Roughly the same size as Maine, Portugal may be diminutive compared to its European neighbors, but its diverse pool of native grapes is capturing the attention of wine enthusiasts around the world. Portugal already ranks ninth for U.S. wine imports, according to the American Association of Wine Economists, a nonprofit research organization in New York City, and the numbers are growing steadily year over year.
From 2000 to 2017, U.S. imports of Portuguese wines rose from 5.2 million liters to 16.2 million liters, according to ViniPortugal, the country’s wine trade organization. While Portugal’s sweet fortified wine, port, remains its best-known import, the growth is dominated by still wines.
“The Portuguese category has grown 50 percent over the last five years due to many factors,” says Rui Abecassis, the founder of Obrigado, an import company with offices in New Rochelle, New York, and Monte Estoril, Portugal. Obrigado started with just one Vinho Verde in 2011 and now has 70 Portuguese wines in its portfolio. “The [U.S.] market,” says Abecassis, “is being offered better, more original, and more expensive Portuguese wines that have commanded respect and love from the wine community around the country.”
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With more than 250 native grape varieties and the highest density of indigenous grapes per square mile of any country in the world, according to Wines of Portugal, Portugal has a lot to offer the adventurous wine drinker. Deciphering the characteristics of these native grape varieties can be a challenge for consumers, though, as Portuguese wines are traditionally blends.
Here are a handful of Portugal’s lesser-known grape varieties that are finding their way onto the wine lists of top restaurants around the U.S.:
Encruzado (White; Dão)
The belle of the Dão, Encruzado is the most prized white variety in the region. Known for its floral, mineral, and light citrus aromas, it makes balanced white wines that retain acidity and finesse along with a structure that has the potential for bottle aging. “Encruzado is an interesting grape because we can drink it within one year,” says Dão winemaker Carlos Lucas of Magnum in Oliveira do Conde. “But we can also age it for over 15 years and let it develop petrol notes and great complexity.”
Irene Justiniani, the general manager of Aldea, a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York City that specializes in Iberian cuisine, says that there are three dozen Portuguese wines on Aldea’s list. “Encruzado from the Dão really speaks to me with white Burgundy and Rhône characteristics,” she says. “These wines combine bright fruit, minerality, and a unique texture.”
Arinto dos Açores (White; Azores)
Not to be confused with Arinto (a commonly planted white grape on mainland Portugal that’s typically used as a backbone for white blends because of its high acidity), Arinto dos Açores is a variety native to the volcanic Azores Islands. These bush-trained vines grown on the black basalt soils are just meters from the Atlantic Coast, and the wines made from them reflect their terroir.
“While Arinto from the mainland is also known for its acid and longevity,” says Abecassis, “Arinto dos Açores is a ‘salt bomb’ from the middle of the Atlantic. Portugal has so many exciting things happening right now, including these wines from the Azores that are crisp, mineral-driven, and salty.”
Alvarinho (White; Vinho Verde)
The world is already smitten with Albariño from Spain, just over the border, but the Albariño grape is also native to Portugal, where it’s called Alvarinho. While Portuguese wine producers have historically preferred to blend grapes, Alvarinho was the exception that led to the single-varietal boom currently underway, particularly in subregions of Monção and Melgaço.
From the northernmost part of Portugal, in Vinho Verde territory, Alvarinho is typically defined by peach, citrus, and blossom aromas, with a spritzy finish. Although the spritzy style of Vinho Verde is better known, dozens of producers are making wines from Vinho Verde that have no effervescence, are more complex, and have aging potential.
“Vinho Verde is the largest DOC in Portugal, so there are lots of variables within it,” says winemaker Tony Smith from Quinta de Covela in São Tomé de Covelas. “Alvarinho is considered to be the top grape of Vinho Verde, and it makes a very fine wine, very aromatic and beautiful.”
Other Vinho Verde grapes gaining attention include Avesso, Arinto, and Loureiro.
Fernão Pires (White; nationwide)
Portugal’s most planted white variety is spread throughout the country’s wine regions, accounting for some 13,000 hectares. The most notable regions for Fernão Pires are Tejo, Lisboa, and Bairrada (where the variety is called Maria Gomes).
Intensely aromatic, this white wine has floral and citrus notes and can be found as a monovarietal, in blends, as a sweet wine, and as a sparkling wine.
Ramisco (Red; Colares)
Ramisco, of which there are only 20 hectares left in the world, comes from a remarkable terroir and may be suited strictly for wine geeks. Vines are grown in chalky clay trenches dug into the sandy soils of Colares on the coast of Lisbon, where old vines remain on their own pre-phylloxera rootstock.
Ramisco wines tend to be aged in bottle for many years because of their high acidity and ferocious tannins, and they’re renowned for achieving finesse after a decade in bottle. “I can’t get enough of these floral, medium-bodied reds with refreshing salty minerality,” says Justiniani, who has a 1999 vintage from Viúva Gomes on her list. “Drinking a bottle of Ramisco is like going back in time.”
Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional (Red; nationwide)
These two red grapes are major players in port production; today, however, they’re becoming the darlings of Douro and Dão red wines. Touriga Franca is Portugal’s second most planted variety, claiming over 15,000 hectares of vines, and Touriga Nacional is in fifth place, with 12,000 hectares and counting.
Touriga Nacional is seeing an upswing in plantings—not only is it considered the finest of port grapes but it has great winemaking potential. Dark, perfumed, and characterized by high tannin and fruit concentration, Touriga Nacional is a structured and powerful wine. Touriga Franca is the fleshier variety (often compared as Cabernet Franc to Touriga Nacional’s Cabernet Sauvignon). The other important port grape often found in modern Douro blends is Tinta Roriz (also known as Tempranillo), which accounts for the lion’s share of Portuguese plantings, with 18,000 hectares.
“The ‘New Douro’ has a dozen or so noninterventionist winemakers offering Douro 3.0,” says Abecassis. “The Douro has produced port wine for 300 years, but now is the time for terroir-ists—young winemakers bringing novelty to this old DOC and its 45,000 hectares.”
Baga (Red; Bairrada, Dão, Ribatejo)
Mostly associated with the Bairrada DOC, Baga is a red grape that can be a challenge in the vineyard; its thick, tannic skin and naturally high yield can make phenolic ripeness difficult to achieve in cooler, wetter years. When managed correctly, though, Baga can produce appetizing lean and tannic wines with racy acidity and high-toned berry notes as well as coffee and tobacco aromas.
“Lighter wines from Bairrada are all the rage,” says Justiniani, who also stocks a 2011 sparkling rosé made from Baga grapes—Quinta de Moinho by the Luís Pato winery in Amoreira da Gândara. “Reds made from Baga are unique, savory, and food-friendly wines.”
Amanda Barnes is a British wine writer who since 2009 has been based in South America, where she specializes in the wines and regions of Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay and writes the South America Wine Guide. Ever footloose, she is currently on a mission to travel Around the World in 80 Harvests.