People often ask me to name my favorite wine countries. I like to surprise them by putting Portugal high on the list.
Portugal seems to be stuck in an unfortunate dichotomy in our mind’s eye: There’s cheap Mateus, the wine of unsophisticates — Saddam Hussein supposedly was a fan — and vintage port, the expensive postprandial tipple of the stodgy British aristocracy.
That’s as regrettable as it is incomplete.
I love Portugal because it offers tremendous value and variety, with wines that you won’t find anywhere else. And the Douro Valley, the region famous for those fortified ports and its stunningly beautiful landscape, leads the way.
Much of the country’s charm is in the sheer variety of its grapes, many of which are indigenous and not widely grown in other countries. Portugal has not succumbed to the lure of chardonnay and cabernet. It shares some grapes with Spain, of course. Albariño and godello appear here as alvarinho and gouveio. Tempranillo, the great red grape of Rioja and Ribera del Duero, plays a supporting role throughout Portugal under a variety of pseudonyms. Syrah makes a cameo appearance, though it hasn’t stolen the show.
If you enjoy keeping track of the grape varieties you’ve tasted, you can add extensively to your repertoire by exploring the wines of Portugal. The port grapes of touriga nacional, touriga franca, tinta roriz (Portugal’s main pseudonym for tempranillo) and tinta cao form the major red blends from the Douro. Farther south, trincadeira anchors the reds along with aragonez (another name for tempranillo), while fernao pires shines in aromatic whites. If you search, you can find touriga in Virginia or Australia, and others maybe in experimental vineyards, but most of these varieties are unique to Portugal.
The Douro is the world’s oldest wine region, having been officially demarcated in 1756 in an attempt to guarantee the authenticity of its wines. Those wines were almost exclusively port — fortified and sweet, in a variety of styles — until the 1990s, when a few wineries began using the same grapes to make dry table wines. Those wines have proved popular enough that more vineyards have been planted farther upriver in the Douro Superior, near the Spanish border. So the Douro is both an old wine region and a new one.
Stylistically, Douro’s table wines are similar to Spain’s famous reds from Rioja and Ribera del Duero; remember the tempranillo connection. Yet Douro reds have a complexity that seems to reach down into the schist that makes up the vineyard soils. They also have a leafy, somewhat woodsy character that speaks of the outdoors. They don’t conjure wood-paneled tasting rooms or barrel cellars as much as an autumn hike along a riverside trail.
The Douro also leads Portugal in value, and I might not have said that a few years ago, when the wines seemed to aim at the higher end of the price spectrum. There are a few priced under $10: Charamba is nationally available, while Lello is available more in the Washington area market. The excitement now starts around the $15 level and up, with wines that outperform for their price. Quinta do Crasto and Muxagat are two labels I highly recommend for their entire line of wines. Others, such as Niepoort and Quinta do Vale Meao, are harder to find but worth seeking out and splurging on.
Another reason to love these wines: They often have a smoky, earthy character that pairs well with grilled foods. And the time for grilling is nigh.