Why Portugal? - Part 2
4th Aug 2010
An overview of the main wine regions in this most underrated of wine producing countries.
If one image captures the essence of Portuguese wines, then it surely must be the steep terraced vineyards along the river Douro in
Today, you are just as likely to see rows of high density vineyards as single-row terracing of vines. For those wine-makers wishing to use machinery to pick the grapes, well, forget it! These terraces are designed for dedicated farmers to pick fruit off the vines, a laborious task.
The weather varies greatly in the region; in the west we have the Serra Do Marao range of mountains which have a significant effect on the climate. Generally speaking the west can get pretty rain soaked, whereas the dryer, flatter lands of the Douro Superior in the east of the region requires irrigation in the dry season.
Although we associate the
Rios de Minho
This region in Northwest Portugal has traditionally be known for Vinho Verde, a crisp refreshing white wine made from the Alvarinho (the best grape), Loureiro or Trajadura grapes. Sadly, really good examples are rare, as the very damp climate makes it difficult to ripen the grapes. Like the British, the locals love to moan about the weather, proof that they are not alone!
Beiras, a large region to the south of the Douro river, includes both the Bairrada and Dao appellations. Excellent vintages can be few and far between in Bairrada, as the rain and diseases make it difficult to ripen the native grape varieties properly. The clay soils are largely planted with the Baga grape variety which is high in acidity and tannin and it can be difficult to achieve full ripeness. Nonetheless wines of great depth and character are possible and much progress has been made in recent years.
Dao on the other hand, has granite sandy soil and is less exposed to the coast than Bairrada. It was once associated with tough as old boots tannic reds that only occasionally showed well with plenty of age! However the last 8 years have seen a dramatic improvement in quality and there has been an increased planting of Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz on good sites. The best producers now offer rich, ripe and characterful reds.
Estremadura covers undulating hillsides north of Lisbon but despite its proximity to the coast it avoids much of the cloud cover and rain experienced in Bairrada and Rios de Minho. It has long produced more wines than any other region, much of it from large co-operative with the emphasis on volume rather than quality. But here, too, things have improved and a handful of individual estates are emerging with some creditable wines.
Further east of Estremadura is Ribatejo, an up and coming region producing better quality wines than in previous decades. Despite the many high-yielding vineyards and emphasis on bulk production, there is some good value to be had when a top winemaker has been hired to makes the wines. This region has a growing number of international varieties, including Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, and quite a few premium single variety wines are being made from Touriga Nacional and the like.
Terras Do Sado
One grape, Castelao, dominates production in this relatively unknown region south east of Lisbon and nowhere else does it work quite so well. It produces smoky, minerally and spicy wines that are perfect bbq fodder! There are also some fantastic fortified wines made with the Moscatel grape.
Alentejo gets our vote for the most exciting region in Portugal. The still relatively small, scattered vineyards of the region lie close to the Spanish border in the south east of the country. This is largely red wine country, as the hot dry climate sees virtually no rain all summer. However some good whites are also being produced by the best estates, early picking and adjusting the acidity is the norm. The region's mineral rich, slate soils produce fantastic red wines with deep colour, flavour and concentration. The best examples are made from the Aragones (Tempranillo) grape, with Castelao, Alicante Bouschet or even Cabernet Sauvignon as minor components. Syrah has quite a presence here; the best examples are rich, robust earthy wines that are a perfect match for food. Although the international varieties show great promise, Portugalís indigenous grapes really and rightfully take centre stage in the region, with some outstanding Touriga Nacional being produced.
One to watch!