A Beginner's Guide to Portuguese Wine

The Douro Valley is home to some of Portugal's most highly regarded wine producers
The Douro Valley is home to some of Portugal's most highly regarded wine producers | © Cro Magnon / Alamy
Photo of Charlotte Peet
Commissioning Editor29 April 2021

Struggling to navigate a Portuguese wine list, or want to know what to expect when visiting a Portuguese vineyard? Culture Trip breaks down the country’s wine into regions, labels and styles, with tips on finding your perfect glass.

Introduction to Portuguese wine

Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve are increasingly garnering attention from travellers, and so is their wine. Offering value and variety, Portuguese wines are award-winning and internationally recognised, though very often you won’t find them anywhere else. The best way to discover Portuguese wines is to visit the nation’s excellent vineyards and wine farms. If you’re looking to go a little deeper, you can start by reading our article on the best places to sample wine in Porto.

Frederico Sousa, a Portuguese native, restaurant owner and wine expert, has worked in the wine industry for more than 20 years. As the owner of Simply Tapas & Vinho, a successful wine and tapas restaurant based in the Algarve, Sousa regularly attends wine tastings in Portugal and beyond in search of wines to add to his ever-growing cellar. Here, Fred offers an insight into everything there is to know about Portuguese wine, from his favourite wines to key terminology to the country’s diverse wine regions.

2B15GN8 Tasting different styles of red and white port wines | © Ulf Huebner / Alamy

How to order wine at a restaurant

Whether you’re a wine expert or looking to order a bottle of house wine at a restaurant, there are certain basics you should know. First, it’s not uncommon for the Portuguese to order food before wine, so they can pair their vinho with their food. Then there are the different types of wine. Although many will be familiar with blanco (white), tinto (red), rosé and espumante (sparkling), Portugal is also well known for its vinho verde (green wine), port0 (port wine), vinho da madeira (Madeira) and moscatel (sherry).
Much like the rest of the world, red tends to be favoured in winter months when it is served just below room temperature. Similarly, red meat dishes are enjoyed with vinho tinto whilst light, summer dishes lend themselves to vinho verde, blanco and rosé. Sparkling wine is often chosen as an aperitif, when it is accompanied by light nibbles and starters. It is very common for the Portuguese to finish their meal with a dessert or fortified wine – usually washed down with a bica (espresso) – with port, Madeira and sherry among the favourites.

Trust your taste

So what should you be looking for in a good wine? Fred Sousa says that this is largely a matter of personal taste. “You need to find out, for example, about the structure, if the grapes are local or not, the vineyards, how old they are and the most important thing is how big the company is,” Fred says. If the company is small, it’s usually a good indicator of how rustic and rare the type of wine is – great for wine enthusiasts seeking an exclusive label. “To find out the type of wine you like, you have to decide if you like sweet tannins, acid tannins, if you like wine with structure or without structure, aged or not, dry, acidity, etc. There is no perfect wine for everybody, there is a perfect wine for you.”

EWTH2P Tasting port wine at the Sandeman wine cellar, Porto

Popular wines and wine-producing regions

Each region in Portugal caters to a different taste and herein lies the key to understanding Portuguese wine. “Normally, the best wines are made from small producers and smaller companies,” Fred says, adding that Douro wines are his personal favourite. The type of grape varieties used in the Douro are native to Portugal and not commonly grown elsewhere. Thanks to hot summers (temperatures can soar above 40C) and a dry harvest, the grapes grow thick skins, creating unique characteristics and resulting in distinctive and potent wines. Robust fruit flavours, silky tannins, alluring spiciness, pure minerality and impressive structure are all present in Douro wines.

Here is a quick breakdown of the major wine-producing regions in Portugal, including some of their most popular wines and what to expect from them:

MN603G Lisbon is home to many wine shops offering a huge variety | © Serge Mouraret / Alamy

Douro and Porto

Located in northern Portugal, the Douro Valley is a World Heritage wine region with 2,000 years of history. Globally recognised for its wines and jaw-dropping scenery, it’s particularly famous for its port, as well as some reds. The wines typically tend to be full-bodied, structured and with ripe tannins. A high-quality budget Douro wine in the €5-€20 (£4.50-£18) region can be difficult to come by. Mid-range bottles from €20-€60 (£18-£54) are a good bet whilst upscale bottles can cost well into the hundreds of euros. Barca Velha, for example, one of the Douro’s best wines, retails at up to €700 (£627) per bottle. A Douro red offers the perfect match for Portugal’s succulent red meat dishes, including bife a portuguesa (steak baked in a clay pot, topped with gravy, fried egg and sliced potatoes), wild boar stew and pork cheeks with mashed potato. The rich, powerful and robust tannins of the wine make this a perfect pairing.

Look out for these popular wines: basilia, vila rachel, vale meao, batuta and monte cascas.

For Fred, the best port by far is Taylor’s. “It is very unique and special. When it comes to producing a quality offering, they are always the best,” he says.

2BJFM4R Vineyards in the River Douro region north of Viseu, Portugal | © Tim Graham / Alamy

Alentejo

Hailed as the new Tuscany and just a few hours from Lisbon, this sun-baked land is enjoying increased attention for its table wines and landscapes. Alentejo wines tend to be fruity, fresh and well balanced but it depends on which part of the region they hail from. “The northern Alentejo wines from the Sao Mamede mountains are probably the best, thanks to the high altitude, their freshness and the fact that the area is home to a lot of old vineyards,” says Fred.

The wines from the south of the region are rounder with soft tannins and a lot of body. A cheap Alentejo wine tends to be easy to come by and in recent years, the finest Alentejo wines have been considered among the best Portugal has to offer. A traditional pork dish with garlic, olive oil and paprika would blend nicely with an Alentejo red.

Look out for these popular wines: monte cascas reserva, folha do meio reserva, Julian Reynolds and pera manca.

2AA9W6W Syrah grape variety to make red wine in Alentejo, Portugal | © Mauricio Abreu / Alamy

Lisbon

Much like Alentejo, Lisbon is a wine-producing destination in its own right. West and north of the city is the Lisboa wine region, formerly known as Estremadura. You can get a good-quality cheap or mid-price house wine in restaurants across the country. The wines are usually fruity, round and light. If you’re visiting Lisbon, the wine bars here are not to be missed. Wash down a Lisboa white such as an 1808 reserva with grilled sardines for an authentic dining experience.

Look out for these popular wines: 1808 reserva, monte d’oiro syrah and cabo da roca.

E5CJPC Wine barrels in a cellar decorated with antique tiles in Azeitao, Portugal | © GM Photo Images / Alamy

Dao

Surrounded on all sides by mountains, Dao, just south of the Douro Valley, is one of Portugal’s most prominent wine regions. While the reds have long been hailed as the region’s best product, Dao’s whites are also gaining accolades both locally and abroad. Dao wines tend to be dry and silky, with firm tannins. Cheap Dao wines are easy to come by and go well with bacalhau (salted cod) thanks to their naturally high levels of acidity.

Look out for these popular wines: titular, soito reserva and quinta da fata reserva.

Vineyards at Santar in the Dao wine region, Portugal | © Mauricio Abreu / Alamy

Madeira

This island, off the coast of Africa, has been the home of fortified wines for more than two centuries due to its unique wine-making process, which consists of oxidising through heat and ageing. The wine is usually very sweet in essence and is often consumed after a meal in the same manner as a dessert wine. Madeira tends to be reasonably priced and goes well with cheese, cured sausages such as chorizo and salami, dark chocolate and traditional Portuguese pastries.

Look out for these popular fortified wines: Cossart Gordon sercial, verdelho, bual and malmsey, which are produced in different years ranging from the 1800s, 1900s, 10 year-old, 20 year-old, and so on.

E2E8TB Barrels of Madeira wine in Funchal, Madeira, Portugal | © AZAM Jean-Paul / hemis.fr / Alamy

Setubal

Setubal, a wine region in southern Portugal, produces fortified wines made almost exclusively from white muscatel grapes grown on the lower slopes of the hills of the Serra Arrabida. Pair with a softer Portuguese cheese such as queijo de ovelha.

Look out for this popular fortified wine: moscatel roxo superior.

2C2B995 Vineyards in the Arrabida Nature Park. Palmela. Portugal | © Mauricio Abreu / Alamy

Azores

The Azores, an archipelago comprising nine islands with active volcanoes, lie about a third of the way between Lisbon and New Jersey in the Atlantic Ocean. Administratively part of Portugal, the Azores have been producing wine for centuries. What is remarkable about these wines is the fact that the vines grow and produce grapes on the surface of volcanoes.

The Azores are largely known for their unique white wine variant known as verdelho, from Pico island. Originally from Sicily, it was brought to the Azores by Franciscan friars. Although rare, the variant can be found in prestigious wine spots across the islands. Try the local speciality, cozido das furnas, a stew with layers of chicken, blood sausage, pork, beef and roast vegetables cooked in a metal pot, accompanied with an Azores wine, and you’ll fit right in with the locals.

Look out for this popular wine: magma.

EJ72A0 Mount Pico in the Verdelho wine region on Pico Island, Azores, Portugal | © Frauke Scholz / imageBROKER / Alamy

Minho Province

Minho Province produces green wine, which is unique to Portugal and popular for its slight fizziness. The name translates as “young wine”, as they are released a mere six months after the harvest. A typical dish to drink this is arroz de tamboril (monkfish rice), often served as a prato do dia (dish of the day) for lunch across the coast. The citrus notes and subtle touch of honey do not overpower the meaty fish.

Look out for these popular wines: valados melgaço reserva and soalheiro granit.

HWH2F1 Vineyards in Pinhao in the Upper Douro valley, Portugal | © JACQUES Pierre / hemis.fr / Alamy

DOC

Portuguese wine labels often come with a denominacao de origem controlada (controlled designation of origin), referring to a wine from a strictly defined geographical area. Grapes have to be uvas autóctones, or native grapes. As Fred says: “You can’t do DOC with sauvignon blanc, for instance, because it’s a French grape.” If the grape is not native, it can be Portuguese branded but not a DOC wine, which tend to be superior in quality.

RKFC26 A selection of red wines from the Alentejo region | © Dudley Wood / Alamy

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