When Maputo was still Lourenco Marques--before Mozambique became independent of Portugal in 1976--driving down to hot, humid LM was a weekend of escapism from the high veld, the southern African plateau. It may have been the Indian Ocean, but there was a Mediterranean atmosphere to LM that was missing in the more Anglo-Saxon cities of the hinterland. We'd stroll through shopping streets, bargain in the smelly, noisy market where live chickens, giant papayas and cheap sandals were traded with equal passion, and dine late, hours later than usual, on peri- peri prawns.

Indian Ocean prawns are giants by American standards. After their backs are split lengthwise, the prawns are marinated in the fiery, spicy peri-peri sauce and then grilled over charcoal. They would come by the dozen and be eaten with fingers, not forks-- this was no time for delicacy. There'd be plenty of crusty bread to mop up the sauce, a large salad tossed in the rancid olive oil beloved of the Portuguese, and another large bowl of warm water to rinse your hands occasionally, so they wouldn't slip on the wine glass.

For we also went down to LM to drink the Portuguese wines: the light, slightly crackling "vinhos verdes" at lunch; the fuller, smoother whites, or even a young red d?ao, with the prawns. And if we were eating peri-peri chicken or a meat dish, there were the bigger reds, the reservas and garrafeiras.

We knew Portugal's table wines were good, and the price was certainly right. But, in that climate, we knew little about ports, Portugal's prestigious export. For too long, it's been the opposite in most of the United States. Wine lovers read about vintage ports, but the table wines of Portugal have not had much publicity.

Now the Portuguese government is sending signals that it intends to change all that. The statistical message is clear: Portugal supplies only 7 percent of American imports, despite being the seventh largest producer in the world. And it would like to send more.

Good. For the oenological message is equally clear: the wines offer variety, as an alternative to other Europeans, and value.

The Portuguese trade office had the sound sense to send a well- qualified person to conduct tastings in Washington last month. That he is of Italian descent and is a restaurateur in Philadelphia is beside the point. Pasquale Iocca provided all the minutiae on native grapes, blends and labeling regulations. And he obviously drinks and enjoys the wines. More than 30 of the 120 wines on his list at La Terrasse are from Portugal, many of them garrafeiras and reservas from the '50s and '60s.

Portugal does have an appellation control system. The wines from 10 demarcated regions carry a seal indicating their authenticity. Confusingly, some of the most interesting on our market come from a non-demarcated area, the Ribatejo, or are blends. No matter. Most of them are so inexpensive that you can have fun doing your own research.

A short translation of wine terms may help. Branco means white; tinto means red. Colheita is the vintage year and vindima, the harvest. A reserva is a premium wine, one that has had some extra aging, and a garrafeira is usually the producer's top of the line, produced in the best years only.

With an eye on the American market, larger exporters are adapting the style of their white wines to suit our palate. The '79 Romeira, Caves Velhas, $3.50, is more fruity and livelier than earlier vintages. Some older whites have a pleasant enough dry, nutty finish to cope with fish dishes, the '73 Bucellas Garrafeira, Caves Velhas, $4.50, for one.

But on the whole, the real value lies in the reds. We can still buy the round '68 Romeira Garrafeira for $6, the fragrant '67 Colares, D.J. Silva, for $10, and the deep, powerful Garrafeiras of Carvalho, Ribeiro and Ferreira ('61 for $7, '70 for $6).