The Mountain Times

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Between wine and spirit, Portugal’s exports struggle with identity

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.

Tagged: Portugal, Wine, spirits