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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.