The present article complements a post on reading labels of Portugal wines.
The Portuguese are a sea-faring nation – and accordingly, some of their most famous wines have been moulded by the tastes and demands of their export markets. That is the case with both Madeira and port, two of the greatest fortified wines in the world. Portugal’s table wines, though, have, until quite recently, been far more inward-looking.
The influence of the sea has been limited to moderating the climate of the vineyards on the Atlantic coast, so that the western stretch of the river Douro produces light, acidic Vinho Verdes. The climate here is cool and wet; only further upriver does it become hot and dry enough to grow grapes for port. Most of the northern two-thirds of the country gets sufficient rain for the vine’s needs; the most southerly third is hotter and drier, and only sparsely planted with vines.
Port is shipped from the city of Oporto (at the mouth of the river Douro) to the rest of the world. The boats, barcos rabelos in Portuguese, were traditionally used for shipping the wine down from the vineyards further up the river. Now they have been replaced by road tankers.
The Douro Valley
Far up the valley of the Douro, where port wine is grown and made, the river has carved a path for itself through schist and granite. Terraces have to be cut into the schistous rock (the granite may not be planted with vines) for the vine to gain a foothold; it is a region of poor soil and extreme temperatures where the mountains of the Serra de Marão keep off the rain for weeks at a time in the summer. The finest vineyards are east of Pinhão where the quintas are shoulder-to-shoulder along the hillsides. Further upstream the hills flatten out and increasing labour costs are causing many companies to plant vines here because of the ease of mechanization; downriver the wines are generally of lower quality and are used to make cheaper ports.
According to legend, when the Portuguese first landed on this island off the coast of Africa in 1420, they set fire to the dense woodland that covered the entire island. The fire continued to burn for many years, and at the end of it the already rich volcanic soil was even more fertile, enriched with ash. Nowadays it is hard to miss the fecundity of Madeira’s soil. Flowers are everywhere, and bananas compete with vines for land. Rich though the soil is, only the slopes around the coast are planted with vines. The centre is too mountainous and is usually cloud-covered. Indeed, there is no flat land at all on Madeira: the mountains drop straight into the sea and the vines have to be planted on terraces. Humidity, and the problems of rot that go with it, are a constant problem.
There are many indigenous Portuguese grapes. Red varieties include the Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and others used in making port and Douro table wines – Baga in Bairrada, and Periquita, Trincadeira and Aragonês (Tinta Roriz) in the south. Tinta Negra Mole still accounts for about half of the plantings on Madeira.
Of the white varieties, Arinto is grown almost everywhere, while Alvarinho is important in Vinho Verde. Fernão Pires contributes character to the southern wines. Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malvasia, along with Terrantez, make the classic styles of Madeira.