I have always loved port. Especially 20-year-old tawny ports. Sweet and bold, complex and delicious. But now I've discovered dry wines being produced in Portugal, thanks to a recent trade tasting put on by ViniPortugal. The wines are diverse and interesting, and considering the quality, a good deal. Here's 10 things you don't, but should, know about Portuguese wine.
1. There is more to Portuguese wine than just port. While port is what put Portugal on the world wine map, today there are many winemakers producing dry wines -- red, white, rose, and even sparkling wine.
2. A Portuguese dry wine is not port. Even if a traditional Port producer makes a dry wine.
What's the difference between port and dry wine? Port is what's called a fortified wine, meaning it has been beefed up by adding a wine spirit, such as brandy, during the fermentation process that turns grape juice into wine. The brandy stops the fermentation cold, before all of the sugar in the grape juice is converted into alcohol. This is why ports are sweet, and a dessert wine. Even though fermentation is halted, the brandy increases the alcohol level of the port, and a fortified wine is the result. The dry wines are fermented dry and are not sweet. No wine spirit or brandy is added. They are made just like any other dry wine from California or Spain.
3. Portuguese wine equals value, value, value. Talk about bang for the buck. One advantage to Portuguese dry wines flying under the radar is that prices are reasonable. Whites under $10 and many complex reds under $30. Considering that the reds, somewhat tannic when young, have great aging ability, if you like to lay down your wines, seek out Portuguese red varietals and blends.
4. Most grape varietals for wine grown in Portugal are native, and you've probably never heard of them. Start learning. Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (same as Spanish Tempranillo), Touriga Franca and Baga for reds. Encruzado, Alvarinho (Spain's Albarino), Maria Gomes. If you're bored with the same ol' Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, look to Portugal for variety. Blending is very common in Portugal, although you can find single varietal wines. Each wine region in the country is known for a particular blend.
5. Vinho Verde is a wine region, not a grape varietal. This white is most likely the one wine, besides port, that you may have heard about. Vinho Verde translates as green wine, and the wine does have a slight pale yellow green tint. It is light, crisp, refreshing and low in alcohol (9%-10% abv). It is a blended wine, and by law winemakers can use 47 varietals, although the most common are Arinto (Pederna), Loureiro, Alvarinho and Trajadura. You might find Vinho Verde also has a little pétillance (fizz). Most Vinho Verde wines sell for less than $10.
6. Port comes only from the Douro region, and the Alto Douro is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Wine has been made in the Douro for 2,000+ years. The Douro valley runs along the Douro River, from Spain to the port city of Oporto, on the Atlantic coast. Through the years, the wineries have carved amazing steep terraces for grape growing along the banks of the Douro, and there is a unique soil called schist. But schist doesn't look like soil at all; it's layers and layers of flinty rocks. Plus it gets wicked hot in the summer. A wonder anything grows there. Other wine-related UNESCO World Heritage Sites are St. Emilion in Bordeaux, France and the Upper Middle Rhine Valley in Germany, known for Riesling.
7. Portugal is the 11th largest wine producer in the world. In a country that's 575 miles long and 138 miles wide, 500,000 acres are planted to grapevines, according to ViniPortugal. In comparison the US ranks fourth in total wine production. The US is Portugal's seventh largest export market.
8. Portuguese wines carry an authenticity seal. Look on the back label for the seal. Each wine region issues its own version, as you can see in the mini slide show below, with the Vinho Verde and the Douro DOC seals.
9. Quinta on the label means wine estate. This is similar to Bodega in Spain or Chateau or Domaine in France.
10. Tinto on a label most likely means that's a red wine in the bottle. Tinto translates as tinted or colored, which for wine usually means red. You may also see this term on bottles of Spanish red wines.
Now that you've got Portuguese wines on your radar, start looking for them on restaurant wine lists and on the shelves of your local wine merchant. If you can't find any, start asking for them; get your friends to request Portuguese wines. You'll be drinking really well for not a lot of money.