Posted on | March 22, 2016
Written by | Jason Wilson
With odd grapes cool and blends red-hot, the values of Portugal are taking off.
Count me as lucky. About 25 years ago, on my first trip to Portugal, I discovered the pleasures of inexpensive Periquita, made by José Maria da Fonseca in Setúbal. Periquita is still one of the most consistently good Portuguese wines imported to the U.S.
Back then, the only Portuguese wine most Americans knew was Mateus, the sweet fizzy rosé known for its goofy-shaped bottle. Mateus (which, incidentally, was Saddam Hussein’s favorite wine) accounted for almost half of the table wine exported from Portugal in the late 1980s.
Things have changed. From the popularity of easy-drinking Vinho Verde to the emergence of table wines from the Douro Valley to the rise of regions like the Alentejo and Dão and the hipster-somm embrace of Colares, demand for Portugese wines is finally gaining steam. In fact, from November 2014 to November 2015, sales of table wines from Portugal grew by 27%.
What’s driving the surge? Some of it is increased familiarity with Portugal as a destination, as more Americans travel there. Some of it is a generational embrace of new and lesser-known wines. Nuno Vale, Marketing Director for Wines of Portugal, points out that Millennials consume 43% of the Portuguese wines sold in the U.S.—well above the market average of 26%.
Portuguese Wine Is Not (All) Cheap
Portugal is one of the few places where you can still find really good wine around $10 and, in the case of Vinho Verde, under. But Vale insists the retail sweet spot for Portuguese wines is $15-$20. In that range, you will find tremendous wine values. Alentejo’s Herdade do Esporão, with its New World-inspired innovation, is one of the larger, better-known producers with good-value wines and contemporary packaging up and down the price continuum.
Don’t Fear The Native Grapes
Portuguese wines rely on lesser-known indigineous grapes, and that can be a challenge. Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Castelão, Trincadeira, Baga… where’s the Syrah and Cabernet? Two popular Spanish varieties are widely found in Portugal, but they go by different names—Tempranillo is called Tinta Roriz or Aragonez; and Albariño is Alvarinho. Fortunately, however, there’s a building wave of interest in more obscure grapes. “Right now, drinkers are looking to explore new varieties. They’re curious and want to have new experiences,” Vale says. Portugal has a seemingly endless array to satisfy that thirst.
Vinho Verde Gets Serious
“People used to see Vinho Verde as simple, crisp wines. So-called ‘pool wines,’” says Vale. Though traditional Vinho Verde (literally “green wine,” meaning young wine) is light, low alcohol, with a little stimulating fizz and often an under-$8 price tag, a number of more serious bottlings, such as Nortico, are now made solely from Alvarinho (“serious” is relative: SRP $14). Also look for Quinta de Azevedo and Muralhas de Moncao.
More than Port from the Douro
Many Douro Valley producers have begun producing excellent table wines, using the same blend of grapes that were traditionally used for Port. “We are a country of blends,” Vale says. But with blends now one of the hottest segments of red wine these days, look for wines from producers such as Quinta do Vale Meão, Wine & Soul, Quinta do Noval and Quinta da Fronteira.