Light, refreshing, fruity whites
The cool, hilly, verdant north west of Portugal is the main source of a unique style of white wine with lowest alcohol and high, fresh acidity: Vinho Verde (vinho verde, ‘green wine’, and means ‘young wine’). Many also have a slight prickle of fizz, once a remnant of the carbon dioxide of fermentation, now often added at bottling time. Vinho Verde may be made from numerous grape varieties, some aromatic, some not, often a selection blended together. It may be dry or medium-dry.
Higher in alcohol and richer in texture, these come from vineyards bathed in copious sun and high summer temperatures. There are soft, rich wines from the Alentejo, intense, minerally whites from the Douro, and full-bodied whites from Trás-os-Montes in the north east. Portugal has the advantage of numerous indigenous grape varieties that are able to keep their acidity in hot climates, and including these in a blend provides balancing freshness for rich white wines.
Like white wines, rosés tend to have crisper acidity, lower alcohol and lighter body when grown in cooler places, which means places with maritime influence or high altitude. There’s not really a particular geographical place in Portugal that is famous for making rosés – although as far as drinking is concerned, rosé is predominantly a seaside wine, also much exported. Every imaginable red grape, Portuguese and foreign, is made into rosé.
Light-bodied, tangy, fruity reds
The vineyards along Portugal’s windy Atlantic coast (the ones that make light, fresh, fruity whites) also make some of their reds in a similar light, tangy style, with alcohol typically nowadays around 11%. This includes the cool, often rainy Vinho Verde region in the north west. To people outside Portugal it’s a fairly well-kept secret that around 40% of all Vinho Verde is red, its deep red colour, unusual for such a cool region, coming partly from the red flesh of the local Vinhão grapes, as well as their skins.
Rich, round, full-bodied reds
Alentejo hot summers make ripening easy, and sweet grapes mean rich fruit and lots of body. Alentejo reds are made from a variable blend of grape varieties, including Trincadeira and Aragonez, Alicante Bouschet and Syrah, Touriga Nacional and Cabernet Sauvignon. They may be inexpensive, rich, round and full, or very expensive, even richer, dense, and oak-aged, but still with a certain opulence and easy-drinking charm. Occasional other red wines from elsewhere in Portugal also fall into this rich, ripe style, from the upper reaches of the Douro, or the Tejo, for example.
The Douro Valley is the most reliable source for this style of red wine. Serious, big and often firmly tannic in their first few years of life, top Douro reds nevertheless have their own robust style of elegance, and often a complexity of flavour that comes from the mix of grapes, sometimes “vineyard blends” where old vines of mixed varieties are planted together. These are wines that age and develop well, their tannins softening, their fruit mellowing. The higher the price, the more you might expect them to repay ageing – but this can only be a generalization. Trás-os-Montes is the wine region to the north of the Douro Valley, also mountainous, growing the same grapes and also making big, robust reds. Another source of firm, robust reds is Bairrada. In good, hot vintages, red Bairrada made from the traditional Baga grape has full body as well as high acid and tannin, maturing to a softer, complex, savoury, malty wine of great originality.
Dão has perhaps the greatest concentration in Portugal of elegant reds; altitude is high, the soils granite, the climate cool, ripening slow. Fine-quality Touriga Nacional is blended with Tinta Roriz, Alfrocheiro, Jaen and other grapes to make intensely-flavoured, perfumed reds with good acidity and lovely balance. The red wines of Palmela on the Península de Setúbal can be elegant, made from the Castelão grape, which is difficult elsewhere but able in the sandy soils of the Setúbal Peninsula to ripen well and give reds wines with complex, fruity flavours, good acidity and balanced tannins, ageing to a cedary character not unlike that of mature Cabernet Sauvignon.
As sparkling wines need high acidity, they are made, unsurprisingly, in the cooler areas of the country. Bairrada sparkling wine has a fine reputation, made from quick-pressed red Baga or Touriga Nacional grapes, fragrant white Maria Gomes, Arinto, Bical and sometimes nowadays Chardonnay. Cool, high-altitude Távora-Varosa, south of the Douro, north of Dão, makes sparkling wines from the Malvasia Fina and, increasingly, the Champagne grapes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Vinho Verde, where many wines have just a prickle of fizz, added fully sparkling wines to its regulations just in time for the Millennium.
Tawnies are amber-coloured to brown, and nutty-dried-fruit-figgy in flavour thanks to years of slow, controlled oxidation in large wooden barrels or vats. They go by two names, either Colheita (specifying a vintage) or Aged Tawny (with a number of decades declared on the label, from 10 to 40 years). Aged tawny is leaner and more spirit the more decades it declares.
Ruby Ports, where the Vintage port is the other top-end style, are redder, firmer, slightly sweeter and fruitier than tawny. You can really taste the sweet ripeness of the hot sun of the Douro Valley in this style of port. In years of old, vintage port had to be kept for years for its tough tannin and spirit to soften to drinkability. Now the spirit used to fortify port is of finer quality, and modern methods in vineyard, cellar and warehouse make vintage port a more balanced, less tannic wine that is drinkable after only a few years, although it will still age and develop complexity. There are numerous more modest categories, like Crusted, Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV), Late Bottled, Reserve, Premium Ruby and Ruby.
White ports come in various levels of sweetness. Seco (dry) is actually quite sweet, meio seco (medium dry) pretty sweet, and doce a drink for the seriously sweet of tooth. A new style of port, sweet, fortified and rosé, this is made to drink chilled and neat, or in cocktails.
All Madeira has a nutty, deliberately oxidized and slightly caramelized quality from wood-ageing under the influence of heat. Madeira ranges in sweetness from just off-dry to seriously sweet. Very little is made nowadays of the traditional wines, named after their grape varieties and traditionally made each at its own individual level of sweetness. In rising order of sweetness, these are: Sercial, Terrantez, Verdelho, Boal and Malvasia. All these are white grapes. The red variety, Tinta Negra, is now made into all the sweetness levels, by the same heating/oxidative methods. It is still possible to buy extraordinary bottles of intensely-flavoured, really complex old wines made from the old white varieties.
Moscatel (Muscat) grapes are turned into sweet, fortified wine in the Douro and, most famously, the Peninsula de Setúbal region. Most fortified Moscatel is sold young and fruity, but with age it develops nuttier, figgy flavours that go brilliantly with English Christmas Pudding and mince pies, or at the end of the meal with nuts and preserved fruits. Sweet, fortified Setúbal wines are labeled simply Setúbal if they contain less than 85% of Moscatel, Moscatel de Setúbal or Moscatel Roxo (a rare and slightly different grape) if they have more.
* wine styles descriptions and photos are a courtesy from Wines of Portugal