Portugal’s Diverse Viticulture
Portugal is smaller in size than many other countries. For example, the Canadian province of Ontario is 12 times its size and France is 6 times larger. However, what Portugal lacks in size it makes up for in its demographic, geographic, and culinary diversity.
Stretching north to south its outer edge shores follow along the Atlantic Ocean in the West, Mediterranean Sea in the South, and Spain in the North and East. The Tagus River separates the northern from the southern parts of Portugal and also acts as a divide between the mountainous and hilly north from the rolling and sandy plains of the south.
Portugal’s geography is quite variable thus, its wine regions are equally so.
Situated in the South of Portugal is a wine region known for its Mediterranean climate, beautiful beaches, and almost endless sunlight (3000 hrs). The Serra de Monchique mountains that run between Alentejo and Algarve block the hot, dry winds from Alentejo and allows the moderating effects of both the Atlantic to the West and Mediterranean to the South.
Sand, clay, limestone and schist make up the soil.
Traditional grape varieties range from White Grapes: Siria (Roupeiro), Malvasia, Arinto and Monteudo (table grape) to Red Grapes: Periquita (Castelao), Tinta Negra. However, a host of international grapes have become common. These include Trincadeira, Alvarinho, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, Tempranillo (Aragones), and Touriga Nacional.
Some of my best Portuguese memories stem from my visits to the Alentejo region. Alentejo is a large viticultural that covers roughly one-third the size of Portugal. The climate is Mediterranean with hot summers and mild winters where summer temperatures can climb high into the 40s Celsius.
Topography varies from sandy plains and hilly areas to mountains near Spain. Soils are varied from granite and marble to schist to limestone and clay.
Once again there are a group of traditional grape varieties. White Grapes: Are headed by the Antao Vaz which is grown mainly in Alentejo and is followed by Arinto and Roupeiro (Siria). There are also number of native white blending grapes used such Diagalves, Manteúdo, Perrum and Rabo de Ovelha. A point of interest is that the Perrum has been genetically linked to the Mission Grape of California.
Among the Red Grapes, Aragonez (Tempranillo) seems to be the predominant variety planted in this area, Alfrocheiro, Castelao (Periquita), and Trincadeira follow suit. International grapes such as Alicante Bouschet, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon are successfully being produced to make fine wine. My favourite by far is the Syrah by Herdade Sao Miguel followed by those of Esporao.
Alentejo is very popular in Portugal and highly regarded as a go to for quaffing wine and serious long term wine.
Until not too long ago, the wine region of Lisboa was known as Estremadura but was renamed “Lisboa” to avoid confusion with the Spanish wine region of Extremadura as well as to associate the name of the wine region with the Portuguese capital city of Lisbon.
The wineries of Lisboa feature many relics of ancient times such as Etruscan water ways and Roman ruins.
Lisboa stretches south to north (just west of the city of Lisbon) along the Atlantic coastline to Bairrada. While Lisboa produces the most wine of any region from a wide variety of grapes both domestic and international, the coastal area is subject to a great deal of wind which affects the ripening of grapes. Hills and mountains inland do provide some escape and make viticulture a whole heap easier. There are 9 regional subdivisions most important being Alenquer, Aruda, Bucelas and to a point Obidos which makes great sparkling wines. Other regions either make little wine or are resigned to making brandy or low alcohol whites.
Soil composition is mainly sand or Limestone in the north.
Generally speaking the main White Grapes of Lisboa are : Arinto, Fernao Pires, Malvasia,Seara-Nova,and Vital. Red Grapes are: Alicante Bouschet,, Aragonez (Tempranillo), Castelao (Periquita)), Tinta Miuda, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, and Trincadeira. International grapes such as Chardonnay (White) and Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon (Red) are also used.
Between Lisboa and Alentejo is the Tejo Region. Tejo is historically significant since many Roman relics abound. Some in the very vineyards/wineries that its fine wine is produced. This area was, until recently, called Ribatejo. However, as a tribute to the namesake of this area the river Tagus the name was changed to Tejo with one exception, that being, labels for the generalized basic regional wine (VR) have the Tejo designation while the higher (DOC) label designation has the Ribatejo name on the label.
To the north one finds clay, limestone and schist while in the south the soils are sandy and poor. Alluvial soils along the Tagus allow for good drainage.
Grape types include: White Grapes: Fernão Pires, Arinto, Alvarinho and Verdelho Red Grapes: Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira, Castelao, Aragones and Alfrocheiro.
Situated directly south of Lisbon and across the river Tagus, this wine region was once known as Terras do Sado due to the Sado river flowing just south of it. The topography is basically flat land though a small southern chain of mountains known as Serra da Arrabida cuts across the south. With the exception of the limestone and clay in the hills, the soil is basically sandy. Wine grown in the Arrabida hills is mainly sweet and succulent made from Muscat of Alexandria grapes. The wine is fortified and comes under the Setubal DOC quality control while another DOC, Palmela seems to be particularly good at red grapes such as Castelao.
Both DOC areas do grow various other vines such as Setubal. White Grapes: Antão Vaz, Arinto, Fernão Pires, Malvasia Fina, Roupeiro Branco and Verdelho Red Grapes: Aragonez, Bastardo, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira and, Moscatel Roxo.
Palmela: White Grapes: Alvarinho, Loureiro, Pinot Blanc, Rabo de Ovelha, Roupeiro Branco, Sauvignon, Semillon,and Verdelho Red Grapes: Alicante Bouschet, Bastardo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Tannat, Tinta Miúda, Tinto Cão, Touriga Nacional and Trincadeira. I am sure that there is intermingling of various types of grapes in both DOC regions.
Bairrada is situated between the Dao Region and the Atlantic Ocean. The clay/limestone and sandy soils along with ample rainfall and a Mediterranean climate make Bairrada a haven for many grape varieties but one sticks out above all. The Curia region within Bairrada is a lush oasis that has been known for its “thermal waters” since Roman times. It is here that I associate this region with one man. It is here that Mr.Luis Pato makes his fine wines and has become known as “Mr. Bairrada” and “Mr. Baga” for the grape he loves so much!
Luis is a living legend. His family has been producing wine at Quinta do Ribeirinho since the 18th Century. Mr. Pato exclusively has Portuguese grapes in his 65-hectare winery. The varieties he has are Baga, Touriga Nacional, Maria Gomes. Bical, Cerceal, Sercialinho and Arinto. I found that this region is highly underrated when compared to other regions but when wines such as Baga are well made, they challenge any in the World!
In the North Eastern part of Portugal about one hundred miles inland of the Atlantic Ocean and just south of the Douro Area lies the Region of Dao. While demarcated as a wine region in 1908, sale of wine by growers was restricted to co-operatives which, while advantageous as a sure sale, negated any incentive to developing both a terroir based wine and private ownership pride. During the last few years and especially since the European Union came into existence there has been a major shift to private ownership and a strong move towards local, terroir driven wine.
The wines of Dao now more than ever reflect the unique sub-regions each with its own added micro climates. Due to this emphasis similar grape varieties can differ from concentrated, bold wines to soft elegant ones; from wines of floral and herbal characteristics to those of power and earth. Much does depend on the winemaker’s style but the terroir will dictate how far he could go.
Sandy soils consisting of Granite seem to dominate in Dao with Schist outcroppings in some areas. Granite is igneous, crust rock that is reflective of the surrounding mountains in Dao. Schist is a metamorphosed rock that used to be layered sedimentary deposits of either organic substances or other rocks. Sand soil formed mostly by weathering covers the deposits.
Vines grown on granite soils produce light, elegant wines while vines grown on schist and slate can be denser and have a higher concentration with less acidity. The soils for the most part are well-drained.
Surrounded by mountains, Dao is protected from the cold, winds, and rain. The fact that Dao is a high mountainous region means that the nighttime temperatures tend to be cool thus allowing for slow ripening and good acidity making the wines elegant and capable of age. Many of the vines are over a century old and thus produce fine wine of concentration. As in Bairrada, Dao is underrated and capable of challenging the best anywhere. This allows for Dao to be very reasonable in price at local stores. Here one of the stars of Dao is the White grape Encruzado which makes excellent quaffing wines as well as a top-notch dinner wine. Other White Grapes: Bical, Cercial, Verdelho, Rabo de Ovelha and Malvasia Fina. I also noticed some wineries using Fernao Pires. Red Grapes: Include, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo, Aragones), Alfrocheiro Preto, Jaen, with some Bastardo and Baga!
Green is what you expect from the descriptive “Green Wine” that is used for this area. Green, however, does not refer to the wine as much as the lush, green area that lies between the Douro and Minho rivers. Wine has been made in this lovely region since the times of Ancient Rome and has continued to be an influence in the world. As a matter of fact, when people mention Portuguese wine, after Port, Vinho Verde seems to be the name that crops up most!
Vinho Verde wines are known for their freshness and fine acidity. This is owed partially to the cool and wet climate. Because of this, the vines are low trained on wires to give the grapes more exposure to the Sun. Prior to this, the vines were grown in the form of Pergolas which really did not give them a chance to ripen.
The flavour and style of the wine produced here depend on the grape used. The White Grapes include the Loureiro floral wines; Trajadura flinty/steel; Arinto mineral; Avesso creamy and Alvarinho soft and fragrant. Red Grape Vinhao tends to be dark and acidy. In general, the main wines from Vinho Verde tend to be white, light, aromatic with a slight fizz on the palate. While grapes are a main attraction, there are some historic wineries in this region. When in this region some years ago I was fortunate to visit a couple of these grand estates.
Quinta Da Aveleda
Quinta da Aveleda has been in the same family since the 11th Century. The estate has a unique garden with many interesting sites. Some of these sites are called “Follies” which are named for buildings and additions made by various members of the family through the years. There are gates, houses, ponds, statues, goat houses, and even a window from the home of Henry the Navigator (Prince Henry) in the very large and spacious garden.
The house is very large and also a historic piece. We had supper there and also tasted some of the fines wines of Aveleda with cheese that is made on the farm. Since my visit, there have been further acquisitions by the family in charge.
Casa de Sezim
The original building dates back to the 14th Century. The oldest part of it was built in 1390 and goes back in ownership to a companion of the then King of Portugal. The decor is quite impressive and of course, all the rooms and gardens which adorn the estate have a story that involves brushes with antiquity. The whole area wreaks history. One thing that I didn’t count on while staying at the Quinta was an evening of some special phantom noises that were said to come from the spirit world!
Keeping in mind that there are 9 subdivisions the Vinho Verde Region, there are many such places to tantalize the historical mind and these two should give you an idea of the wealth of history that exists in Vinho Verde and, in fact, all of Portugal!
Bordering Douro and Dao to the north and south respectively is the mountainous region of Tavora-Varosa. I haven’t visited this area but from what I can research. The soil is of granite/schist composition in a continental climate. That in addition to a high land allows the grapes to retain acidity which is beneficial to the making of Sparkling wine. Malvasia Fina, Cerceal (Sercial, Cercial), Fernao Pires, Gouveio and Bical are the White Grapes while Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinto Roriz (Tempranillo) and Tinto Barroca are the major Red Grapes! Due to the potential for making fine sparkling wine, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have been planted in the region.
A similar area to the above with high continental climate and similar oils and vines.
This is a region in evolution. Mountainous, continental in climate with mainly granite and some schist soils. The harsh weather results in very hot summers and very cold winters. The whitewine tends to be aromatic and light in body while the red wineis complex with high spice and fruit. The predominant White Grapes are Arinto, Fonte Cal, Malvasia, Rabo de Ovelha e Siria with the Red Grapes being, Bastardo, Marufo, Tinto Roriz, Rufete and Touriga Nacional. Wine production is taken seriously here and the result will be surprisingly challenging wines.
The Azores are a group of 9 volcanic islands four of which, Pico, Sao Miguel, Terceira, and Graciosa have vineyards. They are situated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean some 1400 km from Portugal, 2000 km from Canada, and 1500 km from Morocco. The climate is mild and wet. The soil is dark and very fertile volcanic.
These islands may have been discovered by seafarers under the command of Prince Henry the Navigator. There are several theories of their discovery ranging from seeking shelter from a storm to being shipwrecked on one of the islands but regardless, the islands were claimed for Portugal and served initially to allow sheep to roam and develop as a food source for passing ships.
A World Heritage Site, Pico is by far the most famous of the wine islands. It has a unique method of viticulture whereby stone walls are erected and protect the planted vines from salt spray carried by the wind and the weather itself. Like the rest of the Azores, the soil is volcanic in origin, in fact, the process is still going on with some cities such as Furnas, in Sao Miguel, in the centre of a volcanic crater which still shows much activity.
Wine grape varieties reflect the Portuguese and Eastern European influences with White Grapes: Terrantez, Arinto, Verdelho, Boal, and Fernao Pires. International varieties such as Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, and Riesling are also present. Red Grapes: include Tempranillo (Aragones), Saborinho (Molar, Negra Mole, Tinta de Madeira, etc.) as well as International varieties such as Syrah, Merlot, Sirah, and Cabernet.
If in Sao Miguel lookup Quinta da Jardinete and if in Pico visit the Azores Wine Company and Cooperativa Vitivinicola da Ilha do Pico where making of that superior Terras do Lava red, white and rose occurs!
Douro Wine Region
Douro wine-making history goes back to the Roman era if not earlier. This region is located some kilometers upstream from Oporto. Its main product has been the production of Port owing to the fact that ever since the mid 17th Century, fortified Port wine has been shipped via Oporto to England. In 1756, this region became so important to the economy of Portugal that the Douro Region was demarcated by a royal charter for the making of Port wine. Douro is a World Heritage Site!
Also known as Alto Douro, this region is sheltered from the Atlantic influences by mountain ranges. The climate is continental with hot, dry summers and cold winters. It has three subdivisions: Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo, and Douro Superior. While Douro Superior is expanding, Cima Corgo is known for its quality wine.
Soil is basically schist/shale with some granite.
While known for its Port companies, Douro non fortified grapes now have a strong following and can compete with the World’s best.
Grape Varieties: Red Grapes: Bastardo, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo and/or Aragones), Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional. White Grapes: Gouveio, Malvasia Fina, Rabigato, Viosinho, Moscatel Galego and Donzelinho.
Portugal’s Wine Start Journey Started Here!
Some years ago I visited this fabulous region. It was thrilling to be in Oporto or Porto, the city where the Douro met the Atlantic. This was where it started all! Ships carrying their cargo of Port to England. Finding out that the liquid in the barrel improved after being on a ship for so long. The British developed a taste for this precious and founded a number of companies that began making it and shipping it to the island. The rest as they say is history! Speaking of history, Porto was known as Portus/ Cale in the time of Rome and was captured by the Moors in the Eighth Century. It was an important location and was the subject of many occupations through the centuries. Port is also famous for being the birthplace of Prince Henry or Henry the Navigator. According to history books, Port started shipping wine around 1678.
The City Port does not just ship wine. It ships many other items such as cork, olive oil, fruits, building materials, cotton, silks, and wool. It is a lovely place to visit with its many landmarks and also the many port houses along the Douro river. Port boats can be seen sailing around the river with barrels on board simulating the trips to the port houses from the vineyard destinations. I could see the names of the houses across the landscape horizon as we looked across the river and also onto our side of the shore.
Ferreira, Warres, Sandeman, Taylors, and more were all prominently featured amidst the buildings and homes that made up the city. I was surprised to see how clean and well kept this port city was. I was also amazed at the effect of floods on the city had during the many years. We visited House of Sandeman and could see the levels that various floods reached during the years the building had been there. In extreme years the floods could get as high as 12 feet above the normal river level. Indicators on the walls of the Sandeman building “notch” the heights reached in various flood years. Flooding is not as much of a problem now due to the location of various dams up the Douro river. The climate of Porto is Mediterranean which means that summers are dry and hot and winters are rainy but mild. The temperature seldom reaches zero Celsius.
The name Sandeman should be synonymous with “First”. Sandeman was probably the first person to make use of the Coffee Houses that littered London in the late 18th Century as a place to develop a Port Company. This Scotsman from Perth borrowed $300 pounds at Tom’s Coffee House to begin the journey that still is going on now. Sandeman was also the first to use a Brand name on a cask using the GSC (George Sandeman & Company) in 1805.
Sandeman became the first company to register a trademark in 1877 and the first to export bottled labeled wines (1880). Advertising was next. Sandeman was among the first to advertise in 1905 and in the late 1920s Sandeman commissioned an artist, George Massiot Brown, to paint a logo and the silhouette of “The Don” was born. It was the first iconic logo for a wine. In 2002, Sandeman joined the Sogrape Group and the story goes on!
I was met with by a lovely and charming young lady, Ligia Marques who gave me a tour of the facilities. The museum was quite interesting with an array of labels, stamps, documents, and historical paraphernalia concerning the company. We then went into the Barrel Cellar where casks of port slept. The company library with bottles of Port, some over one hundred years old, were kept. Ligia then arranged a meeting and a tasting with none other than the Chairman of the House of Sandeman 7th Generation Sandeman George Sandeman.
The Tasting With George Sandeman
The true expression of a person who is great is how gracious and humble he seems. We were very impressed by this person’s “down to earth” attitude and easy, gentle manner. His main pleasure and pride is that his company has given so much pleasure to people. He went on to describe several of his ports and match them to various foods such as his Founders’ Reserve with cheese or pecan pie. On his Sandeman 20 Year Tawney, it is fruit such as peaches or blue cheese. Vintage Ports such as the fabulous 2000 or 2007 would be great with chocolate mousse or sweet fruit such as figs or salty creamy cheese or Stilton. A White Port is also available and is a pale yellow colour and can be served with such foods as cheese, creamy fish soups, white chocolate, and fruit. There are various types of Port that are suitable to various tastes and budgets. Sandeman goes well with many foods. Other products such as Sherry, Brandy, and Madeira are also produced. The question arises: “If it were not for Oporto and Port, would Portugal be as famous a wine country. I think we know the answer!.
As with the Azore Islands Madeira’s “Discovery” was (is) credited to sailors under the command of Prince Henry circa the early 15th Century. Its subtropical, warm and rainy weather especially in winter makes wine making rather difficult due to the onset of disease. Vineyards are small and trellised. They are planted on man made terraces.
As with many other products, the making of today’s Madeira was an accident of coincidence and necessity! In the 17th Century Madeira was a stop-over for ships sailing to other colonies. The ships would pick up wine which was unfortified in the Island however the wine did not last the voyage well. To improve its lasting power, it was fortified with brandy (much like Port). The composition of wine however changed somewhat owing to the heat and movement within the ship. Wine that made a “round trip” thus was quite different in taste than when it started. Customers such as the Dutch East India Company however preferred this taste.
Methods of preparing this wine without the necessary trips were invented (special heating rooms) and the present drink was produced.
Grapes used in special styles and blends are: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, Malvasia and Tarantez. most common grapes used for making Madeira are Negra Mole and Complexa.
Word of Warning
If one wants to drive to any producer or as a tourist make sure you hire a guide and better still one with a car. Driving in Madeira is tough with narrow roads and many bumps. If you drive be careful!