Where to start exploring? Here you’ll find a few favorites, in descending order of general market presence. Primary grapes listed are limited to those fiercely defended native ones, and producers are suggested with respect to the almighty dollar. The following list is by no means exhaustive or even a Best Of; rather, it’s a place to start with variety, authenticity and affordability in mind.
Six Regions to Know:
Primary grape varieties: Loureiro, Arinto, Azal, Verdelho, Alvarinho, Treixadura
While it’s true that the relative cool climate of this Northwestern region turns out plenty of crushable adult soda vintage after vintage, a few producers are after the respect and accolades they’ve watched their viticultural colleagues garner over the past hundred years, and they’re poised to earn it quickly. Beautiful white wines of all persuasions are finding their way to Western shores, and it’s about time. “Burgundian” gets thrown around a lot when discussing the more serious bottles, though it’s a disservice here to the high-toned and floral aromatics grapes like Loureiro and Verdelho achieve when handled with care.
Producers to look for: Quinta do Ameal, Quinta da Raza, Quinta do Cruzeiro, Aphros
Primary grapes: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz
The usual suspect for wine tourism, the Douro’s table wines have historically played second fiddle to Port. Once considered a distraction from the nobler pursuits of fortified winemaking, dry wines from the terraced inner riverbanks of the region often drank like the afterthought they were — lacking in focus, direction and character. A few producers have set out to change the status quo, however, and to good end; an abundance of balance and depth can now be found in dry styles from East to West, primarily in the red wine department, where full-bodied, powerful expressions reign.
Producers to look for: Quinta do Crasto, Niepoort
Primary grapes: Encruzado, Jaen, Touriga Nacional
No longer a hotbed for cooperative bulk wine production, the Dão is maybe the best place to start when it’s the combination of approachability and wallet-friendliness you’re after — the best wines, whether white or red, boast ripe fruit, integrated tannin and elegance across the board.
Producers to look for: Casa de Mouraz, Quinta do Roques
Primary grapes: Baga, Arinto, Bical
Clay soils in this central region are mostly home to Baga, the potentially burly, tannic grape with naturally high acidity that can sometimes spoil the fun for tourists when whole-cluster ferments and long extractions are part of the equation, as they traditionally are. Finesse in the cellar and/or a few years of bottle age, however, produce complex, well-balanced wines with vibrant fruit, deep earth and a foundation of well-structured tannin. Note: While it’s true that we have Luis Pato to thank for first reminding us Western folk that grapes grow in Portugal, his international varietal-driven wines are perhaps less enticing than those of his daughter, Filipa, who has earned a reputation for both coaxing unprecedented elegance from Baga and tirelessly promoting the value of her region’s indigenous varietal.
Producers to look for: Filipa Pato, Casa de Saima, Sidonió de Sousa
Primary grapes: Malvasia, Arinto, Fernão Pires, Bastardo (aka Trousseau), Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional
With a name that refers to its location in relation to Spain (Tras-Os-Montes translates to “over the mountains”), it’s no surprise that the red wines from this hilly region rival its neighbor’s in terms of both expression and value. Oft-planted Tinta Roriz brings the fruit while restrained use of new oak and balanced acidity (thanks to the region’s elevation) bring grace and balance to the wines.
Producers to look for: Quinta de Arcossó
Primary grapes: Malvasia, Ramisco
One of the smallest and most unique regions in terms of viticultural practices, this DOC within Lisboa is a stretch of sandy soils is chock-full of old vine plantings of the rare red grape Ramisco, a small-berried vine that can produce wines of breathtaking complexity. Beachfront property is beachfront property, however, and this tiny DOC is under threat of extinction as more and more growers sell their vineyards to casinos and hotels looking to expand their cabana empires by a few more feet. For a stunning example of value and integrity, look to cooperatives of growers who have banded together in the interest of cultural preservation.
Producers to look for: Adega Regionale de Colares, Casa Santos Lima
Here is a one-sheet of a map of Portugal by wine region from Wines of Portugal.com along with these regional spotlights.