Portugal's Wine Regions and Grape Varieties
For being a relatively small country, Portugal enjoys an immense amount of both geographical and climatic diversity. Situated along the Atlantic ocean and sharing a top to bottom border with Spain, Portugal maintains over twenty distinct DOC wine growing regions. For the majority of consumers there are really only a few wine regions to focus on at this point of the Portuguese table wine story, the Douro and Dao in the north and the Alentejo in Portugal's southeast corner. Over a half million acres are currently under vine in Portugal and these vines host over 250 different grape varieties. Many of Portugal's grapes are indigenous to the Iberian peninsula and the majority are not even known by name to local Portuguese fans. A few international varietal favorites have also been thrown into the Portuguese vineyard mix (think Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Chardonnay). Expect to see frequent flyers from Spanish wine regions appear in Portugal's wines as well, just under new names. Take Spain's famous red wine grape, Tempranillo, for starters. In Portugal's Alentejo region, Tempranillo is referred to as Tinta Roriz; however, in Portugal's northern Douro it is often called Aragonez, same grape just three jazzy names. In general, the top value wines tend to come from the Dao and Alentejo regions (typically in the $10-15 price range), leaving the top dollar wines to the Douro (at $25+ per bottle on average).
What Makes Portuguese Wines Different?
The vast majority of Portugal's table wines are made from a blend of predominately native grapes. While many New World wine drinkers tend to be more comfortable with varietal-based (and labeled) wines, Portugal opens the door to a whole new wine adventure. The average American wine consumer has been fed wines by varietal for so long that it requires a bit of a paradigm shift to encounter and embrace Portuguese wines. However, on the flipside, there are certain categories of American wine fans that are looking for the next "wine adventure" - they want to be the first to taste, tweet and talk about a "new wine" from a "new region" - Portuguese wines will find a nice niche with this category of younger oenophiles. There is another segment of consumer that has an experienced palate and strives to diversify both their cellar and their wine tasting resume, and Portugal's wine offerings can uniquely cater to this market segment quite well.
While Portugal is not known for a handful of specific varietals like say Chile, Argentina or California, though if pressed they can offer up some of their top five grapes grown locally: Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira Preta, Gouveio, Aragonez and Alvarinho for starters. What Portugal is known for is its traditional blend of grapes, whether it's a field blend or a variety of grapes that have come together in the winery. The Portuguese enjoy a strong history of blending grapes and have become masters at it, beginning with Port and bringing their table wine blends to remarkable levels over the last two decades. Not unlike many well-known, Old World wine regions, Portugal's winemaking paradigms perform a delicate dance between tradition (complete with full scale lagares, for foot-treading higher end wines) and technology. While tradition and technology are often competing for the upper-hand, many of Portugal's producers are discovering that tradition and technology are fully capable of completing one another, in ways that make the wines better than they would be if stranded with just one vinification philosophy at work.
Like much of Europe, the wines of Portugal tend to be regionally labeled, with the producer and region appearing as the most prominent feature of a Portuguese wine label. Back labels may disclose which grapes were used in the blend, but this is not always a top priority for Portugal's table wines.
Styles of Portuguese Wine
Stylistically speaking, Portugal's wines cover the gamut. From traditional Port and Madeira to full-bodied, rustic reds and oak-driven whites to vibrant, almost effervescent Vinho Verde, whose acidity and food-friendly nature make it a prime time candidate for all things summer and perfect for seafood. Most of the Portuguese wines that I've tasted display solid structure, with forward, fruit-focused character. Some of the reds can show a touch rustic when sipped alone, but then shine extremely well with food, a significant motivator for making Portuguese wine in the first place.
Portugal Wine Producers to Look For:
While there are plenty of Portuguese wine producers to choose from, these producers provide a good starting point with decent distribution and consistent Portuguese wines.
Herdade do Esporão
Quinta de Roriz
Quinta do Vallado
Quinta do Crasto
Quinta da Pellada
Quinta de la Rosa
Wines from Portugal are among the market's top contenders for the industry's highly coveted quality-to-price ratio, or QPR. With Portuguese wines consistently showcasing exceptional QPR across the board these quality-conscious, value-driven wines from the Old World are worth seeking out on several counts. Different, distinct and adventurous, Portuguese wines have something to offer everyone.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary travel for the purpose of reviewing the region. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our ethics policy.