One thing is certain: it’s more than just port and vinho verde. But although most of us drink a glass (or two) with our dinner and know which local restaurants offer the nicest vinho de mesa with their prato do dia, how much do we really know about this country’s fermented grape juice? From the weird process of estufagem to the average price per litre of exported bottles, Enjoy the Algarve explores the world of Portuguese wine.
Intro picture by Gianni Crestani
Mankind got the idea to ferment grape juice and drink the result a long, long time ago. Before Portugal was even founded, the Tartessians were thought to be the first to make wine on the Iberian Peninsula, back in 2000BC. Climate, soil and location were good for growing grapes and when the Tartessians left, their trade was taken over by the Phoenicians (around 900BC), the Greeks (600BC) and the Celts (500BC), all who introduced new grape varieties. The Romans modernised the vinification process and when Portugal was founded in 1128, wine became the country’s most exported product.
Heat it up in a wine sauna
To many foreigners, Portugal is synonym for port, which is probably the reason they all visit Porto. (Lisbon is a must-visit destination to take pictures of pretty trams on insanely steep streets and the Algarve is just there to lie on a beach and chill). Those that have looked into Portuguese wines a bit more, will also know of vinho verde, the slightly sparkling young ‘green wine’ that’s extremely cheap if you’re from the UK or USA and good value-for-money if you live in the rest of the world. (For more on vinho verde, check out page 14). There might even be some tourists who know that Setúbal is famous for its muscatel wine. But, surprise: there is more to Portuguese wine. A lot more. Did you know that the wine producing regions Douro Valley and Pica Island Region are protected by UNESCO as World Heritage sites, for example? Or that wine makers in Madeira heat up their fortified wine on purpose to transform its flavour? (Originally, this happened by itself on tropical sea journeys, now the estufagemprocess is mostly done by circulating hot water around the wine containers or by putting them in some sort of wine sauna).
When it comes to wine, Portugal is divided into 14 geographical regions, from Trás-os-Montes in the north to the Algarve in the south. Within these regions, you’ll find 31 DOCs (Denominação de Origem Controlada – actually, three of them overlap, making it more like 29, see side note in the original article). These areas have stronger restrictions on grape varieties and vine yields, and thus their wines indicate a better quality. In the wine region Algarve, for example, there are four of these Designations of Origin: Lagos, Portimão, Lagoa and Tavira. The divide into DOCs shows you the exact location of the wine and is done to protect superior wines from their inferior counterparts. However, there are many regional wines (vinho regional – where at least 85% of the grapes come from the specified region) and also plenty of table wines (vinho de mesa – basically wine that’s made somewhere in Portugal) that are great as well. All over the country, restaurants offer a prato do dia plus a quarter litre of vinho de mesafor about a tenner. Don’t be a snob, try it and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Wine is, of course, made from grapes (apart from orange wine, read more about this on page 5). It is thought there are over 250 indigenous varieties in Portugal, plus some imported ones that have adapted well to the country’s landscape and terroir. Wines of Portugal, however, recognises 33 grape varieties in their heritage section; 16 white and 17 red. From the Northern white Alvarinho which description almost resembles a fruit basket, ‘Its full-bodied, subtly fragrant white wines are easy to recognise, their complex but delicate aromas reminiscent of peach, lemon, passion fruit, lychee, orange zest, jasmine, orange blossom and lemon balm’, to the red Aragonês, which is known as Tempranillo on the Spanish side of the border and ‘can make rich, lively red wines that combine elegance and robustness, copious berry fruit and spicy flavour’.
Still, the absolute majority of the grapes varieties in this country aren’t 100% pure Portuguese. In the 1860s, European winegrowers were at their wits’ end. The reason? Phylloxera, a tiny insect that feeds on the roots and leaves of grapevines. When vines and other plants were transported from America to Europe, this parasite came over as well. It spreads through soil, wind, machinery and human contact, feeds on the sap of vine roots and eventually kills the plant. The only solution was to graft American phylloxera-resistant rootstocks onto the European vines – a process which, some say, has led to less quality wine all over the world. The aphid epidemic nearly destroyed wine production in France and also did massive damage in Portugal. Some Portuguese vines, however, escaped the destructive insect. This was the case with the Ramisco vines in the Colares region (just north of Lisbon), that are grown almost on the beach. The parasite can’t survive in the extremely sandy soils, thus leaving the Colares vines ones of the few ungrafted grape plants in the world.
Today, many Portuguese wines are made of a blend of different types of grapes. Whatever the variety or blend, these grapes are picked and crushed, their juice fermented, stored and packaged. Although exact methods vary and sugar and/or yeast can be added, this is basically winemaking 101. In the Douro Valley, there are tours which allow you to ‘fully experience a wine harvest’, from picking the grapes by hand to stomping them by foot. Local Portuguese grape harvesting traditions indeed include feet treading in old pressing bassins, called lagaradas, and although this is mostly considered a serious affair and left to the professionals, some vineyards allow tourists to get their feet dirty (or, rather, purple) as well. The reason for this foot-trotting? When grapes are crushed by machines, the seeds get crushed too, which affects the flavour of the wine. Depending on climate conditions, the harvest usually takes place in September.
Picture below by Alex Fragoso
Good quality, cheap price
Last year, in Portugal, about 6.7mhl (that’s 6.7 million hectolitres) of wine was produced. This sounds like a lot, but was only good for place 11 in the Wold Wine Production ranking. To put this number in perspective: Italy, the biggest wine producer in the world in 2015, made 48.9mhl. Number two and three are France (with 47.4mhl) and Spain (36.6mhl). Apart from producing wine and drinking it, the Portuguese also export it. Quite a lot. It’s estimated that about 45% of Portuguese wine finds its way across the borders. In recent years, the country has been in the top 10 wine exporters. In 2015, a total of 2.8mhl of Portuguese wine was exported, mainly to France, Angola and the UK.
The world has certainly taken notice of the quality and variety of the wines made in Portugal. In the 2016 Decanter World Wine Awards, 578 Portuguese wines were awarded. Also at the 2016 International Wine Challenge, Portugal was among the most awarded countries. Enotourism, ranging from wine tours and tastings to wine cruises and food pairing classes, is on the rise as well. In December 2015, a Portuguese wine boutique was opened in Paris. Portologia doesn’t only sell various ports, but also a selection of ‘normal’ reds, whites and rosés. Owner Julien dos Santos told Lusa News Agency: “Lately, there have been many French people visiting Douro and Porto, but when they return to France they can’t find wines with the same quality and variety.”
Another reason for the popularity of Portuguese wine: it isn’t very expensive, as can be seen in the data of the yearly edition of Wine by Numbers, World Trade. The average price per litre of wine (including port wine which is usually more expensive) that Portugal exported in 2015? A meagre € 2.63. Compare that with the average vinho export price per litre in Italy, €2.70, France, €5.83, and the USA, $ 3.63 (which equals about €3.43), and it’s even easier to understand why people would buy wine from Portugal. After all, why spend 25 euros on 6 or 8 yummy litres of wine if that same money could also get you 10 yummy litres of wine? It’s a no-brainer. Especially when you do as the Portuguese and have a glass with almost every meal.
Picture below by Liselot Sijm
Ali Baba’s wine cave
More often than not linked with food, wine is a fundamental part of Portugal’s culture. St Martin’s Day, or Dia de São Martinho as the 11th of November is called here, isn’t only a time to eat roasted chestnuts, but also to celebrate the maturation of the year’s wine production. Of course, most Portuguese villages will hold a party where one can sample the first wines of the season. Tasting is also possible at Essência do Vinho (‘essence of wine’), the largest wine event in the country with over 3.000 different vinhos from 350 producers. This exhibition in Porto, which is popular because of its yearly selection of the top 10 best Portuguese wines, also offers workshops, talks by experts and wine pairings. (Want to go? Dates for 2017 are 23 to 26 February).
At Tintos e Tintas (which translates as ‘red wine and paints’) in Lisbon, Portuguese winemakers are celebrated alongside Portuguese artists. Because, let’s be honest, producing a good wine is also a form of art. It must be one of the few galleries where walking around with a glass of Poeira in your hand while looking at the paintings is encouraged rather than frowned upon. Also in Aveiro, there’s a museum devoted to both wine and art. The Aliança Underground Museum, located in the wine cellars of the Aliança Company, includes ceramic tiles, terracotta figures, African ethnographic artefacts, Brazilian minerals and many examples of archaeology.
Here in the Algarve, there’s the Cave de Vinhos at the Vila Vita Parc hotel in Porches. Located eight metres below the surface, you won’t find any art or artefacts though; this Gothic-style wine cellar needs all its space to house the over 11,000 bottles. To ensure the right temperature and humidity level, the cellar’s walls are made of ancient bricks, imported from Egypt and Greece. Inside, you’ll find wines like the Château Mouton Rothschild 1er Cru Classé 1996 and also some broken bottles (result of the old Portuguese ritual to open wine bottles with hot tongs). It’s probably what his treasure cave would look like if Ali Baba was a wine lover. (Curious? Cave de Vinhos is open to the public).
Picture below of port barrels in Porto by Peter (psmithy)
Seco or doce?
Although it isn’t a region most people would directly associate with wine, the southernmost part of mainland Portugal is currently home to over 35 wine producers. The Demarcated Region of the Algarve was created in 1980. With a planted vine area of only about 1800 hectares, it doesn’t produce a lot of wine in national context. However, numbers are on the rise, as is the quality. Since 2014, the Algarve has its own wine route, Rota dos Vinhos, which links various wineries and vineyards. Lagoa has been named Wine City of 2016 by the Association of Portuguese Wine Municipalities (AMPV). According to data from the Local Wine Institute (IVV), the Algarve produced a total of 1,063,500 litres in the 2014/2015 season, whereas the forecast for the 2015/2016 season is 1,363,000 litres. The majority of the wine produced in the Algarve is red. Contrary to other Portuguese wine regions, only 10% of the Algarve wine is intended for export, leaving all the more for us to enjoy.
Want to know more about the wines of the Algarve? The Algarve wine guide (link in side note on the right in the original article) from 2014 gives you a list of wine producers and their beverages, with comments from head sommelier and wine-lover Hermínio Fernandes Rebelo. Enjoy the Algarve, however, would recommend trying them for yourself as well. Oh, and know what you’re drinking: whether a wine is branco (white) or tinto (red) is easy to see, but if it’s seco (dry) or doce (sweet) would be good to know before you order an entire bottle. More Portuguese wine terms: casta is the grape variety, espumantemeans sparkling, and colceita gives you the vintage year. A wine that’s labelled as garrafeira indicates that it’s aged in oak barrels: at least two years in a barrel and one year in a bottle if it’s a red and not less than six months in a barrel and another half a year in a bottle if it’s a white. Last, but certainly not least: wine tasting is usually done in an adega (winery) or a quinta (vineyard). (We’ve selected some at page 6).
Bought a few Portuguese bottles, invited some friends over who consider themselves a bit of a wine-connoisseur and don’t want to look like a plonker? Don’t worry. Contrary to old traditions, nowadays almost anything goes wine-wise. Serving a red straight from the fridge? If it’s Algarvian summer and 35˚C, why not? Having a rosé with your freshly grilled dorade? Go for it. Pouring wine at the table? Forget the old ‘following the sun’ (moving the bottle around the table clockwise) and just fill whoever’s glass is empty. There aren’t many rules. Whatever you do, just don’t drink port with your main meal. With strong cheeses, definitely. Alongside apple crumble, yes. Combined with chocolate and strawberries, certainly. Main meal, no. Got that? Then you’re sorted! Saúde and enjoy!
Ps. And never, ever say that Portugal is only about port and vinho verde. (It’d be a bit like claiming all the Spanish have ever made is sangria. Not very clever).
Picture below by Svetlanatravel