Portuguese white wine coming into its own

You no longer need a valid passport to enjoy the flavors of Portugal’s vineyards.

You no longer need a valid passport to enjoy the flavors of Portugal’s vineyards.

Other than Vinho Verde, Portugal’s white wines have been close to nonexistent in the Bay Area. But thanks to several brave importers, buyers and customers, that is no longer the case.

Grapes such as loureiro are not exactly displacing chardonnay, or even gruner veltliner, as the new “it” grape, but Portugal’s well-priced wines are getting noticed.

Famous for freshness, light-bodied, low in alcohol and often a little effervescent, Vinho Verde has been considered a quaffing wine, but today that is not always so. Using alvarinho (aka albarino), loureiro, treixadura and other even less known grapes, good producers are making aromatic, spry and attention-worthy wines.

The Douro, known for its port especially and also red table wines, grows too many white varieties to name, but malvasia fina and rabigato are among those used to make whites with a range of flavors.

Encruzado is the main white grape of the Dao region. In the past, the wines were often oxidized to create flavors and complexity akin to many traditionally made white wines from Rioja, Spain. Now, similar to the latter, fresher and fruitier wines are having their day.

Bical is the main white grape of Bairrada and it is used to make sparkling and still wines. Fernao pires, a fruitier grape, is on the rise here and arinto is also grown.

Other areas also make white wines, but the next hot spot is down south in Alentejo. Arinto, roupeiro and antao vaz are the major players here, though by no means the whole show. A warm region, the wines tend to be fruit-forward, albeit not to the same degree of New World whites.

For the money, here are my top five:

  • Anselmo Mendes Muros Antigos Escolha, 2011 (Vinho Verde, Portugal): Piquant and fruity with tangerine and white peaches, and invigorating acidity, this is a great example of loureiro and a perfect springtime white. Suggested retail: $13.50
  • Quinta de la Rosa Douro White Wine, 2011 (Douro, Portugal): Primarily codega and ribeiro, this is a medium-bodied, fragrant wine with floral and guava aromas followed up by juicy nectarine and grapefruit on the palate. Suggested retail: $15
  • Filipa Pato Vinho Branco, 2011 (Beiras, Portugal): The daughter of renowned Bairrada producer Luis Pato, Filipa is about to become a star in her own right. I loved her Vinho Branco when I tried it at a restaurant in Lisbon last year and was very excited to find that it was picked up by Winewise, an importer based in Oakland. Made from equal parts bical and arinto, it is a vibrant, mineral-driven wine with an array of citrus accents. Suggested retail: $16
  • Terras d’Alter, 2011 (Alentejo, Portugal): A blend of siria, arinto and viognier, this is a clean, crisp and fresh effort with a delicious blend of peach, banana and mandarin orange underscored by subtle minerality. Straight to the point, it delivers. Suggested retail: $10
  • Esporão Monte Velho, 2011 (Alentejo, Portugal): Full disclosure here, Esporão invited me to Portugal last spring with several other wine writers. That said, I was especially impressed with this budget blend of ancao vaz, roupeiro and perrum, which is slightly reminiscent of viognier with an orange blossom nose and kumquat-like fruit. Suggested retail: $13

Some of these wines can be found at 41st Avenue Liquors, Paul Marcus Wines and Solano Cellars.

Pamela S. Busch is a wine writer and educator who has owned several wine bars in San Francisco, including Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen.

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