It has always seemed unfair that the wine world’s sunniest regions struggle to produce what all that heat calls out for – light, refreshing white wines to slake the thirst. In warm climates it is far easier to come up with big, rich red wines.
A case in point is Portugal, a country whose wines were traditionally noted for muscle and power rather than delicacy. Not only does Portugal produce plenty of hearty reds but it is also responsible for two of the world’s greatest fortified wines, namely Port and Madeira. All very good if you are seeking something to keep you warm on a miserable winter night, but not the sort of wine you want to sip when sunning yourself on a patio in the Algarve.
Yet things have changed in Portugal. The overall quality of winemaking has improved greatly over the past decade or so, and nowhere is this more evident than in the white wines. More attention to viticulture and better winemaking has led to huge improvements. Irish tourists basking on the beaches of the Algarve can now enjoy a wide range of very well made white wines, perfect for hot sunny days. While the rest of the world blindly followed the Cabernet-Chardonnay trail, Portugal stuck to its own indigenous grape varieties. It isn’t that the country was immune to foreign influences; influential Australian winemakers such as David Baverstock and Peter Bright have spent most of their winemaking lives there. Possibly the Portuguese knew that with red grapes such as Touriga Nacional, Baga, Trincadeira and Alfrocheiro, and a few adopted varieties such as Aragonez (Tempranillo) and Alicante Bouschet from elsewhere, they had no need for foreign interlopers. Besides any wine producing country with grapes called Bastardo, Dog Strangler and Ewe’s Tail deserves our attention. The last decade has shown that the red wines can compare favourably with the competition.
The white grapes are even less well known than the reds but equally interesting. You will come across some Sauvignon and Viognier, but by and large, the white wines too are made exclusively from indigenous grapes. To the far north in Minho, the vineyards bordering Galicia in Spain are now producing some excellent fresh, crisp, light white wines, often made from the same grape varieties as over the border, Alvarinho and Loureiro. The Portugese versions tend to be lighter and with less body. The traditional white vinho verde (it can be either red or white) has a light spritz and sometimes a little residual sugar. In the past, some were a little too feeble, but there are some excellent examples available now. These wines were the stars of my tasting; I feature three below.
The most innovative wine region of Portugal is Alentejo. The red wines tend to get the most attention, but the white wines can be delicious and very well-priced too. Local grapes include Roupeiro and Antão Vaz both of which retain their acidity, useful in the baking interior sun. But the real star is the Arinto grape. Light and crisp with delicious lemony pear fruits, it is showing real promise both in the Alentejo and other regions around Portugal. Fernao Pires is more aromatic and fruitier. Dão, once home to some of Portugal’s most disappointing wines, now produces some very promising white (alongside some good reds) made from the Bical and Encruzado grapes. Even the Douro, famous for Port, is getting in on the act with some good white wines. As with every country, you will find some over-extracted and over-oaked wines, but the vast majority of Portuguese whites are light to medium-bodied and offer real interest. As one winemaker told me “Portuguese wines are the most different in the world. I don’t know why, but they all have a distinct character. I am not saying they are the best, just that they are different.”
Understanding the labels and grape varieties can be a challenge, but it is worth a little effort. I tasted 17 wines for this article, and enjoyed all bar one. There were plenty of very pleasant peachy, dry whites, all 13-13.5% alcohol, and some really delicious lighter elegant Vinho Verdes.
If you are enjoying a late break in Portugal or trying to rekindle summer memories here in Ireland, it is certainly worth giving the wines below a trial. They make a very pleasant change from Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio and other more familiar names.