The glory of Portugal is undoubtedly its globe well-known fortified wines, principally Port itself and Madeira, made on Portugal's Atlantic island outpost. But an interesting and ever-developing still wine scene is well worth maintaining an eye on.
Occupying a lengthy narrow strip down the western seaboard from the Iberian Peninsula, the dominant factor on grape expanding in Portugal is the Atlantic ocean. In all but the deep south of the nation coastal conditions are wet and cool. Grapes grown right here are fairly difficult to ripen and light, high-acid wines like Vinho Verde are produced. Further inland in the north, the climate is considerably warmer and sunnier, rainfall is lighter and also the vineyards are much more sheltered. This Northeastern quarter from the country is home to most of the great wine regions which develop the grapes not only for Port, but for an increasingly good range of red wines. Rather like the Northern Rhône, the upper reach of the Douro Valley is a steeply sloping, cavernous landscape, where terraces have to be blasted into granite and schistous rock for the vines to acquire a foothold. The weather here can be extreme, the mountains of the Serra de Marão causing long, dry summer months.
The Southern tip of Portugal is just too hot and dry for grape expanding. On the island of Madeira circumstances are moderated by a mountainous slopes and coastal circumstances (note: Madeira is a number of hundred miles southwest of Lisbon: map above isn't to scale).
There is a very large range of indigenous Portuguese grape varieties, which for me is one of the potential strengths of the wine-making scene: not too much incursion as yet by the ubiquitous “international” varieties.
One of the most important grapes is the Touriga Nacional, the mainstay of Port (though Port is really a blend of up to 18 various varieties) and also the very best wines of Dão and the Douro. The Periquita and Baga are other quality grapes.
The Alvarinho will be the grape of Vinho Verde, whilst the Fernão Pires makes outstanding, fresh wines. The Bual, Malvasia, Sercial and Verdelho are the noble grapes of Madeira,
For centuries the Portuguese had been a great seafaring nation. Consequently, Portuguese wines were exported extensively. Purely to allow the wines to survive the lengthy, hot sea voyages, red wines had been fortified by the addition of spirits. This was the beginning of one of the world's fantastic wines and wine-making techniques.
The grapes for Port are grown on the steep, baking slopes of the upper Douro Valley close to the Spanish border. Traditionally, the grapes were harvested and transported down the Douro river towards the city of Oporto on sailing boats knows as Barcos. Oporto continues to be the centre for the maturing of Port wines, in addition to the commercial trading and export centre. All the great Port houses have headquarters in Oporto, numerous of them English in origin. This stems from an 18th Century trading agrrement referred to as the Methuen Treaty.
Some especially great years are worthy of declaring as vintage years, though not all wineries declare their wine as a vintage in any offered year. Indeed, in most years no vintage Port is produced. Vintage Ports are produced to be aged - spending two years in oak prior to bottling, and generally not displaying their best for another 15 years or more. Some will enhance for a lot, longer. These costly wines are the aristocrats of the Port world.
The second string. These also come from one vintage year, but generally one that's not quite good enough to become declared. Grapes come from a single vineyard, whereas Vintage Ports are blends from the very best sites.
They are not accurate Vintage Ports. Wines might be blended from numerous years after which aged for a lengthy time - up to 10 years - in oak. This is supposed to provide them a similar character to a well-aged Vintage. Not all succeed, but some may be very great.
Sweetish “full-bodied” wine that has most likely been aged in wood to get a brief time. Can be a bit harsh.
The difference in between this and ruby Port is merely the amount of time the wine has spent maturing in oak. Leading tawny Ports from the very best producers may be almost as complex and fine as vintage Port - these will specifically say “10 year old” or “20 year old” on the label and might cost between £10 and £30. Cheap tawny Port is a blend of ruby and white - and is usually not up to a lot.
Generally drunk as an aperitif. Not extremely typical in the UK, though popular in Portugal and France.
Portugal is definitely a location to keep an eye open for in the coming years. Many from the red wines may be had for under £6 and are generally well worth a attempt.
Alentejo and Ribatejo within the sunny Southeast are progressive areas creating flavoursome wines from the soft and quaffable to serious barrel-aged examples. Red and white are worth trying.
Bairrada makes reds brimming with raspberry and blackberry fruit and high in tannins.
Dão is beginning to make some extremely exciting wines, red and some white.
The wines of the Douro were unknown outdoors of Portugal till fairly lately. The area was famous as the vineyard region for Port, but not for table wine. Lately increasingly more high quality fruity red is appearing from the region that has a few of the tannic backbone of Port. Aromatic whites are also created.
Vinho Verde is both the name of the region and also the wine. Red and whites Vinho Verde is produced, though only the white is exported in any volume. “Verde” indicates “green”, which refers towards the reality that this really is young wine - not meant for cellaring. It can be rather acidic, however the very best Vinho Verde is spritzy, lemony and extremely appetising.
From the island of the exact same name, Madeira is made by the Port method. One essential difference is the fact that the newly-fermented wine is deliberately over-heated to provide Madeira its typical caramelised tang. Madeira can range in style from fully sweet to fully dry. There is a lot of cheap Madeira about, made from the Tinta Negra Mole grape, but the very best wines are made from among the four noble grapes listed earlier (the grape will seem on the label).
Madeira is produced at Reserve, Unique Reserve and Exceptional Reserve levels (aged five, 10 and 15 years in oak respectively). Vintage Madeira is also made in unique years, precisely like Port.
As has been stated above, the strength of Portugal is in its use of local, traditional grapes. Therefore, the table wines of Portugal in particular have had small direct effect on the rest from the globe. What has undoubtedly had an impact, are the fortified wines of Port and Madeira.
Numerous producers in California make fortified wines (Quady wineries, one of the biggest, calls certainly one of theirs “Starboard”!). Australian Port (nonetheless known as that in the local marketplace) is of very high quality indeed and is one of their most conventional wines. In South Africa, fortified Muscadelle wines are extremely popular, made precisely like Port and matured in oak casks.