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Portuguese Wine For Beginners

Last updated: October 2019* | 25 Comments

For most people, even for many wine experts, Portuguese wine is uncharted territory. Aside from Port, the occasional bottle of Vinho Verde, or even Mateus Rosé, it’s rare to stumble upon Portuguese wine outside of a specialist shop. Even then you’re only really likely to find a few bottles of Portuguese wine and, so few that Portugal is rarely even given it’s own section: normally they’re lumped in the Spanish section.

Portuguese wine is definitely worth exploring, though. For serious wine lovers it’s an exciting country to navigate as the wine is usually made from grape varieties that aren’t really found anywhere else in the world.

It’s also a wine that’s likely to appeal to bargain hunters. Portuguese wine doesn’t command the same prices that other European countries do and your money will go a lot further if you buy Portuguese rather than French, Spanish, or Italian wine.

The biggest challenge with Portuguese wine isn’t just getting to grips with the different regions or grape varieties – there are more than 250, so it’s definitely a challenge – but actually getting your hands on Portuguese wine. Portuguese wine is growing in popularity, and shops are beginning to stock it, but it won’t take long to get through everything they have in stock. Thankfully there are an increasing number of online Portuguese wine specialists and, failing that, there are also plenty of cheap flights to Portugal.

But this article is an introduction to Portuguese wine, and you shouldn’t have too many problems getting your hands on most of these bottles. Before we get to that, though, here’s some useful information about Portuguese wine labels and the different types of grapes used in Portuguese wine production.

Where to buy Portuguese wine

These days, it isn’t too difficult to get your hands on a bottle of Vinho Verde or a bottle of Port. You’ll find both of these in wine shops and even in a lot of supermarkets. Finding anything else, however, can be a little trickier, and you may have to shop online or ask your local wine shop to order in for you.

The following are just a few places where you can buy Portuguese wine online.

Portugal

  • Wine House Portugal – Based in Portugal, Wine House Portugal stocks thousands of Portuguese wines from all across Portugal. Delivery is available within the EU and to some international destinations like the USA.
  • Portuguese Wine Shop – Stocks several hundred Portuguese wines, and ships anywhere in the world including Europe, Canada, Brazil, Singapore, and China.

UK

  • Majestic – Stocks a number of table wines, as well as one or two Port Wines.
  • Waitrose – Stocks a reasonable selection of Ports, as well as a handful of table wines.
  • Unvinum – Based in the UK, but offering delivery throughout Europe and worldwide, Uvinum have hundreds (and maybe even thousands) of Portuguese wines in stock.

Ireland

  • O’ Brien’s Wines – Stocks around 40 different Portuguese wines including a number of Port Wines.

USA

  • The Wine Buyer – NJ-based wine seller that stocks a small but varied selection of wines from across Portugal.
  • Wine.com – One of the largest online wine retailers in the US, wine.com stocks several hundred Portuguese wines that can be shipped across the US.

Portuguese quality classifications

Like most wine-producing countries, Portugal has different classifications which help to explain the wine’s quality.

  • Vinho de Mesa: Portuguese table wine, and the most basic type of wine that you can get in Portugal.
  • VR (Vinho Regional): Slightly better than table wine, but subject to fewer regulations that IPR or DOC wines.
  • IPR or VQPRD: IPR wines (Indicação de Proveniência Regulamentada) are wines from regions that haven’t quite reached DOC status, but are trying to obtain this status. Although this status exists, it’s not very common and most wines that you come across are likely to fall into one of the other statuses instead.
  • DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada): DOC wines are subject to strict regulations which are designed to ensure the production of quality wines.
  • CVR: QVR wines are grown in a specific region and at least 85% of the grapes used in the wine must be locally grown.
  • VEQPRD: This is a term used with sparkling wines to signify the wine comes from a demarcated region.

Other useful terms

As well as the terms above, you may come across some of these words as well.

  • Vinho Tinto: Red Wine
  • Vinho Branco: White Wine
  • Quinta: The Portuguese word for farm, although in this context it refers to the wine estate.
  • Reserva (or Grande Reserva): Wines that are suitable for aging.

Where to begin

If you’re just dipping your toes into Portuguese wine, here are a couple of wines and wine regions to look out for.

  • Vinho Verde (a wine region and type of wine)
  • Port (a dessert wine)
  • Douro (a wine region)
  • Alentejo (a wine region)
  • Dão (a wine region)
  • Bairrada (a wine region)

Vinho Verde

Vinho Verde is a sparkling wine that’s produced in the Vinho Verde region of Northern Portugal. The name Vinho Verde means green wine or young wine and this refers to the fact that this wine is meant to be drunk almost straight away. You can find older bottles of Vinho Verde, and you can find oak-aged Vinho Verdes, but both of these are quite rare.

Although red Vinho Verde does exist, the majority of Vinho Verde is white. It’s a low-alcohol wine (usually somewhere around 9%) that often has  a slight spritz and is very easy to drink. It’s great with seafood, and its low alcohol content means it’s a good option for lunchtime drinking as well.

Alvarinho (the same grape as Spain’s Albariño), Loureiro and Trajadura are the main grapes used to make white Vinho Verde, but you may stumble upon grapes like Arinto Avesso and Azal as well. For reds, you’re most likely to come across Alvarelhão, Amaral, Padeiro, Pedral, Borraçal, Espadeiro, Rabo de Anho, and Vinhão.

Port Wine

Let’s skip straight to dessert, or dessert wine at least. Port is Portugal’s most famous wine, and probably its best wine as well. It’s a drink that’s often seen as old-fashioned: something your grandparents might have in their cupboard or something you might drink around Christmas time.

That reputation is definitely undeserved. Visit some of the Port houses that dot Vila Nova de Gaia opposite Porto, try a few different styles of Port, and you’ll quickly become a Port convert.

Port is usually made from Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinto Roriz, Tinto Cão, and Tinta Barroca, but it can actually be made from as many as 52 different types of grapes.

If you’re ever tried Port, chances are it was a non-expensive Ruby or Tawny. As great as both of these wines can be, the mass market versions found in most supermarkets and even in wine shops are not guaranteed to convert you. It’s worth spending a little more and buying a Vintage Port or alternatively an LBV Port.

LBV (Late Bottled Vintage) Port is essentially a cheaper version of vintage port, and it’s a good starting point if you’re not ready to splash out on a vintage port just yet. As the name suggests, LBV is bottled late. It’s actually kept in barrels for around 4-6 years before it’s bottled compared to vintage Port which spends around 18 months in barrel.

This barrel aging allows it to develop flavours and complexities that are similar to Vintage port, but at a much cheaper cost for the producer. Sure, an LBV won’t compare to a real vintage Port but, unless you drink vintage Port regularly or drink the two side-by-side, you’re still going to be blown away by an LBV.

Once you’ve tried an LBV, it’s time to move onto a few of the other styles. As well as LBV, here are a few of the other styles that you can expect to find:

  • Tawny
  • Ruby
  • Crusted
  • White
  • Rosé
  • Vintage

The list is quite long, but the next recommended steps would be to try a real Vintage port for comparison’s sake and then a Tawny as well. White Port is also fun to try, although it’s best to start with a dry or medium-dry White Port and avoid the ‘Lágrima’ if you don’t have much of a sweet tooth.

Once you’ve worked your way through Port, it’ll be time to move onto some of Portugal’s other dessert wines like Moscatel (muscat) and Madeira (similar to Port).

Douro

The Douro is arguably Portugal’s most famous wine region. Although it’s mainly associated with Port Wine, outside of Portugal at least, the Douro actually produces just as much table wine as it does Port.

Interesting fact: the Douro is actually the oldest wine region in the world, and it has been a UNESCO world heritage zone since 2001.

Reds, whites, and rosés are all produced in the Douro. Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (Aragonez), Tinta Barroca, and Tinto Cão, all of which are used in Port, are the main grapes used to produce red wine in this region.

White wine is normally made from grapes such as Malvasia Fina, Viosinho, Gouveio, and Rabigato.

In recent years, more and more vineyards have begun producing rosé wine in the Douro. This is quite a new venture for a lot of vineyards, and so Douro rosés are still quite rare.

As well as reds, whites, and rosés, many vineyards also produce Moscatel (Moscatel do Douro), a sparkling wine known as Espumante (Espumante do Douro), and Colheita Tardia which is a late harvest dessert wine that uses the noble rot effect.

Alentejo

The Altentejo is a wine region in Portugal that’s known for its high alcohol, full-bodied, powerhouse reds, but that’s not to say whites aren’t produced here as well. Antão Vaz is the main grape used for white wines, although Arinto and Roupeiro are common as well. For the reds, Aragonez (Tempranillo) is most common along with Alicante Bouschet, Alfrocheiro, Castelão, and Trincadeira. Increasingly, non-native grapes like Alicante Bouschet are being joined by grapes like Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon as local winemakers open themselves up to external influences.

White Altentejos tend to be much milder than their red cousins, with slight acidity and tropical fruit aromas. The reds, meanwhile, combine aromas of wild and red berries with plenty of tannins to produce a wine that’s incredibly rich and full-bodied.

The Alentejo is Portugal’s biggest wine region and, as such, it takes up a big portion of most wine menus and the wine section of the supermarket. You’ll see Altentejo wines at both ends of the pricing scale, reflecting the various levels of quality that can be found in the region.

As well as price, the Altentejo can also be broken down by the eight sub-regions that it contains: Reguengos, Borba, Redondo, Vidigueira, Évora, Granja-Amareleja, Portalegre, and Moura.

Dão

Although nowhere near as well-known as Porto, it’s often possible to find a bottle of wine from Portugal’s Dão wine region. Reds are most common, as 80% of the wines produced in the region are red, but it’s always worth keeping a look out for a white.

Most of the reds are very tannic, but increasingly more and more producers are moving towards fruit-forward and lower tannin wines. White wines similarly are seeing improvements, as producers move away from the full-bodied and over-oxidized wines that were so common with the region and focusing on lighter, fruitier and more fragrant wines instead.

Dão uses a variety of grape and, as with just about every other wine region in Portugal, there’s a good chance you haven’t hard of any of them. For white wines, Encruzado, Malvasia Fina, Bical, Rabo de Ovelha, Cercial, and Verdelho are popular, while reds use Touriga Nacional, Jaen, Alfrocheiro, Tinta Roriz as well as Bastardo, Baga, and Tinta Pinheira.

Aside from grapes like Touriga Nacional which crop up in many Portuguese wines, the only other one you may have tried is Jaen as this grape also grows in Northwestern Spain where it’s known as Mencía.

The subregions of Dão are Alva, Besteiros, Castendo, Serra da Estrela, Silgueiros, Terras de Azurara, and Terras de Senhorim.

Bairrada

You’re moving away from the most commonly-known and commonly available Portuguese wines now, and into even more uncharted territory. While you shouldn’t struggle to get your hands on wine from the Douro or Alentejo, Bairrada wines might prove a little more challenging (unless you shop at a specialist Portuguese wine supplier, that is).

Bairrada is mainly known for its red wines and also for its sparkling wines (espumante), which are often paired with the regional delicacy leitão (suckling pig).

Generally speaking, Portuguese sparkling wines are fairly basic and rank far behind the likes of Cava or Champagne. That’s not to say there aren’t some good Portuguese sparkling wines, there can be, but the majority (and especially those found in Portuguese supermarkets) are fairly simple.

Most red wines tend to be made from Baga, the local traditional red grape, although since DOC rule changes in 2003 a number of new grapes are now allowed to be used in DOC Bairrada wines including Touriga Nacional and Alfrocheiro. Some producers have veered towards more internationally-recognised grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Pinot Noir.

For white wines, the most common grape you’ll come across is Maria Gomes. Look out for Arinto, Bical, Cercial e Rabo de Ovelha.

Azores

currais at pico vineyard

A lot of people will never have heard of The Azores nevermind Azorean Wine, but it’s actually one of Portugal’s most wine region. Although the islands of Bisciotos on Terceira, Graciosa, and Pico all have IPR status, Pico is the island that has become most famous for its wine production

What makes this wine region so interesting isn’t just the quality, but how it’s grown. Unlike a conventional vineyard which has rows upon rows of neat vines, the vines on Pico grow on the ground on top of small basalt rocks. These formerly volcanic rocks heat up during the day and then retain some heat at night, which helps the grapes to ripen. 

The vines also grow in small square plots called currais, which all have stone walls around them. The walls protect the vines from the wind as it can carry salt in the air when it comes off the ocean. 

This really is quite a unique way of growing wine and, if you get a chance, it’s definitely worth taking a trip to The Azores to see it. 

Have you tried Portuguese wine? Have you tried each of the regions mentioned in this article? What did you think? Share your thoughts and opinions on Portuguese wine by leaving a comment below. 

Updates: Some updates are as small as a spelling correction. If you spot a mistake or want to suggest a contribution, leave a comment below.

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25 comments on “Portuguese Wine For Beginners”

  1. Great article, thank you. Any ideas on which supermarkets (Portuguese) stock the best range of wines? Here for another ten days and finding it all a bit hit and miss – although your article is going to help a lot!
    Thanks
    Giles

    • Good question.

      I’m not sure if one stands out above the others for selection, but I do agree it can be hit and miss and especially hard to tell what’s good and what isn’t. The only real indicator is the wines that have won awards at competitions (e.g. Decanter) but only a few vineyards enter these competitions. There are also a lot of new competitions popping up and I’m not sure they are as good as Decanter or the more established wine awards.

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