For the past quarter-century Portuguese wines have become increasingly important players on the world wine scene. Now, Portugal's day has finally dawned, and the sunrise is colored red.

Portugal began emerging from decades of insularity in 1974, when discontented army officers rose in revolution against colonialism and one-party politics. When democratic governance was established after a strife-torn decade, Portugal was admitted to the European Union in 1986. The EU then pushed through a revolution of its own in the production of Portuguese wine, principally by breaking up the country's co-operatives and providing massive funding for modernization. This process is far from complete, but its fruits can already be tasted.

Your next taste of Portuguese wine is likely to be different from your last one. Most Americans associate Portuguese wine with either fortified Ports, acidic Vinho Verdes or sweet roses like Mateus or Lancers. However, I'm convinced that the country's commercial future in fine wine lies in dry red table wines. This category provided stunning results in my recent tastings, with few failed wines and a host of delicious bottlings offering excellent value.

As I study these wines more intently in the future, I hope to offer profiles on the particular grapes and regions that are spearheading the Portuguese advance. For now, though, it seems best to get you started tasting for yourself, and toward that end I've provided brief reviews below for the best wines currently available in the area. To assist you in pairing the wines with food, I've arranged the wines by weight rather than region or grape variety. They are listed in order of preference within the categories, with approximate prices and D.C. wholesalers indicated in parentheses:

Heavy-Weight

Quinta do Cotto Douro Tinto 1997 ($19): Wicked stuff from the area where Port is made, with inky color, penetrating black fruit aromas, very intense flavor and a serious wallop of tannin. This is a delicious wine, but don't even think about trying it without food. (Country Vintner)

Quinta do Crasto Duoro Tinto 1997 ($16): A gritty, gutsy red that manages to balance its intense tannic structure with a sweet core of ripe fruit. (Constantine)

Duas Quintas (Ramos-Pinto) Duoro Tinto Reserva 1994 ($30): Wonderfully chewy, deeply flavored fruit recalling blackberries and black raspberries, with fine-grained tannin and a well-measured lashing of oak. (Forman)

Middle-Weight

Joao Portugal Ramos Alentejo Trincadeira 1998 ($14): An impossibly sensual wine, with expressive scents of ripe fruit intertwined with smoky, vanilla-scented oak. (Kysela)

Quinta do Carmo Alentejo 1995 ($26): An uneven wine over the longer term but, in this case, one that richly befits both its breed (50 percent owned by Bordeaux's Chateau Lafite) and its hefty price. Very polished and suave, with silky blackberry fruit and a subtle edge of classy French oak, excellent integration and a seamless flavor impression. (Forman)

Quinta dos Carvalhais Dao Touriga Nacional 1996 ($40): Lush and lovely but packed with subtle power, this shows very ripe blackberry fruit and loads of very polished, thoroughly ripe tannin. (Wine Source)

Sogrape Douro Reserva 1996 ($15): Big, meaty flavors and very generous texture, with black cherry and blackberry fruit providing very satisfying depth and richness. (Wine Source)

Duas Quintas Duoro Tinto 1996 ($9): Solid, chunky fruit with fine balance and intensity of flavor. (Forman)

Bantam-Weight

Romeira (Caves Velhas) Palmela Tinto 1997 ($11): Fresh red fruit notes with medium body, edged by fine-grained tannin and light touches of oak. Rendered in a very useful style akin to a Rioja Crianza. (Country Vintner)

Herdade de Santa Maria Alentejo Tinto 1994 ($10): A complex wine with good fruit augmented by complex notes of spice and smoke. (Dyonysos)

Grao Vasco Dao Tinto 1996 ($7.50): Simple but silky and very appealing, with straightforward red cherry fruit and lovely texture. (Wine Source)

Duque de Viseu Dao Tinto 1996 ($11.50): Charming stuff here, with a soft, lightly sweet core of plum fruit framed by fine-grained tannins. (Wine Source)

Periquita (Jose Maria da Fonseca) Terras do Sado 1996 ($10.50): Dried cherry fruit with complex secondary notes and prominent framing from wood. (Constantine)

Charamba (Quinta da Aveleda) Duoro Tinto 1995 ($5): It is almost impossible to find any character in a $5 bottle these days, but this shows nice ruby color and pleasant aromas with dried cherry fruit and a touch of earth. (Forman)