Portugal Wine Regions
Portuguese Wine Regions
(Click/Tap over map regions for details)
The Alentejo region covers about a third of Portugal, and winemakers in the remaining two-thirds can often be heard to complain about the popularity of Alentejo wines.
This huge, sun-drenched area, covering much of the southern half of Portugal, has in recent years become an important source of big, ripe, fruity, easy-drinking reds which often dominate the wine lists of Lisbon restaurants.
The Alentejo attained its first sub-regions in 1989. Portugal’s entry into the EU had brought long-overdue investment in vineyards and cellars. Modern technology - especially temperature control – have made it possible to make good, softer whites as well as rich reds. The Alentejo also has some wonderful old vines.
The Alentejo is vast and varied. Only five per cent of the land is planted with vines. One of the most exciting areas is right up in the north-east corner, around the city of Portalegre and over towards the Spanish border. This high mountain country has a much cooler climate than the rest of the Alentejo, and the potential to make more elegant wines. The central Alentejo, wide, rolling country around the towns of Évora, Borba, Reguengos and Estremoz, is hotter, and makes wines with a good balance of acidity. Even further south, in the bakingly-hot country around Beja, winemakers are producing some excellent wines. Soils vary hugely, from granite and schist to chalk.
Between towns, you can drive for miles without seeing a soul, through cork and olive groves, past sweet-scented lavender fields, golden wheat, maize, sunflowers, vines, and grazing livestock.
DOC Alentejo wines can be made only in certain small enclaves within the greater Vinho Regional Alentejo region. For the purpose of regulating grape-growing and wine-making in the varying microclimates and terrains, DOC Alentejo is divided into eight different sub-regions: Portalegre, Borba, Redondo, Vidigueira, Reguengos, Moura, Évora and Granja/Amareleja. All DOC wines are labelled DOC Alentejo, and sometimes qualified by the name of the sub-region as well.
An increasing number of regional wines are labelled ‘Vinho Regional Alentejano’, some of them made outside the DOC areas, some within, but outside the rules. A long list of grapes is permitted for Vinho Regional Alentejo, including many foreign varieties, such as Syrah, which is seriously gaining in importance.
The prettiest and most pleasant time to visit is April or May, when everything is still green and aromatic, before the heat and drought of the summer months. Less than five per cent of the Portuguese population lives in the Alentejo. Occasionally you catch sight of a whitewashed farmhouse atop a gentle hill, or ‘monte’. (You will meet the word ‘Monte’ on wine labels – it is used here to mean farmhouse or estate.) The Alentejo is famous for its beef, and for deliciously moist and flavoursome ham and pork from the black pigs that roam free in the cork forests, feeding on acorns.
Main red grapes (variable according to sub-region):
Aragonez, Trincadeira, Castelão, Alfrocheiro and Alicante Bouschet
Main white grapes (variable according to sub-region):
Arinto, Antão Vaz, Roupeiro, Fernão Pires, Perrum
Vinho Verde Region
Vinho Verde is the biggest wine producing region in Portugal, located up in the cool, rainy, verdant north west. The vines grow in fertile, granite soils along rivers that flow from the mountains of the east to burst out into the ocean between golden surfing beaches.
Across the vast expanse of north-west Portugal, a lush, green mantle flows from craggy mountain peaks and blanketing hinterland valleys sweeping down to the sea. From Melgaço to Vale de Cambra, and Esposende to the granite mountains at Basto by the border with Trás-os-Montes, the land rises and falls. Here and there, towns and villages nestle amongst the vegetation. This densely-populated, fertile land is the birthplace of Vinho Verde.
From this unique region and its native grapes comes a unique white wine. Light, fresh, young and delightfully aromatic, Vinho Verde suits all kinds of occasions: a sunny picnic, a restaurant meal, a romantic night in... Vinho Verde is great with salads, fish, seafood, vegetable dishes, citrus sauces and Asian foods. On the international market Vinho Verde is renowned for its white wines, however you can also try red Vinho Verde. Like the white, it is light and fresh, best served chilled, and a favourite with the locals in traditional restaurants. It’s a fantastic match for grilled sardines. Vinho Verde can also be rosé, or sparkling.
Climate varies considerably across the Vinho Verde region, and this is reflected in the nine subregions, named after rivers or towns: Monção and Melgaço, Lima, Cávado, Ave, Basto, Sousa, Baião, Paiva and Amarante. Local grapes vary, too. Alvarinho wines (made from the delicately aromatic, full-bodied Alvarinho grape) are a specialty of the sub-region Monção and Melgaço in the northern part of the Vinho Verde Region. Rainfall here is lower, and in the summer, temperatures are noticeably higher than in the rest of the region. In this microclimate, the Alvarinho grape gives a full-bodied dry wine with a complex, subtle, fresh aroma reminiscent of apricots, peaches and citrus fruits, and a distinctive mineral quality, with smoky qualities.
To the south of Monção and Melgaço are the sub-regions Lima, Cávado and Ave. Here the main grape variety is the delicious Loureiro, sometimes also the Pedernã (or Arinto) and Trajadura. The wines here are typically fresh and aromatic, often with a scent of citrus and blossom. The hilly sub-regions of Basto and Sousa generally also produce light wines, from various grape varieties. In the sub-regions Amarante and Baião, the Avesso grape gives dry, creamy, mineral white wines. Amarante and Paiva, the latter located south of the River Douro, have a reputation for their reds.
Past and Future
The quality of Vinho Verde, and the local brandies, has improved greatly over recent years, thanks in part to better training and renewed enthusiasm amongst today’s producers, and in part to better grapes. Where once vines scrambled up trees and over high-flung pergolas, many of the region’s vineyards today are trained along modern, wired rows, so that the grapes are better exposed to sunlight and breeze, and thus riper and healthier.
Some delicious wines are also made in the region under the more flexible rules of Vinho Regional Minho, sometimes blends of local and foreign grapes, sometimes oaked.
Main white grapes (varying according to sub-region):
Main red grapes (varying according to sub-region):
Alvarelhão, Amaral, Borraçal, Espadeiro, Padeiro, Pedral, Rabo de Anho and Vinhão.
In the remote north east of Portugal, cut off from the coast by a series of mountain ranges, Trás-os-Montes is wild, high country, its soils poor and unproductive, granite with here and there the odd patch of schist. The extreme continental climate brings long, hot summers followed by long, icy winters.
Whichever way you approach Trás-os-Montes, up in Portugal’s far north-eastern corner, there are mountains to cross. Indeed, Trás-os-Montes means ‘Beyond the Mountains’. And once through those barriers (easy nowadays on new, modern roads and motorways), you find yourself in one of Portugal’s most beautiful regions. The scenery changes rapidly, sometimes moorland, sometimes pine forest, lush green valleys, or ancient hills covered in a patchwork of grey-green olive groves, bright green vines, fruit and almond trees, irrigated by little streams. Always high, altitudes vary hugely, with higher land offering cooler temperatures for vines. The weather is cooler in the north, ragingly hot in the south in the summer months, but then snowy in winter, often with late spring frosts. Wines in hotter spots can be very gutsy. But there are also aromatic dry whites, and sparkling wines – a huge range of styles because microclimates (altitude, rainfall, temperature, soils etc) are so varied.
The whole of this north-east corner can make Vinho Regional Transmontano. There are also three enclaves of DOC Trás-os-Montes:
Planalto Mirandês - on a high, remote plateau over to the east where the Douro river flows down along the Spanish border before entering the Douro wine region to the south of Trás-os-Montes.
Valpaços - in the centre of the region, is a hilly plateau crossed by many streams and rivers, including the River Tua, on its way down to the Douro.
Chaves - bordering Spain to the north, the vineyards lying on the slopes of little valleys running towards the main river valley of the Tâmega, famous for its thermal springs, spas (some recently and grandly renovated) and the sources of some of Portugal’s most famous mineral waters.
These three sub-regions are entitled to tack their names onto the DOC, for example Trás-os-Montes-Valpaços.
Soils are mostly granite or schist. Only a few years ago there was a tiny handful of private producers bottling their own wine; now there are more than 50. Many smallholders still deliver their grapes to co-operatives. Some old vineyards were grubbed up in response to EU grants, but there has been support in recent years to replant and restructure vineyards in a modern, quality-conscious way.
Principle white grapes in this region include: Côdega de Larinho, Fernão Pires, Gouveio, Malvasia Fina, Rabigato, Síria and Viosinho.
Principle red grapes in this region include: Bastardo; Marufo; Tinta Roriz; Touriga Franca; Touriga Nacional and Trincadeira
Porto & Douro Region
Long famous as the source of port wine, the Douro is now also renowned for its fine, rich unfortified wines, both red and white.
Steep slopes shelve deep into the River Douro. Hills stretch off into the horizon, and narrow roads wind around the hillsides. Vine terraces bask in the sun, their soil pure schist and granite. This wild and beautiful part of northern Portugal offers extraordinarily good conditions for wine grapes, though life is not easy for Douro winegrowers. Roots force down between layers of rock seeking out the limited water, while the schist absorbs and then radiates heat. For centuries, Douro growers have been supplying an eager world with Port. Now wine experts the world over recognise that the Douro region also offers ideal conditions for making unfortified wines of the highest quality, both red and white. Producers here are crafting stunning and highly distinctive wines that rank amongst Portugal’s most intense and complex. There are separate DOCs for unfortified wine and for Port in the Douro, although geographically both lie within the same outer boundaries.
Grape Varieties: A plethora of different grape varieties are to be found in the Douro region. Some vineyards still have the traditional mix of varieties. There are winemakers who see this grape variety mix as the key to top quality. Others maintain that the best grapes for unfortified wines are three of the varieties grown nowadays in modern, single-variety vineyards for Port: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz; some also favour Sousão (or Vinhão) for the welcome acidity it brings.
Douro Scenery: The traditional vineyard scenery, dominated by the old, narrow, stone-walled terraces, has changed in many places, though preserved in the central section of
the region by World Heritage Site status. Elsewhere, modern terraces are now sculpted by bulldozers and mechanical diggers, and separated by earth rather than stone-walled banks, the wider rows providing room for tractors. On gentler slopes, modern vineyards are generally planted vertically, dispensing altogether with terracing. There are big changes in the wineries, too. The Douro Valley is probably the last of the world’s major wine regions still to be pressing significant quantities of its grapes by foot - in shallow, open wine-fermenters, called lagares. But recent years have seen, with excellent results, the widespread introduction of ‘robotic lagares’ designed to simulate the gentle action of the human foot.
Sub-regions: The Douro region is divided into three geographical sections, Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior. The western-most area, the Baixo Corgo, is the coolest of the three, influenced by the sea, its wines are a little lighter. The Cima Corgo, centred on the little town of Pinhão, is the heartland of the Douro, cut off by mountains from the maritime influence; it accounts at the moment for two-thirds of the Douro’s vines. To the east, towards the Spanish border, the Douro Superior is wild and isolated, subject to extremes of climate, very cold winters and roasting summers. Vine-growing here has historically been limited and sparse. However, there has been considerable planting in recent years, as producers have begun to comprehend the potential of this slumbering region. A measure of how difficult it is to colonise the rocky terrain of the Douro with vines is that a mere 17 per cent of legally potential vineyard land is planted with vines.
Port Wine: The base wine for Port is made and fortified in wineries in the Douro Valley, then transported to the Port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia, opposite Porto (or Oporto), at the mouth of the river, for ageing. Port comes in a variety of styles, from young, fruity white, tawny and ruby to the finest and most expensive, vintage Ports and aged tawnies. Vintage Port is made in the best years, and is bottled after only two years in barrel, keeping it rich and red. Vintage Port will benefit from ageing in bottle to add complexity. Single Quinta Vintage Ports come from individual estates. Colheita Ports also come from a single, stated year, but are aged for a minimum of seven years in barrel before bottling. Tawny Port that specifies a number of years on the label (10, 20, 30, 40) is paler in colour, more mellow, and subtle and complex from long ageing in barrel.
Main white grapes:
Viosinho, Malvasia Fina, Gouveio, Rabigato, Côdega, Donzelinho Branco, Esgana Cão and Folgazão
Main red grapes:
Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Aragonez), Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão, Sousão, Bastardo, Mourisco Tinto, Castelão, Rufete, Tinta Amarela (Trincadeira) and Tinta Francisca
This is a small, remote, mountainous region in the north of the VR Beiras, bordering on the Douro to the north, and the Dão region to the south.
Vines were first planted in what is now DOC Távora-Varosa by Cistercian monks, who built monasteries and churches amongst the vines. Hence the name of this new Vinho Regional (covering precisely the same area as the DOC): Terras de Cister (Cistercian Country).
Region and Climate
The region is to be found up and over the mountains to the south of the Douro, at the southern foot of the Serra da Nave, between the Paiva and Távora rivers. It’s a remote and beautiful place, barely skirted by the new road running south from Vila Real in the Douro to Viseu in the Dão. Countless smallholdings are cut into terraces clinging to steep hillsides, and most of the population makes a living from farming vines, maize, potatoes or apples, some also produce charcuterie, or bake – cakes, pies, biscuits and sweets.
Winters here are cold and wet, summers hot and dry, but this is high country, with vines at an average altitude of 550 metres above sea level on granite and schist soils. It is far harder to ripen grapes than in the nearby Douro and Dão regions. High and therefore cool at night, the grapes retain acidity and bright fruit.
Half the grapes in the older vineyards are Malvasia Fina, but for a century or more Távora-Varosa has also had significant plantings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (two of the major grapes of the Champagne region of France) and more are being planted.
This is perfect country for growing grapes for sparkling wines. Indeed, Távora-Varosa was the first region in Portugal to be demarcated for sparkling wines in 1989.
There are also fresh, upland reds and whites, however with the exception of the sparkling wines, most DOC Távora-Varosa is still sold locally.
Main white grapes:
Malvasia Fina, Chardonnay, Pinot Branco, Cerceal, Gouveio, Bical, Fernão Pires
Main red grapes:
Aragonez, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional
Surrounded on all sides by mountains, the Dão region is protected both from the direct influence of the continental climate and from the chill and rains from the ocean.
The really special thing about the wines of the Dão, whether red or white, is the delicious balance of all their constituent parts - acidity, alcohol, concentration of flavour – it all adds up to elegance.
The region might have been created with winemaking in mind – you couldn’t wish for better conditions.
Region and Climate
Surrounded by the mountain chains of Caramulo, Buçaco, Nave and Estrela, the Dão region is totally protected from cold winds, summer rain clouds from the Atlantic, and even continental storms. Within its mountain walls, Dão is full of contrasts: warmer in the west, cooler in the north and east, gently rolling hills, deep valleys, forests and mountain slopes; damp, cold winters; and summers that are generally sunny, warm and dry. Yet in late summer, the days become rapidly cooler, allowing for long, slow ripening and the development of complex flavours.
The vineyards lie high in the hills, at 400 to 500m, even sometimes as high as 800m, on decomposed schist or granite. Vineyards need to be carefully sited for best exposure to the sun to ensure perfect ripeness. This gives Dão wines an innate balance of lovely, bright, mineral acidity, wonderful fragrance, character and intensity.
Grapes and Styles
Once upon a time, many Dão wines lost much of their elegant, fruity character by excessive ageing in old barrels. With shorter ageing in today’s newer oak barrels, or even unoaked wines, the natural quality can shine through. Top red estate wines tend to be composed at least half of the star variety Touriga Nacional, and maybe blended with Alfrocheiro, Tinta Roriz or possibly a few other local varieties.
Not all Dão is red. The whites are improving (especially from the Encruzado grape), but only in the high vineyards around Tondela do whites outnumber reds. There are also excellent Dão rosés and sparkling wines.
Most vineyards have been in the same family for generations. More than 30,000 grape-growers, some with very tiny plots, produce about half the DOC grapes. Co-operatives are very important here, nowadays they employ modern technology.
But the revival in quality was led by individual producers, both large and small.
Main white grapes:
Encruzado, Bical, Cercial and Malvasia
Main red grapes:
Touriga Nacional, Alfrocheiro, Jaen, Aragonez and Rufete
In the western part of the Beiras, between the mountainous Dão region and the surf-washed Atlantic beaches, Bairrada has a mild, maritime climate with abundant rainfall.
Flat in the west, the region rises in the east into small hills, intensively farmed and sometimes wooded. This is the land of leitão, the delicious roast suckling pig, and also, traditionally, of firm red wines made from the Baga grape - red Bairrada used to contain a minimum 85% of Baga.
The traditional style of Bairrada still exists, sometimes labeled as ‘Bairrada Clássico’ – and it can be one of Portugal’s most exciting wines in the hands of a skilled grower and winemaker.
Fully ripe Baga can make wines that are densely structured, complex, blackberry-fruited and aromatic, with marked acidity and firm tannins, and great ageing potential. Other growers have turned to alternative red Portuguese grapes such as Touriga Nacional but also, sometimes, international varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, all within the region.
Generally speaking, Bairrada wines can age extremely well, sometimes for more than 10 years, giving rise to a fine bouquet of honey, smoke and spice.
Other wine styles
Bairrada also makes whites - from easy-quaffing flowery-aromatic examples to wines with mineral and citrus, that are often unoaked, and can be capable of ageing to creamy, intense complexity. Traditionally made principally from Arinto, Bical, Cercial and Maria-Gomes, Bairrada white blends may now also include Chardonnay or Sauvignon.
There are also a great many delicious bottle-fermented sparkling wines, from the traditional white trio plus sometimes Chardonnay, Baga, or muscatty-floral Maria Gomes. Some red sparkling wines can be found as well – particularly good with leitão!
Bairrada has a great heritage of traditional bottle-fermented sparkling wine production, a trend that is developing and increasing in the 21st century.
Main white grapes:
Arinto, Bical, Cercial, Sercialinho, Chardonnay, Fernão Pires (Maria Gomes) and Sauvignon Blanc
Main red grapes:
Baga, Touriga Nacional, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon
Beira Interior Region
These high, granite uplands over by the Spanish border include some of Portugal's highest and most impressive mountains.
Dramatic mountainous uplands dominate the border of this region. With Spain in the east, the area is strewn with granite boulders, and dotted with ancient villages and fortified towns.
The new Vinho Regional Terras da Beira stretches from the medieval town of Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo in the north to Castelo Branco in the south, from the wild eastern uplands by the Spanish border westward to the great barrier of the Serra da Estrela. The region encompasses the three enclaves of DOC Beira Interior: two up in the craggy north, around the towns of Pinhel and Castel Rodrigo, as well as Cova da Beira in the gentler countryside of the south, where grapes ripen more easily than in the vineyards on the mountain slopes.
New roads have drawn the outside world closer to the Beira Interior in recent years, but this is still a delightfully rural and unspoilt region. Wide vistas sweeping from moorland to forest, high crags to gentle valleys filled with fruit trees, and hillsides and wild mountains where sheep and goats graze. The countryside is strewn with granite boulders, dotted with ancient villages and fortified towns built of granite blocks.
The Serra da Estrela is mainland Portugal’s highest mountain range, a highly character-forming feature that gives the Beira Interior/Terras da Beira a more continental climate than the Dão region, westward across the mountains. It is hot and dry in summer, and very cold in winter with frequent snow.
The mountain slopes of the Beira Interior bear some of the highest vineyards in Portugal. This means cool nights that put a break on ripening, in spite of the heat. And the combination of altitude, granite soils and summer sun makes for big yet bright, freshly fruity wines.
Grapes and Wine Styles
Herby, floral reds, rich and sometimes firm, draw on top Portuguese grape varieties, and are sometimes complemented with international varieties such as Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The star local white grape is the Fonte Cal, an exclusive local treasure that can make rich, honeyed whites with steely acidity, good when young and can develop complexity with age. It may be blended with other Portuguese varieties, and/or with newcomers including Chardonnay and Riesling. There are good sparkling and rosé wines as well.
Quality is definitely on the up, both amongst individual producers and co-operatives. Old vines can make for concentrated flavour.
Main white grapes:
Síria, Arinto, Fonte Cal, Malvasia, Fernão Pires
Main red grapes:
Touriga Nacional, Aragonez, Alfrocheiro, Trincadeira,Touriga Franca, Rufete, Bastardo, Marufo
West and north of the city of Lisbon, the Lisboa wine region was until recently known as Estremadura. A lot of wine is made here, much of it in co-operatives, in a very wide variety of styles and qualities. This region where the "vinho regional" Lisboa is predominant also has nine DOC.
Sub-regions: It’s hardly surprising that the two historic DOC regions west of Lisbon have dwindled in recent decades. Land is at a high premium along the region’s southern coast - fast roads head into Lisbon from the fine sandy beaches, the posh towns of Cascais and Estoril, historic palaces, mansions and smart commuter houses. In the southern DOC of Carcavelos, long famous for its sweet wines, most vines have given way to buildings. DOC Colares is likewise little in evidence. The Colares region begins around the headland from Cascais, beyond the spectacular, golden surfing beach of Guincho, inland from Cabo da Roca, Europe’s westernmost headland. The vines of Colares were famously planted deep into the sand dunes and protected by windbreaks, produce the high-acid, tannic reds legendary for their keeping power. The main grape of Colares is the tannic Ramisco, scarcely found nowadays elsewhere in Portugal - even in Colares, only 10ha remain. White Colares is based on Malvasia grapes.
DOC Bucelas is the third of the small, historic wine regions close to Lisbon. Though only 25km north of Lisbon’s central Baixa district, it has survived and indeed grown in recent years, and justifiably so, as it produces some of Portugal’s finest white wines. Bucelas (white only, both still and sparkling) is crisp, dry and mineral, based largely on the Arinto grape. Whilst these wines can be enjoyed young, Bucelas can develop complexity and finesse with two or three years’ maturation.
Just north of Bucelas, still inland, lies the small region of Arruda. This is delightful, fairy-tale country: hills, an ancient ruined castle, old Roman roads, historic windmills (nowadays also modern wind turbines), and vineyards, growing mostly red grapes. Since 2002, DOC Arruda wines may include international grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay, as well as some classy grapes from elsewhere in Portugal, such as Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca. (The same goes for the other DOC regions in the central part of the Vinho Regional Lisboa area: Alenquer, Torres Vedras and Óbidos)
In this mild climate, grapes can ripen at leisure, and at best can produce very good, concentrated red wines and whites with good, fresh acidity.
North again from Arruda, still inland, in the countryside and around the town of Alenquer, DOC Alenquer is protected from the raw Atlantic winds by the chalky hills of the Serra de Montejunto. In this mild climate, grapes can ripen at leisure, and at best can produce very good, concentrated red wines and whites with good, fresh acidity. There are very highly motivated, quality-conscious producers in Alenquer, and some promising, innovative winemaking.
It’s cooler to the seaward side of the Serra de Montejunto, in DOC Torres Vedras, especially on the region’s western flank, where sea breezes are strongest. This is a source of light, dry white wines, including a low-alcohol white known as Vinho Leve. There are a few light, tangy red wines, too. Back inland, north of Alenquer, the DOC Óbidos area, with the beautiful, walled medieval town of Óbidos on its north-western flank, is quite cool, producing good, crisp whites (including Vinho Leve) and some of Portugal’s finest sparkling wines, as well as some reds which are at best light and elegant.
To the windswept west of Óbidos, Lourinhã is the DOC for brandy. The region’s north-eastern tip reaches out to the busy fishing port of Peniche and the Cabo Carvoeiro headland. Northwards beyond the cape, an ancient pine forest, the Pinhal de Leiria fringes the surfing beaches, curbing the spread of the dunes, taming the gusty ocean winds, and protecting the vineyards of Encostas de Aire, Vinho Regional Lisboa’s largest and northernmost DOC. This is hilly country, where pears, apples, peaches and figs vie for space with vineyards. The region surrounds the pretty, cobbled town of Leiria, the famous pilgrimage centre of Fátima, and the fabulous monasteries at Batalha and Alcobaça, both UNESCO World Heritage sites. Both white and red wines are light, fresh and low in alcohol.
Main white grapes:
Arinto, Fernão Pires, Malvasia, Seara-Nova and Vital
Main red grapes:
Alicante Bouschet, Aragonez, Castelão, Tinta Miúda, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional and Trincadeira
DOC Do Tejo occupies almost the same large area as VR Tejo, on either side of the River Tagus (Tejo in Portuguese) as it flows gently along in a south-westerly direction towards its estuary at Lisbon. Until recently the DOC was called Ribatejo and the "vinho regional Ribatejano".
Willowy, watery meadows, flat, green farmland cut through by a wide, stately river – these are the classic images of the Tejo region. And indeed the region encompasses much of the course of the River Tagus (Tejo in Portuguese) as it flows down from the centre of Portugal into its gaping estuary, by Lisbon. But away from the river, the Tejo region rises into drier, hillier country, clad in olive groves and orchards, as well as vines.
New vine plantings in the Tejo region have been concentrated in these higher, drier areas in recent years, as priorities have shifted from quantity to quality. The two upland areas are the Charneca and the Bairro. The Charneca lies to the south-east of the river, bordering on the Alentejo, and is hotter and drier than the rest of the Tejo region. Soils here are sandy, production per vine is low (a plus for quality) and grapes ripen easily and early. To the north and east of the river, the uplands are known as the Bairro, where plains alternate with hills and ultimately reach up into the foothills of the mountain ranges of the Serra de Aire and Serra dos Candeeiros, by the border with the Lisboa region. Soils in the Bairro are mainly clay and limestone, with a patch of schist up near the charming little mediaeval town of Tomar.
Some of the Tejo region’s vines still grow in the Leziria, the fertile, alluvial plains where water is never far below the surface and the climate is moderated by the river, in grey spate or flood in winter, mottled with sandbanks in summer. It takes great commitment to produce fine wines in these conditions: conscientious pruning, trimming of exuberant foliage and snipping off excess bunches before they have time to develop. Many grape-growers deliver their crops to co-operatives. Much of the produce is gentle, easy-drinking red, rosé and fruity, often aromatic white for everyday quaffing. Some grape farmers have switched to other crops - there’s a ready market for the melons, strawberries, tomatoes, cereals, rice, vegetables and fruit that also grows with great ease in the riverlands.
There’s pasture for livestock, too – studs of Lusitano horses, bull-rearing for bull-running and bull-fighting of the less terminal, Portuguese kind, and in the south by the estuary a wetland nature reserve.
At the region’s heart, the city of Santarém, once a strategic fortress town on a plateau beside the river, is now a lively agricultural centre. And you’ll be there in just an hour from Lisbon, glass in hand.
Peninsula de Setúbal Region
The Setúbal Peninsula lies across the estuary of the River Tagus directly south of Lisbon, and linked to Lisbon by two bridges.
The heartland of this seaside region is the Setúbal Peninsula, across the Tagus bridges from Lisbon. It’s a vibrant venue for Lisbon weekenders, and, since the opening of the latest, most spectacular bridge, home to ever more commuters. In summer, the magnets are the smart Atlantic surf beaches and golf courses of the west, as well as the sheltered southern coves beneath the wooded hills of the Arrábida Natural Park.
In amongst the Arrábida woods are hilly pastures for the sheep that produce the stunning Azeitão cheeses, and vineyards of Moscatel grapes destined for one of Portugal’s classic sweet wines, DOC Setúbal. The peninsula also has a star red grape, the Castelão, which dominates the fine red wines of Palmela, feeling far more at home here than in the rest of Portugal. The two DOCs are confined to the peninsula, but the VR Península de Setúbal extends around the marshlands of the Sado Estuary (a haven for wading birds and a source of salt and rice), 60 km down the Atlantic coast to the small town of Sines. The River Sado flows through the eastern side of the region, and strongly influences the ‘terroir’. VR Península de Setúbal can be made from a huge range of grapes, Portuguese and international, and wine styles vary hugely.
Vineyards and winemaking are a thriving business in these parts, despite growing pressure on land. Two of Portugal’s largest and most forward-looking wine companies have had a significant influence on development of wine quality and styles. There are also good wine co-operatives, and some smaller companies are making a name for themselves.
DOC Palmela has to contain at least 67 per cent Castelão, but it normally has more, supported by grapes including Aragonez, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Trincadeira. Outside the DOC Palmela and the Península de Setúbal, Castelão grapes can be very hard to ripen. But Castelão is particularly happy here in the peninsula’s warm, sandy soils, and can ripen to perfection, producing lovely, fresh, fruity wines with moderate alcohol and ripe tannins, evolving with age to a complex, cedary, cigar-box character rather reminiscent of fine, mature Cabernet. Alongside plentiful red Palmela, white Palmela is in shorter supply, but can be appealingly dry and fragrant when blends include scented Fernão Pires and Moscatel de Setúbal grapes.
Many of the best grapes come from the limestone Arrábida hills high over the peninsula’s southern coast. DOC Setúbal has to contain at least 67 per cent Moscatel de Setúbal (Muscat of Alexandria) grapes, or Moscatel Roxo (Red Muscat). Those that contain at least 85 per cent Moscatel are allowed to call themselves Moscatel de Setúbal, or Moscatel Roxo. Grapes for these sweet, fortified wines, whether red or white, are fermented with their skins and then grape brandy is added to stop the fermentation. The fragrant, flavourful skins are left to macerate in the wine for another few months, and then the wine is drained off to be aged for a minimum of eighteen months in oak. Sold at this stage, Setúbal is yellow, sweetly floral and citrus flavoured, Moscatel Roxo darker, and rose-scented. Only small quantities are further aged in wood to become, after 20 years, a dark nectar, with complex, intense aromas and flavours of nuts and dried fruits, citrus and honey, ranking amongst the world’s greatest fortified Muscats.
Main white grapes:
For Setúbal: Antão Vaz, Arinto, Fernão Pires, Malvasia Fina, Moscatel Galego Branco, Moscatel de Setúbal, Rabo de Ovelha, Roupeiro Branco, Verdelho, Viosinho
For Palmela: Alvarinho, Antão Vaz, Arinto,Chardonnay, Fernão Pires, Loureiro, Malvasia Fina, Moscatel Galego Branco, Moscatel de Setúbal, Pinot Blanc, Rabo de Ovelha, Roupeiro Branco, Sauvignon, Semillon, Verdelho, Viosinho.
Main red grapes:
For Setúbal: Aragonez, Bastardo, Castelão, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira, Moscatel Roxo
For Palmela: Alicante Bouschet, Aragonez, Bastardo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Castelão, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Tannat, Tinta Miúda, Tinto Cão, Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira.
Vines love Portugal's southernmost region for the same reason the tourists do - it's never too hot, never too cold, and they can be sure to enjoy more than 3,000 hours of sunshine every year.
Over the last 50 years, many vineyards in the Algarve have made way for golf courses, hotel complexes, avocado and citrus trees. But now, just a little way inland from the coast, new vineyards have been planted – Portuguese grapes as well as the likes of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. There has also been investment in wineries.
Only one wine co-operative is still in action, in Lagoa, but there are new private estates, and quality is looking increasingly good. The wines have a ready market amongst tourists, as well as in export markets.
The Algarve has a prominent ambassador in the British pop star Sir Cliff Richard, who owns a wine estate there.
You might expect this southern-most region to be Portugal’s hottest, but the sea keeps it cooler than the southern part of the Alentejo, just over the scenic hills of the northern Algarve, so that Algarve whites as well as rosés can be fresh and appealing, reds aromatic and elegant.
There are four DOCs: Lagos, Portimão, Lagoa and Tavira, but the best wines tend to be Vinho Regional Algarve, which take advantage of the flexible rules and a wider and more interesting selection of permitted grape varieties.
Main white grapes:
Siria, Arinto and Malvasia Fina (the latter only in Lagos)
Main red grapes:
Negra Mole, Trincadeira and Castelão
The Azores are an archipelago of nine islands about a third of the way out into the Atlantic on a line between Lisbon and New Jersey.
Buffeted by the mid-Atlantic weather, on the same latitude as Lisbon, this little group of islands has lush, green countryside, volcanic peaks and lakes, caverns, sulphur pits and lava flows. So spectacular are the islands’ historic vineyards that a vineyard area on the island of Pico has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What is so special about it? Most vines on the Azores are grown within currais, small dry stone wall enclosures made of black volcanic rock. Vines are planted in holes and cracks in the lava flows, and the walls protect the vines from Atlantic winds and salt spray. The vineyards of Pico are a particularly stunning example.
Past and Present
Vines have been planted thus since the early 16th century, when the islands were a port of call for discoverers on their way to the New World. By the 18th century, the sweet, fortified Azores wines were famous and prized.
Vine diseases in the 19th century caused many vineyards to be abandoned, or replanted with hybrid vines. It was only in the 1980s and 1990s that Verdelho and other better grapes began to be more widely replanted.
Today, three islands make wine. Much of the island of Graciosa has DOP status for light white wines, vinified at the local co-operative. There are two other DOPs for fortified wines (tangy and nutty, dry to sweet): in some coastal areas of the island of Pico; and Biscoitos, a little area in the north of Terceira. On both Pico and Terceira, some good, unfortified IGP Açores wines are also made, by a couple of small-scale private producers, and in Pico by the co-operative. Most wines are white and, thanks to the damp, temperate climate, fresh and tangy. Vinho de cheiro, ‘scented wine’ made from hybrids, is drunk by locals and by nostalgic emigrés in North America.
Main white grapes:
Verdelho, Arinto and Terrantez
Madeira's fortified wines keep practically for ever - they have been known to survive for more than two centuries.
Off the coast of Africa, 1,000km from mainland Portugal, the semi-tropical island of Madeira has long been famous for its fortified wines, DOP Madeira. (Madeira has chosen to use the new EU designations, DOP and IGP.) Now, along with its sandy neighbour Porto Santo, it has a second DOP for its unfortified wines, DOP Madeirense, and the islands also make unfortified wines labelled IGP Terras Madeirenses.
Past and Present: When the vine root louse phylloxera arrived on Madeira in the late 19th century and killed the vines, the islanders replanted with American hybrid vines, which were resistant to the pest. New, better, European varieties have been planted since, but many americano vines remain. The locals still drink curiously-scented table wines made from American hybrid grapes (they are banned for DOP and IGP wines). Recently, however, fresh, unfortified wines, DOP and IGP, have been made from European grape varieties in a modern, government-financed winery. Verdelho is often the white grape of choice, with red wine from Tinta Negra, but a great variety of international and Portuguese-mainland grapes are being planted in modest quantities.
Climate: Bathed in the gulf stream, Madeira has a mild climate, averaging 22ºC in the summer, 16ºC in winter. Cloud builds up most days over the mountainous interior, there’s a brief downpour, then sunshine again – nothing that greatly disturbs the tourists who flock to this beautiful island. The temperate, humid climate and fertile volcanic soil make for gently-ripened grapes, and light wines with moderate alcohol.
Winemaking: Early exporters of Madeira wines realised that their delicate produce travelled better when fortified with a little brandy. They also found that something miraculous happened during long, hot sea voyages across the equator – the flavour grew intense and nutty. Madeira producers learnt to mimic this phenomenon by ageing barrels of fortified wine in the sun, under glass roofs in their warehouses, for years on end - a process they called canteiro. They then discovered a short-cut for their less expensive wines: controlled heating in stoves (estufas), a process known as estufagem. Three months of estufagem approximates to four years of canteiro, although the results are less subtle.
Madeira’s vineyards are fragmented into tiny plots along terraces carved into the volcanic slopes. Most vines are trained on pergolas. The grapes are harvested between mid-August and mid-October, small-scale growers delivering sometimes tiny quantities of grapes.
Fermentation is interrupted by the addition of neutral alcohol of vine origin once the yeasts have used up an appropriate amount of grape sugar to leave the desired sweetness. Traditionally, certain of the island’s historic white grape varieties are associated with wines of certain sweetnesses: Sercial left dry, Verdelho semi-dry, Bual (or Boal) semi-sweet, and Malmsey (or Malvasia) positively sweet. The four traditional grapes being in short supply, a more plentiful red grape, Negra Mole, is made today into Madeira wines of all sweetness levels.
The very top DOP Madeira wines are still made from the four white grapes, plus, occasionally, Terrantez.
Wines are categorised by method and length of ageing, as well as grape. Colheita or Single Harvest wines are made from the traditional white grapes or Tinta Negra, wood-matured for at least five years. Vintage, Frasqueira or Garrafeira wines must be made by the canteiro method from one of the traditional white grapes, then wood-aged for 20 years.
Authorized grapes for DOP Madeirense and IGP Terras Madeirenses:
Verdelho, Malvasia Fina (Boal), Sercial, Malvasia, Folgasão (Terrantez), Chardonnay, Chenin, Bastardo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Complexa, Deliciosa, Merlot, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Negra, Touriga Francesa, and Touriga Nacional.
Main grapes for DOP Madeira:
Tinta Negra, Sercial, Boal, Malvasia, Terrantez and Verdelho