- Q & A
Probably no other country in the world is as associated with one type of wine as is Portugal. After all, the wine called Port is named after the entire country, although it comes from a small section in the northern part of Portugal called the Douro.
Port, which can be either red or white, is generally made from 5-10 different grapes grown on the steep slopes of the Douro Valley. The finest of the Port grapes is Touriga Nacional. It is usually blend with one or all of the following: Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Cão and Tinta Amarela, although a few producers make a Port completely from Touriga, usually a very concentrated and expensive wine. The varieties for white Port include Malvasia Dorada, Malvasia Fina, Gouveio and Rabigato.
Port grapes are partially fermented and then pure grape brandy is added, fortifying the wine. This stops the fermentation (the conversion of sugar to alcohol) and leaves the unfermented grape sugar in the finished wine. This may sound simple enough, but the quality of grape brandy and the timing of its addition are critical to the finished quality, assuming the quality of the grapes is good to begin with.
There are several styles of Port. Most of them with legal definitions like those of France and Italy. Vintage is the finest of the ports. By law it must be bottled within two years of harvest and is meant to be matured in the bottle. It always comes from best grapes in the best vineyards. Vintage Port is only 'declared' in the best years; usually there are three or four in ten.
The single-quinta vintage is made from the prized vineyard of the producer and is named after that vineyard. These vineyards usually produce the best grapes that the estate has to offer and usually produces exceptional wine, some rivaling the Vintage Ports, in practically every vintage.
Like Champagne, Port is normally a blended, non-vintage wine. Such names as Vintage Character, Ruby or Reserve will appear on the bottle. The quality of the wine is totally dependent on the producer. Most producers have their own "house style" which is generally consistent from year to year so one can depend on its quality. The wine is a blend of different years and different vineyards, which allows the producer to keep his style intact.
Aged tawny Ports are held in cask for an average of 10, 20 or 30 years before bottling and sale. Older tawnies have delicious nut and fig flavors and the best develop great elegance and complexity while retaining their freshness.
Colheita is an aged tawny from a single vintage, matured in cask for at least seven years - potentially the finest of the aged tawnies.
Late Bottled Vintage Port is matured for four to six years in cask then usually filtered to avoid sediment forming in the bottle. Unfiltered LBV, known as traditional, has much more flavor and like Vintage Port requires decanting.
Crusted: A blend of good ports from two or three vintages, bottled without filtration after three or four years in cask. 'Crusted' (or 'crusting') Port forms a deposit ('crust') in the bottle and should be decanted. Most of these ports are meant to be consumed when bottled except for the Vintage (which can last for decades), the LBV Traditional, Crusted and Single Quinta. These will benefit from additional bottle age.
White: Often drunk chilled or diluted with tonic water. Sweet or dry, quality is extremely variable.
The Douro also produces a few excellent dry table wines made from the traditional Port grapes. They can very from inexpensive, but value oriented wines to $100 classics, which rival the greatest, that any country can offer.
To the west of the Douro, on the coast of Portugal, houses its most intriguing white, Vinho Verde, "'green wine." This little prize should be consumed young (and, alas is best right out of the tank). It is best served chilled with oysters as its tangy freshness lifts any food it connects with. Vinho Verde is a region, a wine and a style of wine. 'Green' only in the sense of being young, Vinho Verde can be red or white, though if encountered in a restaurant, it usually refers to the white version.
To the south of the Douro is the Dão. This is where most of Portugal's red table wines are made, primarily from the Periquita grape, but increasingly with Cabernet Sauvignon and Tinta Roriz, known as Tempranillo in Spain.
With out a doubt, Portugal's most intriguing and exciting wine area is an island that is full 1,000 miles off its coast just west of Africa on the trade winds funnel to America. At one time this wine was the darling beverage of the Colonies (That's what they called the United States before 1776.) It is now hardly ever discussed, let alone consumed. This is primarily because of its being thought of as a cooking wine. While it is used quite effectively in this role, it seems to have lost its dominance as a favored aperitif.
Madeira is, without question, the longest-lived wine made on Earth. It offers myriad flavors from medium-dry to very sweet and everything in between. Many lovers of sherry and port are missing a wonderful experience that only Madeira could bring.
Madeira is one of the great mistakes of wine history. It was discovered by mistake, made by mistake and often mistaken for something else. It is named after an island discovered by a British navigator in the early 15th Century who was eloping with the daughter of a nobleman above his position. They settled on the island and lived their lives there. His crew sailed on and was captured by a Portuguese explorer. When told of this scenic island, he set sail for it at once. The island (barely 30 miles long and 18 miles wide) was so thickly wooded the explorer ordered it burned. The fires reportedly lasted seven years, depositing layers of ash to mingle with the already fertile soil. The Portuguese settled the island and named it after those woods, "Madeira."
Sugar cane and grapevines from Greece were planted and flourished. Sugar was the principle commodity, but Brazil soon captured the lion's share of the business in the middle 1500's because of that country's cheap land and labor. Wine became the only product left to sell.
As the New World was being colonized, ships would set sail to America and be steered southward to Madeira because of the prevailing tradewinds. It was logical to load up on the local wine, which was first used as ballast for the ship. The wines were coarse and rough when they left the island after being strengthened with brandy for the long voyage. After months at sea, in often very hot weather, the wines landed in America tasting better than when they left.
The producers reasoned that if one trip was good, two was better. So, they actually shipped the wines back and forth for years, keeping track of the age of the barrels and thus made what is regarded today as one of the richest and longest lived wines produced.
When the American Revolution took place, fewer ships were going back and forth, so less Madeira could be "made" on board. The Portuguese took to duplicating the experience in stoves called "estufas" and continued to supply the thirsty needs of the New World. Then, as suddenly as it began, it suddenly ended.
The combination of a leaf fungus called odium and the most devastating louse known to the wine world, phyloxera, practically ended all Madeira from being made again. By the late 1800's, all the vines had to be replaced (as they did all over Europe) with phyloxera-resistant American rootstocks. This pause in shipments of Madeira coupled with America's newfound interest in French wines practically left them without a market. In 1925 a trade organization was formed called the Madeira Wine Company. It was formed by the larger producers, Blandy's, Cossarsts, Miles, Leacock and Lomelina Lda to help foster the enjoyment of Madeira worldwide. Four independents exist and are also worth seeking out; Barbieto, H. M. Borges, Companha Vinicola de Madeira and Henriques & Henriques. All of these producers make exceptional wine.
Madeira's finest wines were made from four grape varieties. The one considered the best is made from the Malmsey grape. This is a luscious sweet wine whose aging potential is legendary. Even today, 200 year old Malmseys are available for sale and are one of wine's most pleasurable experiences.
Most often Madeira is made, like Sherry, for which it is most commonly confused, by the Solera system. Wines are cooked for up to a year in the estufas and aged in a pyramid of connected barrels for years. As the wine is drawn off the bottom barrels, it is replaced with new wine on top. The new wine gives the old its vigor; the old wines add complexity and the vanilla flavors from the oak.
Bottles simply labeled Malmsey are an average of two to three years old. Wines with older designations have a minimum age of whatever appears on the label, 5, 10 and 15 years are most common. Occasionally, in a particularly superb year, single vintages will be aged separately and released as a vintage Madeira. Unlike vintage Port, which by law must be bottled within 26 months after harvest, vintage Madeira can be aged in the bottle or barrel and retain the vintage designation. In most cases, however, the bottling date is given on the label.
Bual is the next driest designation. This grape has the weight and body of an olorosso sherry but also exhibits what the British call a characteristic "tang." It, too, can be aged for many years and can also be vintage dated.
Verdehlo is a medium dry offering that is lighter than Bual, but still authoritative in flavor. It is very seldom see today.
The tangiest and most unique is the Sercial. A grape that is supposed to be an offspring of Riesling, it shows some of the same properties of the others, but with more crispness and a unique mineral component. All varieties, no matter how sweet, finish with a clean sharpness that never seems to age out, even after over 100 years. . . a remarkable occurrence in the world of wine. A recent tasting of an 1895 Bual, considered one of the finest vintages of all time, lived up to its reputation and was easily an incredible wine for even the most annoying wine geek. If these wines are beyond yours, and most other's budget, the five, ten and 15-year-old Madeira's are superb experiences as well.
These four grapes sadly make up less than 10% of all the grapes now grown on the island of Madeira. Unless the label specifically names the grape, the wine is probably made from the Tinta Negra Mole, an inferior grape when compared to the others, but in the hands of a skilled winemaker using lower yield grapes, it can at times rival the fabulous four.