Portugal has a long history in wine making and is playing an important role in terms of production (eventhough it’s not so famous outside Portugal. But that is changing! More and more Wine is also exported, due to the increase of quality within the last 10 years). With around 239.000 ha it’s the worlds 7th largest wine producer regarding the area. The country produces around 6 – 7 Millionen Hectoliters of wine every year (which makes Portugal nr 11 in terms of quantity). And beside Port Wine Portugal also produces a big variety of red, white, sparkling, rosé and other fortified wines.
A wide variety!
Portugal is rich in native grapes. More than 250 native grape varieties are registred in Portugal, which allows the producers a great diversity of wines. Portugal is so diverse as a country landscape wise, and so is the wine! Each region has its uniqueness. I actually already wrote a short Blogpost about grape varieties, but here I want to go a bit more into details of grape description. Nevertheless: check it out.
No wonder that Portuguese wine producers like to blend their wines – to balance the characteristics of the wines, and also because they have the choice of so many great different grapes. There are, however, some grapes you find more often than others. Here some of the main grapes (in terms of quality and/or quality) natively from Portugal.
Some important white grapes
Alvarinho is for sure not the leader in terms of quantity, but in terms of quality the Alvarinho is grape is a queen and therefore important. It is indeed one of the most admirable Portuguese grape varieties. Mostly planted in the north-west of Portugal (Vinho Verde Region). You also find it in Spain, known as Albariño, and mostly planted in Galicia. Traditionally the vines were often grown on pergolas. It was also one of the first Portuguese grape varieties to be bottled as a single variety, due to it’s characteristics.
It gives body to unique and easily identifiable wines, with personality and strong temperament. Subtly in the fragrant, but complex in the aromas; notes of peach, lemon, passion fruit, lychee, orange peel, jasmine, orange blossom and lemon balm. Alvarinho provides wines with high alcoholic potential. It has a good aging potential, up to ten years, but can also be enjoyable in a young age. It is not a very productive caste, and has small bunches and a high proportion of pips.
Arinto is grown in almost all the regions of Portugal. It is known for vibrant wines with lively acidity, and refreshing wines and with a strong mineral character. Arinto produces wines with a high aging potential. It is really popular due to the firm acidity and used to balance wines out. The grape grows medium-sized bunches, compact and with small berries. It is a relatively discrete caste, without any particular aspirations of exuberance, favouring notes of green apple, lime and lemon. It is frequently used in the production of blended wines and also sparkling wines.
Still mostly only planted in DOC Dão, this white variety has a big potential.
The best examples have delicate aromas of roses and violets, light citrus notes, a touch of resin and, in certain conditions, intensely mineral notes. Amongst its virtues is the ability to maintain almost perfect balance between sugar and acidity, making serious, rich, structured wines with extraordinary ageing potential. It is used both as a single variety and as a star ingredient in many Dão blends. The Encruzado vine yields well, presenting no major problems in the vineyard.
Fernão Pires: the most planted white grape in Portugal. It is planted in the whole country, but plays a more important role in the Tejo, Bairrada and Lisbon Area.
It has quite an aromatic variety and can be really intense. Floral and fruity notes are dominant. You might detect scents and flavours of lime, lemon, roses and other flowers, tangerines, oranges. It’s best drunk young. It is also very versatile, sometimes used as a single variety, sometimes blended, sometimes used as a base wine for sparkling wine, and can also be harvested late to make sweet wines. Fernão Pires vines like hot climates, and are frost-sensitive. Outside Portugal, it has been planted with some success in South Africa and Australia. It prefers fertile soils, and gives high yields.
Important red Grape Varieties of Portugal
Aragonez / Tinta Roriz
Known also as Tempranillo in Spain, Aragonez, or also Tinta Roriz, how they call it in the northern regions of Dão and Douro, is one of the most important red grapes. In recent years it has spread rapidly throughout the Dão, Ribatejo/Tejo and Lisboa regions. It can make rich, lively red wines that combine elegance and robustness, copious berry fruit and spicy flavour. The vines are very vigorous and productive and adapt well to different climates and soils, altough it prefers hot, dry climates on sandy or clay-limestone soils. It tends to be blended with other varieties, typically Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca, and also with Trincadeira and Alicante Bouschet in the Alentejo.
In the more southern regions Tejo, Lisboa, Alentejo and Península de Setúbal it’s a commonly-planted grape. It’s a variety that is happiest in hot climates and likes dry, sandy soils. It performs at its best in the Palmela region of the Setúbal Peninsula south of Lisbon, in old vineyards in the hot, sandy soils around Poceirão. Castelão grapes from carefully-managed, low-yielding old vines can be made into well-structured wines with plenty of tannin and acidity, and fruit reminiscent of redcurrants, preserved plums and berries, sometimes with a hint of well-hung game. Castelão is rarely able to shake off a rustic character. The best examples can age very well, sometimes resembling fine old Cabernet when mature.
Touriga Franca is the most widely planted grape in the Douro, currently accounting for around a fifth of total vineyard area, also because it’s used for the Port production. It is much planted right across the northern half of Portugal. This grape makes richly-coloured, dense yet elegant wines with copious blackberry fruit and floral notes (roses, rock roses, wild flowers…) and firm but velvety tannins that contribute to the ageing potential of blends – it is often blended with Tinta Roriz and Touriga Nacional. Apart from the quality of its wines, it is popular in the vineyard for its resistance to pests and diseases and its reliably good crops of healthy grapes.
Few would dispute that the Touriga Nacional is Portugal’s finest red grape variety, deserving a place right up at the top of the world league of grapes, along with the likes of Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo.
Though Northern in origin, it has spread right across the country – you will find it down south in the Algarve and the Alentejo, out west in the Ribatejo/Tejo and Setúbal regions, successfully competing with the local Baga grape in Bairrada, and way out mid-Atlantic in the Azores. Touriga Nacional is a thick-skinned grape, and those skins are rich in colour and tannins, giving excellent structure and ageing capicity. But it also has wonderful, intense flavours, at the same time floral and fruity – ripe blackcurrants, raspberries – with complex hints also of herbs and liquorice. Yields are never high. The Dão and Douro regions both claim to be the origin of this fine grape.
Rich in colour, with good acidity and rarely an excess of alcohol, Trincadeira (Southern Name) or Tinta Amarela (Northern Regions Name) makes wines of serious quality when ripe, but it does not always achieve ripeness. Properly ripened, it has vibrant raspberry fruit tempered by herby, peppery, spicy, floral complexity, and it can age well. Under-ripe, it tastes herbaceous. It is a difficult vine to grow, producing exuberant amounts of foliage and needing constant trimming to prevent those vegetal flavours. Yields are generally high, but unreliable. It is very sensitive to rot and other vineyard diseases. For this reason it does better in hot, dry places, and is therefore particularly at home in the Alentejo and Ribatejo/Tejo areas: these are the regions where it really shines.
..but actually Terroir is more important than the variaty
Of course, the grape variety is important. But in Portugal, it is not quite as important as other factors. Most producers mix the different grape varieties, make so-called blends. It is rare to find wines with only one grape variety, single-variety wines. And of course the mix of grapes also plays a role in the blends, but the terroir is more important for the character of a wine. The combination of climate, soil, environment, landscape, … Portugal’s landscape is as diverse as its wines: we have harsh coastal regions in the north, milder coast areas in the south, we have hot and dry regions in the southern interior, we have hilly regions with high night-day temperature differences in the inland north, and so on. And that is what ultimately gives the wine its character. My advice: try wines from different regions, to see what type of wines you like the most! Learn more about different Wine styles here.