From one end of the country to another, Portugal has a wine style to please most palates. Simon Woods visits the country’s diverse regions and finds a host of winemakers combining the best of tradition with modern practice

VINHO VERDE

Portugal’s largest demarcated wine region stretches north and west from Oporto to the border with Spain. The ‘Verde’ refers not only to the lush, green landscape but its wines, intended to be drunk at their youngest and freshest: aromatic, refreshing and low in alcohol, sometimes with a prickle of CO2, sometimes with a touch of sweetness.

This is a region of smallholdings, with about 30,000 grape growers farming the 28,000ha (hectares) of vineyards. Vines were traditionally grown high off the ground, either on trees, hedges and telegraph poles, or on a system of trellises.

The practice freed the land below for a second crop – or for chickens – and allowed air to circulate beneath, which reduced problems with both spring frosts and rot in the humid summer. Modern vineyards still allow plenty of space under the vines, but tend to train them in rows along wires, with strict canopy management to guard against the threat of rot.

Perhaps the most distinctive of the 50 or more grapes permitted by the DO is Alvarinho, a speciality of the Monção district close to the Minho river. Other quality grapes include Loureiro, the most widely planted in the region, Trajadura and Avesso.

While single-varietal wines are becoming popular, most Vinhos Verdes are blends. Outside Portugal, it is the white version you’re most likely to encounter, but the tannic, high-acid reds make up more than a third of production, and there are a growing number of rosés here too. Look out, also, for the rare sparkling Vinho Verde, which varies from sweet and simple to complex and intriguing.

THE PICK OF THE PRODUCERS

Aveleda; Casal do Paço; Quinta da Lixa; Quinta de Covela; Quinta de San Joanne; Quinta do Ameal; Quintas de Melgaço; Sogrape (Quinta de Azevedo)

BEIRAS

The Douro may get much of the attention, but there are many who believe that Dão and Bairrada, the two main DOCs in the Beiras region, have just as much potential for greatness.

Bairrada is the smaller of the two, but is in a state of flux. Traditionally, the red wines have been based on Baga, a grape that struggles to ripen in this maritime climate. When it does, the wines are lively, perfumed and long-lived. When it doesn’t – and especially when the producers don’t destem their grapes – they can be scrawny and tannic, and even the lengthy periods of barrel ageing that some wines have been subjected too can’t disguise the fact.

Little wonder that the area has a long history of sparkling wine production. In 2003, the regulations were changed to permit the inclusion of other grape varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.

Wines that adhere to the established rules are now entitled to call their wines Bairrada Classico, although not all producers bother to use the term. Whether the approach is ancient or modern, the best reds have something of the cool earthy character of the local, chalky, clay-based soil.

So too do the whites: grapes from elsewhere may be making their presence felt, as with the reds, but the local varieties Arinto and Bical can be crafted into excellent, steely wines that age superbly.

Dão lies to the east of Bairrada. It’s more mountainous here, and the higher altitude means a cooler climate which, together with the granitic soil, leads to grapes with higher acidity levels.

Co-operatives used to dominate production, but their influence is on the wane. Indeed, many of the emerging small producers are grape growers who once delivered their produce to the local co-op.

At the same time, larger operations such as Dão Sul (owner of Casa de Santar and Quinta de Cabriz) and Sogrape are also making excellent wines here. As in most parts of Portugal, it is blends rather than varietal wines that are the norm for reds, with Touriga Nacional being the basis for most.

Compared with Touriga’s performance in the Douro, the wines are less intense but more aromatic and – many would say – better balanced. Alfrocheiro performs well here too, and some growers are also committed to Jaen, although its reputation as an inferior, high-yielding variety means it is disappearing from the vineyards.

Encruzado is usually the grape responsible for the best whites, but as in Bairrada, Bical and Cercial also perform well in the right hands. To the east and south east of Dão is Beira Interior. It’s even more mountainous here, with the same granite-rich soils.

Again, co-operatives have traditionally had the upper hand, but now a number of small estates are starting to make an impact. It is a region to keep an eye out for in the future.

THE PICK OF THE PRODUCERS

Bairrada Aliança Vinhos de Portugal; Campolargo; Casa de Saima; Quinta das Bágeiras; Quinta do Encontro Dão Casa de Mouraz; Casa de Santar; Quinta da Boavista; Quinta da Pellada/ Quinta de Saes; Quinta da Vegia; Quinta de Cabriz; Quinta dos Roques/Quinta das Maias; Sogrape (Quinta dos Carvalhais) Beiras Bussaco Palace Hotel; Filipa Pato; Luis Pato

ESTREMADURA

There’s no such thing as a typical wine from Estremadura. The region, which runs

north from Lisbon up the west coast, makes more Vinho de Mesa – table wine

– than any other, but also takes in eight wine DOCs (there’s a ninth for brandy

only), and has some excellent estates using the Vinho Regional (VR) appellation.

Although quantity still trumps quality for most growers, there are pockets of

excellence. Of the three best-known DOCs – Carcavelos, Colares and Bucelas –

the first two make little of note today.

But in Bucelas, the Arinto-based whites can be superb, with a crisp minerality allied to a quite full-bodied structure. Elsewhere, growers are mixing local grapes with the likes of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay to impressive effect, both in DOCs such as Alenquer – where imported grapes have been allowed since 2002 – and as vinho regional. Expect output to fall, but standards to rise.

THE PICK OF THE PRODUCERS

Casal Figueira; Casa Santos Lima; Quinta da Murta; Quinta da Romeira; Quinta de Chocapalha; Quinta do Monte d’Oiro

RIBATEJO

The sandy soils of the Ribatejo on the banks of the Tagus are prime agricultural

land but make quality grape-growing a challenge. As in Estremadura, with a

diminishing audience for the vast amounts of very basic wine that they used to make, wine producers here have had to raise their game.

Many larger estates have reorganised their land holdings so that their vineyards are away from the river on poorer soils. They have also planted imported varieties.

Often you’ll see wines in which an indigenous variety has been blended with a more widely recognised grape to provide familiarity for customers unused to Portuguese grape names. Of the local grapes, Castelão is by far the most widely planted for reds, with Arinto and Fernão Pires favoured for whites.

Among the imports, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grow well, but it is Merlot that seems to really thrive, yielding wines that have fruit, fragrance and the capacity to age.

Australian Peter Bright has been in Portugal for more than 25 years, and has made wines in several regions; but it is in Ribatejo that he has established the Fiuza and Bright winery.

Leading Portuguese winemaker João Portugal Ramos also has his Falua winery here, which makes Tagus Creek. Both produce wines that are modern and commercial, yet retain their Portuguese accent, even when the varieties are not of local origin.

THE PICK OF THE PRODUCERS

Casa Cadaval; Falua; Fiúza; Quinta da Lagoalva de Cima; Quinta do Casal Branco

TERRAS DO SADO

Terras do Sado begins just across the river Tagus from Lisbon and extends southeast for more than 100km. The region has two quite different DOCs, both on the Setúbal peninsula close to the capital.

Palmela is arguably the best place in Portugal for growing Castelão, which has to make up at least two-thirds of the blend. The wines are typically soft and generously fruity, but with a fresh finish thanks to the proximity of the sea.

The other DOC is Setúbal. Here, if at least 85% of the wine is made from Moscatel, it is labelled Moscatel de Setúbal; otherwise it is simply labelled Setúbal. It remains one of the world’s finest fortified wines.

The grape juice is fermented on the skins, brandy is then added, which halts the fermentation, and the wines and skins are then left to macerate for three-to-four months prior to lengthy oak ageing. Like orange-scented barley sugar when young, it ages magnificently, and is capable of lasting for 100 years or more.

Terras do Sado is home to some of Portugal’s better co-operatives, as well as two companies there at the start of the modern era of Portuguese wine: José Maria da Fonseca and Bacalhôa Vinhos de Portugal (formerly João Pires).

THE PICK OF THE PRODUCERS

Bacalhôa Vinhos de Portugal; Cooperativa Agricola de Santo Isidro de Pegões; José Maria da Fonseca

ALENTEJO

This vast region covers roughly a third of the country, although high temperatures mean that much of it is not conducive to high-class viticulture, despite producing more than half the world’s cork.

Travel east and north towards the Spanish border, however, and the climate softens. It’s still hot during the day here, but cool nights mean that grapes retain their acidity.

The soils vary too, with everything from marble to granite to limestone, often with a clay subsoil. This does retain some water in summer, but irrigation is still widely used.

There are eight demarcated zones within the DOC, although many growers don’t bother to mention them on the label. The coolest and most distinctive is Portalegre, some distance from the other zones, high up in the granite foothills of the north east; it is here that erstwhile Decanter contributor and DWWA Portugal and Port & Madeira Regional Chair Richard Mayson has his Quinta do Centro estate.

The diverse growing conditions suit a wide range of grapes. Aragonez is the most popular variety, with Trincadeira and Castelão also plentiful. But Alicante Bouschet thrives here, and even though Syrah is a relatively recent arrival, it already shows immense promise (as does Petit Verdot).

It’s too hot in most places for white wines, but in the cooler spots Antão Vaz and Roupeiro grow well, retaining their acidity and showing a different face of the Alentejo. Given the diversity of grapes, terroirs and producers’ ambitions, it’s impossible to generalise about the Alentejo.

You’ll find everything from large volume, easydrinking wines to some of Portugal’s most serious and ageworthy reds. In sum, it is a melting pot that becomes more fascinating with each vintage.

THE PICK OF THE PRODUCERS

Azamor; Cortes de Cima; Fundação Eugénio de Almeida; (Pêra Manca,

Cartuxa); Herdade da Malhadinha Nova; Herdade de São Miguel; Herdade do Esporão; Herdade do Mouchão; Herdade do Paço de Camões; João Portugal Ramos; Paulo Laureano

ALGARVE

Move north from the beaches and the Algarve reveals a more rural face. Most of

its wine is best forgotten, but a few estates are making something decent. Most famous is Sir Cliff Richard’s Adega do Cantor (or Winery of the Singer), which

grows Trincadeira, Aragonez, Syrah and Monastrell, plus a little Viognier for his

Vida Nova range.

Written by Simon Woods