Chances are you're constantly buying French, Italian, Spanish, and other wines from renowned regions around the world—but did you know you're missing out on some incredible wines made just a four-hour flight away from U.S soil? We Americans are shamefully unacquainted with the incredible wines of Portugal, and that's our loss. At best, most of us might have heard of the super-cheap, slightly fizzy Vinho Verde that’s produced in massive quantities at massively questionable levels of quality—thus branding the country's wines as perfect for swilling at giant gatherings where no one is paying attention. Most of us are woefully unaware of the unique grapes, hidden regions and talented small producers changing the face of the rustic Iberian country's wine industry. No more! Here are five reasons why Portuguese wines deserve a spot on your dinner table, on the regular.
1. Gateway Drug: Port
Unlike other up-and-coming wine regions, Portugal already has a heavy-hitter in its corner: Port. Nothing goes better with your sticky toffee pudding, and for many sweet-toothed Americans it’s a Portuguese love affair they didn’t even know they were having; the sweet stuff is ubiquitous on dessert wine lists from Albuquerque to Atlanta, but we don’t always associate the wine with its national provenance. Port gets its name not from “Portugal,” but from the port (ahem) town of Porto, where the Douro River meets the Atlantic; by Portuguese law, wines labeled port must be made in the Douro River Valley. We don’t recognize those laws in the U.S., however, meaning “port” can be any old fortified wine from any old place (though better wine programs will distinguish between the two). For an affordable and old-school take, look for Portuguese-owned Quinta do Infantado’s range of traditional ports – from Tawny to Ruby to vintage stuff that’ll knock your socks off.
2. Maverick Winemaker: Filipa Pato
If the Portuguese wine industry ever decides to nominate a spokesperson, they’ll need to look no further than the über-talented and downright kinetic Filipa Pato. The daughter of Luis Pato (himself a pillar of modern Portuguese winemaking), Filipa has followed in her father’s winemaker footsteps but marches to the beat of her own drum. As tends to be the trend in overlooked regions the world over, Portuguese producers like Filipa’s father have long relied on recognizable grapes like Merlot and Chardonnay to woo the Western palate; by contrast, Filipa is wildly enthusiastic about her country’s potential to produce world-class wines from its native grapes. In line with that mission, she’s the founder of Baga Friends, an adorably named association devoted to promoting the qualities of the native baga, a red grape that can rival nebbiolo in its structure and expression. She’s also just about one of the kindest, most curious and innovative folks in the game today. Try her “3B,” a killer sparkling rosé blend of baga and bical that retails for around $20 and drinks like a fresh, crisp morning. Or, go on a real adventure for around $25 with her “Post Quercus Branco”, an orange wine made in amphorae that are crafted from the clay soils in Bairrada, where her winery is located.
3. Sleeper Grape: Baga
Speaking of baga, you should try some. The dense, structured and earthy grape has gotten a bad rap in the past for being overly aggressive, but a new generation of talented producers (see above) are handling the grape’s power with finesse, elevating its expression and producing some of the most complex wines in Western Europe. Get your hands on an awesomely old-school entry-level bottle from Casa de Saima for around $10, or try Filipa Pato’s Post Quercus Tinto, a baga edition for a super-serious, contemplative take.
4. Disappearing Region: Colares
Turns out gentrification isn’t just for Brooklyn and the Bay Area. A few hours west of Lisbon, the Southern coastal region of Colares (along with its centuries-old vineyards, rare native grapes and totally unique vineyard practices) is currently being gobbled up by casinos and surfside cabana bars. As tourism takes an upswing in the economically challenged region, an aging population of vineyard owners are not only pressured to sell their vineyards to developers; many don’t have a choice in the matter, as traditionally cooperative farming associations vote with dwindling retirement funds in mind. It’s too bad, because this region has been a best-kept wine industry secret for mind-blowing bottles at bargain prices for a long time. Get your hands on a bottle of these fascinating wines before they’re gone forever: Adega Regionale de Colares makes a meditative Malvasia for around $20 as well as a Ramisco-based red with incredible depth and aging potential for $25.
5. Cinderella Story: Vinho Verde
While it’s true that Vinho Verde sort of ruined the fun for the rest of Portugal, a small group of boutique producers is making strides to bring quality back to the region, and the future is looking pretty promising. An emphasis on smaller yields, higher quality grapes, more natural vineyard practices and more focus in the cellar means some of the country’s most interesting white wines are starting to pop up around the northern region. Quinta da Raza is producing a traditionally fizzy tipple with just a bit more depth than its predecessors’ that still clocks in at only $10/bottle. Meanwhile, Quinta do Ameal is as a regional savior of sorts; their old vines, biodynamic practices and use of old oak barrels for some cuvees are proving a winning combination for incredibly deep, chenin blanc-like expressions of the native loureiro grape ($10-$30, depending on the bottle).
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