Wine is part of the history of Portugal, its culture has always been present, throughout the centuries, it has been and it is part of everyone’s life, accompanied us during discoveries and emigration, in life celebrations, is throughout the territory, with different characteristics and qualities, constituting an integral part of Portuguese gastronomy.
The production of wine in Portugal has always played an important role in the socio-economic context, as we will see.
History of Wine in Portugal
The best definition of wine is the “fruit of the vine and the work of man” but other expressions such as “gift from the gods”, “blood of Christ”, “essence of life” reflect well our relationship with wine.
Its culture was introduced in this region by the Phoenicians in the 10th century BCE. The Greeks arrived in the Iberian Peninsula in the 7th century BC and developed viticulture, and in particular the art of making wine. But it was the Romans who has intensified its production, wanting to export it to the rest of the Empire. With the Romanization of the Iberian Peninsula, and the need to produce more, because demand was higher. The cultivation of vineyards had a great development, with new cultivation techniques, with emphasis on the introduction of pruning, and new varieties of vines.
Later on the 6th and 7th centuries AD with the great expansion of Christianity, wine is indispensable for the act of communion in the celebration of the Mass, it is designated as a genuine and uncorrupted product. Others also adopted it, considering it a drink worthy of civilized peoples.
From the 8th to 12th centuries, with the Arab occupation of the Iberian Peninsula and these being opposed to the consumption of wine as it’s prohibited by the Koran, it would be expected his regression, however, the Emir of Córdoba was tolerant enough and it was possible to continue producing and exporting of wine.
With the discoveries, the Portuguese took wine everywhere, and on their trips, they experimented with wines, crossing Ecuador and the tropics, found that with these trips subject to high temperatures and balanced in boats after 6 months, aging improved the quality of the wine. These wines were known as “roda” or “make it travel” wines.
Much of the personality of Portuguese wines comes from the fact that there are hundreds of grape varieties, most of which (250) are indigenous, eg alvarocheiro alfrocheiro and touriga nacional, are of Portuguese origin, which originate wines with a great personality.
I must also mention that in recent times, Portuguese wines have been the subject of great evolution, following some factors such as Portugal entering the European Union, strong investments in the sector, the emergence of new technicians trained at our Universities, planting of new varieties, the choice of the best land for this purpose, and better attention to the needs of national and international markets.
Wine regions in Portugal
Located in southern Europe, Portugal has a surface area of 92,000 km2 and is intended for culture 200,000 hectares of wine. It is the 4th wine producer in Europe with 9% of European production, only behind Spain (30%), France (25%), and Italy (19%).
The entire territory of Portugal is located within a latitude of 30º and 50º, which is the region of the world with the best conditions, and most suitable for the growth and development of Vitis vinifera, the grape that produces wine.
The production is extremely important for each region, and each of the wine regions in Portugal has different characteristics. There are currently 14 wine regions in Portugal, which occupy almost the whole territory! They are:
- Verde Wines (especially in the Entre Douro e Minho region);
- Távora-Varosa (in Cistercian lands, between Douro and Dão);
- Dão (Lafões, Viseu);
- Bairrada (Beira Atlântica);
- Beira Interior;
- Lisbon (Colares, Carcavelos, Bucelas, Arruda, Alenquer, Torres Vedras);
- Tejo (especially in Ribatejo);
- Setúbal Peninsula (Palmela and Setúbal);
- Alentejo (the most extensive wine region);
- Algarve (Lagos, Portimão, Tavira);
- Azores (Graciosa, Biscuits in Terceira, and Pico);
When visiting Portugal, we visit the monuments, the museums, the landscapes, we enjoy the gastronomy, and we should also try the wines that exist in diversity and quality throughout the territory.
The Alto Douro wine region has been demarcated since 1756 by the decision of the Marquis of Pombal, in the reign of King D. José I, it is one of the oldest in the world and it is now part of UNESCO’s universal heritage. The landscape of the vine culture of Ilha do Pico (Verdelho) also integrates the universal heritage of Unesco.
The wines of the Portuguese wine Regions
In Portugal, the wine can be white, red, rosé, maduro (mature), verde (green), sparkling, muscat, port, Madeira, Verdelho… This is the world that those who visit us should dive into. But to understand the wines is also necessary to understand the wine regions, as each region produces very typical and unique wines.
There are Verde (green) and Maduro (mature) wines, the green ones are confined in the region between the Douro and Minho rivers. The mature spans the rest of the country, including the Azores and Madeira.
You can drink a white or red-green, as well as a mature white or red, which are produced from white or red grapes. The sparkling wine (can also be made with green or mature wine, white or red grapes) is a wine intended for celebrations and which replaces French wine from the Champagne region, is constantly evolving, and collects international awards frequently.
But let’s explore further the best and most important demarcated regions of Portugal and its most typical wines.
Let’s start with Vinho Verde (the green wine) as it’s unique in the world. It is only produced in this corner of Portugal (northwest), between the Douro and Minho rivers.
In this region, the dominant landscape color is green, the result of atmospheric conditions, in which rain is frequent and which gave its name to its wine.
Green wine is light and fresh, with a lower alcohol content than the others, and it has what is popularly called a “needle”, meaning acidity.
Whites are indicated for: salads, fish, seafood, white meat, snacks, sushi, and sashimi. Reds are served for heavier meals, eg. red meats.
There are two exceptional grape varieties of Vinho Verde: the Alvarinho that dominates in the municipalities of Monção and Melgaço is considered the be of the Vinho Verde. Though in the region of Ponte de Lima the Laureiro is also very good.
This is the second oldest demarcated region in the country, after the port wine region.
Also following the port wine it’s the second most exported, (USA and Germany,) with these already exceeding 50% of the total production.
It is a wine produced exclusively with grapes from the region of Alto Douro Wine Region, (Peso da Régua, Alijó, and S. João da Pesqueira, are the production centers), located about 100 km from Porto. It became known as Port Wine because since the 17th century it is exported to the whole world from this city.
After the grapes are harvested, fermentation is interrupted with the addition of wine spirit, making the wine sweet. With this process, the natural sugar of the grape does not turn entirely into alcohol. Still, Port wine is around 22% of alcohol.
This wine is served as an aperitif, and/or after meals, adding a touch of refinement and good taste to any meal.
The region where Port wine (Alto Douro) is produced is characterized by the landscape of the terraces, along the banks of the Douro River, the soil is granite and rich in shale, which leads the vines to take deep roots, sometimes reaching more than 20 meters deep. It is a region of great natural beauty, complemented by the work of Man who established vine plantations on the terraces of the Douro.
The color palette exhibited by the vines varies according to the season – the vine which can be: green, yellow, red, and finally leafless, inviting us to visit it several times throughout the year.
And other wines from the Douro wine region
As this region is very rich in the production of high-quality wines, and it is not feasible to produce only Port wine. For strategic and even economic reasons, the region produces other red, white, and rosé wines, considered to be among the best, and the international awards they earn, prove it.
The more arid slopes next to the Douro river are reserved for port wine, on the other hand, the cooler slopes, produce table wines.
The reds in this region are rich in flavor and aroma, velvety and pleasant to taste and age nobly. Whites are fine, light and fresh, pleasantly acidic and aromatic.
Madeira wine is a fortified wine, with high alcohol content, produced on the slopes of the island of Madeira.
It was introduced on the island, after its discovery and settlement. The varieties were brought from the island of Crete. The need to supply ships that passed to the New World and India, led to an increase in the production and recognition of this wine worldwide, being especially appreciated at banquets and exquisite tables of European courts. It was even used as a perfume in the scarves of the ladies of those cuts.
The “staging” method is used for its aging, taking advantage of the beneficial effect of heat to age the wine. It is even usual to place the barrels full of wine in a natural stage in the sun.
It is a wine used mostly as a digestive and/or aperitif and in celebrations.
In 1776 on the 4th of July, Thomas Jefferson and his peers celebrated the United States independence with a glass of Madeira wine.
Napoleon’s stop in Madeira on the way to the island of Santa Helena to take a vat of Madeira wine to make his exile smoother is also famous.
Verdelho dos Açores
Wine in the Azores is grown only on three islands: Graciosa, Terceira (only in the parish of Biscoitos), and Pico. It is thought that this cultivation was started in the 15th century by the Franciscan friars who, finding the climate similar to Sicily, started planting the Verdelho variety.
The expansion was rapid and abundant, the wine became famous and began to be exported to northern Europe and Russia. After the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, bottles of Verdelho were found in the cellars of the Tsars.
The quality of the white liqueur wine from Pico and Terceira is recognized, with a predominance of the varieties of Verdelho, plus Arinto and Terrantês.
The same grape varieties (plus Boal and Fernão Pires) produce white wines in Graciosa. They are light and fresh, dry, and very fruity which go well with cheese, light soup, nuts, and desserts.
The landscape of the culture of the vineyard on the island of Pico is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The vines planted on the lava floor, and surrounded by walls with loose stone, protecting the vineyard from sea winds, but letting in the sun necessary for its maturation. These locations are referred to as “Corrals” or “corrals”.
Dão Wine Region
Dão is an affluent river of the Mondego in which the culture of the vine grows in its slopes. This area has been a demarcated wine region since 1908.
It is located in Beira Alta, in the districts of Viseu, Guarda, and Coimbra between 400 and 700 meters of altitude, surrounded by mountains that protect it from the winds. It produces wines with a high aging capacity in the bottle.
These vines have a wide diversity of grape varieties, such as touriga nacional, alfrocheiro, jaen and tinta roriz, in the reds. They are typically full-bodied and aromatic. The whites are also very aromatic, fruity, and balanced, with the main varieties being encruzado, bical, cercial, and fine malvasia.
The characteristic gastronomy of this region includes roasted veal of Lafões, carqueja rice, spare ribs with chorizo and greens, Portuguese stew, roasted kid and the Viseu-style ranch are great to be accompanied with the Dão region wines.
Bairrada wine region
Located in Beira Litoral, between Águeda and Coimbra, close to the coast in a region of flatlands with two types of soil, sandy and clayey/muddy soils. Anadia is considered the capital of Bairrada.
There’s wine production since the 10th century, the dominant variety being the “baga” giving rise to white and red wines. The reds are full of color and rich in acids, but well balanced and of high longevity, while the whites are delicate and aromatic. In short, these are quality wines that typically reflect the Atlantic climate.
Bairrada is also famous for its sparkling wines, produced from the variety Maria Gomes, Arinto, and Bical, which accompany the famous roasted piglet of Bairrada.
In the reign of Queen D. Maria I (1734/1816), the wines of this region, acquired great projection and began to be exported to North America, France, England and especially to Brazil.
Alentejo Wine Region
It is the most extensive wine region in Portugal, comprising the districts of Portalegre, Évora, and Beja, located between the Tagus River and the Algarve. Alentejo is an extensive plain – only in the district of Portalegre, the vineyards extend along the slopes of S. Mamede mountains.
It is a very sunny area, which allows the perfect ripening of the grapes, and it reaches very high temperatures, making it necessary to irrigate the vineyards.
White wines are generally mild, slightly acidic, with aromas of tropical fruits. While the reds are full-bodied, rich in tannins (1), and with aromas of red wild fruits.
These wines accompany the dishes of Alentejo cuisine: game meat, açordas, lamb stew, and several soups: dogfish, bacon, tomatoes, and gazpacho.
Moscatel is a wine produced from grapes of the “muscat” variety, and these have the characteristic of being very sweet. The color of the grapes goes from white to almost black and it also produces sparkling wines.
It’s not specific to a wine region in Portugal, but the Moscatel Wine is mostly produced in the region of Setúbal, and Favaios (Alijó municipality) stands out.
Moscatel accompanies desserts very well, but it’s also served as an appetizer. It is important to note that Moscatel should be consumed at temperatures between 8º and 20º, or else it will become too sweet.
Moscatel has always been considered a wine for the end of the meal, accompanying coffee and desserts. When tasting soft and lush cheese, a Moscatel wine mixes the sweet flavors of the wine and the bitterness of the cheese. Be sure to try it.
Rosé wines aren’t particular to any Portugal wine region. They are produced in a variety of regions, but they have become so important that we need to mention them.
Rosé wines are obtained from red grapes, with light pressing and separated (wine and must) before gaining a stronger color.
The rosé has a beautiful pink color, generally delicate like the whites, but incorporate some personality of the reds. They are low on alcohol content, very aromatic, and have a sweet taste.
A rosé is served in a tulip glass and at a temperature between 6 and 10º and typically served with a cheese plate, or with any type of pasta, pizza, or even seafood.
Until a few years ago, there were not many rosés, but today almost all wine brands have their version of rosé wine. This strategy was aimed at the young and female population trying their adherence to wine consumption.
(1) Tannin: a complex and diversified natural chemical component, found in many plants. In the vine, it is present in the “stalk” (stem of the clusters), as well as in the bark and seeds. Tannin is a compound capable of interacting with the natural proteins of our saliva, changing its composition and texture, generating a sensation of astringency in the mouth. The more tannin, the greater the potential for wine aging. Other foods rich in tannins are black tea, nuts, and almonds, cinnamon cloves, pomegranate, grape, and quince. The tannin has no smell or taste, and we get a dry mouth feeling after tasting wine.
This article was written in collaboration with my father during the covid 19 pandemic, with the hope that when it ends we can enjoy the magnificent wines that this country has. Well, in reality, it was my father who wrote most of the content and we really appreciate the patience he had and the help he gave us. Without it, this article would not be possible, or it would not have the same quality information.
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