WHITE 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 northern grape is one of Portugal’s finest and most characterful. It was one of the first Portuguese grape varieties to be bottled as a single variety. Its full-bodied, subtly fragrant white wines are easy to recognise, their complex but delicate aromas reminiscent of peach, lemon, passion fruit, lychee, orange zest, jasmin, orange blossom and lemon balm. The wines are delicious young, but they can also age well, often for ten years or more. Alvarinho grows mostly along the River Minho, right up in the north of the Vinho Verde region – the northern Vinho Verde sub-regions of Monção and Melgaço are its famous heartlands. Compared to other Vinho Verde, it makes richer wines, higher in alcohol. Alvarinho vines are vigorous, and care is needed to restrain their exuberant vegetation, yet grape yield is low,e the bunches small, the grapes very pippy.
This is one of the most prized varieties of the Alentejo, until recently grown almost exclusively around Vidigueira. Well suited to the warm and sunny climate on the great plains of the Alentejo, it is reliable and productive, consistent in its ripening. The bunches are big and not too tightly packed, the grapes large, with tough skins. As a rule it produces firm, full-bodied, well-structured wines. Made as a single variety, it has lively aromas, with hints of ripe tropical fruits, tangerine peel and something mineral, along with good structure and body. If picked early, it gives wines with vibrant aroma and crisp acidity. Left to ripen longer, it can reach high levels of alcohol, making it a good candidate for barrel maturation. It is often blended with Roupeiro and Arinto, which contribute refreshing acidity.
This is a versatile grape, grown in most of Portugal’s wine regions. In Vinho Verde country, it goes by the name of Pedernã. It makes vibrant wines with lively, refreshing acidity, often with a mineral quality, along with gentle flavours reminiscent of apple, lime and lemon. Arinto-based wines can keep well but are also delicious young. Because it keeps its acidity even in hot climates, Arinto is often added to other lower-acid white grapes to improve blends – especially in the hot Alentejo and Ribatejo. It makes some of its greatest wines in the small DOC region of Bucelas, just north of Lisbon, where it must account for at least 75 per cent of blends (along with Sercial and Rabo de Ovelha). Its good acidity also makes it a great ingredient for sparkling wines. Arinto’s medium-sized bunches are tightly packed with small grapes.
This grape is to be found mainly in the Beiras, in the DOCs Bairrada and Dão (where, incidentally, it is sometimes called “Borrado das Moscas” or “Fly Droppings”!). Bical wines are especially soft and aromatic, fresh and well structured, typically with aromas of peach and apricot, while in riper years there may be hints of tropical fruit. They respond well to wood maturation, especially with prolonged lees contact. In Bairrada, Bical is used a lot in the production of sparkling wines, often blended with Arinto. In the vineyard it’s an early variety, and although it has good, fresh acidity when picked at the right moment, if picked too late it can become over-alcoholic and a little short on acidity. Despite being highly resistant to rot, it is particularly susceptible to powdery mildew.
For the moment, this grape is restricted very much to the DOC Dão, but watch this space. It is one of Portugal’s absolutely top white grape varieties. The best examples have delicate aromas of roses and violets, light citrus notes, a touch of resin and, in certain conditions, intensely mineral notes. Amongst its virtues is the ability to maintain almost perfect balance between sugar and acidity, making serious, rich, structured wines with extraordinary ageing potential. It is used both as a single variety and as a star ingredient in many Dão blends. The Encruzado vine yields well, presenting no major problems in the vineyard.
This is one of Portugal’s most planted grapes. It grows more or less all over the country, but is particularly important in the regions of Tejo, Lisboa and Bairrada. It’s an aromatic variety – you might detect scents and flavours of lime, lemon, roses and other flowers, tangerines, oranges… and it’s best drunk young. It is also very versatile, sometimes used as a single variety, sometimes blended, sometimes used as a base wine for sparkling wine, and can also be harvested late to make sweet wines. Fernão Pires vines are frost-sensitive, and best suited to warm or hot climates. Outside Portugal, it has been planted with some success in South Africa and Australia. It prefers fertile soils, and gives high yields
This native of the north-eastern part of the Beiras (the northern sector of DOC Beira Interior) has yet to escape the region. It is rare to see a single-variety Fonte Cal – most is blended – but the variety produces big, well-structured wines that are floral, honeyed and fruity, but often sadly low in acidity, and over-high in alcohol. In the vineyard, Fonte Cal is a late-ripening, moderately productive variety, vigorous and leafy, with medium-sized bunches of tightly-packed greenish-yellow grapes.
This Douro grape is now planted right across Portugal and has recently become particularly popular in the Alentejo. It produces fresh, lively wines with good acidity, plenty of body, and fresh, citrus aromas, along with notes of peach and aniseed, and lovely balance. It ages well in bottle. For years it was known as Verdelho in the Douro, which led to confusion, as Gouveio has nothing to do with the Verdelho of Madeira. It ripens quite early, giving relatively high yields of medium-sized, tightly packed bunches of small, yellowish-green grapes that are prone to oidium infection and vulnerable if rain should fall around harvest time.
Although now widely disseminated throughout the Vinho Verde region, it seems that the Loureiro grape originated in the valley of the River Lima, towards the north of the VR Minho/DOC Vinho Verde region. “Loureiro” means “laurel” or “bay” and the aroma of Loureiro wines is said to resemble that of laurel flowers, also orange blossom, acacia and lime blossom, overlaying appley, peachy fruit. Loureiro wines usually have refreshing, well-balanced acidity. Loureiro is much in evidence nowadays bottled as a single variety, but traditionally it was more often blended with Arinto (Pedernã) and Alvarinho, or with Trajadura. It is a very vigorous, high-yielding variety that has only recently been recognised as “noble”. The bunches are elongated and relatively compact, bearing medium-sized, yellowish-greenish grapes
This is a grape of inland northern Portugal, especially the Douro, Dão and Beira Interior; it is also planted in the Távora-Varosa and Lisboa regions. Malvasia Fina wines are subtle, not particularly intense, reasonably fresh and moderately complex. You may detect a hint of molasses, a suggestion of beeswax and nutmeg, and the wine may appear slightly smoky even if it has not been matured in wood. Generally used for blending, it also contributes to base blends for sparkling wines in cooler areas and/or when harvested early, for instance in Távora-Varosa and Lamego. In the vineyard, Malvasia Fina is particularly sensitive to oidium and moderately prone to rot, mildew and coulure, and yields are therefore extremely variable and inconsistent.
This Eastern Mediterranean grape was introduced to the Iberian Peninsula by the Romans. Its distinctive aroma is really easy to recognise – fresh grapes, raisins, lemons, lychees, pears and lime flowers. It has good, fresh acidity. Elsewhere in the world, this type of Muscat is most commonly known as Muscat of Alexandria. It can make light, summery wines, dry or off-dry, or, more often, sweet, fortified wines, most famous of which is Moscatel de Setúbal with its notes of orange zest, honey, spices, iodine, orange blossom and acacia.
Rabo de Ovelha (Rabigado)
Planted throughout the Douro Superior, this is one of the Douro’s best white grapes, contributing bright, refreshing acidity to white blends. When (rarely) it is vinified as a single variety, its aroma is reminiscent of acacia and orange blossom, with vegetal notes and a strongly mineral character, full body and good acid structure. The bunches are medium-sized, the grapes small and greeny-yellow in colour.
This land-locked grape grows in a long north-south strip over by the border with Spain. It has various alternative regional names. Síria is the name used in the Beiras, but it is best known by its southern Alentejo name, Roupeiro – this is the most-planted white grape in the Alentejo. Because it has a tendency to oxidise, Síria/Roupeiro is a wine to drink young, In its youth it is exuberantly aromatic, citrus and floral, with hints of peach, melon and bay. It does better in the cool uplands of the Beiras than in the heat of the Ribatejo and Alentejo, and is particularly successful in the Pinhel region in the northern sector of the Beira Interior. The Síria gives high yields, and both bunches and grapes are small.
Originally from the north of the Vinho Verde region, the Trajadura makes wines with lower acidity and higher alcoholic strength than the other Vinho Verde grapes. This makes it a great candidate for blending in this cool, moist part of the country, where excessive acidity and low alcohol can be a problem even with vines trained in an efficient, modern way. Trajadura is a fairly aromatic variety, with gentle flavours of peach, apricot, apple and ripe pear and a pleasant touch of orange blossom. it is used in popular blends with Alvarinho, and with Loureiro and Arinto. Trajadura has a very long vegetative cycle, buds breaking early, grapes ripening late. The bunches are yellowish-green, tightly packed and medium sized. Yields are very generous.
Verdelho came to fame on Portugal’s islands – Madeira and the Azores- as a base wine for fortified wines. From there it made its way to Australia, where it makes rich, aromatic dry whites. On Madeira it has traditionally been responsible for the tangy, off-dry style of (fortified) Madeira wine. The base wines have high acidity, and can be aromatic. Before the vine-munching phylloxera bug reached Madeira in the late 19th century, Verdelho vines accounted for two-thirds of Madeira’s vineyards. Nowadays very little remains, growing mosly on high ground along the north coast of the island. Bunches of tiny yellowish-green grapes are small and compact.
This north-eastern grape survives for the most part scattered here and there in the old mixed white vineyards of the Douro. Traditionally, Viosinho has been an unpopular variety with growers because of its very low yields. It’s only recently that winemakers have realised what a treasure it is, as a component both in port and in unfortified Douro white blends. It makes full-bodied but fresh, fragrant, well-balanced wines, performing best in hot, sunny climates where it is less prone to oidium and botrytis infection. Bunches and grapes are small and early-ripening.