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Portugal’s place in the wine world, a coming-of-vine tale

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Written by Lauren Friel
Even the French have started referring to Bordeaux “Bored-oh.” The Burgundy Bubble seems as real and as terrifying as that other one. All of California is suddenly New again, and Hipster Wine might as well be granted its own sub-appellation. It might be time to sound the alarms: after what was for some estates a lifetime of wealth and relative stability, the world of wine is finally wobbling on its axis.

 

As this new spin cycle empties our pockets and vertigo blurs our vision, it’s easy to find solace in the shiny “new” regions being proffered up as alternatives to those we once held so dear: Jura wears the Burgundy hat well, Greece is rubbing elbows with the Piedmont’s former courtiers and the Canary Islands are very, very interested in being your back-up plan at the ball. But where will we find the comfort of stability in equilibrium again? Runaway train-paced growth in well-branded Old Faithful regions, maxed-out frustration at viticultural elitism and continued Chinese interests in drinking DRC for breakfast nixes the likelihood that we’ll all be granted ticker-tape homecomings after our trysts abroad anytime soon. These shifts in regional identities and soaring case prices means broadening wine’s horizons has become more than a matter of trend — as the Warby Parker class starts opening its wallets for bottles of Pinot over PBR, it’s a matter of the potential making of a region. There’s a Cinderella moment in store for whoever can nail the perfect combination of value, comfort and interest. Rolling hills ripe for bicycle tours won’t hurt, either.

 

So which underdog region is poised to rise to the top? In addition to the the aforementioned, the Loire Valley and Central Italy — long the wine industry’s steadfast, bargain sidekicks — are heavy contenders. But these are regions within countries already in possession of a strong wine identity. The hurdle to get over then becomes the hopeful region’s podium juxtaposition with its countryman’s already winning place — asking consumers to forget that “other” Italian wine isn’t so easy when that wine is Barolo. Greece has a better shot at it, but it might take a few more years for all of the honeymooners to get over their post-traumatic Retsina disorder and trust the country’s grapes enough to let them do their thing in the glass.

 

The ideal scenario involves an as-yet underrepresented country with a well-established wine culture of its own, entry-level affordability in spades (for plenty of risk-free experimentation at the consumer level) and, of course, those bicycle-hungry rolling hills.

Portugal’s Got the Goods
Following in the footsteps of the Spanish revolution, the wine world’s most recent coming-of-age story, Portugal’s got the goods. A quick inventory of this sleepy Iberian darling’s assets paints a lucrative picture: It’s true that most of the Western world has some familiarity with Port and Madeira wines already, but our love for the sweeter stuff makes them gateway drugs to their dry brethren rather than a distraction from potential pleasure. The country’s hop-skip-jump proximity to US shores means those rolling hills (check) are ever more accessible for honeymooners (and their Instagram feeds). There are some fiercely (stubbornly, even) defended native grapes like Loureiro and Touriga Nacional. These might not give the Epcot-esque, international welcome some consumers look for when approaching foreign territory, matters of pronunciation are unlikely to matter once the bill is dropped.

 

When it comes down to a place for consumers to spread their wings over the safety net of low financial risk for well-made wines, Portugal has the rest of the world in a corner.  Vin Jaune earns higher rates than gold (and for good reason, many would argue), and Xinomavro is well-placed in its mid-market range. Meanwhile, Portugal is turning out bottles of interesting, low-yield wines from native grapes and unique landscapes for less than the cost of a glass of that Santa Margherita stuff. It’s possible to buy a 500mL bottle of amphora-aged Baga from bigwig Luis Pato’s rockstar daughter, Filipa, for less than $15 retail (wax closure and all for you romantic types). Or, if it’s pure pleasure you’re after, a worthy Txakoli competitor from Quinta da Raza for less than $10.

 

While the whole package is a boon to consumers, the rest of the wine industry might do well to brush up on its Portuguese, too. Need an entry-level glass pour with a kiss of oak to play that New World game this winter? From Tras-os-Montes, Tinta Roriz is Tempranillo from another mother that might give Rioja a run for its money. How about something with a good story and some bottle age for that tasting menu? Check out Colares for decade-old Ramisco from the phylloxera-proof, sandy soils of an endangered region, all at a pourable price. And don’t leave Vinho Verde out — that gulpable stuff can be the ultimate beach wine (Ameztoi allocations be damned), but the region’s capacity for producing serious wines of nuance and elegance is making its way stateside as more producers show us what their native grapes can really do — Loureiro and Arinto are versatile and palate-pleasing, capable of playing the roles formerly occupied by New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and dry Rieslings alike. Wherever you look, Portugal’s own ambling economic growth coupled with its relative lag in entering the Western market (and the costly marketing campaigns that accompany such a coming-out) means prices are still low enough to play without going all in.

 

Check out an overview of  regions, grapes, and styles of Portuguese wine in my Need-to-Know guide, here.

About the author

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Lauren Friel

Lauren Friel is a wine writer and educator living in Somerville. You can find her at vindrop.com, or blowing her rent money at the Wine Bottega.