Portuguese wines are dominated by a host of different factors, including unique climatic conditions, nuanced and localised grapes, and centuries of history, especially with its maritime and trade relationship with Britain.
Its’ history began around 4,000 years ago, when grapes were first introduced to the area by settlers. The grapes were spread and consumed by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Celts in the following millenia, though the way that we see Portuguese wine today takes form in the 12th century when wine was shipped to England en masse for the first time. A lot of this is owed to wars with France and wishing to move away from the consumption of French wines. In 1376, The Treaty of Windsor encouraged trade relations between the two countries, which led to Portuguese wine imports being favoured and levies reduced. This resulted in Portuguese wines overtaking the French market.
In 1703, the Methuen treaty advanced English interests further; guaranteeing further tax and wine tariff reductions. By 1717, 66% of wines consumed in England were Portuguese, compared to only 4% being French. The popularity of the fortified wine, Port, as we know it today, significantly increased at this time; partially because of these laws and partially because of its ability to keep for longer thanks to fortification.
Another wine that also had grown vastly in popularity was Madeira, the complex wine from its namesake island to the south of the mainland, thanks to its’ ability to travel so well and age for so long. Alongside the growth of Port’s popularity came a wave of counterfeit bottles that were simple wines, or more often than not, not even wines at all that carried alcohol, sugars and flavourings. After the market took a hit from this fraudulence, the Portuguese government took action and established The Douro Wine Company in 1756. The Douro Wine Company created the first protected designation of origin in the world, demarcating that Port must come from the Douro and must abide by certain guidelines to be certified by the company. The reputation of the Portuguese wine market was re-established, and it became a quintessentially English drink for centuries to come.
Much like throughout the rest of Europe, and the wine world generally, Phylloxera devastated Portuguese vineyards throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was followed tumultuous and corrupt governance as well as the dictatorship of Salazar until the 1970s. For most of this time, vineyards never truly recovered and were governed largely by cooperatives which meant great volume, but little quality, with the exception of Port production. Following the fall of the dictatorship and closer integration with Europe, Portugal’s farming and transport vastly improved, as well as the ability of the Portuguese to travel, share information and look to make wines in a much more international and technical way.
Portugal, because of its historical isolation, has a wide array of native grapes and a geography that allows for them to expose their quality; and is beginning to be seen as more than a producer of bulk wines and Port, but a very nuanced region that requires attention. The struggles that it has faced as an exporting wine country especially include difficult to pronounce, unique grapes and locations that are hard to market. These factors are increasingly being turned into positives, and rightly so; with better infrastructure and agriculture, as well as a passion of winemakers to understand what makes their vineyards so nuanced, we are seeing high-quality wines that tell incredible stories and taste unique. The popularity of the spritzy Vinho Verde, the originality of Dão, the bold, hot reds of Alejento, the coastal complexity of Barraida and the historic Port and Madeira make it a fascinating country for wine lovers – and rightly so.
Regions to look out for...
Sitting at the top of the Iberian Peninsula, next to the Atlantic Ocean, this area is relatively cool and also one of the wettest winemaking regions in Europe. Wines from the Minho are distinctive and coastal blends; mostly famously Vinho Verde, (green/young wine) is, like the name describes, youthful and zesty, generally with low alcohol and a slight spritz from carbon dioxide left in the wine. A lot of its’ more distinctive wines are made from Alvarinho (the same grape as Albariño across the border in Rias Baixas, Spain).
An area that has been growing wine for centuries, Bairrada has only just started to recover from decades of poverty and poor wine quality, as well as a lack of understanding of the local grape, Baga (which literally means berry) thick skin, small berries, later ripening. The area makes some great quality sparkling, rosé and deep, rich reds and is increasingly growing more elegant, pinot noir-like styles of wine from Baga.
One of the oldest demarcated wine growing regions in the world (1756), has traditionally been famous for producing fortified wine, but since the 1990s, when regulations were somewhat lifted, has been growing some world-class red and white dry wines using local grapes and field blends in a huge array of different soil types and micro-climates.
An inland, very hot, arid area on the Spanish border, Alentejo has been traditionally disconnected and is known for bold, rural and rustic reds that were produced for domestic consumption. Quality has improved in recent decades, though irrigation is often necessary because of the heat. Grapes include Aragonez (Tempranillo in Rioja, Spain), Tricadeia, Castelao, and Syrah has recently been imported for its’ suitability to the heat, though not without contention.
Located between the Atlantic and Spain and nestled amongst three mountain ranges, which protect it from the ocean and provide it with its’ own micro-climate. With dry summers and cool winters, Dao can create some of the finest reds in Portugal, and generally grows Touriga Nacional (floral and aromatic with heavy tannins and acidity – a very age-worthy and low yielding grape) as well as Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo in Rioja, Spain).
Pairings hosted ‘A Taste of Portugal’ on Thursday 18th of October 2018, the wines tasted were:
White Rabbit Dry White, Niepoort, NV – Douro, Portugal
Field Blend of Côdega, Rabigato, Viosinho, Arinto, Gouveio – Paired with Gordal olives
Vinho Verde Branco, Vila Nova, 2017 – Vinho Verde, Portugal
Field Blend of Loureiro, Arinto, Avesso – Paired with Serrano Ham
Vinhas Velhas Branco, Luis Pato, 2016 – Beiras Atlantico, Portugal
50% Bical, 25% Cerceal, 25% Sercialinho – Paired with Crab Pate
INDIE Xisto, Luis Seabra, 2014 – Douro, Portugal
30% Tinta Roriz, 20% Touriga Franca, 15% Tinta Amarela, 10% Rufete, 5% Tinta Barroca – Paired with Iberico Salchichon
Tinto, Herdade Sao Miguel, 2016 – Alentejo, Portugal
Field Blend of Alicante Bouschet, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Touriga Nacional – Paired with Picos Blue cheese
10 Y.O. Tawny Port, Ferreira, NV – Douro, Portugal
Field Blend of Touriga Franca, Touriga nacional, tinta barroca, tinta roriz, tinto cão, tinta amarela - Paired with Millionaires shortbread