Portuguese wines may not often be top of the shopping list for white wine enthusiasts but they are worth exploring. Thanks to Portugal’s isolated position its growers have resisted the temptation to rip up their native vines and replace them with international varieties with the result that Portuguese white wine offers an interesting and unusual experience for wine drinkers.
Portugal has a similar classification system for its wines as Spain and France and in fact the Portuguese classification system came first. The best wines have a DOC or Denominacao de Origem Controlada classification whilst the white wine styles which are still regulated but are not within a DOC region are classed as IPR or Indicacao de Proveniencia Regulamentada. Regional white wines which are not regulated and can therefore feature any combination of native and international grapes are labelled as Vinho Regional whilst table wines are called Vinho de Mesa.
Vinho Verde is the best known Portuguese white wine. It is produced in the Minho region in the north of Italy where grapes are grown by everyone from the major commercial producers to individual smallholders. The best Vinho Verde should be sharp and bone dry and may have a bit of a fizz. A variety of native white wine grapes may be used but the best two varieties are Alvarinho and Lourciro. Alvarinho tends to produce the biggest Vinhos Verdes with alcohol levels of around 12.5 per cent, substantially more than the more common 9.5 to 10 per cent. One of the best examples of Vinho Verde using this grape is produced under the Palacio da Brejoeira label. The Lourciro grape tends to produce a more aromatic version of this white wine.
Other white wine DOCs worth seeking out include Alentejo, Bairrada, Bucelas, Dao, Reguengos and Ribatejo. These regions are all producing fresh white wines and feature producers who are willing to move with the times and be open minded towards advances in techniques and technology and the demands of international tastes.
Another DOC to look out for is Setubal, source of the fortified Muscat white wine Moscatel de Setubal. There are a variety of wood-aged styles available – if you like fresh Muscat with apricot characteristics try a style which has been aged for five or six years whereas if you like your Muscat dark and complex with intense characteristics of raisins and caramel try a style which has been aged for 20 or 25 years. If you want to try the top of the range aim for a single vintage Moscatel de Setubal.
Recognising the various terms used on a Portuguese white wine label will help the consumer make an informed choice. Firstly, look to see if the wine is from a Denominacao de Origem Controlada region as this gives a good indication of the quality and the style of the wine. This doesn’t mean that wines with labels bearing an IPR or Vinho Regional classification will be bad but it does mean that the producers are less regulated.
Secondly, look for the name of the producer’s property. If Quinta is part of a white wine’s name it means it comes from a single estate, similar to the French Chateau. Terms such as Casa, Palacio and Solar may mean the wine comes from a single vineyard. The best wines will be estate bottled so look out for the terms Produzido e Engarrafado or Engarrafado na origem on the label.
The label should also give a description of the style of white wine in the bottle. Branco means white, although it is not unusual for the label to use the English term instead. Seco describes a dry wine whilst adamado and doce mean the wine is sweet. Aperitivo suggests the wine should be drunk as an aperitif whilst generoso describes an aperitif or dessert wine which is usually high in alcohol and sweet. Claro says the bottle contains a new or nouveau wine. Bruto is the same as the French brut, a term used to describe a dry sparkling white wine and espumante is used for a sparkling wine which can be made by any method. Licoroso is a fortified wine and maduro describes a wine which has been matured in a vat.
Some other useful terms which may appear on a Portuguese white wine label include Carvalho which means the wine was matured in oak casks. Casta means grape variety and Casta Predominante refers to the primary or dominant variety of grape in the wine. Grape varieties are often listed on Vinho Verde labels. Colheita means vintage and Reserva is used when the vintage year is of outstanding quality. Velho means old and can be used when a white wine is at least two years old.
Image from Wikipedia.