RED GRAPES FROM PORTUGAL
Portugal possesses a large array of native grape varieties, producing a wide array of different Portuguese wines. The absence of widespread usage of international varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, is a unique hallmark of Portuguese wines. Under the Portuguese appellation system of Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC), each Portuguese wine region has certain casta or grape varieties that are authorized for wine production in that region. Wines produced from grapes outside of the authorized list are not permitted to use a DOC on the wine label but instead must be sold as simple table wine under the Vinho Regional (VR) designation.
According to the Method of Punctuation of the Plots of Land of Vineyards of the Region of Douro (decree nº 413/2001), there were 30 recommended and 82 permitted grape varieties in Port wine production. The quality and characteristics of each grape varies with the classification of grape varieties making a distinction between “Very Good”, “Good”, “Average”, “Mediocre” and “Bad” quality grapes. But this classification is actually in revaluation based on the technical and scientific data of the CEVD (Center of Wine Studies of Douro). The six most widely used grapes for red Port wine are Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cão and Tinta Amarela.
This is a Dão grape by origin, but it has spread successfully southwards into the Alentejo, Ribatejo/Tejo and Palmela regions because of its ability to retain good acidity even in hot climates. The wines are rich in colour with firm but ripe tannins and a good balance of tannins, alcohol, acidity and attractive, berry fruit, reminiscent in particular of blackberries and ripe stawberries. The vines are vigorous, requiring more attention than many other varieties to keep the vegetation under control, and they are prone to attack by oidium and botrytis
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.
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 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
Jaen shows at its best in the Dão region, and that’s where most of it is grown. The vines are vigorous, prone to mildew and botrytis infection, and the grapes ripen early, providing low acidity and poor colour. At worst its wines are watery and acidic, at best highly perfumed, reminiscent of blackberry, blueberry and cherry. Despite a slightly rustic character, it can make early-drinking, soft, silky reds that are simple yet seductive.
There is still quite a lot of Moreto in the Alentejo, but it is losing ground, except in a few areas near the Spanish border. It was popular in the Alentejo in the past because even in the region’s hot temperatures and blazing sun it managed to give high yields. On the negative side, however, Moreto’s sugar/potential alcohol levels are low, it has little in the way of aroma, and the wines do not keep well. It is usually blended in with Trincadeira, Aragonez and/or Tinta Caiada.
Moscatel Galego Roxo This grape began life as a natural genetic mutation of Moscatel Galego, of which there were small quantities in the Setúbal Peninsula. It makes fortified wines similar to those from the “Moscatel de Setúbal” grape, but with more complex aromas and flavours. In comparison to Moscatel Galego, the bunches and grapes are smaller, and in colour an exotic pink as opposed to yellowish-green. Fortified wines made from Moscatel Galego Roxo are sweeter and very aromatic with a long after-taste.
Ramisco is confined to the tiny and once famous region of Colares, in the sand dunes west of Lisbon and the palaces of Sintra. Vineyard land is shrinking, and no wonder. Colares is right next to the wonderful surfing beach of Guincho, just a short drive from Lisbon, and far more money is to be made from building villas than from growing vines. All the more so because growing vines in Colares is a difficult and exhausting business. The vines are planted ungrafted, on their own roots, deep into the sand (the phylloxera bug cannot survive in sand). Ramisco produces wines with hard tannins and high acidity, not much fun in their youth, but, if well made, capable of long ageing in bottle.
You will rarely see this grape as a single variety. It goes into blends in the Douro, Dão and the northern and central parts of the Beira Interior, over by the Spanish border, and is mostly found in old, mixed vineyards. It is a difficult grape, prone to mildew and oidium attacks, and a late ripener, sometimes failing to ripen fully before the rains set in late October. However, yields are good, and when it does manage to ripen fully, it makes full-bodied, fruity, aromatic wines than can age well in bottle.
This is one of the most commonly-planted vines in the Douro, and one of the five officially recommended varieties for port. You will rarely meet it as a single variety, but it forms part of most red Douro blends, contributing dark colour without too much tannin, thanks to its dark but thin skins, along with plummy, cherry fruit. Despite high yields, its grapes are rich in sugar and potential alcohol, and it is a reliable producer, with good resistance to pests and diseases. However, it copes badly in excessive heat and water stress, and grapes that suddenly become over-ripe can rapidly turn to raisins on the vine. It has been exported to South Africa where is is a component in port-style wines as well as making some varietal table wines
This is one of those Portuguese grapes that you find mostly in mixed old vineyards in the Alentejo. Its wines are intensely coloured, with good acidity and pleasant aromas of ripe fruit with vegetative notes. If made as a single-variety table wine, it is best drunk young. It’s not an easy grape to grow, sensitive to rot, and requiring a really hot climate to ripen properly.
In the Dão region, this grape is a relatively recent arrival, but in the Douro it dates back to the 18th century, and is now one of the five officially recommended grapes. Although it has drawbacks economically, it makes fine wines. Its quality is evident in the perfect balance between tannins, acidity and sugar in the juice, in the firm but ripe quality of its tannins, and its rich colour. The wines are floral, dense and well structured, and can be very long-lived. It is frequently blended with Touriga Nacional and Aragonez, amongst others. The dense, thick skins of Tinto Cão grapes not only give rich tannins and colour, they also provide protection from mildew and rot. So what are its problems? It is late-ripening, and produces incredibly low yields, so low as to be economically unviable, and it is possibly therefore destined to die out.
This is the main grape of the island of Madeira, where it is much used in fortified wines but also in the island’s table wines. Unfortified, it makes rather neutral and characterless rosés or pale reds, sometimes amber-coloured owing to premature oxidation. From vine to vine in the vineyard, grape colour can vary from bluish-black to pink. Luckily, variable and wishy-washy colour is not a problem as far as Madeira’s fortified wines are concerned. The variety became popular on Madeira because of its high yields, resistance to diseases and great versatility – it was dubbed “the cameleon grape” because of its ability to emulate the styles of the island’s historic “noble” varieties.
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.
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.
Rich in colour, with good acidity and rarely an excess of alcohol, Trincadeira (as it’s known in the Alentejo) or Tinta Amarela (if you are speaking to a Douro producer) makes wines of serious quality when ripe, but it does not always achieve ripeness. Properly ripened, it has vibrant raspberry fruit tempered by herby, peppery, spicy, floral complexity, and it can age well. Under-ripe, it tastes herbaceous. It is a difficult vine to grow, producing exuberant amounts of foliage and needing constant trimming to prevent those vegetal flavours. Yields are generally high, but unreliable. It is very sensitive to rot and other vineyard diseases. For this reason it does better in hot, dry places, and is therefore particularly at home in the Alentejo and Ribatejo/Tejo areas: these are the regions where it really shines. But it is grown througout Portugal.
Famous for its biting acidity and dark, opaque colour, Vinhão is the most-planted grape of the Vinho Verde/Minho region. Unlike most red grapes, where practically all the colour comes from the skins, Vinhão also has red flesh and therefore instant red juice, which then darkens further once the blue-black skins have time to macerate. This is an especial advantage in the case of port production, where colour needs to be extracted very quickly. In the Douro Valley it goes by the name of Souzão, and it is currently being quite widely replanted. Vinhão originated in the Vinho Verde/Minho region, and only later migrated to the Douro.