This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by E.& J. Gallo Winery. At Gallo, we exist to serve enjoyment in moments that matter. The hallmark of our company has always been an unwavering commitment to making quality wine and spirits. Whether it’s getting Barefoot and having a great time, making every day sparkle with La Marca Prosecco, or continuing our legacy with Louis Martini in Napa, we want to welcome new friends to wine and share in all of life’s moments. Cheers, and all the best.
In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses Portuguese wines. Listeners will learn about four regions that produce the most exciting wines in Portugal: Vinho Verde, Douro, Alentejo, and Lisboa. These regions produce their own unique red and white blends, and even some rosé.
In addition, Beavers lists the history of Portugal’s wine, which goes way beyond Port. Finally, Beavers will explain which wines from Portugal listeners can expect to see on the American market.
Tune in to become an expert on Portugal and its wines.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and it’s my first time owning a lawn. Why does grass grow so fast?
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 16 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast, Season 2. My name is Keith Beavers. I’m the tastings director of VinePair. We are going to get nice with wines from Portugal. Let’s start to get a sense of this stuff, because they’ve been hanging out on our wine shelves for a long time, they have excellent value, and they’re great wines.
OK, so we’re going to talk about Portugal here, wine lovers. But we’re not going to talk about the wine called Port just yet. We’re going to get into that in another episode coming up very soon. When we talk about Portugal, I’m not going to get too far into the insanity of Port or Madeira. I say insanity because the history surrounding those two drinks is ludicrous, and I’m not gonna get into it now. But because of the popularity of these fortified wines, which we’re going to talk about soon, there are all these different styles. It’s crazy. We’re going to get into that at some point.
Today, I want to get you guys nice and comfortable with the wines from Portugal. How do I do this? I want to make a statement. Is that cool? There is something I’ve been saying about wines from Portugal for a very long time. When we owned a wine shop, we bought a lot of Portuguese wine. When I was coming up in the wine industry, learning about wine and everything, what I realized is the most affordable wines in the wine shop that have quality are wines from Portugal. That could be changing soon, but over the past decade or more, the wines of Portugal have existed on shelves. Either they’ve been ignored, or they’ve been bought not knowing where the wine is from or knowing it’s from Portugal. That’s not a fault of Portugal. It’s a fault for not educating people about this wine.
Over the last five years, people are getting more interested in wines from Portugal and more people are actually traveling to Portugal — specifically Lisbon. People would come back and say, “Have you had the wines from Portugal? They are great!” It’s exciting. I’ve even had people reach out to me on Instagram and say, “When are you going to do the Portugal episode?” I’m like what? OK, let’s do this.
Portugal is that small little rectangular country on the Iberian Peninsula, surrounded by Spain. It’s not a big country, obviously. It’s about 630 miles north to south, about 125 miles, give or take, east to west. Portugal might seem small, but it is mighty. Throughout history, this little country was once a county. Then, it was part of three counties. Then, it became its own kingdom and was also ruled by the same monarch that ruled Spain for a while. Other than that, Portugal developed as a civilization, as a country, as governments in isolation even though it’s surrounded by another country. This ability for Portugal to develop in isolation, even though it’s surrounded by all these powers, was a power itself. It was actually a very smart power, maybe smarter than the other powers.
When you’re reading about this time, which is around the mid- to late 14th century, a couple of things stick out. One is when a Spanish king died and there was no apparent heir after his death, there was a big conflict to figure out who was going to be the next on the throne. Portugal was involved and England came through to assist the Portuguese in winning a very important battle, which then resulted in a marriage, a royal marriage between England and Portugal. That sealed the relationship and friendship with these two countries forever, even to this day. This is what brought the popularity of the wine Port to the fore of history. I’ll get into it in the fortified wine episode but Port was considered the Englishman’s wine.
Then, there’s the relationship between Portugal and Spain. How did those borders not blow apart all the time? Well, it’s complicated, of course. Something I read that was very interesting is that as Spain developed itself as a country, it realized that maintaining a coastline was dangerous and very expensive. They were happy to have Portugal maintain a large coastline of the Iberian Peninsula. I’m sure it’s a lot more complicated than that, but that’s an interesting tidbit there. I was obsessed with how this country has developed in isolation because it had to do with the wine as well.
At some point when the bubonic plague was a big deal, a lot of the people in Portugal left the inland part of the country, and there was an exodus to the coast. They wanted to live in these towns and eventually get on ships and go somewhere else because the bubonic plague was killing everybody. This is interesting because this is a country that decided going east and conquering anything over there was not as important to them as getting on ships, getting out into the ocean, and getting away from what was happening in Europe. That began the Portuguese reputation as a seafaring nation. They settled in Brazil, also India, which is a big deal. Christopher Columbus married into a Portuguese noble family. It’s amazing, Filipa, who was a knight of a religious order, commanded soldiers in these religious orders. She came from the household of Prince Henry the Navigator, who at that point had 15 or more maritime discoveries under his belt.
These are some of the factors, I believe, that helped this country develop in isolation, even though it’s surrounded by all these powers. In this little country, to this day, there are 148 identified native varieties to Portugal, and I believe about a hundred of them are approved for winemaking. Douro, which we’ll get to in a second, is famous for Port wine. If you’re making wine there, you’re allowed to use up to 30 of the 100 approved varieties to make wine. Now, they don’t always do that, but that’s just crazy, right? This can add to the confusion trying to understand wines from this region. There was also a time in this country where the leadership was a corporate one-party rule, and this money-making leadership machine decided that cooperatives were the best way to go as far as the wine industry is concerned. This was in the 1930s.
During this time, 100 cooperatives were built in the northern part of Portugal alone in the first 20 years of this leadership. Obviously, the goal here was quantity over quality. The government wasn’t very generous when it came to funding new technology for cooperatives. They stayed the way they were for a long time. I can’t do a Portugal episode without mentioning that in the 1940s, towards the end of World War II, two brands of wine came out of Portugal and hit the United States and were insane successes. You had all these men coming back from World War II, and they had a taste for European wine, but the Americans had a sweet tooth. These two brands out of Portugal, Lancers and Mateus, were fizzy, sweet, sparkling rosé wines, and they hit the American market. They were huge successes through the 1970s into the 1980s. I’m a Gen Xer, I’m 46-years old. I remember my parents talking all about Lancers and Mateus jokingly at times, but they drank it and liked it.
These are all moments that are important in understanding the history of how Portugal came up, especially in wine. However, the date that’s important to you and I in the future of Portuguese wine is 1986. This is when Portugal entered into the European Union. I’ll go into this more during the fortified wine episode, but Portugal has some of the oldest wine laws in the world. That was one of the first areas that had a famous wine region that needed a geographical delimitation, if you will. In 1756, the prime minister at the time demarcated the vineyards in the Douro, where Port is famous, to make sure that everyone knew this is where this wine was coming from. By the ‘70s into the early ‘80s, the controlled appellation system of Portugal had come a long way since 1756. It was developed in a similar fashion to what the French or the Spanish would see.
In 1986, when they came into the European Union, it was absolutely organized and standardized for compliance with the rest of Europe. Also, under the EU, cooperatives, technology, and machinery were updated more often. This is the Portugal we know today. OK, get this. Loureiro, Alvarinho, Bical, Encruzado, Arinto, Añato Vaz, Rabigato, Códega do Larinho, Viosinho, Gouveio. These are the names that I probably butchered of the white wine varieties that are used mostly in Portugal. Now, get this. Touriga Nacional, Aragonez, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Nera, and Alicante Bouschet. These are the red varieties that are used most often in Portugal.
Now, I said the word Tempranillo, then I said the word out of Aragonez, then I said the word Tinta Roriz. They are all the same grape. In Alentejo, which we’ll talk about, they call Tempranillo Aragonez. In the Douro, which we’ll talk about, they call Tempranillo Tinta Roriz. As you can tell, besides Tempranillo, what you’ve heard of especially if you’ve listened to this podcast, these other varieties are native to the Iberian Peninsula and specifically to Portugal. Even though the country is planting varieties like Syrah, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, those aren’t important. What’s important about Portugal are the native varieties and the blends they make from these native varieties and what you can enjoy on the American market. The majority of the wines coming from Portugal are going to be blends of some of these varieties.
Although you’ll hear people in the industry, probably sommeliers or representatives of certain areas in Portugal, there’s a lot of talk about the smaller regions, but there’s not enough of it on the American market for everyone to enjoy. What I’m going to do today is talk about four specific areas in Portugal that you’re going to find in the American market to get yourself comfortable with these wines. As the new regions come into our country, onto our market, you’ll be hip to what’s already on the shelves.
I’m going to talk about two regions in the north, Vinho Verde, and briefly on Douro. Then. we’re going to go south and talk about a large region called Alentejo and then a new-ish region called Lisboa. Even though I’ve listed some of the most used or the most well-known varieties, red and white in Portugal, I’m going to mention new ones as we get through these four regions. Each region has its own specific variety that they play around with, in addition to the most popular variety. These are four very exciting regions that make very exciting wine that we can enjoy right now. It’s so cool.
One of the most well-known but misunderstood is a region called Vinho Verde in the absolute northwest part of Portugal in a region called the Minho, which is named after a river that runs through it. This region’s great. You’ll see Vinho Verde all over the American market. If you’ve already had it, you might say, “Oh, my gosh, it’s a little bit fizzy. Why is this white wine a little bit fizzy and it’s not a sparkling wine?” Well, that’s what’s so great about this region. The wines coming out of Vinho Verde reflect the history of the place. Here we have the Loureiro grape, and the Arinto grape but they also have a grape called Trajadura and a grape called Avesso. The sheer amount of varieties that are used in Portugal can be really dizzying, so let’s talk about the style of Vinho Verde.
If you imagine a walk-up apartment building or a brownstone building in New York City, and you were to tear that down, you would have this one urban plot of land. That’s how big a lot of the vineyards are in Vinho Verde. Not all of them but in 2011, over 129,000 of them were. The tradition was to train the vines on pergolas so that the grapevines would go above people’s heads. The idea was two things: Training the vines higher reduced the risk of fungi infecting the vines because it’s such a rainy region, and in addition to that, people could actually grow survival crops in the ground. You would have these vines up on these pergolas and then corn, cereal, or whatever they would use for their daily diet would be down in the actual ground. Traditionally, they’d bottle the wine, let it go through malolactic conversion. I don’t know if they knew what that was at the time, but the result was a crispy, very refreshing, young white wine with a little bit of fizz to it because of that conversion.
These wines are so refreshing. I don’t even know if I can explain how refreshing they are. They’re often very affordable, $8 or $9. They’re mostly white, but some are rosé these days. There are a few reds out there, but they’re all fizzy, they’re all refreshing. Start the evening with a Vinho Verde, and you’re good to go. It’s so good, but I will say they’re not all on that level. Now, this region has really been ramping up the quality. It’s all quality stuff, but they are ramping up the focus. There are nine subregions in Vinho Verde alone, and people are now making either single-variety wines or they’re focusing their blends a little bit more and honing in on the angular side of the wine, getting more structure. These are coming onto the market little by little but what you’re going to see most is good, fresh young Vinho Verde. But get ready for the other stuff because it’s already coming on to the urban markets.
Southeast of the Minho region where Vinho Verde is is the Douro. This is the famous place for Port. This is it: the Douro Valley. I’m going to talk a lot about this in the fortified wine episode. It’s famous. It’s old. This is the place that got the 1756 demarcation from the prime minister at the time. This is actually the largest mountain vineyard in the world. We’ll get into it, but the thing about this area is the red wine grapes that are used for the Port wine: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, and Tinto Cão (which means red dog) and 90-plus other varieties that are approved in this area. Winemakers can use up to 30 of the 100 approved in this area, as I said before. The ones that I mentioned are the ones that are used the most. There are others, of course, but the list is so long.
The still red wines that come out of the Douro that are not Port are awesome. They’re big, they’re bold, they’re full-body. They have structure. They have deep fruit. The acidity is nice and moderate. It’s heavy, but it’s not going to overwhelm your palate too much. Where it really gets you with these red wines is the tannin. These can be very tannic, but they can also be a little bit lighter. It’s crazy. They’re all over the place. When you’re looking at the Douro in a wine shop and you see still red wine, know that it’s a blend of so many different varieties and the winemaker is blending these varieties to make his or her statement on what type of wine they want to show you from the Douro. The majority is going to be that full-bodied red, but it can change.
In the southeast of Portugal is a very large wine region called Alentejo. The majority of it is a very hot region. It can reach up to 100-plus degrees in the summer. There are also some cooler areas of Alentejo and it has about eight subregions in it. It has eight subregions in it. You may not see that a lot on the American market because winemakers in those subregions don’t always put the subregion on the label, although that’s becoming more popular, which we are going to see in the future. Now, what you’re going to see from Alentejo is very affordable, blended white wine. The cooperative energy in Alentejo is intense.
There are other winemakers around the cooperatives like everywhere else in Portugal, but almost everything we see on the market here is mostly from those cooperatives. The thing is, Alentejo wasn’t always known for wine. This is where the majority of the world gets its cork. You can look out and you see cork trees as far as the eye can see, and that’s what made Alentejo, Alentejo. But now there’s wine there. They blend most of the white wine grapes I mentioned before into their white wines. Antão Vaz, Roupeiro, Arinto, Verdelho, and Alvarinho. They’re also playing with a little bit of Viognier, which is hit or miss. The reds have Tempranillo, but here they call it Aragonez, Trincadeira, and Alicante Bouschet. Alicante Bouschet is really interesting because the flesh of that grape is actually red, and they have a unique variety here called Castelão, which they blend in. You’ll see red from Alentejo, but mostly you’re going to see white and they’re going to be awesome, they’re going to be affordable, and you’re going to love them.
Last but certainly not least is Lisboa over on the coast surrounding the city of Lisbon. There’s a lot to say about Lisboa. There are nine wine regions just in this general wine region. What’s very exciting about Lisboa is there are a lot of cooperatives around here and a lot of the wine that’s coming into Lisbon, into the cafes, are these light, fresh, almost like Vinho Verde, young, refreshing wines that are sold in these 1.3-gallon jugs they call garrafas. That’s what’s happening right now.
As time moves on, this area is going to get more and more focused because of the urban environment around it. Some of the urban environment has messed with some of these smaller regions just up and around Lisbon. In the future, we’re gonna start seeing more wine coming from there. Right now on the American market, you might see a big liter bottle of white or rosé from Lisbon. Grab it. It’s fun. It’s an afternoon.
This will get you started with Portugal and make you comfortable when you’re in a wine shop looking at the Portuguese section, knowing that the majority of the wines there are from these four regions. So enjoy, drink whatever’s there, and try to figure out what grapes are in it. Maybe they don’t tell you, but it’s OK. Just enjoy the wines. If you dig it, @VinePairKeith is my Insta. Hashtag me #Wine 101. Let’s check it out.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcast from. It really helps get the word out there. And now for some totally awesome credits.
“Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, a big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new everyday. See you next week.
Ed note: This episode has been updated for length and clarity.