This huge palette of different grapes was introduced to Portugal over a long and exciting history of wine-making, traced by archaeologists back to the Bronze Age. Tartessians, Phoenicians, Romans, all left their winemaking mark here. And centuries of isolation then prevented further exchange with other wine producing countries such as Spain and France. So Portuguese growers concentrated on the fine flavours to be found in their own grape varieties.
The spectrum of characterful, top-quality grapes is impressive: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Trincadeira, Aragonez, Baga, Castelão, Alvarinho, Arinto, Fernão Pires, Encruzado and many others, responsible for the incomparable character of Portuguese wines. While much of the wine world concentrates on Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, in Portugal wine-lovers can enjoy a distinctive and impressive array of different flavours. Portugal has in excess of 250 indigenous grapes, only a few of which have travelled (in a very small way) anywhere else in the world.
Please note: This article is based on information provided with friendly permission by Viniportugal. ViniPortugal is an organisation representing the whole of the Portuguese wine industry. Its mission is to spread the word about the quality and character of Portuguese wines.
To learn more about wine making in Portugal visit their website: www.winesofportugal.com.
DOC (DOP), Vinho Regional (IG/IGP) and Vinho
DOC Regions (or DOP)
At the top level of the European wine hierarchy, Portugal has 31 DOCs/DOPs. At the moment, both of these terms are used in Portugal, the traditional local ‘DOC’ (Denominação de Origem Controlada) meaning Controlled Denomination of Origin, while the new pan-European ‘DOP’ (Denominação de Origem Protegida) means Protected Denomination of Origin. Each of these regions has strictly defined geographical boundaries. N.B. Tree of the regions, Douro and Port, Madeira and Madeirense, DOC Setúbal and DOC Palmela have the same geografic ‘footprint’. DOC regulations also prescribe maximum grape yields, recommended and permitted grape varieties and various other things, and all the wines have to be officially tasted, tested and approved.
Vinho Regional (or IG / IGP)
The whole of the country is divided into 14 ‘Regional Wine’ areas. Wines from these areas have for years been labelled in Portugal as Vinho Regional. Now the European Union has introduced new titles for this category of wine: ‘IG’, meaning ‘Geographical Indication’ or ‘IGP’ – ‘Protected Geographical Indication.’ However most Portuguese regions have chosen to keep the old denomination, VR.
Rules for making Vinho Regional are much less stringent than those that govern DOC wines. Nevertheless, many prestigious Portuguese wines are classified as Vinho Regional. This is often because the producer has chosen to use grape varieties that are not permitted for the local DOC, or at least not in those particular combinations or proportions. The looser regulations for Vinho Regional give producers greater scope for individuality, although these wines still have to fulfil certain criteria as to grape variety, minimum alcohol content and so on.
Vinhos (table wines) are Portugal’s simplest wines, subject to none of the rules stipulated for quality or regional wines. Note however, that a very few critically acclaimed wines are labelled simply as table wines. These tend to be from ambitious growers who have chosen to work outside the official rules, and have deliberately classified their wine as table wine.
Portugal enjoys an impressive number of indigenous grape varieties that exist nowhere else in the world
Not even Italy can surpass it when considering the natural variability of each species and about the small genetic differences within each variety Varieties that give unique flavours to Portuguese wines, lending them the character and uniqueness.
Even in Portugal, there are few varieties known by their names, beyond the Alvarinho, Baga and Touriga Nacional trio. There is little recognition amongst more than 250 indigenous grape 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), Cornifesto, Dedo de Dama (Lady’s Finger), Dona Joaquina, Pé Comprido (Long Foot) or Zé do Telheiro.
Amongst the many Portuguese top quality grape varieties there are those that show a more marked personality. Ten varieties that alone or as part of a blend magnify the reputation of Portugal, making their mark as national natural wine insignias. Four white grape varieties and six red varieties deserve a special mention due to their qualitative consistency and self-expression.
Whilst 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. 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. Another notable 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 grape variety from the region. An exception is made when the winemaker wants to create a wine with light and fresh flavours. In this instance, the Alvarinho is blended with the Trajadura variety.
Therefore, most Portuguese wines are made as a blend, mixing several national grape varieties to produce the desired taste profile. In some regions the winemaker will blend, more than twenty varieties to achieve the correct balance and in one national wine’s extreme case, 206 varieties have been used to create a single white wine. Using the art of blending, Portuguese wines aim to complement the best characteristics that each variety can provide in a single wine.