A Mixed Bag
When the first Portuguese trading ships arrived in Macau, there is no doubt wine was on board. Even today more than half of the wine in Macau is Portuguese. In days past, the mention of the words wine and Portugal and most people would go into raptures about Port, arguably the world’s finest fortified, sweet red wine, and go into shudders when reminiscing about Portugal’s dry wines – usually associated with nights-best-forgotten. This has all changed. With entry into the European Union, advances in global winemaking technology and a break-up of the co-op stranglehold on wine production, Portugal has begun to write a success story.
Like most of Europe, Portugal labels its wines by the region of origin rather than grape variety, which is fortuitous as they produce wines from some 230 varieties. There are 55 Portuguese wine regions, but the four most important red wine regions are: Alentejo, Bairrada, Dão and Douro.
Comprising most of southeastern Portugal, Alentejo is Portugal’s largest wine region (one-third of the country) with its premium wines derived from the small inland towns along the Spanish border. Throughout most of its history, Alentejo has been an impoverished region with arid rolling plains more suitable for sheep, goats, olives and grains than wine. More importantly, Alentejo produces more than half the world’s supply of cork. As with most of Portugal, Alentejo’s finest wines are red and derived from dozens of varieties, but the best are periquita (little parakeet), aragonez (known as tempranillo in Spain) and trincadeira preta.
That Dão is another one of Portugual’s most promising wine regions is no surprise as it lies a mere thirty miles south of the Douro River, home of the famed Port wine houses. Dão is encircled on three sides by mountains which protect it from the cool moist Atlantic air and simulate a Mediterranean-style climate. Regulations allow more than fifty grapes varieties in the Dão region, but the finest are touriga nacional (of Port renown) and tinta roriz (another synonym for tempranillo). Others include alfrocheiro preto, jaen and my personal favorite solely for the colourful name: bastardo.
West of Dão and closer to the Atlantic is Bairrada, named after its dense, clay “barro” soil. Given its proximity to the cooler Atlantic influences, Bairrada produces wines with crisp acidity, which is why it is Portugal’s most successful sparkling wine region. The juicy red Baga variety is the region’s favored grape, which by law must comprise 50% of any local red wine. About fifteen other grapes are also grown in the region, many producing a rustic sparkling red excellent with roast suckling pig.
The Douro Valley, revered for its rich, sweet, long-lived Port wines, arguably produces the country’s finest dry red wines as well. Until recently, “light” wines were simple beverages consumed by vineyard workers or before the “real” wines were placed on the table. This attitude began to change when producers such as A. A. Ferreira, upon returning from a sojourn in Bordeaux, set out to produce a world class dry red wine. The region is now rife with quality-focused producers such as Miguel Champalimaud of Quinto do Cotto, who even went so far as to buck the country’s cork patriotism to bottle his wines in screw caps as he believes it yields a finer product.