Ray Isle (@islewine on Twitter) is Food & Wine’s executive wine editor. We trust his every cork pop and decant – and the man can sniff out a bargain to boot. Take it away, Ray.
What do Arinto, Baga, Castelão, Alfrocheiro, Rabigato, Códega do Larinho and Esgana Cão (which, rather evocatively, translates as “dog strangler”) all have in common? They’re all Portuguese grape varieties, which means they are grown in the place that is currently winning my award for most exciting wine country in the world that the U.S. doesn’t know enough about. Wine’s been made in Portugal for at least a couple of thousand years. Wine lovers here tend to know about one or two Portuguese categories—the crisp whites of Vinho Verde, sweet port from the Douro Valley, fizzy pink Mateus in its oddly shaped bottle.
But there are terrific wines being made up and down the length of this country, white and red, from a plethora of local as well as international grapes. Plus, the quality of the country’s winemaking is at an all-time high.
Here’s a start: Four Portuguese regions worth looking into, with a recommended wine or two for each. Alentejo The hot plains of the Alentejo region in southern Portugal (it covers a third of the country) produce both old-school, dry, brambly reds as well as fruitier, full-bodied, more intense versions. They’re typically blends of red varieties, often featuring the Aragonês (Tempranillo) grape. The smoky 2010 João Portugal Ramos Vila Santa Reserva ($19) is a great example.
Whites are less common, but the tropical-fruited 2012 João Portugal Ramos Vila Santa Loios White ($9) is very good, and an excellent deal. Douro The Douro made its name with Port, one of the world’s great dessert wines. But in recent years the region has also been producing superb table wines, both red and white. The best are quite expensive, but at the affordable level there are some remarkable values.
The peachy 2012 Tons de Duorum White ($12), a blend of (get ready) Viosinho, Rabigato, Verdelho, Arinto, and Moscatel grapes, is one; so is the plummy, thyme-scented 2011 Prazo de Roriz red ($15), which kind of begs to be served with an herb-roasted leg of lamb. Dão A higher-altitude region surrounded by mountains in north-central Portugal, Dão produces elegant, aromatic red wines, usually from the Touriga Nacional, Alfrocheiro and Tinta Roriz (another name for Tempranillo) varieties. The spicy, exotic 2010 Casa de Mouraz Elfa ($17) is made from organically grown grapes.
For a bit of a splurge, though, check out the herb-scented, polished 2009 Álvaro Castro Dão Red ($25), from one of Portugal’s best winemakers. Vinho Verde A region rather than a type of wine, cool, rainy Vinho Verde is located in northern Portugal, and produces tart, high-acid whites that, among other qualities, are ideal with seafood. (It also produces some equally high-acid reds that are pretty harsh going, in my experience.)
Inexpensive, basic wines from producers such as Aveleda and J.M. Fonseca are very reliable, provided the most recent vintage is on the shelf. And even the greatest Vinho Verde wines—such as the complex, single-vineyard 2012 Soalheiro Primeiras Vinhas Alvarinho ($17) or the spicy, layered 2012 Anselmo Mendes Contacto ($21)—are still remarkably affordable.