July 20, 2019

Wines of Portugal

By H.E. Ms. Rosa Batoréu, Ambassador of the Republic of Portugal to the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

I could not agree more with the well known wine journalist Rui Falcão when he says that “variety is the keyword when you’re talking about Portuguese wine.” 

Indeed, been a relatively small country (mainland 218 km wide and 561 km long), yet diverse, Portugal offers a stunning variety of terroirs, grape varieties and blends. While many top winemaking countries specialize in a handful of grape varieties, relying on standard, international options, Portugal is home to over 250 indigenous varieties, offering unique opportunities for those looking for a change.

Portugal has been undergoing something of a quiet revolution over the last twenty years or so and the exports demonstrate the sector’s dynamism having registered last year a growth of 3% by value, achieving a sum of €803.335 million. The reluctance to follow trends and plant international grapes is now paying dividends and the new breed of full-blooded, fruit-filled wines are more than able to compete on the world stage. The distinctive flavors that are the hallmark of Portugal’s indigenous grape varieties have become its trump card. From Touriga Nacional to Baga, from Arinto and Antão Vaz to Castelão and Trincadeira, there are endless possibilities of Portuguese wine styles. No longer is the production of unfortified wines seen as a distraction from the ‘real business‘ of making Port.

Portuguese wine is the result of traditions introduced to the region by ancient civilizations, such as the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, and mostly the Romans. In 1756 the Marquis of Pombal (Marquês de Pombal) established the limits of the Douro region, creating the world’s first officially demarcated wine region, today one of the two wine-producing regions protected by UNESCO as World Heritage. The other one is located in the Pico Island, the second largest in the Azores archipelago.

Portugal’s wine regions.

Portugal has 2.200 square kilometers of vineyards, divided by 14 large wine regions. Among others, Portugal’s verdant North West, is home to Vinho Verde the light, traditionally delicately spritzy wine, where the Alvarinho grape is king and a base to many blends. The Douro, one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world, has quickly emerged leading the way as the country’s premium wine region and there is a real pioneering spirit amongst the winemakers. Dão, just south of the Douro, on granite slopes protected by high mountains and pine forests, produces one of Portugal’s better-known reds of the same name. 

The last twenty years have seen a sea of change in the wines of this region too. Bairrada (barrois Portuguese for clay), located between the mountains and the coast, on fertile clay soils, better known for red wines, is one of the only wine regions in Portugal to be dominated by a single grape variety, the baga.

Lisboa, a large, coastal region that runs north from Lisbon city, where onshore breezes from the Atlantic help cool the vineyards and maintain the fresh acidity and aroma is home to mostly white wines. This is Portugal’s largest wine producing region in volume terms. The Tejo region is lying on both sides of the River Tagus and was formerly called Ribatejo (meaning on the banks of the Tagus). The region is known for good, everyday drinking wines in a range of styles from a wide range of permitted grapes.Lying across the mouth of the Tagus river, Península de Setúbal is a largely flat, sandy region with the exception of the Serra da Arrábida, a short chain of mountains with clay and limestone soils. 

The Alentejo province stretches south from the Tagus to the Algarve and east to the border with Spain and covers almost a third of continental Portugal. The vineyard area is divided into seven diverse sub-regions and the undulating hills are home not only to vines, but to olives, cork oaks, wheat and sheep. Despite the challenging climate here (summer temperatures regularly reach 35°C), this is a dynamic region, referred to sometimes as Portugal’s ‘New World’.

The country also offers excellent opportunities for wine tourism, often associated with rural tourism and boutique hotels in prime locations. Besides the wines, you can also enjoy other farm-produced products, such as fruits and jams, cheeses, olive oils, traditional sweets and the local cuisine itself. Despite their often rustic appearance, don’t be mistaken, because these are modern hotels with wineries and cellars that have invested in advanced technology, some designed by internationally renowned architects. The Douro and Alentejo regions are where you will find the largest number of places dedicated to wine tourism, but there are wine production units receiving visitors all over the country, including the Algarve. To fully get to know the vineyards, the wineries and taste the wines, why not stay overnight and explore the surrounding area too?

Bem-vindo a Portugal! 

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Main picture by Hester Dijkstra

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