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Under-discovered Portuguese wines, then and now

Every time I try to write about Portuguese wines I get stuck writing about Port and Madeira. But there is a whole lot more to Portuguese wines. Aside from Mateus Rosé in the uniquely narrow-necked, flask-shaped bottle and Vinho Verde, the slightly effervescent, low-alcohol white so refreshing in the summer, there is a multitude of wines that never really became popular abroad and stays mostly in Portugal, known only to wine geeks or Portuguese expatriates.

Mateus is said to have been stockpiled in the vaults of Saddam Hussein's palaces. It was hugely popular in the 70's pop culture, mentioned in an Elton John song and featured on the cover of Graham Nash's album 'Wild Tales'.

By today's standards, it is a relatively forgettable wine, but nonetheless is a nicely refreshing, slightly frizzante, and medium sweet rosé that still has its fans.

Vinho Verde, the 'green wine', is a very fresh, young wine by nature and due to its natural acidity combined with fruity and floral aromas a great choice with salads and light foods. It is produced in the northwest corner of Portugal from grapes that don't reach enough sugar content to complete fermentation and make age-worthy wines.

But a map of Portugal is literally littered with wine growing regions and Portugal ranks among the top ten wine exporting nations ahead of the US, Argentina, Germany, South Africa or Chile. Minho is the region in the north for Vinho Verde. The non-fortified wines from the Douro Valley, long just a footnote to Ports, have in recent years become respected in the own right and are considered some of the best Portugal has to offer. While about two-thirds of Douro's production is Port wine, most of the rest is quality DOC wine made of the same red or white grape varieties as Port. Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, and Tinta Roriz are the main varietals, with some Cabernet and other international grapes grown that don't qualify for the DOC status, similar to other traditional European wine regions

Beiras is the large district south of Douro, stretching from the ocean to the Spanish border with two DOC regions to mention: Bairrada and Dão. Most wines from both regions are reds, with Dão mostly producing blends of Touriga Nacional and Bairrada has traditionally been based on the acidic Baga grape, with some of the international varieties now also allowed.

Up and coming is the Alentejo region in southeastern Portugal, where production is increasing faster than anywhere else in the country. DOC wines a mostly based on either Aragonez (known to the rest of the world as Tempranillo) and Trincadeira grapes, but plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah have been quite successful as well.

The most important grape variety is Touriga Nacional, the red grape considered the best in Portugal. It provides structure and body to wine with high tannins and concentrated flavors of black fruit. Touriga Franca (or Francesa) is lighter and more perfumed, adding finesse to its blends. Tinta Roriz, a.k.a. Aragonez, is the Portuguese name for Tempranillo, best known in Spanish wines. This very dark grape is known for full-bodied wines that greatly adapt to the environment or terroir of its vineyards.

Other grapes worth mentioning are Tinta Barroca (a hardy blending varietal), Tinto Cão (a low yield, dense grape), and Tinta Amarela, a.k.a. Trincadeira (a very dark grape, making full-bodied, rich wines).

Other useful terms for Portuguese wines are Branco (white), Tinto (red) and Vinho (wine). Colheita means the vintage year, Quinta is vineyard, and Casta means grape variety.

As most Portuguese wines still need to be discovered by the general wine drinking public, there are still pretty good deals to be found. Great wines to 'experiment' with in these budget conscious times.

Tagged: Portuguese wines, Wine Experiments