Liquids: Portuguese Wines

What I’m about to say may shock or upset you. But many of you often write to ask me what the “next big thing” is, so remember: You asked. And I’m answering: It’s Portugal. Yes, Portugal. And no, not port, the dessert wine that gets the British all excited. We’re talking dry table wines of amazing quality—both red and white—made with grapes whose names sound like lyrics from the original Portuguese version of “The Girl from Ipanema.”

Trust me; I’m as surprised as you are. I didn’t expect to fall as hard for these wines as that song’s composers, Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, did for that girl who walked past them on the beach. But when I recently tasted a few Portuguese rising stars, what I found was startling. While Portugal’s fortified port wines are well known, the same grapes are now being used to make wines that smell distinctly of port—plums, dates, coffee, figs, caramel, toffee—which on the palate are fruity, but finish bone dry. That makes them beautiful food wines, too.

Why, then, doesn’t Portugal share the same winemaking popularity as her European cousins? The answer has everything to do with politics. Think about it: France, the winemaking engine that’s led the European model for nearly two centuries, has been a democracy for at least as long. Spain’s newfound popularity is all post-Franco. Even Italy has only come into its own since the end of World War II. And then there’s Portugal: In the past generation she’s made the transition from a dictatorship to a democracy and has been trying to catch up ever since. Well, she’s getting there, and mighty quick.

Even so, I’d bet you probably think “still wines” from Portugal (meaning unfortified wines outside the port tradition) revolve around vinho verdes. But even those are no longer featherweight. For proof, ask your retailer for a bottle of crisp Casa de Vila Verde Vinho Verde ($9), a traditional blend of trajadura, loureiro, and arinto grapes. If there’s one grape to watch among whites, it’s alvarinho, which may look familiar to fans of Spain’s herbaceous albariño grape: It’s the same grape, grown on the opposite side of the border.

The real excitement in Portugal is about the red wines, which have soared in quality over the past year. Though you won’t see grape names on bottles (thanks to the Euro tradition of naming wines for places), the king of these red grapes is the touriga nacional, which yields muscular but elegant wines with lots of red fruit flavors and hints of spice, and a worthy challenger called tinta roriz. The latter imparts the suppleness of pinot noir coupled with the power of cabernet sauvignon. The bottles themselves may not be as eye-catching as the vision that inspired Jobim and de Moraes to write their song back in 1962, but as their wives surely reminded them, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.