A Beginner's Guide to Portuguese Wine

Ali over at the Cleaner Plate Club wanted to know more about the green wine I mentioned in my last post, so, I thought I'd write up a little primer on Portuguese wine. Here's the disclaimer...I know very little about Portuguese wine. I have tasted many Portuguese wines over the past 15 years but I am no wine expert. So, what you are about to read is my personal opinion based on my experience. In other words, if you end up drinking a really bad Bairrada, don't come crying to me.  When Luisa and I first started dating all those many years ago, we couldn't buy Portuguese wine in the US. Actually, we could but we could only buy Mateus and Lancers. Those two Portuguese "wines" are made almost exclusively for export. The US has always been a great market for the two because people from the US have not always been known for their distinguished palates. Anyway, that was the first lesson Luisa taught me about Portuguese wine - Mateus and Lancers are not really wines and are to be mocked. I took this to heart and am mocking them right here even though I have never tasted either of them.

My first exposure to Portuguese wine really came when we first visited Portugal together in 1997. During that first trip, I exclusively drank red wine or Vinho Tinto as it is called here. I drank wines from the Alentejo, Bairrada and Dão. I will admit that I liked everything that I drank on that first trip with the exception of a horrible wine from Borba that I chose at a restaurant. I sat back, rather pleased with myself and my choice and took the first sip of the cold, rather carbonated reddish wine. I wanted to spit it all over the place but I am pretty sure that this is frowned upon in most cultures so I swallowed and shaved a year off of my life. I asked (and by asked I mean screeched) Luisa why she let me pick that and she calmly replied, "Well, you wanted to choose so..." We did not drink the rest of it which seemed so tragic at the time.

Over the years, I grew particularly fond of the wines from the Alentejo and Bairrada. The Alentejo is a region in the south of Portugal and Bairrada is a region in the north so I guess I like to spread the love. I have always found the Alentejo wines to be smooth and fruity but not as heavy as a Merlot. The Bairrada wines taste a bit oakier to me and are a bit more acidic but have a special place in my heart because Luisa's father lives in that region and used to grow grapes for the cooperative near his house. As for the Dão wines, well, they are my least favorite but that is not to say that I haven't had a few good ones. I'm just saying that if I am picking the wine I will go with something from the Alentejo or Bairrada because they are pretty safe bets. According to the Wikipedia, I must be in the minority though because it says that many vintners prefer the Dão wines. See...that's why I had that big disclaimer up above.

I don't drink a lot of white wine. When I started drinking wine, I started with reds and I have stuck with them. Some might say that I am averse to new things but I like to think of it as loyalty. That said, this time around, I have drunk more white wine (Vinho Branco). Vinho Branco is served cold just like white wines in the US. Unfortunately, I can't tell you much about Vinho Branco because I haven't paid that much attention to what I have had. I drink what is put before me. I know that the white wines are known by their regions just like the reds and I have had vinho branco from Bairrada this time around. I'm not sure if I have had any others - hold on and I'll ask Luisa. Luisa reports that we have only had vinho branco from Bairrada. So, I'm afraid that I can't shed  much light on the vinho branco. Perhaps I should do some taste testing of white wines in the next couple of weeks and report back.

Now, let's talk green wine or Vinho Verde. The "green" in the name refers to the maturity of the grape rather than the color of the wine. Vinho Verde is actually similar to white wines in color. I did a little research and also found that Vinho Verde is not aged. So they are freshy fresh. Vinho Verde is served chilled and is quite refreshing. It is slightly fruity and seems very lightly carbonated. I've never been a big fan of Vinho Verde though I have enjoyed it greatly this time around. Interestingly, Vinho Verde has been very easy to obtain in the US in recent years and is apparently quite popular there.

When we first started visiting Portugal together, we would load up on Portuguese wines to bring back to the States because we just couldn't find it there. We once successfully brought 22 bottles of wine home from Portugal wrapped in plastic bags and t-shirts and tucked into our suitcases. We had some mishaps too, one so horrible that I still shudder (imagine wine soaked boxes shooting out of the baggage chute when they were supposed to be handled by hand). Now, however, we can get good Portuguese wines in Minnesota. Wines from the Dão, Bairrada, Alentejo are now available at a liquor store about a mile from our house and Vinho Verde is available at the liquor store a few blocks away. We don't need to bring it home with us anymore and we don't need to hoard it like in the days of old.

There are many wines that I know nothing about and I didn't even touch on Port Wine in this post. I encourage you to do your own research about Portuguese wines and to do some taste testing as well. Go to your city's best liquor store and see what they have from Portugal. Pick up some reds, whites and greens and try them all. I'm willing to bet that you'll find something you will like and, even if you don't, you'll sleep well after all that tasting.