Why It’s Time to Try Portuguese Whites
These top value wines are suddenly everywhere — here’s why
Time. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about during Covid. Specifically, how my perception of time has changed. I went from a busy New York life — dining out, meeting friends, and attending events most evenings — to a homebound existence, practically overnight.
In the ensuing 18 months, time has felt twisted and warped. Some days seem to take forever, with a grating, Groundhog Day-like tediousness. Other days — especially when visiting friends — speed by, and I’m anxious to savor every moment. Who knows when we’ll see each other again?
Time is also fraught for wine, but here it’s an issue of scale, not perception. Human years and vine years don’t line up very well. A vineyard planted today may not reach its full potential for 20 or even 50 years. Vine-growers and winemakers face down their own mortality with each passing vintage. Will I be around when this vineyard or this bottle reaches its peak?
For me, that’s one of the draws of wine. Each vintage is unique, reflective of a specific moment and a particular set of circumstances. Once a bottle is finished, that’s it. There will never be another exactly like it again.
That brings us to Portugal. Its wine industry has the best “vagaries of time” story around. The past 30 years have been nothing short of transformative — for reasons you might not expect.
There are incredible reds around the $20 price point, but today, we’ll explore the whites. They tend to be bright and mineral-driven, made from the country’s indigenous grapes, meaning grapes from Portugal that mostly only grow there. I’ve been taking refreshing Vinho Verdes to the pool, and uncorking complex Alentejo blends to elevate weeknight dinners. Best of all: Most of these wines drink at twice their price tag.
What to Know
Portugal has a deep winemaking history. Here’s a quick spin through the highlights, from 2000 BC to 2000 AD (and beyond).
The archaeological record indicates that wine has been made in the area that’s now Portugal since around 2000 BC.
Ancient Greeks and Romans were key to developing viticulture in this area.
In 1386, Portugal and England enter a treaty that’s favorable for the wine trade. That close relationship continues today.
Fortified Port wines become popular in the 1700s, and scandals around grape sourcing lead to the formation of an early appellation designation.
Portugal was closed off for much of the 20th century by the Salazar dictatorship. During that time, government sanctioned cooperatives churned out cheap, low quality wines.
It’s a mouthful, but one that leads to the transformation I teased earlier. Following a period of military rule, the country transitioned to democracy and joined the EU in 1986. Since then, a winemaking revolution has ensued. The EU funded millions of dollars in grants and low-interest loans for small growers and producers. Additional private investment brought further advances in viticulture and winemaking, with exciting wines emerging in the late 90s and early 2000s. That was one unexpected advancement.
The other was the global financial crisis of 2008. Prior to the crash, much of the country’s top quality wine was being drunk at home. Overnight, the industry’s focus shifted to exports — and American wine enthusiasts are among the key beneficiaries.
Among their draws, most Portuguese wines offer a distinctive sense of place. There are an astounding 250 indigenous grape varieties grown here, giving wines with unique flavors and textures that you won’t find elsewhere. But it also means that you can’t easily shop by variety. You’ll see many wines labeled Branco, meaning white, and that could indicate a single variety or a blend.
So it’s better to search by region. Portugal has significant climactic and geographic diversity for a country the size of Indiana, and that’s reflected in the wines. These are the key regions and wines to look for:
Alentejo — A hot, dry southern region that I’m really excited about. (Interestingly, about half of the world’s supply of cork is grown here.) The Alentejo is known for savory, mineral-driven white blends made from a range of indigenous grapes, including Arinto, Roupeiro, and Antão Vaz.
Dão — A warm, inland region ringed by mountains, best-known for reds, but with some great whites too. Look for Encruzado, which is often stylistically compared to Chardonnay, but with additional piney, floral notes. Blended whites are also common here.
Douro — Most famous for fortified Port wines and powerful red blends, this mountainous region also makes minerally white blends.
Vinho Verde — A cool, wet northern region that makes crisp, low-alcohol, aromatic whites from the Loureiro and Padernã grape. Alvarinho is also made here in a similar style to Spain’s Albariño, which I’ve written about.
Across Portugal, the white wines tend to have restrained alcohol levels, making them sessionable picks for brunch or afternoon sipping. The ones I’m recommending range from 11% to 12.5% alcohol. And they’re organic or biodynamic, a trend that has picked up in the country in recent years. Look for a green flag with a leaf outline on the bottle’s back label to identify certified organic producers.
The upshot is that it’s a perfect moment for American imbibers to try Portuguese wines. And the flood of great wines isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Portuguese exports to the U.S. have continued to rise, even during Covid. I’ll drink to that.
Three to Try
The whites I’m recommending are all bright and fresh, and more savory than fruit-driven. They vary in weight and texture. If you can’t find these bottles, no problem. Ask a shopkeeper for recommendations, or seek out one of the producers I mention above.
Top pick. This wine is made by wine writer and former ballet dancer João Afonso, who bought a run down farm with an abandoned vineyard in the Alentejo in 2009. He revived the vineyards and farms biodynamically, making lovely wines like this white blend, featuring 14 different grape varieties. This wine is fresh, with wild herb and stony minerality that evolves into a saline finish. I enjoyed it with this zucchini, basil, and pecorino salad.
An unusually complex Vinho Verde, this wine is juicy and layered, with a slight grapefruit pith bitterness and savoriness, and a creme fraiche tang. The wine is made by Tiago Sampaio, who farms organically in the Douro region. Vinho Verde means “green wine,” referring to their youthful state as wines meant to be drunk young. Note that there are plenty of Vinho Verde available at the $10 level; these tend to be simple and fruity. For wines with more complexity, look to bottles like this one in the $20 range. Try it at happy hour with cheese and crackers, or eggplant caponata.
Winemaker José Mota Capitão farms biodynamically in a cooler part of the Alentejo region, on hilly slopes. He makes some fascinating wines like this white blend. It’s complex, with savory and saline flavors. This is one of those bottles wine people love to geek out on — it evolves as you sip it, revealing new flavors and textures. I enjoyed it with dill-accented crab cakes and an arugula salad.