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Plumbing the Depths of Portugal: A Tasting Journey

In the pantheon of global wine regions, Portugal doesn’t rank among the most storied, at least as far as the average wine lover is concerned. Most wine drinkers have heard of, if not tasted Port, the dark, rich dessert wine named after the town at the mouth of the Douro river in the country’s north. I may be on the younger side of a generation of wine drinkers that were both enthusiastically, and sometimes regrettably (after a few bottles) familiar with Mateus Rosé, which proved, in my case, to be somewhat of a gateway wine.

Fewer wine lovers have encountered the brisk, lean minerality of a Vinho Verde from the DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada) region of the same name, or the salty sweet, amber enigma of Madeira from the little island in the country’s south. Beyond these relatively well-known examples, much of Portugal’s rich wine landscape remains unknown to all but the most experienced wine lovers and Master Sommelier candidates.

This is despite Portugal’s long history of wine growing and making that stretches back as far as most of its European neighbors. By most counts, the country is home to more than 250 different native grape varieties, and perhaps unlike most other countries in the world, every square inch of its territory falls within the bounds of a designated wine region. There is literally not a single place in the country that couldn’t legally put wine into a bottle with an appellation on the label.

I had tasted more than a few Portuguese wines before my trip to Portugal last week, thanks to an over-developed sense of curiosity and a fabulous wine scene here in San Francisco, but I embarked on my recent journey with the desire to significantly deepen my understanding of what the country had to offer. To that end, ViniPortugal kindly organized a whirlwind tour of several wine regions that kicked off with a visit to the country’s annual wine exposition in Lisbon.

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As part of that exhibition, ViniPortugal arranged an extraordinary tasting of some of the country’s most unique, rare, and storied wines. To guide this tasting, they brought in João Paulo Martins, a 25-year-veteran wine writer and author of the country’s comprehensive annual wine review Revista de Vinhos, which is currently in its 22nd printing.

“This tasting will focus on wines that would be, for you, probably difficult to taste because they don’t exist in foreign markets, largely because of their low production,” said Martins as he began. “We will be focusing especially on Portuguese grape varieties.”

The next two hours were a tour de force of Portugal’s remarkable history and prowess as a wine producer. Here are the wines that set the bar for what Portugal can do.

portugal_rarities-15.jpg2012 Anselmo Mendes “Curtimenta” Alvarinho, Vinho Verde
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of unipe pear, lemon pith, and wet stones. In the mouth, wonderfully bright lemon pith and unrope apple flavors mix with wet chalkboard. Gorgeous pink grapefruit flavors linger with the minerality in the finish. Nice body and texture, light tannic grip. Made of 100% Alvarinho. Fermented in 400 liter old oak barrels, where it is aged for 9 months Score: around 9.

Anselmo Mendes is known in Portugal affectionately as “Mr. Alvarinho,” thanks to his more than 25 years of advocacy for the grape and the Vinho Verde region he calls home. Vinho Verde is one of very few regions in Portugal where historically there exists a tradition of vinifying a single grape variety. Most other regions have long been focused on blends, but for a long time, the folks in Vinho Verde have been making white wines from Alvarinho, which is the same as the Albariño that grows across the Minho river in the Spanish region of Rias Baixas.

Mendes, more than any other producer, has worked to elevate the quality of Vinho Verde from the slightly fizzy, cheap and cheerful white wine that comprises the bulk of this region’s production to a serious white wine.

portugal_rarities-16.jpg2008 Quinta de Soalheiro Alvarinho, Minho, Vinho Verde
Medium yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd and bee pollen mixed with wet stones. In the mouth gorgeous stony and crystalline flavors of lemon peel, lemon curd and honey (without a trace of sweetness), and a gorgeous salinity that lingers for a long time in the finish. The best Alvarinho I’ve ever had. Fantastic acidity. A phenomenal wine. Poured from magnum. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $32. click to buy.

Few people would think of aging wines made from the Alvarinho grape, which rightfully seems to be thought of in the same vein as Sauvignon Blanc, a crisp young white to be enjoyed as soon as it is bottled. Fewer still would think of aging Alvarinho in the form of Vinho Verde. But then again, few would think of bottling it in magnums either.

This bottle of Alvarinho will explode every preconception such as these that you might possess. It aged like a cross between Semillon and Riesling, wonderfully layered and complex. Producer Soalheiro has been making high quality Alvarinho since 1982. The 2008 vintage had one of the coolest summers resulting in a very long and slow maturation process, which has doubtless added to the age ability of this wine.

portugal_rarities-17.jpg2013 Fitapreta “Signature Series” Terrantez do Pico, Azores
Light gold in the glass with a bronze tint, this wine smells of wet leaves, crushed nuts, orange peel, and cassava melon. In the mouth wonderfully saline quality mixed with wet stones, unripe pear, and melon rind. Great acidity and length. A whopping total of 646 bottles made. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.

At the southern tip of Portugal, where the country meets the temperate part of the Atlantic Ocean, lie a series of 9 islands known as the Azores. Better known for their exotic jungle beaches and vacation homes, these islands are surprisingly also home to several wine producers, including Fitapreta, on the island of San Miguel. One of the region’s indigenous grapes, Terrantez do Pico, carries the name of one of the other nine islands (Pico), and is, confusingly, not the same grape as Terrantez which is a component of Madeira, or Terrantez de Terceira which is also grown in the Azores.

As if an indigenous grape from the Azores were not rare enough, only 100 or so vines of this grape are planted in the region, making this bottling the only wine to use this variety in the world.

portugal_rarities-18.jpg2012 Quinta Foz de Arouce Branco, Beira
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of new oak and lemon rind. In the mouth, salty flavors of lemon rind, wet chalkboard, and a hint of herbal notes. Nice texture. Subtle flavors, good acidity. 12.5% alcohol. Barrel fermented and aged for seven months in oak. Score: between8.5 and 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.

Confusing grape names seem to be a signature of Portugal. This wine is made from the little-known variety of Cerceal, not to be confused with Sercial or Cercial, both of which are entirely different grape grape varieties. Cerceal is thought to be a cross between Madeira’s Sercial and Malvasia Fina.

The Biera region, formerly known as Biera Interior, contains some of Portugals highest-elevation vineyards. This mountainous region is quite cold in winter and hot in summer.

portugal_rarities-19.jpg2010 Maritavora Grand Reserva White Blend, Duoro
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon cucumber, lemon curd, buttered popcorn, dried citrus peel and bergamot. In the mouth gorgeous mineral notes are touched by oak, lemon peel and a light tannic grip. Great acidity and length. A field blend of about 20 different grape varieties. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

The tradition of old-vine field blends has a long history in Portugal, but has found one of its greatest expressions in the vineyards of the Douro region. This particular wine is a a blend of grapes from a vineyard that is at least 110 years old. While there are at least 20 different grape varieties in the vineyard, scientists are still truing to to identify them all.

portugal_rarities-20.jpg2011 Monte Cascas Malvasia de Colares, Colares
Medium yellow in the glass, this wine smells of bee pollen, wet stones, and candied lemon rind. In the mouth, bright lemon and bee pollen and candle wax mix with deep deep stony mineral aspect. Gorgeous texture and length. Saline lemon cucumber notes on the finish. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

Just to the north of Lisbon lies one of the wine world’s most unusual viticultural regions. On the westernmost strip of land on the European continent, lie a remarkable few vineyards planted in the pure sand dunes next to the Atlantic. These unruly, bush vines include an indigenous variety of Malvasia known as Malvasia di Colares, The region has a long and storied history, as its vineyards were among the very few to survive the Phylloxera scourge at the end of the 19th century, thanks to their pure sand soils. Today they struggle fend of the ever encroaching threat of hotels and vacation homes that pervade the region. The region is home to a mere 6 producers of wine, and a total of 40 acres of vineyards.

portugal_rarities-21.jpg1990 Caves São João “Frei Joaão” Branco White Blend, Bairrada
Medium to dark yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of parchment, wet leaves, dried lemon peel, and wet stones. In the mouth, wonderful mineral qualities, lemon peel, and wet leaves mix with a hint of dried flowers and herbs. Lightly tannic quality lingers in the finish. Score: around9.

Even today, 40-50% of the wine made in Portugal is made by cooperatives such as São João, which has been making wine in Barraida since the middle of the century. According to Martins, “Between 1954 and 1965 there were no fewer than 100 cooperatives founded in Portugal. In some areas such as the Douro, Alentejo, and Barraida, they were the only producers for decades apart from one or two pioneering individual wineries.

São João were grape and wine brokers for decades, before settling into their role as one of Portugals bigger producers of table wine. According to Martins this wine was likely to have been made by another producer or coop and then bottled under the São João label. It is a blend of the grapes Bical, Maria Gomes, Rabo de Ovelha, and Sercial.

“When it was released,” said Martins, “this wine was nothing special. It was made quite normally and was one of the most common wines to buy in Portugal.” Martins went on to note “I believe Barraida wines to be the longest lived [table] wines in Portugal, thanks to their high level of acidity. They are not too far from the Atlantic, and are never too hot in summer, and their grape varieties have a high level of acidity as well as a rapid maturation.”

portugal_rarities-22.jpg2011 Sogrape Vinhos Casa Ferreirinha Quinta da Leda Red Blend, Douro Superior
Inky purple in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry and cassis, In the mouth, powerful flavors of blackberry, cassis, and black cherry mix with rich leathery tannins and fantastic acidity. Despite its very ripe aspect, the wine maintains its minerality with a deep stony earthy underbelly. A blend of 45% Touriga Franca, 40% Touriga Nacional, and 5% Tinta Roriz. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $80. click to buy.

The steep sided Douro river valley and its rocky schist terraces are divided into three primary sections, Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior, which progress upstream in that order from the lower elevations in the west to the higher elevations in the east where the Douro emerges from the mountains of Spain. Beyond their rough geographic situations and elevations, however, these different regions tend to be superseded by the individual circumstances of specific vineyards. Thanks to the sinuous meanders of the Douro, the region’s vineyards face every possible direction on the compass and are situated everywhere from the cooler tops of hills down to the warmer banks of the river.

This happens to be a classic example of the kind of wine for which region has recently become well-known, namely the powerful dry red blends made from the grapes traditionally used to make Port. Like the best whites of the region, the reds are usually made from field blends of many different grape varieties. In the case of this wine, that was a blend of 45% Touriga Franca, 40% Touriga Nacional, and 5% Tinta Roriz, which is perhaps better known by many consumers in its Spanish incarnation, Tempranillo.

portugal_rarities-23.jpg2012 Lavradores de Feitoria Quinta da Meruge Tinto Red Blend, Douro
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of brown sugar, dried flowers, and various dried fruits. In the mouth, powdery tannins wrap around a core of earthy cherry and blackberry flavors that lean towards the dried end of the spectrum. Fantastic acidity and minerality despite very ripe flavors of fruit. Quite unusual in many respects, not the least of which is how light on its feet the wine is for a Douro red. A blend of 80% Tinta Roriz and 20% other old vines. From a north-facing, cooler vineyard, and given a very short skin contact. Score: around 9.

Anyone even slightly familiar with the wines of the Douro would easily bet good money against this wine being from the region solely based on its color in the glass. That would have been confirmed by a taste of this wine, which Martins affectionally referred to as “the Burgundy side of the Douro.” This unusual interpretation of the region’s terroir has seen significant commercial success in Portugal, and represents a new genre of wines from the region.

portugal_rarities-24.jpg2011 Valle Pradinhos “Grande Reserva” Red Blend, Tras-os-Montes, Portugal
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis, new oak, and mulberries. In the mouth, new oak flavors tend to dominate the cassis and black cherry fruit. Good tannins and acidity, but unfortunately too much oak at this point. A blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Touriga Nacional. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $50 click to buy.

There isn’t anything particularly unusual about this wine, other than its source of origin, a region in Portugal that typically gets little attention. Tras-os-Montes lies in the far northeast of the country, and thanks to a series of mountains, remains one of the few areas of Portugal that lacks a coastal climate. Cut off from the moderating influence of the Atlantic, this higher-altitude region is known for very hot summers and very chilly winters. Combined with very poor granitic and schistic soils, it proves an intriguing, if somewhat unexplored place to grow grapes.

portugal_rarities-12.jpg2011 Pedra Cancela Touriga Nacional, Dão
Inky purple in the glass, this wine smells of cassis, raisins, blackberry, and black cherry. In the mouth, flavors of raisins, leather, prunes, and blackberry pie are very ripe and somewhat dried out. Powdery tannins coat the mouth, and very good acidity keeps the wine quite drinkable despite the very mature flavors in the fruit. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.

“For a long time,” said Martins, “the Dao was the most famous region for red and white wine in Portugal. People, when they wanted a good wine, used to simply say, ‘give me a Dão.’ The region can reasonably boast of being the birthplace for Touriga Nacional, which is likely named after the town of Tourigo in the region.

The Dão, like Tras-os-Montes has a much more continental climate than many areas of Portugal, resulting in great diurnal shifts in temperature, and offering longer, maturation periods for grapes.

portugal_rarities-11.jpg2011 Quinta da Pellada Alfrocheiro, Dão
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of licorice, flowers, and cassis. In the mouth, gorgeous bright mulberry, anise, and grape flavors have a wonderful cedar, dill, and nutmeg flavor that lingers in the finish. Great acidity and wonderful length. Quite distinctive with a wonderful citrusy acidity that leans towards passionfruit in the end. Made from 100% Alfrocheiro. 810 bottles produced. Score: around 9. Cost: $ click to buy.

The grape Alfrochiero is likely native to the Dão region (though there are a few theories that place it farther to the south in Alentejo). Interestingly DNA testing suggests it seems to be related to Trousseau, and the fact that it goes by the name Tinta Francesa in the northern part of Portugal might lend credence to this possibility. Despite being a signature grape of the region, genetics also imply that it is a relatively newer grape in the country, potentially dating to as recently as the beginning of the 20th Century.

portugal_rarities-10.jpg2008 Quinta dos Roques “Garrafeira” Red Blend, Dão
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of cedar, juniper, and pine. In the mouth, gorgeous suede-like tannins wrap around a core of wet earth, black cherry, mulberry, and dried herbs. Wonderfully savory and deep earthiness. Outstanding. A blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Alfrocheiro, Tinto Cão, and Jaen. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

Quinta dos Roques is one of the older producers in the Dão with more than 100 years of winemaking history in the region. They farm about 100 acres of vineyards, mostly with schist-based soils 75% of which are planted with red grapes.

The Garrafiera designation for wine is a controlled term under Portuguese law, and roughly equates to the Italian Riserva. Wines that carry the Garrafiera designation must be aged for at least 30 months in barrel and then another 12 months in bottle before release.

portugal_rarities-9.jpg1985 Caves São Jão Porta dos Cavaleiros “Reserva Seleccionada” Red Blend, Dão
Medium garnet with bricking at the rim, this wine smells of leather, red apple skin, and a hint of manure. In the mouth powdery tannins dust the mouth as flavors of cherry and leather mix with cedar. Good acidity and length. A blend of Jaen, Alfrocheiro, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, and Baga. Score: around8.5.

Given Portugal’s long history as a wine producer, a few producers have the longevity and scale to develop significant libraries of older wines. The aforementioned Caves São João is an example of such a producer. At the time this wine was produced its production was likely close to 25,000 cases yearly. The winery now sells older vintages from their library at reasonable prices for anyone curious to taste a bit of the past.

portugal_rarities-8.jpg2010 Luis Pato “Vinha Pan” Baga, Barraida
Medium to dark ruby in color, this wine smells of cedar, dried cherry, and leather. In the mouth powerful, powdery tannins coat the mouth and enclose flavors of cherry, cedar, forest floor, and a creamy chocolate milk quality. Great length and acidity. 100% Baga grapes, with a vine age of around 20 years-old. Score: around9. Cost: $45 click to buy.

Luis Pato remains perhaps the best known producer in Barraida, and one of the better known winemakers in Portugal. He has done much to elevate the quality of wines in Barraida, both by example, and also through his tireless advocacy of Baga, the primary grape of the region.

Baga possesses a finicky reputation, not unlike Pinot Noir, thanks to its tendency to ripen later combined with its predilection to rot. The combination often results in nail biting harvests as vintners wait for ripeness under the threat of rain. When harvests are good, it can make excellent, if a bit tannic, wines, and when harvests are bad, it can sometimes be unsalvageable.

Pato has been making ageworthy Baga wines, including some from ancient, own-rooted parcels for decades. As a chemical engineer with an iconoclastic bent, he was at first known as something of a modernist, employing a destemmer and small French oak barrels. His wines, however, have a bit of a charming rusticity that would suggest to most a more traditional approach.

portugal_rarities-7.jpg2010 Caves Messias “Garrafeira” Baga, Barraida
Inky, opaque purple in the glass, this wine smells of creme de cassis and violets. In the mouth, powdery tannins caress a thick creamy melange of cassis, violets, and licorice flavors. Decent acidity but very think and rich. Too ripe for my taste. Score: between 8 and 8.5.

Messias, which has been in business since Messias Baptist founded it in 1926, has become a well known national producer, with properties in several of the country’s major wine regions, including Barraida, Dão, Vinho Verde, and the Douro, where it produces both table wines and Port. The company, however, makes its home in the Barraida, where this wine comes from.

This wine is the company’s flagship reserve bottling from the region and is made from 100% Baga.

portugal_rarities-6.jpgNV Villa Oeiras Carcavelos, Carcavelos
Light amber in the glass, this wine smells of bitter orange and roasted nuts. In the mouth, moderately sweet flavors of burnt honey, roasted nuts, and that wonderful vanilla quality of cream sherry that lingers for a long time in the finish. Quite distinctive and pleasurable. A blend of Arinto and Galego Dourado. Score: between9 and 9.5.

Carcavelos is better known for its beaches than for wine. In fact, so popular has this seaside area near Lisbon become, that development ha