Portugal enjoys an impressive number of grape varieties which lend to the wines the character and uniqueness that distinguishes and highlights them from a multitude of indistinct wines produced by dozens of countries all over the world.
While the French varieties and, to a lesser degree, varieties from Italy, Germany, and Spain have spread throughout the world, the Portuguese varieties have remained isolated and restricted to the national territory contrasting with celebrity grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Nebbiolo, Riesling or Tempranillo that are widely grown across many wine-producing countries.
Even in Portugal, there are few varieties known by their names. Beyond the Alvarinho, Baga and Touriga Nacional trio, as there is little recognition amongst more than 250 indigenous varieties officially registered, with names as exotic as Esgana Cão (Dog Strangler), Amor-Não -Me-Deixes (love-don’t-leave-me), Carrega Burros (Donkey Loader), Dedo de Dama (Lady’s Finger), Dona Joaquina, Pé Comprido (Long Foot) or Zé do Telheiro.
In the vineyard, as in life, not all grape varieties are equal and not all regions enjoy the same fortune. Among the homeland’s DOs, two, in particular, can be proud of benefitting from unparalleled recognition: the Douro and Vinho Verde regions possess a large group of quality and unique grape varieties. Douro grape varieties are now widely known and valued by a legion of dedicated oenophiles, with references such as Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinto Cão, Tinta Barroca, Sousão, Tinta Francisca, Gouveio, Rabigato, Viosinho and Códega do Larinho. In the Vinho Verde region, names remain with little awareness beyond Alvarinho, Loureiro and Trajadura.
Amongst the many Portuguese top quality grapes, ten varieties stand out, alone or as part of a blend, to magnify Portugal’s reputation due to their qualitative consistency and self-expression:
White varieties: Alvarinho, Arinto (Pedernã), Encruzado and Fernão Pires (Maria Gomes)
Red varieties: Baga, Castelão, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira (Tinta Amarela) and Tinta Roriz (Aragonez)
While we mention these single Portuguese varieties generically, the truth is that the tradition of Portuguese wines is based more on a combination of grape varieties than in the production of a single variety wines. However, there will always be exceptions to the rule, and the most noteworthy is found in Bairrada with its single variety wines made from the Baga grape variety that once represented a near monopoly in the region’s red vine varieties. Other great example comes from the region of Monção / Melgaço in the Vinho Verde region, with its single variety wines made from the Alvarinho grape variety that is rarely combined with any other type of grapes from the region. An exception is made when the winemaker wants to create a wine with light and fresh flavour, as in this instance the Alvarnho is blended with the Trajadura variety.
By using the art of blending, Portuguese winemakers aim to complement the best characteristics that each variety can provide in a single wine. While some varieties may add delicate fruit flavours, others add more body and roundness to the finish, creating a wine in which the whole is better and greater than the sum of each individual parcel. This blending process is only possible to be achieved due to amount and diversity of Portuguese grape varieties, so well adapted to the great diversity of the region’s soils and climate. For example, in the Minho region, it can rain almost every day, which contrast with parts of Alentejo and Douro Superior that can pass without a drop of rain during many months. Bairrada and Colares suffer from an extreme Atlantic Ocean influence with rainy and cool seasons while Alentejo and Dão’s climate can vary between Mediterranean and Continental with significant temperature variations between summer and winter, and also between day and night. This is why Portuguese grapes varieties are so different in every part of the country, as they are required to adapt to the geographic and climatic conditions of each region as part of a slow but profound modification completed throughout centuries. And that is the reason why Portuguese wines are so different and so special, standing out amongst a multitude of undifferentiated wines.
This late-ripening grape often makes lean, tannic reds that can be astringent in youth and complex when matured. In hotter years, or by skilful ripening and winemaking, Baga can produce rich, dense and red wines, with cherry flavours when bottled. Through ageing, the wine can achieve complex flavours of herbs, malt, cedar and tobacco leaf. Its heartland is Bairrada, but it also grows elsewhere in the Beiras, including Dão. It is also used as a base for sparkling wine.
The most planted black grape of the southern part of Portugal can make firm, fine, raspberry-fruit wines that evolve to a cedar, cigar-box character. It is at its best in the Palmela region, located in the Setubal peninsula, south of Lisbon.
TINTA RORIZ / ARAGONEZ
Grapes that produce fine, elegant red wines with aromas of red fruits, plums and blackberries, with firm tannins that provide a good ageing potential. Called Tinta Roriz in the north of Portugal, this is one of the top grapes for Port and Douro wines, and is also important in the Dão region. In the Alentejo it is called Aragonez and is generally used in blends with other varieties such as Trincadeira.
Variety that makes densely coloured, firm but rich aromatic wines with floral tones and blackberry fruit. It is one of the five officially grapes for Port, and it is also used in red Douro blends. Indeed, it is the most widely planted grape in the Douro Valley and is generally used in blends.
Grapes used to produce firm, richly coloured wines with complex aromas and flavours reminiscent of violets, liquorice, ripe blackcurrants and raspberries, along with a subtle, herby hint of bergamot. It’s a northern grape, by origin, but now it is grown all over Portugal with a potential to produce wines that age well.
TRINCADEIRA / TINTA AMARELA
This variety is used to produce reds with wonderfully bright raspberry fruit, spicy, peppery, herbal flavours and very fresh acidity. This red grape grows all over Portugal, especially in dry and warm areas, but is probably at its best in the Alentejo. In the Douro region, this grape is known as Tinta Amarela.
Alvarinho makes characterful, rich, mineral white wines with predominant notes of peaches and citrus fruits, and sometimes tropical fruits and flowers. This high quality white grape has long been prized in the north west of Portugal, and is commonly planted in the northern part of the Vinho Verde region, between rivers Lima and Minho that forms the border with Spain. Alvarinho wines are full in body and higher in alcohol than most Vinho Verde, and are often bottled as a single variety, and named on the label. These wines are delicious when first bottled and can improve with age. Growers elsewhere in Portugal have recognized Alvarinho’s quality and the variety is slowly spreading south.
Arinto/Pedernã makes elegant, mineral white wines with predominant flavours of apple and lemon that are delicious when young and fresh but can gain complexity with age. It’s a late ripening grape with the great advantage of keeping its marked freshness, even in hot conditions. No wonder that it grows across much of the country, especially in hot regions such Alentejo to add a crisp elegance to blends of other white varieties. This also succeeds in the cool Vinho Verde region (known as Pedernã), where its natural high acidity is also an advantage for the sparkling wine production.
Encruzado makes elegant, well-balanced and full-bodied whites with delicate floral, citric aromas and also an appealing mineral character. Delicious in a pure, un-oaked style, Encruzado also responds well tooak-fermentation or oak ageing, resulting in some serious, fine, well-structured wines that can mature and gain complexity over many years. You are most likely to find it in the Dão region in the centre-north of the country, either as a single variety or in blends – these are some of Portugal’s most exciting white wines. In the vineyard, even in hot conditions, Encruzado grapes keep their fresh acidity and ripen to perfection without becoming overly sweet.
FERNÃO PIRES / MARIA GOMES
Grape variety that produce fruity, fragrant whites reminiscent of Muscat flavour. The taste of citric fruits and floral aromas are fresher when picked early for drinking the wine at a young age. It is also used in sparkling wines, and can occasionally be harvested later to make sweet wines. Portugal’s most cultivated white grape, it is widely grown across the country, especially along the western coast including Setúbal Península Tejo, Lisboa and Bairrada regions.
*source: Rui Falcão, wine author, educator and jury,in collaboration with Vinhos de Portugal. Adapted online by Wineberia.