A Beginner's Guide to Drinking Portuguese Wine

You can enjoy fabulous views across the Douro river, as well as its excellent wine
You can enjoy fabulous views across the Douro river, as well as its excellent wine
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 types of wine, with tips on finding the perfect wine for you.

Introduction to Portuguese wine

Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve are increasingly garnering attention from travellers, and so is their wine. Offering value and variety, and wines that you won’t find anywhere else and which are award-winning and internationally recognised. The best way to discover Portuguese wines is to visit a handful of the excellent vineyards and wine farms. And if you’re looking to go a little deeper, you can find some tips on great wine trips here and here.

Frederico Sousa, a Portuguese native, restaurant owner and wine expert, has worked in the wine industry for more than 20 years. He is currently the owner of Simply Tapas & Vinho, a successful wine and tapas restaurant based in the Algarve. He regularly attends wine-tasting events, both in Portugal and further afield, and is always on the search for excellent wines to add to his ever-growing and impressive wine cellar. From his favourite wines to Portuguese wine terminology and the country’s diverse wine regions, Fred gives his insight into everything you need to know about wine-tasting in Portugal.

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’s 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 verde (green) wine, port0 (port), vinho de madeira (madeira) and moscatel (sherry). Much like the rest of the world, tinto tends to be favoured in winter months; it is usually served just below room temperature in Portugal.

When ordering a red meat dish, tinto is the most popular. For light, summer dishes such as seafood and fish, vinho verde, blanco and rosé are all popular choices. Sparkling wine is often chosen as an aperitif, accompanied with light nibbles and starters. It’s also very common for the Portuguese to finish their meal with a dessert or fortified wine – usually washed down with a bica (expresso) – with porto, madeira and moscatel being among the favourites.

Trust your taste

So what should you be looking for in a good wine? Fred Sousa says that what you choose depends largely on your 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.”

Popular wines and the wine-producing regions

Each region in Portugal caters to a different taste and understanding these different regions is 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 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 to grow thick skins, creating unique characteristics and resulting in distinctive and potent wines, with robust fruit flavours, silky tannins, alluring spiciness, pure minerality and impressive structure.

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

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, with ripe tannins. A good cheap Douro wine (€5-€20, £4.50-£18) is often difficult to come by, so, if you see a Douro wine as the house choice, snap it up.

Mid-range bottles (€20-€60, £18-£54) are a good bet, but more upscale bottles can cost in the hundreds. Barca velha, for example, one of the Douro’s best wines, according to Fred, retails at up to €700 (£627). 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 aperfect 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.

Alentejo

Hailed as the new Tuscany, and a few hours from the capital in the southern half of Portugal, 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 come from. “The north Alentejo wines from the Sao Mamede mountains, are probably the best, thanks to the high altitude, its freshness and the fact that it is home to a lot of old vineyards.”

The wines from the south of the region are a bit more round “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 are considered to be the best the country 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.

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.

Dao

Surrounded on all sides by mountains, Dao, just south of the Douro Valley, is one of Portugal’s most prominent wine regions. While reds have long been hailed as the best, its whites are also gaining accolades 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), either grilled, fried or bathed in cream sauce, thanks to their naturally high levels of acidity.

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

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 – and is reasonably priced. Opt for a mixed-cheese platter, spicy meat such as chorizo or salami, dark chocolate or traditional honey-glazed and almond 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.

Setubal

Setubal, in the Setubal peninsula in south Portugal, also produces fortified wines, made almost exclusively from white moscatel grapes grown on the lower slopes of the hills of the Serra Arrabida. Pair with a Portuguese cheese with a gooey middle such as queijo de ovelha.

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

Azores

The Azores, an archipelago of nine islands with active volcanoes, lie about a third of the way out into the Atlantic between Lisbon and New Jersey. 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 the 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.

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 it with 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 or overshadow the fish.

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

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. According to Fred, certain wines “have to be controlled”. He points to one of his house wines and explains, “that wine is certified from Douro wines, with grapes from Douro. If it’s a DOC Altentejo, it means it’s produced from Alentejo, with grapes from Alentejo.” In other words, the grapes have to be uvas autóctones, or native grapes. “You can’t do DOC with sauvignon blanc, for instance, because it’s a French grape,” he says. If the grape is not native, it can be Portuguese branded but not a DOC, andDOC wines are the best wines, as they are usually of the highest quality.