“A World of Difference.” That’s the slogan of Wines of Portugal, the trade group promoting Portuguese wines. As marketing slogans go, it’s less than exhilarating. Besides, the same could be said of several wine countries.
For Portugal, however, it fits to a degree unmatched by any other wine culture. This became clear during a San Francisco lecture on Portuguese wines by Evan Goldstein, followed by a walk-around tasting during which hundreds of Portuguese wines were poured.
A San Francisco wine educator, Goldstein is one of three “master sommeliers” recruited by Wines of Portugal to assemble a portfolio of 50 wines meant to showcase the authority and diversity of the country’s grape growing and winemaking. Nine of the 50 were tasted blind at his presentation, during which we also got a brisk update on Portugal’s wine industry.
Just how different is Portugal, wine-wise? Well, it’s a little smaller than the state of Indiana, but crammed into it are 31 officially recognized wine regions, each defined by its own distinctive landscape, grape varieties and wine styles. American wine enthusiasts long have been familiar with three of them – Vinho Verde in the far northwest for its spirited and refreshing white wines, Douro also in the country’s northern reaches for its layered and elegant port, and the island of Madeira off the southern coast for its equally rich and refined dessert wine. That leaves a lot of country to explore.
What’s more, Portugal is home to about 250 indigenous grape varieties, more than any other wine country, most of them cultivated nowhere else and most of them only vaguely familiar even to wine enthusiasts. Portugal isn’t a nation where farmers have abandoned long-standing grape-growing traditions for such popular varieties as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot.
So how should someone start to delve into such varied and strange terrain? As with any other wine genre, let a knowledgeable and patient wine merchant be your guide. Early on, as the San Francisco seminar made clear, you will learn that Portuguese wines almost invariably will be intricate blends of three or more grape varieties, though single-varietal releases are gaining traction.
Also gaining traction is Portugal’s standing for dry table wines, its history of port and Madeira notwithstanding. Indeed, the tasting conducted by Goldstein was devoted almost solely to dry wines, which also constituted most of the wines poured during the subsequent walk-around.
Dry Portuguese wines are becoming so highly regarded and popular that even in Douro they are stealing much of port’s thunder. Of the nine wines chosen for Goldstein’s presentation, five originated in Douro, and only one was port. That breakdown pretty much reflects how Portugal’s many wine regions are represented in the United States, with wines from Douro the most readily available.
Douro basically is red-wine country, and to judge by the tasting, Douro reds customarily are bold, broad and concentrated with red-fruit flavors. But as big as they are, their tannins aren’t invincible, especially when they are paired with the sort of roasted game, smoked ham and rustic pork dishes identified with the region. At the tasting I was especially taken with the beefy yet supple Vale Do Bomfim 2013 Douro ($13) and the floral, smoky and spicy Quinta Dos Murças 2013 Douro Assobio ($15). Both are blends that include such varieties as touriga franca and touriga nacional, and both are easily accessible for their restrained tannins and lively acidity.
Douro isn’t the only Portuguese wine region whose profile looks to be poised to rise in the U.S., where, incidentally, imports of the country’s wines rose nearly 8 percent in volume and 16 percent in value during 2015, reported Goldstein.
Dão, a large region in north-central Portugal surrounded by mountain ranges that help provide a relatively stable climate, is gaining recognition for both its refreshing whites and its expressive reds. One of the more complex and abiding white wines tasted in San Francisco was the Parras Wines 2014 Dão Evidência ($9), made solely with the grape variety encruzado, fermented and stored entirely in steel tanks. To judge by the Evidência, encruzado is a variety worth watching, for the wine delivers amazing viscosity, vigor and variety in aroma and flavor – flowers, lemons, apples – for such a low price.
Dão reds also generally are bargains, characteristically bearing more muscle, energy and shading than their price would indicate. The Boas Quintas 2013 Dão Opta ($10) is light in color and youthful in fruit but with a compelling brambly character that calls for another taste or two or more. Another bargain is the fruity and frisky Aliança 2013 Dão ($9).
For heftier and more complex examples of the region, keep an eye out for the Quinta Do Covão 2013 Dão Colheita Selecionada ($20/$25), a veritable pipe bowl of a wine for its fragrant suggestions of tobacco and smoke; the feral and spicy Boas Quintas 2015 Dão Fonte Do Ouro Red ($12); and the swaggering Quinta de Lemos 2010 Dão Dona Georgina ($50/$60), with beckoning suggestions of chocolate-dipped cherries and an earthy echo of basic Old World winemaking traditions.
Other Portuguese regions whose wines easily could find a place on the American table include Bairrada along the country’s northern coast, whose reputation for hearty red wines was exemplified by the inky and solidly built Caves Messias 2012 Bairrada Quinta do Valdoeiro ($16), a big yet balanced representative of New World winemaking in that it blends two staples of the region, touriga nacional and baga, with the relative upstart syrah.
Sprawling Alentejo in southern Portugal, also celebrated for forthright red wines based on such grape varieties as aragonez, castelão and even alicante bouschet, and multifaceted Lisboa along the central coast, just north and west of the capital, Lisbon, are two other regions worth exploring either abroad or in local wine shops.
By and large, the wines mentioned here should be available in Northern California, but if they can’t be found, the intrepid wine enthusiast isn’t likely to be disappointed by focusing on these regions and similar prices, given the technological advances that have bolstered the reliability of Portuguese wines in recent decades.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.