Because Portugal’s wine culture developed in relative isolation, many grape varieties do not grow anywhere else in the world. If you don’t recognize the grape variety on a Portuguese wine label, it’s a good thing. There are over 250 indigenous varieties and a few imports (including Alicante Bouschet) that have adapted well to the Portuguese landscape (i.e., they are delicious). Vines are planted in all types of soils, from sand to shale, and exposed to diverse microclimates, from the influence of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean to the influence of Continental Europe. The result is an exciting range of wines that is as diverse as it is unique.
To many wine experts, Portugal is the last frontier of wine in Western Europe; there is still so much to be tasted and explored. With all the excitement Portugal offers, let’s look at the major Portuguese grapes. Challenge your senses. Enjoy the unique.
This northern grape is one of Portugal’s finest and most characterful. It was one of the first Portuguese grape varieties to be bottled as a single variety. Its full-bodied, subtly fragrant white wines are easy to recognise, their complex but delicate aromas reminiscent of peach, lemon, passion fruit, lychee, orange zest, jasmin, orange blossom and lemon balm.
The wines are delicious young, but they can also age well, often for ten years or more. Alvarinho vines are vigorous, and care is needed to restrain their exuberant vegetation, yet grape yield is low, the bunches small, the grapes very pippy.
This is a versatile grape, grown in most of Portugal’s wine regions. In Vinho Verde country, it goes by the name of Pedernã. It makes vibrant wines with lively, refreshing acidity, often with a mineral quality, along with gentle flavours reminiscent of apple, lime and lemon.
Arinto-based wines can keep well but are also delicious young. Because it keeps its acidity, even in hot climates, Arinto is often added to other lower-acid white grapes to improve blends – especially in the hot Alentejo and Ribatejo. Its good acidity also makes it a great ingredient for sparkling wines.
For the moment, this grape is restricted very much to the DOC Dão, but watch this space. It is one of Portugal’s absolutley top white grape varieties. The best examples have delicate aromas of roses and violets, light citrus notes, a touch of resin and, in certain conditions, intensely mineral notes.
Amongst its virtues is the ability to maintain almost perfect balace between sugar and acidity, making serious, rich, structured wines with extraordinary ageing potential. It is used both as a single variety and as a star ingredient in many Dão blends.
This is one of Portugal’s most planted grapes. It grows more or less all over the country, but is particularly important in the regions of Tejo, Lisboa and Bairrada. It’s an aromatic variety – you might detect scents and flavours of lime, lemon, roses and other flowers, tangerines, oranges… and it’s best drunk young.
It is also very versatile, sometimes used as a single variety, sometimes blended, sometimes used as a base wine for sparkling wine, and can also be harvested late to make sweet wines.
Fernão Pires vines are frost-sensitive, and best suited to warm or hot climates. Outside Portugal, it has been planted with some success in South Africa and Australia. It prefers fertile soils, and gives high yields.
Few would dispute that the Touriga Nacional is Portugal’s finest red grape variety, deserving a place right up at the top of the world league of grapes, along with the likes of Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo.
Though Northern in origin, it has spread right across the country – you will find it down south in the Algarve and the Alentejo, out west in the Ribatejo/Tejo and Setúbal regions, successfully competing with the local Baga grape in Bairrada, and way out mid-Atlantic in the Azores. Touriga Nacional is a thick-skinned grape, and those skins are rich in colour and tannins, giving excellent structure and ageing capicity. But it also has wonderful, intense flavours, at the same time floral and fruity – ripe blackcurrants, raspberries – with complex hints also of herbs and liquorice. Yields are never high. The Dão and Douro regions both claim to be the origin of this fine grape, and the rest of the winemaking world is beginning to wake up to its quality.
This is one of the most commonly-planted grapes in the south of the country. It is especially popular in the regions Tejo, Lisboa, Península de Setúbal and Alentejo, and is happiest in hot climates and dry, sandy soils. It performs at its best in the Palmela region of the Setúbal Peninsula south of Lisbon, in old vineyards in the hot, sandy soils around Peceirão. Castelão grapes from carefully-managed, low-yielding old vines can be made into well-structured wines with plenty of tannin and acidity, and fruit reminiscent of redcurrants, preserved plums and berries, sometimes with a hint of well-hung game. Castelão is rarely able to shake off a rustic character. The best examples can age very well, sometimes resembling fine old Cabernet when mature.
Bairrada is the famous home of the difficult Baga grape, but it is also to be found widely elsewhere in the Beiras, including Dão.
Baga grapes are small and thick-skinned (which makes for high tannin levels in the juice), and the grapes ripen late, indeed inadequately in cooler, damper years, especially if planted in an inappropriate place. Baga performs best on clay soils and requires good exposition to the sun. Even then, it is highly susceptible to rot, especially in September rains. The vines produce exuberant foliage, creating a lot of work in the vineyard for quality-conscious growers. When the grapes ripen well, in dry years, Baga wines have deep colour and a rich but lean, tannic, high-acid structure, with clear flavours of berries and black plums and hints of coffee, hay, tobacco and smoke. Though often astringent when young, Baga wines (especially the best ones from Bairrada) can age remarkably well, softening and gaining elegance and a herby, cedary, dried fruit complexity.
This is one of the structural pillars of red Douro blends, and also one of the five officially recommended grapes for port.
It’s the most widely planted grape in the Douro, currently accounting for around a fifth of total vineyard area, and it is now much planted right across the northern half of Portugal. The Touriga Franca makes richly-coloured, dense yet elegant wines with copious blackberry fruit and floral notes (roses, rock roses, wild flowers…) and firm but velvety tannins that contribute to the ageing potential of blends – it is often blended with Tinta Roriz and Touriga Nacional. Apart from the quality of its wines, it is popular in the vineyard for its resistance to pests and diseases and its reliably good crops of healthy grapes.
This is one of the rare grape varieties to be prized on both sides of the border.
Tempranillo to the Spanish, the Portuguese call it by two different names depending on the region: Aragonês and Tinta Roriz (the latter name is used only in the Dão and Douro regions). In recent years it has spread rapidly throughout the Dão, Ribatejo/Tejo and Lisboa regions. It can make rich, lively red wines that combine elegance and robustness, copious berry fruit and spicy flavour. It’s an early variety (that’s what “Tempranillo” means in Spanish). The vines are very vigorous and productive and adapt well to different climates and soils, altough it prefers hot, dry climates on sandy or clay-limestone soils. It tends to be blended with other varieties, typically Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca, and also with Trincadeira and Alicante Bouschet in the Alentejo.
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