Wine & spirits: Sip and save
Most regular wine shoppers are attracted to the bottle with the easiest name to pronounce. We tend to fear the unknown, which in the case of wine means unpronounceable names or unfamiliar regions and grapes. When was the last time you bought a bottle of Gazela, Terra Bõa or Grão Vasco? Yet the wines of Portugal are widely acknowledged among open-minded wine aficionados as having superb taste, a food-friendly nature and terrific value.
Setting aside the wines of the island of Madeira, which are fortified, and the islands of the Azores, which aren't available here, Portuguese wines come from the coast, plains or mountains.
Coastal wines hail from 10 regions that hug the Atlantic coast from Portugal's northern border with Spain to as far south as Lisbon. There, the influence of cool ocean breezes stretches inland up to 100 kilometres. Wines from the Vinho Verde and Bairrada regions, widely available in liquor stores here, tend to have a crisp leanness, fresh, juicy flavours and, occasionally, elegance and finesse.
The interior of Portugal consists of a large sparsely populated plain south and east of Lisbon, and a densely populated mountainous northern area. Without the moderating influence of the cold North Atlantic, summers in both regions are substantially hotter than those of the coast. Inland wines have higher alcohol contents, more body, greater richness and oomph.
The important districts of the plain region include Alentejo, Ribatejo and Terras do Sado; wines of the plain may be harder to find in liquor stores because there are fewer producers. The widely distributed table wines of the mountainous north hail from the Dão, Douro, Trás-os-Montes and Beiras districts, along with the fortified wines of Oporto.
With their wide range of flavours, indigenous Portuguese grape varieties differ immensely from "international" grapes like Chardonnay and merlot; it's those differences that make the wines of Portugal so appealing. And did I mention the low prices?
What's in a name?
Here are some common Portuguese wine terms.
Adega: winery or cellar
Espumoso: sparkling wine
Garrafeira: great vintage aged longer in cask or vat than other wines
Quinta: farm or vineyard estate
Reserva: older wine of a good year
This list of 13 picks includes name, region, producer and price.
WHITE Branco (Vinho Verde, Aveleda), $8; Gazela (Vinho Verde, Sogrape), $8; Terra Boa Branco (Beiras, Caves Aliança), $7
ROSE Mateus Rosé (Douro and Bairrada, Sogrape), $7
RED Terra Boa Tinto (Trás-os-Montes, Caves Aliança), $7; Charamba (Douro, Aveleda), $8; Duque de Viseu Red (Dão, Sogrape), $13; Grão Vasco Tinto (Dão, Sogrape), $8; José de Sousa (Alentejo, José Maria da Fonseca), $14; Periquita (Terras do Sado, José Maria da Fonseca), $9; Tinto (Bairrada, Caves Aliança), $8; Tinto da Anfora Red (Alentejo, JP Vinhos), $13; Vila Regia Red (Douro, Sogrape), $8 (Prices may vary from province to province)
Read and drink
To learn more about the good-value wines of Portugal, pick up The Wines and Vineyards of Portugal by Richard Mayson (Mitchell Beazley, 2003, softcover, 354 pages, $40).