Portugal remains one of the more under-appreciated wine-producing countries on the planet in my opinion. Even as it has recently become the darling destination for permanent ex-pats, who have moved there fleeing everything from pandemics to politics. As a source for great (and great value) wines, from crisp whites to rich reds and everything in between, it still doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
Most wine drinkers’ experience with Portuguese wine doesn’t go much farther than Port, which I think is actually one of the least interesting products when it comes to Portuguese wine. Port is historically significant, age-worthy, blah, blah, blah, but I personally get a lot more excited about the country’s dry wines, made from the many indigenous grape varieties that grow in the many wine regions blanketing the country.
And by blanketing, I mean blanketing. One of Portugal’s defining characteristics and claims to fame when it comes to wine is the fact that literally every square inch of the country falls within one of its 13 major wine regions.
These regions play host to roughly 250 indigenous grape varieties and another 80 endemic grapes that have been cultivated in the country for centuries. Given its small size, that also lets Portugal claim the prize for the most indigenous grape varieties per square kilometer of any country in Europe.
Being so small, and representing 350 miles of Europe’s most western coastline, it’s easy to think of Portugal as primarily a country of coastal, maritime-influenced wines. That, however, is far from the truth and brings us to the topic of today’s post, the wine region known as Dão.
If there’s one thing you need to remember to keep the Dão wine region distinct in your mind, think mountains.
A hilly, elevated region of the country, surrounded on three sides (north, west, and east) by significant mountain ranges, Dão hosts almost 45,000 acres of vines on primarily decomposed granite and shist-based soils. That might sound like a lot of acres, but for a region the size of Dão, that’s only around 11% of the region’s land.
Most of the winegrowing takes place between 1200 and 1600 feet of elevation, but as in many places around the world, vineyard plantings continue to climb in elevation and have been planted in Dão up to 2500 feet above sea level.
With the mountains blocking any significant weather from the Pacific to the west, Dão possesses a largely continental climate, with hot, dry summers and cold, wet winters, averaging between 30 and 50 inches of rain annually. Its mountainous topography ensures a wide variety of microclimates, most of which have significant diurnal temperature ranges, even in the heat of summer.
The combination of topography, climate, and soils gives the region the ability to produce fresh, bright wines of many varieties, often with more elegance and finesse than the country’s warmest (and more famous) wine regions.
Birthplace of a Grape
Modern DNA analysis not only makes it possible to understand the parent-offspring relationships between wine grapes but also to get a sense of where they came from geographically speaking. In the case of Portugal’s most famous native grape, Touriga Nacional, all roads point to the Dão.
Touriga Nacional, of course, is the leading red grape used in Port wines, and the superstar of many of the region’s top red wines, especially from the Douro Valley. But it first sprung to life in the mountains of the Dão, where perhaps not coincidentally there is a small town with the name Tourigo.
In the earliest days of winemaking in Portugal (think pre-20th Century) the vast majority of red wine was made from Touriga Nacional, but as a perpetually low-yielding grape that has difficulty self-pollinating, it fell from favor to the point that only a couple of thousand acres remained by the 1980s.
Plantings of the grape grew rapidly starting in the 1990s up until the present day, with acreage now standing at around 26,000 nationally.
Touriga Nacional is the most frequently planted red grape in the region, along with Alfrocheiro, Tinta Roriz (aka Aragonez or Tempranillo), and Jaen (aka Mencia). The most common white varieties include Encruzado, Malvasia Fina, Bical, and Cerceal Branco (not to be confused with the Sercial variety from Madeira).
From these varieties, and many others, the producers in the region make sparkling wines, rosés, crisp whites, lightly colored reds, and richer meatier reds as well, though reds have long made up the majority of the region’s production.
A Region Emergent
The Dão wine region was established as a distinct bounded wine region in 1908, shortly after the first such region was established in 1906 for Port. But Dão didn’t become an official, modern DO (Denominação de Origem) until 1990.
So why did one of the country’s oldest wine regions take so long to be defined in more contemporary wine terms? Blame the dictator.
In the 1940s, in a sort of misguided attempt to boost the region’s wine quality, dictator António de Oliveira Salazar mandated that only cooperative wineries could make wine in the region. This resulted in there being, by default, only 10 wine producers in the region, each of which had rights to purchase grapes from the tens of thousands of small-time growers dotting the region. No other commercial winemaking was allowed.
During the nearly 40 years that these rules stayed in place, the lack of competition and the absence of incentives to improve quality had the unfortunately predictable result. Wine quality suffered dramatically, production dropped, grape prices plummeted, and many growers turned to other crops for their livelihoods.
In 1979, when Portugal joined the EU, rules like this were left by the wayside, and for the first time, small independent producers of quality could emerge and point the way for a region that, in effect, needed to re-invent itself.
And that’s precisely what Dão has been doing for the last 40 years. There are now more than 150 small producers making wine in the region, along with 5 remaining cooperatives. Tiny, individual, privately-owned vineyards constitute much of the region’s vineyard acreage, which makes for a challenging environment for anyone looking to make quality wine, even on a small scale.
Compared to many of the other wine regions in Portugal, Dão is off the radar, even for serious wine lovers. This is why, I suppose, they were recently in town and sponsoring a lunch for journalists and wine buyers, which I attended.
Here are the wines we tasted, a number of which were excellent.
2016 Quinto do Cerrado “Espumante” Sparkling Wine, Dão, Portugal
Pale peachy pink in the glass, with medium fine bubbles, this wine smells of berries and stone fruit with floral notes. In the mouth, a soft mousse delivers flavors of citrus peel, apricot, toasted bread, and a hint of salinity. Very drinkable. Technically a blanc-de-noirs with a blend of 40% Alfrochiero and 60% Touriga Nacional. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $15.
2021 Casa da Passarella ‘A Descoberta’ Rosado of Touriga Nacional, Dão, Portugal
Pale baby pink in the glass with purplish highlights, this wine smells of sour cherries and strawberries. In the mouth, cherry and blueberry notes have a nice crispness and tangy finish. Good acidity. A blend of Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz. Tangy and tart. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $10.
2020 Quinta de Cabriz “Reserva” Encruzado, Dão, Portugal
Palest greenish gold in color, nearly colorless, this wine smells of apple and lemon, with softer acidity. Lush and silky. But with some green herb notes. Spends about 3 months in oak. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $14.
2017 Tesouro da Se “Private Selection” White Blend, Dão, Portugal
Light yellow-gold in color, this wine smells of oak and dried herbs and spices with lemon cucumber. In the mouth, lemon cucumber and a hint of salinity mix with lemon and herbs. Interesting. A blend of Malvasia Fina, Encruzado, and Cerceal Branco. Spends 6-8 months in oak. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $14.
2020 Caminhos Cruzados “Reserva” Encruzado, Dão, Portugal
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stone and citrus pith, with similar flavors and hints of orange peel plus a touch of tannic grip. Decent acidity. Vert pretty flavors. Spends 12 months in oak. Score: around 9. Cost: $??
2020 Taboadella “Reserva” Jaen, Dão, Portugal
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dusty dried herbs, flowers, and dark fruits. In the mouth, super juicy blackberry and dried herbs mix with dried flowers and beautiful, powdery tannins. Wonderfully delicious and vibrant. Jaen is the Portuguese name for Mencia. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $30. click to buy.
2019 Quinta dos Carvalhais Touriga Nacional, Dão, Portugal
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and cassis. In the mouth, rich black cherry, black plum, and cassis flavors are shot through with espresso and the nutty notes of toasted oak. Excellent acidity, with just a touch of heat on the finish. A complex wine that has more to unfold over time. This estate is owned by Sogrape, the country’s largest producer of wine. It is one of the region’s largest, despite only having roughly 250 acres of vineyards. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. click to buy.
2020 Adega de Penalva “Indigina” Red Blend, Dão, Portugal
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dusty dried herbs, sawdust, and black cherry. In the mouth, fleecy tannins wrap around a core of dried herbs, licorice root, black cherry, and black tea. Slightly bitter notes in the finish. A blend of Touriga Nacional, Jaen, and Tinta Roriz. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $10. click to buy.
2019 Textura Wines “Encoberta” Red Blend, Dão, Portugal
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried herbs and a hint of bloody meat. In the mouth, grippy, muscular tannins wrap around a core of juicy blackberry and sour cherry mixed with dried herbs. Excellent acidity. A blend of 50% Alfrochiero, 20% Touriga Nacional, 20% Jaen, and 10% Tinta Roriz. 35% whole cluster. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.
2021 Borges Vinhos “Meia Encosta” Red Blend, Dão, Portugal
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry and black plum, with hints of dried flowers. In the mouth, vibrant acidity brings juicy plum and plum skin fruit flavors wrapped in a fleecy blanket of tannins. Hints of dried herbs and flowers linger in the finish. A blend of Touriga Nacional, Jaen, Alfrochiero, and Tinta Roriz. Outstanding. Score: around 9. Cost: $12. click to buy.
2016 Casa da Passarella “Villa Oliveira – Vinha das Pedras Altas” Red Blend, Serra da Estrela, Dão, Portugal
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of citrus oil, dried herbs, and spicy blackberry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, sour cherry, blackberry, and raspberry flavors are wrapped in fleecy tannins. A blend of Baga, Alfrochiero, Touriga Nacional, Alverlao, Tinta Pinela, Jaen, and Tinta Carvalia. Fermented in a mix of different vessels (steel, oak, and cement). Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $??