Looking back on our two-week Portugal odyssey last month, it’s hard to say whether the greatness of the wines or the history and majestic nature of the places we visited played the greater role in our total enjoyment of the trip. So we’ll call it a tie!
Portugal’s history is a complex web. It began with the monarchy and it’s religious ties to the Catholic Church that existed for centuries until the 1910 revolution launched the secular First Republic. A 1926 coup d’état resulted in the military dictatorship known as the Second Republic, and in 1928 António de Oliveira Salazar seized control of the government and restored a more socially oriented role of Catholicism.
Salazar is widely accepted as among the most influential people in Portuguese history and although a stern dictator, his accomplishments were among the most important for Portugal and her people.
Numerous Salazar achievements remain in place today, including his construction of five massive locks along the Douro that made the river more navigable and their dams still serving as a major source of hydroelectric power for the country. Illness forced Salazar to relinquish his office as Prime Minister in 1968 and the more Conservative/Nationalist Marcelo Caetano assumed control. The regime collapsed in 1974 as the country evolved into its current democratic leadership.
Portugal is second only to Italy with the number of indigenous wine grapes grown in its 19 DOCs (Denominação de Origem Controlada), 28 IPRs (Indicação de Proveniencia Regulamentada) and other areas. Depending on the sources I’ve read and people I’ve spoken to, there are somewhere between 350 and 600 indigenous varietals growing in addition to many international varietals (e.g. cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay) that have been added in recent years.
Wine grapegrowing and winemaking have always occupied a principle role in Portugal’s religious, social and economic traditions regardless of the government in charge and the religious or secular philosophy in place.
The Douro is Portugal’s most revered appellation and the world’s oldest demarcated wine grapegrowing region with a tapestry of vineyards stretching for miles that scale the precipitously steep hillsides from the river’s edge to elevations ranging to 2,500 feet.
And for sheer amazement, many rock wall terraces dating back to Roman times continue to support the vineyards and control erosion. The Marquis of Pombal helped in establishing Douro’s demarcated borders in 1756 enhancing its importance and facilitating the business of Port wine in Europe and beyond.
One year before, in 1755, the Marquis was called upon by King Joseph I to rebuild Lisbon after a cataclysmic earthquake that struck on All Saints Day. There were countless candles burning throughout the city in churches and homes in celebration of the holiday when the quake occurred resulting in massive fires that worsened the devastating damage. A tsunami from the Atlantic soon followed, flooding the city.
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Port wine can only come from the Douro and its specifically designated varietals. Here, too, the number of varietals is subject to what you read and how it’s interpreted but ranges upward from 30 to 100 or more. In actuality there are six main blending varietals—touriga nacional, touriga franca, tinta roriz (aka tempranillo), tinta barroca, tinto cão and tinta amarela—that dominate the blends. All Ports are fortified by the addition of neutral brandy (77 percent alcohol) to halt fermentation at a pre-determined moment leaving the winemaker’s desired specific residual sugar content in accordance with the house style.
This is an extremely tricky technique and differs greatly from dry wine production where the fermentation normally proceeds on its own to dryness leaving little or no residual sugar. The Port winemaker’s skill and tenacity are called into action throughout fermentation as the precise moment of residual sugar concentration occurs at any time of day or night. An hour or two of excess fermentation can make the difference in whether the finished wine is acceptable or not.
There are many styles of Port: Ruby, Ruby Reserve, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV), White, Tawny, Reserve Tawny, Aged Tawny, Colheita, Vintage etc. But they really break down into two groups—bottle aged and cask aged. And that’s the easy part as Vintage Port is bottle aged while all the others are cask aged. Vintage Port (less than 3 percent of total production) is produced only in “declared” vintages by the house and the IVDP (Port regulating body) and bottled two years after harvest. Cask aged Ports (with the exception of Colheita and LBV) are blends of vintages and aged in cask for a prescribed number of years.
Ruby Ports are held for a minimum of three years and up to seven for Reserves and LBVs. Tawnys are in cask for a minimum of seven years, and the 10-, 20-, 30- and 40-Year bottlings are blends of various vintages averaging (by volume) the age on the label.
Colheitas are vintage dated Tawnys and LBVs are essentially vintage dated Ruby Ports. White Ports are cask-aged wines from white varietals grown in the Douro (less than 10 percent of the total crop) and blended in the same ways as Ruby Ports and Tawnys.
We tasted somewhere between 70 and 80 different wines during our trip (I guess I should have kept better track!) ranging from Ports of all styles to sparklers and countless red, white and rosé dry table wines (both varietals and blends) from many growing areas. We sampled wines from the north in Douro and Vinho Verde, the central regions of Alentejo and the mountainous Dão to the coast with wines from Setúbal and Lisboa.
All possessed distinctive varietal and regional character and greatly broadened my horizons on the breadth of what else Portugal offers while principally known for its sweet fortified wines.
The dry table wines from the Douro are mostly produced from the same varietals used in Port. Vinho Verde can be found in a slightly “spritzy” style or completely still, primarily from the alvarinho grape. Dão is inland and mostly known for its bold reds. Alentejo is Portugal’s largest area and grows many different white and red varietals (arinto was an exciting discovery). It is also home to a thriving beef and pork industry and is the principle cork-growing region of the country. Many diverse varietals, including several with international roots, have found a home in the more Mediterranean climates of Setúbal and Lisboa to the southwest.
Portugal is a land of boundless surprises. Barbara and I await the opportunity of revisiting the country and continuing our exploration of her wines, cuisine and culture.