Iberian Wonders

Finally, great Portuguese wines are hitting the market. Here’s a quick starter guide

Written by Van Miller
Illustration by Sophie Kittredge 

 

Finally, great Portuguese wines are hitting the market.

Finally, great Portuguese wines are hitting the market.

My first visit to Portugal blew me away. I got off a train in the middle of nowhere. The landscape looked like those scenes from The Godfather when Michael Corleone was hiding out in the Sicilian countryside. I had expected Portugal to be just like Spain, which was dirty, threadbare, and dominated by post-Civil War, pseudomodern, shoddy architecture. Portugal, though, was intact, untouched by any of the wars that had almost ruined the rest of Europe. There was innocence in this preservation, a deep-rooted sense of authenticity.

For years I've looked for wines as good as those I drank on that vacation. Most of the Portuguese wines I've found in the U.S. have been mediocre and undependable. The problem has been isolation. For political reasons Portugal was isolated from the rest of the global economy, and most of the grapes grown were sold to the Port houses or crushed in bulk for cheap co-op wines. Great handmade wines have always been made there, but not many were exported. Today Portugal is a member of the European Union, which has brought in outside investors who insist that wine makers focus on quality. There is one benefit of isolation: most of the grapes grown in Portugal are indigenous and have never ventured across the border. Very little merlot and chardonnay have been planted. So the boom in Portuguese wines is from grapes that have adapted for centuries to its climate and soils.

I've been tasting a lot of great Portuguese wines lately. They now display an original flavor, a distinct style and appearance. The whites are dominated by vinho verde, a good summer drinking bargain. The reds are the big story. They are generally soft wines with vibrant berry fruits, not heavy or overly tannic. This is a great place for bargains. A $7 Portuguese red can be as good as a $15 bottle of Californian, French, or Italian. Be careful though, because there are still plenty of crappy wines out there. Here are a few I think you should try.

Whites    

2005 Niepoort Tiara Branco Douro Codega. Slight Champagne aromas. A bracingly dry, sharp wine, reminiscent of a Spanish albarino. $25 at winestore.

Aveleda Casal Garcia Vinho Verde. This is an easy-drinking wine that goes great with seafood or light salads. It has a greenish-yellow tint, citrus aromas, and a crisp, effervescent feel in the mouth. Nice acidity, light body, no oak or tannins. A simple wine. $8 at Total Wine.

Reds

2005 Grão Vasco Dao. This is a good entry-level Portuguese wine, and easy to find. A light ruby color, with neutral aromas. A light, unassuming wine with good cherry fruits and nice acids. Very simple. $6 at Total Wine.

2005 "Vinzelo" Douro Quinta de Ventozelo Douro. Dark ruby color, slight berry aromas. Good raspberry and cherry fruits, slight tartness, no tannins. This is a great everyday wine. It's hard to believe that it only costs $7—what a deal. Total Wine.

2003 Pintas Vinho Tinto Douro. Ruby/garnet color and aromas of red berries. Lovely clear fruits of raspberry, cherry, cassis, and strawberry. A blend of tinto roriz, touriga nacional, touriga franca, and twenty-five other varieties from seventy-year-old Port-producing parcels. A vibrant, complex wine with an excellent backbone. Grapes were crushed by foot. This is a serious, high-end Portuguese red. $60 at winestore.