Wines of Portugal
2nd October 2006

This was a tasting organised by ViniPortugal and Icep Portugal.  ViniPortugal is a private association of wine producers, farmers and government representatives that works to promote Portuguese wine.  Wines of Portugal/Icep Portugal is a government agency whose main objective is to promote Portugal for tourism and as a producer of high quality products and services.

This tasting in Leeds was the northern adjunct to the larger London tasting, on which I reported here.

Portugal, although only a small country, ranks sixth in the world as a wine-producing country and has a long heritage of winemaking: indeed the Douro was the world’s first demarcated wine region, its boundaries being defined in 1756.  There are now eight major designated wine-producing regions in Portugal (plus Madeira and the Azores), from the Algarve in the south to Minho and Trás-os-Montes in the north, and within those regions there are a total of 27 Denominações de Origem (denominations of origin, or DOC for short).  For such a relatively small country there is great variation in the wines produced in (and within) each region thanks to a variety of micro climates and soil types.  This is particularly true where the winemakers stick to more traditional methods and the traditional, indigenous Portuguese grape varieties: Portugal has one of the widest ranges of indigenous varieties, with more than 200 different varietals. 


Among the more widely used varieties are:


Portuguese Wine Regions

Starting in the north west, we have Portugal’s larges demarcated region, the Minho, extending from Vale da Cambra south of the river Douro to the river Minho, that forms Portugal’s northern border with Spain.  Minho is home to the DOC Vinho Verde, now a much overlooked wine, but with lots of potential.  (See also my article on Vinho Verde here.)  There are six sub-regions, and the style of Vinho Verde may vary between them: around Monção, alvarinho can dominate, producing nicely dry wines, with a fuller body and higher alcohol levels (up to 13%), whereas in central Minho, around the towns of Braga, Barcelos and Guimarães, the loureiro grape can play a greater part, along with loureiro, trajadura and Pedernã, producing more typical Vinhos Verdes (with alcohol levels around 8%-10%); the loureiro in particular gives more perfume and finesse to the wines.  Around the town of Baião, avesso is an important variety, producing a slightly fuller style of wine.  Red wines are also produced, still under the Vinho Verde DOC, from grapes such as vinhão.  Vinho Verde, of course, has nothing to do with green wines, taking its name rather from the Costa Verde, which aptly describes the lush verdant countryside.

Directly to the east of Minho is Trás-os-Montes, home to Portugal’s most famous DOCs of Porto and Douro, with the River Douro forming the southern edge of the region, whose name translates as ‘beyond the mountains.’  The Douro region was originally demarcated in 1756 and while there have been some changes to the boundaries since then, the region is closely defined by an outcrop of pre-Cambrian schist running for almost 100km either side of the river, bounded by granite.  Port production naturally dominates, but the Douro is rapidly becoming the home to some excellent table wines, made from the same grapes as port, with which they share many characteristics.  Up to ninety different varieties are permitted, including touriga franca, touriga nacional and tinta roriz for reds, and rabigato, gouveio and viosinho for whites.  Of course, table wine production is nothing new in the Douro: until the 18th Century, most of the wines were fermented dry and not fortified.  The Douro is characterised by its poor, rocky soils and very hot summers.  To the north of the Douro Valley, a number of table wines are produced, and in addition to the Douro and Porto DOCs, the region is also the home of the less well known DOCs of Chaves, Valpaços and Planalto Mirandês.

To the south of both Minho and Trás-os-Montes lies the region of Beiras, stretching the full width of Portugal.  Beiras is home to the more well-known DOCs of Bairrada and Dão, along with the less well-known DOCs of Távora-Varosa in the north, butting up to the Douro region, Lafões in the north west, meeting the southernmost part of the Minho region, and the large DOC Beira Interior in the north east and the south east of Beiras.  Bairrada lies to the west of the region, though it doesn’t reach the coast, while Dão occupies the central part of the region.
Bairrada is an area of agricultural smallholdings, growing cereals and beans as well as vines on heavy, fertile clay soils.  Winemaking in the region is dominated by cooperatives, though an increasing number of small independent producers also operate.  Bairrada is unusual in that one grape dominates, almost to the exclusion of other varieties: over 80% of Bairrada’s production is red wine, mostly made from the Baga grape, which is native to the region.  Baga needs careful handling, as it can be quite aggressive.  White grapes are mostly maria gomes (known as Fernão Pires elsewhere in Portugal) and Bical, largely grown to produce sparkling wines.

The Dão DOC is at the centre of the Beiras region, sheltered from the Atlantic and bounded by high granite mountains on three sides.  It has a more continental climate with long hot summers, cool nights, though with lots of rainfall in the winter.  The soils are largely sandy on granite and slate.  Over two-thirds of Dão wines are red, and nine varieties are authorised: jaen, tinta pinheira, alfrocheiro preto, tinta roriz (i.e. tempranillo), bastardo and touriga nacional – the last must account for at least 20% of a wine.  Encruzado, perhaps blended with assario branco and bical, makes fresh fragrant whites for early drinking.

Estremadura is a relatively thin strip (c. 60 miles long by 40 miles wide) of hilly land between the river Tagus and the Atlantic, northwest of Lisbon.  Estremadura is home to no less than nine DOCs: Encostas de Aire in the north, around the town of Leiria; Óbidos, Alenquer, Arruda and Bucelas inland in the south east of the region; Torres Vedras and Lourinhã in the centre of the region on the coast; and in the south of the region are the DOCs of Carcavelos and Colares, on the coasts to the west of Lisbon.  International varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay do well in the region, alongside native varieties, largely represented by castelão francês, tinta miuda and trincadeira for reds, while whites are produced from arinto, vital and fernão pires.  The climate in Bucelas, due north of Lisbon, particularly favours the arinto, producing some notable white wines. 

To the east of Estremadura, lies Ribatejo.  This is a highly fertile region in the wide, flat valley of the river Tagus.  Long known as a region of bulk wines (yields are high on the well irrigated vines planted on the flood plain), a number of young winemakers are now making more interesting wines, though large estates (where vineyards only make up a smallish proportion of the land, alongside market gardening for the urban population around the Tagus estuary) still dominate the Ribatejo countryside, in contrast to the more northerly regions, where small estates dominate the picture.  International varieties sit alongside Portuguese varieties (fernão pires, arinto and talia are favoured for whites, while the main native red varieties are castelão francês, alfrocheiro and trincadeira.

To the east and south east of Ribatejo lies the vast region of Alentejo, which accounts for around a third of mainland Portugal.  Flat plains are dotted with cork oaks and olive trees, with low hills (montes) providing vantage points for large estates or small villages.  This is a sparsely populated region, characterised by huge cereal farms, though in some places these are giving way to large vineyards, though the intense summer heat means they require irrigation.  Alentejo has seen much of the modernisation of Portugal’s wine industry and it is the home of much of the more international Portuguese wines.  It is best known for its red wines, principally from aragonez, trincadeira, alicante bouschet, moreto and castelão francês.  White wines are not particularly traditional to the region, but with the help of temperature controlled fermentation, some growers, particularly in Vidigueira are realising the potential of white grapes such as antão vaz, roupeiro and perrum.

To the west of Alentejo, lies the region of Terras do Sado, with its two DOCs Palmela and Setúbal.  Fishing used to be the main industry, but now tourism and wine have taken over.  Terras do Sado is known for its muscat and castelão (also known here as periquita) grapes.  Castelão is used for red, rosé and sparkling wines, and espadeiro and monvedro are also grown, though the onward march of international varieties such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot is making itself felt.  The more traditional castelão reds can be dominated by tannins, but more modern production methods are bringing out more of the soft red fruit character in wines, which can be early maturing, yet also age relatively gracefully.  Moscatel de Setúbal is a fortified muscat, aged in oak and capable of considerable ageing.  As well as muscat, the main white varieties are are arinto and esgana cão.

Finally, on the south coast, and well known to British tourists and ex-pats alike is the Algarve.  Tourism is still the main business, but growers and winemakers are beginning to explore the region’s potential for wine production.  The reds are generally soft and fruity.  Probably the most high profile producer is currently Cliff Richard’s Adega do Cantor, producing the pretty terrible Vida Nova.


Adega Cooperativa de Borba

Bacalhôa Vinhos de Portugal

The company was founded in 1922, under the name João Pires & Filhos.  The main winery is in Azeitão at the centre of the Setúbal peninsula and produces the Quinta da Bacalhôa, Má Partilha, Catarina and Cova da Ursa brands.  The Herdade das Anforas winery in Arraiolos makes the company’s Alentejano wines: Tinto da Anfora, Tinto da Anfora Grand Escolha, Herdade de Santa Marta, Monte das Anforas and Santa Fé de Arraiolos.  Sparkling wines are also produced at the Quinta dos Loridos.  In total, they have some 500 hectares of vineyards and an annual production capacity of twelve million litres, along with the facility to age up to 6000 barrels.

Manuel dos Santos Campolargo

Herdade Grande

PLC Companhia de Vinhos do Alandroal

Vinhos Borges

Dão Sul

Lagoalva de Cima

Casa Agricola Alexandre Relvas

Quinta Monteiro de Matos



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Last updated: 13 October 2006