Tasting Wine: Portuguese wines 101

For years, I’ve waited for Portuguese table wines to make it big. While they have more of a presence in the market now, people still seem to be surprised to find out that Portugal makes something other than port.

Although it is a small country, Portugal has several distinct wine regions and many wine grapes. In addition to the indigenous grapes, the French grapes cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay in particular are planted, and sometimes blended with the Portuguese varietals. Even though Portuguese wines may not have made a big impression yet, I think they will at some point. There are fantastic winemakers, both natives and foreigners, who have invested money, time and energy here knowing that it will pay off.

If I can make a blanket statement about Portuguese wines, it is that many have had an overly rustic character in the past. When I say “overly rustic,” I mean a lack of fruit and a lot of volatile acidity and brettanomyces (a type of yeast used in winemaking). That has changed, though, as modern winemaking techniques such as refrigeration have become commonplace in this once poor country.

Portuguese winemakers have studied and trained abroad, picking up the habits employed elsewhere and seeing how newer techniques can improve the wines. The influx of foreigners, such as Lafite Rothchild, who owns Quinto do Carmo in Alentejo, has also had an influence onwinemaking.

While finding Portuguese table wines is not that easy, even the best wine shops have a limited selection. Here are three to seek out.

Altano Douro, 2005 (Douro, Portugal): This table wine from the Douro has been one of my secret finds for many years. It is made at Quinta do Sol, one of the Symington family’s numerous properties in the region. A blend of two port grapes, tinta Roriz, aka tempranillo, and touriga franca, it has a portlike ripe-fruit quality that is intertwined with pipe tobacco and a dusty earthiness. For the money, this wine provides great complexity and flavor. Suggested retail: $9.99

Herdade de Malhadinha Monte da Peceguina Tinto, 2004 (Alentejo, Portugal): Herdade de Malhadinha was started by the Soares family, who have been in the wine retail and distribution business for years and in 2003 came out with their first vintage of wines. A blend of touriga nacional, Aragones, aka tempranillo, Alicante bouchet and syrah, it combines the New World accent on the fruit yet with prominent terroir. Full-bodied with dense black fruits and chewy tannins, this is a great introduction to Portuguese wines. Suggested retail: $29.99

Quinta de Cabriz Reserva, 2004 (Dao, Portugal): Dao Sul, a company that has, in less than 18 years, turned into one of the largest in the area, owns Quinta de Cabriz. Made from the local grape alfrocheiro and the Douro’s touriga nacional and tinta Roriz, this wine has cola, a little spice and plum, and black cherry fruit with a rich mouth feel. Suggested retail: $16.99

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