Red wines may have always made the running in Portugal. But, argues Sarah Jane Evans MW, it is the whites that have really been transformed.

All the range in Portugal are super flash red table wines made from port grapes and sold at even flashier prices. Yet there’s also been a quiet revolution going on among the whites.

The link between political revolution and that of the vinous variety may seem incongruous, but it is real. Portugal has blossomed from the years of isolation, and nowhere more plainly in the wine world than the white wines.

In a country where port is so established, launching red table wines was reasonably straightforward. The brands were known; the grape varieties were understood, if unpronounceable.

It was as obvious a brand extension as adding an orange or mint flavour to a successful chocolate bar. Now consider the whites. Portugal, remember, is the country of Vinho Verde, the slightly sparkling white wine we drank on holiday.

It sat in the shadow of its big sister Mateus Rosé. Both of them were safe, refreshing wines for people who were discovering the joys of foreign travel for the first time.

Yet today Portugal’s whites are transformed through the country’s political and viticultural isolation, which has left it a portfolio of indigenous grapes with real originality.

But how does one get to grips with what’s what in Portugal, given the varied soils, climate, and unpronounceable varietals? Follow the geography.

To make a sweeping generalisation, the further north the vineyards, the better the white wines – with a few exceptions. That means starting in the far north, on the border with Galicia, with Vinho Verde, a DOC of the Minho, and then travelling east to the Douro, and south to Dão, which is a DOC of Beiras. These are the stars, in a host of styles – from unoaked, crunchy youth to savoury, oaked maturity.

VINHO VERDE

If you gave up drinking Vinho Verde years ago, you can be forgiven. The crisp, applefruited, off-dry white with added bubbles was never going to survive the journey home from a seaside holiday in Portugal.

By contrast, today’s wines are definitely worth a serious look. The first change has been the viticulture. While it’s still possible to see vines grown on the traditional trellises and trees, the modern practice is a more controlled vineyard with lower yields.

The second shift has been towards a more subtle understanding of the subregions of Vinho Verde (though this will take time to pass on to consumers). The third shift is in the selection of varietals.

Alvarinho (Spain’s Albariño) made its name as the grape of Vinho Verde. Here, as in Spain, the grape’s success has overshadowed other top-quality white varieties. The best Alvarinhos have fine mineral notes, together with a floral, stone-fruit bloom.

They show particularly well in the Monção sub-region. Sometimes the workmanlike Trajadura is blended to soften the acidity, while Arinto gives a brisk acidity and structure.

But the smart money is on Loureiro: ripe, floral, honeyed, and now the most widely planted variety in Vinho Verde, elbowing out the dull Azal Branco. There are increasing numbers of 100% Loureiros being made, resulting in an outstanding new generation of Vinho Verde.

The grape provides even more complexity than Alvarinho and, in addition to a refreshing citrus palate, there’s a heady perfume of ripe grapes and white flowers. Loureiro’s charm spreads beyond the Vinho Verde zone, also turning up among those who prefer to make wine under the less restrictive regional wine

label of the Minho.

THE DOURO

White winemakers in the Douro have a different vocabulary of varietals: Côdega (known as Siria further south), Gouveio, Malvasia Fina, Rabigato, and Viosinho.

Although port producers have historically put more energy into marketing white port, the prospects for Douro table whites are far more encouraging. They are still definitely a mixed bag, but are all individual, and the best compare with top

European whites.

Essential in the heat of the Douro is ensuring acidity and freshness, which is what the Côdega, Rabigato and Viosinho provide. The best whites show a real sense of place, with mineral and salt notes.

These are wines that have the structure to age (although the risk here is that the use of oak is heavy handed). Indeed, some of these whites have the character to match even strongly flavoured foods.

DAO AND BAIRRADA

The Beiras region is undeniably confusing (its size makes it so) but focus on the two exceptional DOCs: Dão and Bairrada. In addition, be aware that winemakers may choose to avoid the restrictions by using the Beiras VR appellation.

Notable here for avoiding the DOC straitjacket is Luis Pato and his daughter Filipa, who pioneered with both indigenous reds and such whites as Bical and the heady, floral, friendly Maria Gomes (also known as Fernão Pires).

A particular discovery in the granite soils of Dão is Encruzado, one of the rare white grapes that is not spoiled when unoaked. Again, it produces individual wines – ones that could only come from Portugal – and the best are worthy of global recognition.

GOING SOUTH

Travelling south, winemakers are experimenting with intruders such as Viognier and Chardonnay. Yet encouragingly, the majority remain loyal to their indigenous varieties.

In the Alentejo, Antão Vaz is a reliable choice for whites with a fresh, steely, mineral undertone. Often blended with Arinto and Roupeiro, it can be barrel-fermented successfully.

Arinto also crops up in Buçelas and Estremadura, and can produce alluring, peachy florality with a mineral freshness. Just south of Lisbon, in the Setúbal Peninsula, the historic variety is Moscatel.

This is one place where tradition and history count. The old Setúbal Moscatels are a succulent, honeyed treat.

THE ISLAND WHITES

Out in the Atlantic, the Azores produce whites that are perhaps more of a

curiosity than a regular pleasure. The viticulture is remarkable, with the vines being grown in the unforgiving ground and protected by surrounding walls.

Given the climate, white wines are the strongest suit, and they are improving. Frei Gigante, made at the co-op on the island of Pico from Arinto with Verdelho and Terrantez, is vibrant, fresh and light, with a marked acidity.

Finally, there’s Madeira. It has white varietals in profusion – Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, Malvasia and Terrantez – used in the historic fortified wines. But there is also a growing table-wine industry to service tourists, with experimentation via the usual international varietals.

Written by Sarah Jane Evans MW