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Why Portugal should be recognized for more than its port

Of all the mainstream wine-producing countries, Portugal may be the last enigma to North American consumers. I suspect that few collectors – even those with plenty of vintage port in the cellar – could name five Portuguese grape varieties or regions without recourse to Google. ("Port" would be wrong on both counts, incidentally.)

Surrounded by Spain and the Atlantic Ocean, the country is a vine land locked in time. Dozens of key native varieties flourish, largely unthreatened by such familiar imperialists as cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, pinot noir and chardonnay. The big grapes in Portugal go by such names as alfrocheiro preto, arinto, baga, jaen, loureiro and trincadeira – not your typical beverage orders at Kelsey's.

That these grapes remain obscure to most of us can seem odd given Portugal's close trading relationship with Britain dating back to the Methuen Treaty of 1703. The country even topped export charts a few decades ago with a one-hit global wonder called Mateus. Aside from those exceptions, though, there has been the impediment of political isolation. Autocratic rule for much of the 20th century gave rise to large-scale co-operatives that stifled innovation and investment. The dark days effectively ended with entry into the European Economic Community in 1986, when the country saw a surge in quality, marketing initiatives and new plantings of familiar international grapes. They even grow a bit of chardonnay now.

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But there is still the question of style, which for the most part blissfully continues to run against the modern grain. Vinho verde (the lean, often lightly spritzy white, of which there's a rarely exported red version, too) and lusciously sweet port are the country's international trademarks. Less familiar is the vast array of still table wines imbued with equally distinctive local character. The reds usually deliver plenty of rich, plummy fruit thanks to reliable sunshine. Yet they often walk on the wild side, with a combination of bracing acidity, spice and earthiness that would jolt many a North American out of a cuddly shiraz coma. Some are also fierce with palate-parching tannins, the closest a drinker can come to eating peanut butter with a spoon.

Adega Deu La Deu Alvarinho Vinho Verde 2010 (Portugal)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95

Vinho verde is wine from the Minho region in the extreme northwest and alvarinho is the grape. Stronger and more flavourful than most vinho verdes, this light-medium-bodied white offers up ripe peach, citrus and mineral along with light bitterness. Imagine sucking on a peach pit. It would be grand with grilled or sautéed shrimp.

Cunha Martins Reserva 2008 (Portugal)

SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95

The central Dao region is known for touriga nacional, a main grape used for port and perhaps the country's most esteemed. The concentrated, tannic variety (think cabernet sauvignon) takes the lead in this blend, followed by tinta roriz, alfrocheiro preto and jaen. Those famously chalky Portuguese tannins exert their grip from the start, supporting flavours of forest berries, juniper, spice and mint. Enjoy this with a fatty, rare piece of beef.

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Porca de Murca Reserva Tinto 2008 (Portugal)

SCORE: 88 PRICE: $16.95

This is a blend of touriga nacional and the more aromatic touriga franca, dominant grapes in the Douro region, the origin of port and now fine dry reds such as this. Chunky, with opulent ripeness thanks to a hot 2008 growing season, it shows dense, juicy dark fruit on a backbone of diamondfine tannins. Try it with lamb chops.

Quinta do Infantado red 2009 (Portugal)

SCORE: 87 PRICE: $21.95

There's history in this bottle. Quinta do Infantado, a port specialist, continues to use pisadores (or "food treaders") to crush grapes and do so with this dry Douro red. The flavour is more cheap-andcheerful than the price would suggest. Cherry, herbs and mineral mingle with prune and bright acidity. Serve it with grilled sausages.

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Azul Portugal Vinho Regional Alentejano Reserva 2007 (Portugal)

SCORE: 85 PRICE: $15.95

Prunes and cherries topped with a dusting of herbs and spices – that's the flavour in this rustic-tasting, slightly leafy red blend of aragonez, trincadeira and alicante bouschet made by Vale de Joana in the south-central Alentejo region. Stewed red meats would make for a nice pairing.

Castello di Ama Chianti Classico 2007 (Italy)

SCORE: 94 PRICE: $33.95

An estate known for top-class Chianti, Castello di Ama delivers handsomely here. The flavour is almost meaty, with a char-grilled-beef quality, prune, tobacco and old wood notes framed by a salty tang. Cellar it for up to 10 more years or pair it now with rich red meats.

Malivoire Pinot Gris 2010 (Ontario)

SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95

Dry and floral yet with nuances of sweet peach and cherry juice, this fetching, medium-bodied white finds lift in lime-like acidity. Versatile at the table and especially great for pan-seared fish or grilled pork tenderloin.

Quails' Gate Dry Riesling (British Columbia)

SCORE: 89 PRICE: $16.99 in B.C.

Deftly chiselled, this light white delivers apple and lime flavours in a fresh, crisp-for-summer package. It is silky at first, then turns tart, with chalky stone on the finish. It would be splendid with light seafood dishes or as a mouth-watering aperitif.

Château Montet Rosé 2011 (France)

SCORE: 88 PRICE: $12.95

We see few rosés in this market, which is a shame. They're mainly quite dry and usually represent good value. This one's lightly coloured and refreshing in the manner of the Provençal style. Expect juicy strawberry, light pepper and a crisp finish. It is great on its own or with grilled shrimp.

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