Modern viticulturists in most countries with moderate climates succumbed to the allure of world famous French grape varieties like chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, pinot noir, syrah just to name a few. Riesling is also popular, but much less, because of its specific terroir requirements.
Portuguese growers and wineries resisted planting the above for a long time. They tried to improve their own indigenous grape varieties with considerable financial help from EU coffers in Brussels.
Only recently have a few winemakers used imported French grape varieties in their blends. Only very few French grape varietals are made in Portugal
The most popular Portuguese grape varieties are:
Alvarinho (aka albarino in Spain) claimed to be the noblest of all Portuguese white grapes, is at home in the northern part of the country famous for its vinho verde.
The region is close to Spain and in fact it is called albarino in Spain but yields completely different wines there. While most Portuguese wines are blends, alvarinho is often made as a varietal. This low yielding grape matures well and can produce 13 – 13.5 per cent ABV rare in vinho verde country.
Alvrinho is aromatic exudes citrus, mango, and passion fruit aromas; it is full bodied with pleasant acidity. Alvarinho wines can be cellared up to four to five years, a rare occurrence with other Portuguese white wines.
Antao vaz – at home in Alentejo, east of Lisbon, this grape ripens well, and yields medium – to full bodied wines. Often its is blended with arinto. Antao vaz wines are fruity, clean, and enjoyable with light foods.
Arinto is planted all over Portugal and grows well. It yields fruity, almost floral, light wines exuding citrus fruit aromas, especially if they are barrel aged.
In the north, arinto is called pederna and yields high-acid wines more suitable to blend with fernao pirez and antao vaz. Arinto based sparkling wines are successful due to their refreshing lightness and acidity.
Bical yields fine fruit in Bairas, Bairrada and Dao. It is also known as barrado das moscas. Bical is sensitive to oidium, and many growers uprooted parts of their vineyards.
It ripens early. Bical offers pleasant acidity, flavour and mostly used for blending with Maria Gomez.
Bical is also used as abase wine for sparkling wines.
Encruzado is at home in Dao. It is an excellent grape variety for balanced wines and resists oxidation. Reaches its peak flavour profile in one to years.
It may be made as a varietal or blended. Encruzado wines go well with pan-fried fish specialties.
Fernao pires (aka Maria Gomes) is one of the most wide spread grape varieties of Portugal. It ripens earlier than any other and must be picked at the right moment to preserve acidity. Fernao pires’ delicate and floral aromas become more pronounced when the must is barrel fermented.
Most winemakers blend it with arinto, bical, and cerceal, for still or sparkling wines.
Loureiro is at home in vinho verde region. It displays delicate floral and citrus aromas with a good acid backbone.
Several vinho verde brands are made exclusively using this grape variety, and enjoy popularity.
Malvasia fina grows well in several regions of the country, but particularly in the Douro Valley. It has a number of sub-varieties – malvasia corada, – fina, – candida and –rei.
Malvasia fina is mainly used for white Port wines that are very popular with French consumers.
In Madeira malvasia fina is called bual, and yields some of the bestwines of this beautiful island some 550 kilometres south and west of Portugal, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Malvasia aka monemvasia in Greece was brought to Portugal in teh Middle Ages and proved to be an excellent wine grape. It is aromatic and can be used as a table grape as well.
Moscatel is a popular variety around the Mediterranean basin, but yields its best in hot climes. In Portugal there are several sub-varieties – moscatel de Setubal, Mocatel Roxo, and Moscatel Galego. Of the three, moscatel de Setubal yields the best sweet wines capable aging gracefully for a long time.
Moscatel is one of the best aromatic dessert wines, not only of Portugal but anywhere.
Red grape varieties
When it comes to red grapes, Portuguese varieties are not unique, but well acclimatized, and yield outstanding wines in the hands of skilful winemakers. In the past, most Portuguese red wines were aged for too long in huge, old, dilapidated barrels and bottled already oxidized.
Today, winemakers take pains to age worthy wines for an appropriate time, and in small, mostly French oak barrels in an attempt to preserve fruitiness and just enough “spice”.
Alfrocheiro is an important, productive, but rot-prone vine, mostly planted in Dao, Alentejo, Ribatejo and Palmela. If properly pruned, yields a fine, dark coloured, full bodied wine, but winemakers like to blend it with other varieties generally with aragonez, touriga nacional to bolster alcohol content.
A few winemakers make alfrocheiro varietal successfully, for the domestic market.
Alicante Bouchet (cross of Grenache and petite Bouchet) was adapted by Portuguese growers long ago due to its deep colour, depth, and intensity. The wines are long lived and lend themselves well for blending with tirncadeira and aragonez. Alicante Bouchet requires a hot climate and sever pruning to yield suitable fruit.
Aragones (aka tempranillo or tinta roriz) originated in Spain and is widely planted there. It was planted in Portugal as early as 1770’s. It likes hot, growing seasons, and thrives in the Douro Valley, Alentejo, Ribatejo, and Estremadura. Aragones is used in port blends, but can yield fine, robust, deeply flavoured red wines, worthy of cellaring for several years. Now many port lodges use this grape variety to make table wines.
Baga is at home in Bairrada, and produces delicate, fruity wines in the hands of skilful winemakers. It matures late and must be severely pruned to yield its best. A few wineries in Bairrada do justice to this excellent but capricious variety.
Castelao (aka periquita, castelao frances, Joao de Santarem. Resists draughts well, but must be prines severely, In Estremadura, Ribatejo, and Alentejo, castelao yields balanced wines and may be blended or marketed as a varietal
Tinta barroca at home in the Douro valley, this grape blends well with other varieties and is much liked by growers because of abundant yield.
It ripens early, and contains high levels of sugar yielding high alcohol wines.
Winemakers use it to stretch less expensive ports, and as a modulating wine to reduce acidity in the blend.