One of the great ironies that surrounds Portugal’s wine industry is timing. Although production dates back over 3,000 years – it is believed that maritime Phoenicians planted the first vines in the region as they colonized the Mediterranean – it is only recently that the country is being recognized for its more sophisticated and diverse offerings. For centuries, Portugal was known only for producing fortified red wines such as Port and Madeira, and Vinho Verde, its light, refreshing signature white. But what can also surface with timing is change. In recent years, Portugal has successfully worked to develop refined, competitive and accessible wines that are gaining more and more international respect and renown. Simply stated, the country represents one of the most interesting transformations in the wine world thus far.
Portugal’s initial ascendancy came during the latter part of the Middle Ages. Resting on the Iberian Peninsula, the country
As the international demand for Port continued to grow, especially among British traders whose temperamental relationship with France often left their wine inventory lacking, Portugal’s table wines remained a strictly local pleasure. While the country’s location was ideal for transport and trade, it was an obstacle to its participation in continental Europe’s evolving fine wine industry. In response, Portugal began making wines that showcased its own broad selection of more than 300 indigenous grapes instead of becoming dependent on the elite varietals from Bordeaux and Burgundy. The choice was a smart one, as it allowed Portugal to retain a uniquely “Portuguese” product amidst its competitors. This holds true even today as Portugal expands its position in the global wine market.
Portugal enjoys a temperate maritime climate which encourages solid wine production numbers. While the differentials among terroirs are limited, there is enough variety to support the considerable diversity among the country’s grapes. Coastal growers can produce remarkably high harvests due to the frequent rains coming from the western Atlantic Ocean, while inland regions such as
Douro and Dão enjoy much drier conditions. This arid environment creates the perfect stress needed for the development of stronger roots and superior vines, both contributing to higher quality wines.
Portugal is gifted with several flourishing wine producing regions, but the three that remain the most dominant are Douro, Dão and Minho. Along with being the hub of Port production, the Douro region, which spans from Portugal’s north central region to its northeast border with Spain, has been proactively adding some superb reds to their offerings. The primary grapes cultivated are Touriga Francesa, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz, the last being Portugal’s own version of Spain’s popular Tempranillo, with all three used for both table wine and Port. Douro’s wines are considered the best in all of Portugal, with its reds taking their style and temperament cues from Bordeaux icons. Just south of Douro is Dão, which is best known for its multiple varietals. The region’s reds mimic the fresh, full-bodied profile of those from Burgundy. Minho, based in Portugal’s northwest corner, is home to Vinho Verde, the country’s largest appellation. White wine is king in the Minho region, with Alvarinho being the dominant varietal grown.
Like much of Europe, Portugal’s wine industry suffered from 20th century wars. Decades passed before the country rebounded with newer exports such as Mateus and Lancers rosés. But Portugal’s journey of redefining its place in today’s wine world continues. Regulations and guidelines which impact winemaking are becoming more and more aligned with those in Europe, capturing the attention and interest of serious investors. The result is a new Portugal on the horizon – one that respects the distinctive character and history of its wines while joining the ranks of modern winemakers.