I discovered my passion for the wines of Portugal in the late 1970s when my thirst to learn more about wine and its treasured history began in earnest. A friend introduced me to 1963 Graham’s Vintage Port and that prompted my appreciation of something truly different to collect, enjoy and share with friends.
During the ensuing years, I expanded my love of Port by enjoying the cask- aged Tawnys, especially those 10-, 20-, and 30-year olds (White Ports, 40-Year Tawnys and Colheitas came later). But it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that I discovered the ever-expanding selection of Portugal’s dry table wines that emanate from virtually every corner of this complex wine-producing country.
Portugal, on the western face of the Iberian Peninsula, is Europe’s most westerly country. And the DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada) of Colares, close to Lisbon, is the continent’s most westerly vineyard area, as well as one of its most unique with windswept vineyards of sand and bush trained vines.
Due to the Peninsula’s relative geographic isolation from Europe, the grape varietals found in Portugal are unique and the descendants of wild grapes that once grew in the region. They are part of the Vitis Sylvestris family that is considered the ancestor of Vitis Vinifera (Cabernet, Chardonnay, Sangiovese, etc.) found elsewhere in Europe and now adopted internationally. Portugal is home to many of the most diverse vineyard locations, more than 250 native varietals and more indigenous grapes per square kilometer than any other wine producing country.
Just one-quarter the size of California, Portugal is 350 miles long but boasts 1,115 miles of coastline with inlets and bays providing an interwoven pattern of distinctive viticultural landscapes, each speaking to their individuality by varying climatic conditions, soil types and varietal composition. It’s only land neighbor is Spain, which surrounds the country to the north and east with warmer continental climates, while the Atlantic Ocean lies to the west and south providing strong cooling influences along the coastline and a Mediterranean climate in the south.
Last month, I was invited to revisit the Wines of Portugal trade tasting in San Francisco, hosted by ViniPortugal for an intensive day of tasting 200 or so offerings from more than 30 producers. The wines ranged from sparkling to dry white, rosé and red along with a variety of sweet and fortified examples. My highlight of the day was a three-part series of educational seminars conducted by Eugénio Jardim (retired sommelier and now U.S. Ambassador for Wines of Portugal) who partnered with Napa-based wine educator Gillian Balance MS.
Each seminar focused on a specific category (dry-white, dry-red and a variety of sweet wines) and began with an in depth presentation by Eugénio as an overview of Portugal’s wine-making history, growing areas and a multitude of personal insights.
Next came a representative tasting lead by Gillian of specific wines to highlight the differences found by area, varietal and style within the category. All producers presented at the seminars were also featured at the grand tasting, inviting a further exploration of their wines.
Each time I visit the wines of Portugal, either through tastings or during my travels there, I learn something new. Portugal is a complex web of individual expressions of terroir and second only to Italy with the number of indigenous varietals grown in its 31 DOCs, 14 VRs (Vinho Regional or IGT) and other non-classified areas.
During the three seminars/tastings conducted by Eugénio and Gillian, we were taken on a virtual vinous journey to many of these areas from Vinho Verde in the north through the Douro (the world’s first officially demarcated wine growing region in 1754) to Lisboa and Setúbal, then inland to the Dáo, Alentejo and more. Portuguese winemakers are primarily known for their skills in blending with some wines created in the winery and others as field blends, such as the Vinhas Velhas with interplanted vineyards of 40 or more indigenous varietals and vines 45 years and older.
Each wine presented during the seminars was an individual expression of its varietal blend and origin. Here are just a few of my standouts. In the dry-white category, the 2018 Casa Americo Quinta do Vale is an intriguing blend containing the most interesting Encruzado from the isolated (completely surrounded by four mountain ranges) Dão region. The warmer continental climate brought out the richness of melon and pitted fruit while maintaining refreshing acidity—a benchmark of Portuguese whites.
The dry-red category was a bounty of riches. My “discovery” was the 2016 Niepoort Charme from the cooler part of the Douro and a vineyard boasting some of the world’s oldest vines. The nature of Charme was Burgundian in style as expressed by its pale crimson hue, inviting nose and elegance on the palate with strong notes of strawberry and sweet tannins. Although somewhat atypical of Douro reds, this wine was a true standout and possibly a preview of what’s to come in the category.
In the “Portuguese Sweet Decadence” seminar, we were treated to a Kopke 10-Year White Port, a 1997 Ramos Pinto Vintage Port and two expressions of Moscatel. My “discovery” pick was the José Maria da Fonseca Alambre 20 Anos Moscatel de Setúbal. From Setubal’s cooler Atlantic proximity this wine displayed notes of cola, candy and honey beautifully balanced by bright acidity culminating in a rich silky mouthfeel. The youngest fruit in the blend is from 20-year old vines and the oldest date to 1911.
And no tasting of Portuguese wines would be complete without a venture to the newest declared vintage of Port. I had the opportunity to taste the Symington Family Estate’s Smith Woodhouse and Cockburn’s Vintage Ports from the heralded 2016 vintage. Both were outstanding and an impressive indication of what we can look forward to from 2016.
After 2,000 years of grape growing and winemaking history, Portugal is embarking on a new trailblazing path in the world of fine wine that is best summed up by Eugénio as, “A breath of fresh air in a world bored with homogeneity.”