Guide to Wine from Portugal
The wines of Portugal are considered to be some of Europe’s best kept secrets. Nestled between Spain’s western coast and the Northern Atlantic Ocean, Portugal is the seventh largest wine producer in the world, exporting over half of its production. Traditionally associated with Port wines and the famous Mateus label, Portuguese wines are updating their image and stepping forward as competitors in the international wine market.
While traditional winemaking practices such as crushing grapes by foot, known as lagar crushing, are not extinct in Portugal, state-of-the-art vineyard and cellar practices are changing the way Portugal makes wine. Both traditional and modern styled wines are produced using unique indigenous varietals like Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz, forgoing the widespread planting of more international varietals such as Chardonnay and Merlot.
Portugal is a vibrant country with a long and proud history. The origins of Portuguese winemaking are unclear. The Phoenicians may have brought the first grapes to southern Portugal, but it has been established that the Romans had extensive vineyards there, too. After the fall of Rome, the Iberian Peninsula suffered many devastating invasions from both the north and the south, but somehow viticulture survived.
In the 15th century, Portugal vastly expanded by creating trading outposts—future colonies—in faraway places. The English, anxious to replace their loss of Bordeaux wines because of war with France, created Port wine in the Douro Valley in the early 18th century. Over the next two centuries, this fortified wine became known and imitated all over the world, eventually eclipsing all other wines from Portugal. With an abundant local wine consumption, the Portuguese continued to produce an unusually high volume of wine for such a small country. As they spread throughout the world, they took with them their native wines, which were quite different in taste from the modern wines we are now used to.
Portuguese wine styles changed dramatically about 21 years ago when Portugal (and Spain) entered the European Union and began a period of rapid economic expansion that brought it into the ranks of a modern industrialized nation. Such changes affected viticulture as modern winemaking techniques transformed production. Strict temperature control during fermentation allowed growers to produce “modern” wines that could be appreciated by all wine lovers. From typical wines made exclusively for the domestic market, the best wineries created new products adapted to the world markets, while keeping the unique characteristics of Portuguese varietals.