusters in tank, followed by aging in a combination of used barrels and old vats. Bright, boisterous, and ultra fruit-forward, this red is perfect for sipping year-round, especially when served alongside savory suppers among friends.
PAIRING IDEAS: ‘Chão Rijo Tinto’ is an excellent gateway into the world of Portuguese reds. The wine shows best when served alongside roasted meats, rice based dishes, and hearty tomato sauces.
Fita Preta ‘A Touriga Vai Nua’ 2018
Fita Preta was founded by Antonio Maçanita and David Booth. Both are passionate for high-quali- ty, sustainable winemaking in Portugal’s Alentejo region. The duo sources fruit from carefully selected vineyard sites, all of which are managed by precise and honest grape growers who meticulously limit vine vigour and manage vineyards with utmost respect for the environment. ‘A Touriga Vai Nua’ is a varietal Touriga Nacional. Fruit macerates for 30 days and is spontaneously fermented, followed by three months of aging in steel. Exclusion of oak throughout the vinification process keeps the wine intense yet fresh, dominated by flavors of juicy dark berries, purple flowers, slate, and pepper. Only 830 cases are produced annually!
PAIRING IDEAS: The unoaked nature of this luscious, fruit-forward red wine makes it a perfect match for game, lamb, and charcuterie boards. Vegetarians, fear not! Lentil stews and black bean burgers are equally delicious matches.
Quinta de Saes Tinto 2017
Alvaro Castro has been spearheading viticulture and vinification at his family’s estates (Quinta da Pellada and Quinta de Saes) since 1980. Castro hones in on the region’s cooler-climate areas, creating wildly aromatic wines full of freshness and elegance. As a winemaker, Castro is a bona fide traditionalist and believes that old-school techniques create the most honest regional expressions of terroir, highlighting the notion that wine is made first in the vineyard. Comprised of equal parts Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional, Alfrocheiro, and Jaen (Mencia), fruit for this sustainably-grown red blend is cultivat- ed in granite-clay soils at soaring altitudes of 500 meters above sea level. After a 10-day maceration, spontaneous fermentation takes place in steel vats, followed by 18 months of aging in used French oak. Flavors of juicy cherry, pomegranate, red flowers, and flint dominate the palate, leading to a spicy, fruit-forward finish.
PAIRING IDEAS: The well-integrated tannins and vibrant acidity in this bright yet savory bottle of red come alive when served alongside mushroom based dishes or roasted poultry.