Portugal has long been known for its wine culture, even if what
most of the world knows of Portuguese wines is actually a specialty
product: Port and Madeira. They are fortified wines, which means
that distilled grape juice has been added to the wine, either to
stop fermentation or as a preservative. At any rate, there is a lot
more alcohol at play here, and thus they're condemned to live in
the twilight world between wine and spirits.
Both Port and Madeira should be looked at as wine, as there are
so many variances depending on vintage, weather, climate and
terroir. Unfortunately, these are too often thrown into the pile of
distilled spirits, such as brandy, vodka, or whiskey, which have
more to do with the creative production, distilling and aging than
the process of growing its ingredients. Madeira and Port (and
Sherry for that mater) are kind of both.
Here in Vermonts, the distribution of Port and Madeira (and as
such any alcoholic beverage above 16% of alcohol by volume or 32
proof) lies in the hand of the state liquor stores, who do a great
job at keeping up a great variety of high-proof spirits, but (and
this could be by lack of demand) keep the display and availability
of Port, Madeira, and Sherry minimal.
By the way, the term 'proof' has a lot to do with gunpowder,
maybe that's why alcoholic beverages are federally controlled by an
agency for alcohol, tobacco and firearms. Back in the 18th century
in the UK, alcohol content was defined as the most dilute spirit
that would sustain combustion of gunpowder. To ensure rum was not
too watered down, gunpowder was doused in it and then tested if it
would still ignite. If not, it contained too much water; if it did,
it had to have at least about 57% alcohol by volume, which lead to
the definition of 100º proof. In the US today we measure the
alcohol proof as twice the alcohol by volume and call it 100 proof
(without the º).
Back to Portugal, which offers a lot more to the wine world than
fortified wines. In these hot summer days, one of the most
refreshing and popular wines is Vinho Verde, a slightly fizzy wine
from the Minho region in the coolest and wettest northwestern
corner of the country. Vinho Verde literally means 'green wine',
not as in the color but in youth. Light, highly acidic, low in
alcohol (mostly around 8%) and refreshingly effervescent, it is
usually made from the Loureiro grape, or in some instances of
Albariño. Well-chilled, it is the perfect summer wine.
The most important red grapes of Portugal are Touriga Nacional,
Touriga Franca, and Tinta Roriz, also called Aragonez in some parts
of the country and known to the rest of the world as Tempranillo.
The best-known region for non-fortified wines is Douro (also a
major cork-growing region), which has made a name for itself as one
of the last bastions of quality wines at affordably low prices.
Other areas to look for are Beiras (including Bairrada and Dão) for
Touriga Nacional, and Alentejo for Aragonez (or Tempranillo) and
Trincadeira (aka Tinta Amarela).
While the names of the grapes seem confusing and not just easily
rolling off your tongue, the wines are well worth exploring.