10/17/2012 09:13 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Portugal: Small But Mighty in the World of Wine

terraced vineyards typical of Portugal's Douro region

For a relatively tiny country--smaller in area than the state of Kentucky--Portugal is a prodigious producer of wine. It has long been the source of some of the wine world's great fortified wines--Port from the Douro and vintage Madeira from the island of Madeira off the coast of North Africa. Since the country's entry into the European Union in 1986, Portugal has also increasingly become a source for great dry whites and reds, as well as some very good sparkling wines.

Like Greece, Portugal is home to an incredible number of indigenous varieties--at least 250. The vast majority of Portugal's wines are still made from these native grapes, and they provide character and interest to the country's many very well made wines.

In the Douro alone, where Port and great dry reds are made, there are over 100 different red and white grapes planted. Traditionally vineyards here were planted to mixed varieties. In recent years, however, the various grapes of this area have been intensively studied, and five have been identified as of primary importance: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz (known as Tempranillo in the rest of the world) and Tinta Cão. All of these play a role in Port production and dry reds, but Touriga Nacional is widely considered to make the most complex and structured wines.

Other important red grapes include Baga, the source of dry, ageworthy reds and sparkling wines from the Bairrada region; Castelão, the most widely planted red grape in southern Portugal; and Trincadeira, which is usually blended into complex dry reds in several Portuguese regions.

Fernao Pires is the most widely planted white variety. Its floral, fragrant juice is used for everything from sparkling wine and dry whites to sweet wines. Other major white grapes include Alvarinho, the high acid grape that is often blended with Loureiro and Trajadura in the refreshing, crisp, low alcohol summer quaffers called Vinho Verde. Arinto is another high acid variety that is widely planted, and bottled either on its own or in blends. Encruzado is growing in plantings, and makes elegant, full bodied whites that benefit from oak aging.

Wines of Portugal trade tasting in San Francisco

I visited Portugal a few years back and have fortunate to be able to attend extensive Portuguese trade tastings held in San Francisco on a regular basis, like the one sponsored by Wines of Portugal this past June. Every time I attend one of these tastings, I discover new producers, excellent wines and many astounding values, like delicious whites and reds selling for less than $10.

My favorite producers of sparkling wines from Portugal, which can be delicious and flavorful values, are Luis Pato and Quinta da Romeira. My favorite dry whites, including excellent Vinho Verdes, have come from Adega Coop. de Ponte de Lima, Casca, Colinas de São Lourenço, Quinta da Romeira, Quinta de Sant'Ana, Senhoria, Terras d'Alter and Wine & Soul.

Great dry reds are plentiful, at all price points. Barca Velha was the first Portuguese dry red to score high ratings, which led to lots more dry red production in the Douro in the past few decades. Their wines, and those of Quinta do Vale Meão which I wrote about here, have long since achieved cult status and are very hard to find. Casa Ferreirinha's Quinta da Leda, Herdade da Malhadinha's reds, Niepoort's Redoma and Terras d'Alter Telhas are also delicious, rich reds at moderate prices. And then there are ridiculous values--surprisingly complex wines for under $15, like Dow's Vale do Bomfim and any of several single varietal reds and blends from Bacalhôa Vinhos.

dry reds from the Douro from the Symington Family

As far as sweet and fortified wines, I've already written extensively here about the great wines of Madeira, including some relative values. Ports continue to be undervalued given their high quality and ageability. The great producers include Quinta do Noval, Taylor, Fonseca, Dow and Graham, but there are many, many others. Two good values in this area are Ferreira's Porto Dona Antónia Reserva, which is widely available for less than $20, and Quinta do Noval's Black, which I've seen many places for $14 to $18.

A sweet Portuguese wine with a long history that is much less well known here is Moscatel de Setúbal. These are made on a small peninsula located 20 miles south of Lisbon. The primary grape for the white version is known elsewhere as Muscat of Alexandria; for the red, it's a purple muscat, Moscatel Roxo. The wine may also include up to 30% of 12 other indigenous grapes.

The wines are fortified, much like Port or Madeira, but the distinctive aspect of their production is very long periods of maceration on the grape skins--up to six months. This gives the wines intense aromatics. Like port, they can either be vintage dated or non-vintage blends from several vintages. The primary producer is J.M. Fonseca. The oldest I've had to date was a 1962, which had an intoxicating, Cointreau-like nose. Younger bottlings can be found for $12 or less.

For my complete report on 116 wines tasted at the Wines of Portugal event, including my tasting notes, see my blog here.