Vines have been grown in Portugal for at least 2500 years and wine has been made for much of that period. But the quality (with a few exceptions – mainly the fortified ports) was ordinary at best. And that remained true until well into the last century. It took a political coup in 1974 and Portugal subsequently joining the European Union (EU) before things really began to change.
As one of the poorest nations in Europe, Portugal benefited greatly from EU funding. Roads and electricity reached parts of the country for the first time and, in the wine industry, temperature controlled stainless steel tanks transformed the winemaking process. In the vineyards, too, major reorganisation and replanting occurred setting everything in place for the Portuguese wines we see on the shelves today.
Regions such as the Douro, Dão and Bairrada are, perhaps, the obvious choices, particularly for red wines, but the Alentejo, a vast swathe in the south of the country, hides some real surprises – see my recommendation below.
Portugal’s equivalent of ‘Appellation Contrôlée’ is ‘Denominaçáo de Origem Controlada’ (DOC), but you will also see the term ‘Vinho Regional’ (VR) on labels, which equates to the French ‘Vin de Pays’ and is a category that contains many very drinkable wines from producers who prefer to work outside the DOC rules.
I opened one of these VRs recently – a delicious, fruity red, Vinha do Mouro (Corks, £14.99). A blend of local variety Trincadeira, Aragonez (Spain’s Tempranillo) and Alicante Bouschet with a hint of Cabernet Sauvignon for added tannin and body. The wine had lovely dusty red fruits on the nose with vibrant blackberries and sour cherries on the palate. Despite the warmth of the Alentejo, this wine retains plenty of acidity and would pair extremely well with red meat in a tomato-based sauce.
One last word: most Portuguese reds benefit from an hour or so in a decanter if you’re to enjoy them at their best.