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Portuguese Wines Beyond Port

An bottle of Bairrada wine as yet unopened...

When mentioning Portuguese wines, everyone seems to head right to port and O Porto, which is a great direction. But Portugal also produces many great wines, a tradition that includes Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and the monastic wine traditions of the Middle Ages.

Portugal is an ideal country for wine production, its long north-south body encompassing several distinct growing areas with unique microclimates and soils. Even the islands are in on the production.

There are some 19 DOC (Denominações de Origem Controlada, controlled denominations of origin) wine regions in Portugal and another 24 or so IPR (Indicacão de Proveniência Regulamentada, indication of regulated provenance) wine regions. IPR wines are on their way toward becoming DOC wines if they meet certain stringent standards and qualities. This translates into a lot of striving and signals an exciting wine industry.

Here is a broad overview of this intricate wine mosaic, working north to south and then finishing at the Azores islands:

The Minho River area

The Minho river area, at the northern border with Spain’s ancestrally related province of Galicia, is best known for sparkling young wine, Vinho Verde, a delightfully refreshing and dry white. This wine area also includes coastal Douro wines, named after another famous river in northern Portugal.

Vineyard at dawn in the Minho and coastal Douro.

Trás-os-Montes

This is the region best known for its production of port. For a great low down on port, see Lucia Byttebier’s article, Port Wines of the Douro Valley in Portugal. This area also includes the interior Douro wines.

Beiras

The Beiras region produces some of the most interesting wines, ones I would most closely equate with those from Bordeaux: they are fruity-to-earthy, medium-bodied, and often delicate but bold at once. The region traverses from Coimbra north to just below Oporto and then inland to the eastern border with Spain. Beiras’ best known wines are Dão and Bairrada. Bairrada is distinguishing itself more and more as producing complex, distinct wines. Because it can be a feisty wine, turning out too thin or astringent, you often have to pay a bit more for a good bottle. But you are drinking the wine at its best in the hills and valleys of central Portugal.

Estremadura

West and north of Lisbon with a long Atlantic coastline, Estremadura wines are good, solid, full-bodied wines. Much of the region is covered with vineyards.

Ribatejo

North and east of Lisbon, Ribatejo is one of the country’s important wine areas. In the 14th century this area passed legislation to protect against the introduction of foreign vines and as such has developed unique Portuguese varietals for centuries. The growing area benefits from a mix of river and plain and has a riotous mix, from fecund, marshy soil to limestone and clay.

Alentejo

The Alentejo produces the most bold and minerally wines. These are complex, robust, smooth, and rich. The closest wines from another region to Alentejano wines are those from Spain’s Ribera del Duero and Rioja regions. The Alentejo extends east of Lisbon and south toward the Algarve.

Terras do Sado

Terras do Sado are situated just to the west of the Alentejo and have a rich, diverse coastline that extends south from Lisbon. One of my favorite red wines to enjoy with meals, Palmela, is from here. A lot better known is the Moscatel de Setúbal, a dulcet golden-colored aperitif, and its red cousin, Moscatel Roxo, which will appeal to those who generally don’t like sweet wines but would like to try a dry, complex result of the Muscat grape.

Algarve

Portugal’s southernmost continental wine growing area, the Algarve, seems more to make wines for quantity than for quality. This may be a reflection of the major beach-worshiping tourist industry in this part of Portugal. Its early ancestry, most likely stemming back to classical periods, continued during the Muslim occupation of the Algarve as wine-production carried on in Iberia to keep everyone content. The Christian conquest of the area continued the same layout and methods for wine-growing and production. Algarve wines go down easily as refreshing accompaniments to the abundant grilled sea fare along the southern coast.

Madeira

The island of Madeira gives its name to its unique wine, one heated to achieve smooth sweetness. The heating actually came about by accident, replicating the original creation of Madeira as a wine that naturally heated and cooled itself on its ship journeys through equatorial waters on its way from Madeira to east and southeast Asia. Because the result was good, now ovens, estufas, are used, after fermentation, to replicate the Equator’s original effects.

The Azores

Like Madeira, because of its volcanic soil, the Azores islands possess growing conditions ideal for wine making. Unlike Madeira, these are not sweet wines but excellent table wines. Because the Azores possess similar growing conditions to those found in Sicily, many Sicilian varietals are grown here to great success.

To fully explore Portuguese wines on the ground while enjoying touring the nation’s amazing countryside, visit www.ViniPortugal.pt. This is the information site for Portugal’s wine trade association where you will find good resources and great details for touring wine routes.

Monastic wine-making honored in Lisbon's street tiles.