Vinho – tinto, branco or verde and, of course, Porto
As expats, we’re often asked by our friends and family from back home (wherever that is): “Are you crazy? Why Portugal?” Particularly if you’ve moved to the Algarve, the answer is easy – the weather.
I then go on to explain that the cost of living is very much what retired people are looking for and that the country is considered one of the safest in the world. Eventually, I wax poetic about the history and scenery, the culture and how generous the people are. I don’t usually mention the wine because that wasn’t a reason for the move, and it would sound rather shallow. However, Portuguese wine is one of the leading reasons why I’m glad my lovely wife and I are now residents.
I remember the first time I wandered into my local Pingo Doce looking to stock up. As I scanned the shelves, I noticed some bottles on sale for under €2, so I grabbed two or three bottles of white to try, hoping for something drinkable. They were fine; I mean good even. Cautiously, I was soon venturing up to the €3 and sometimes even the €4 shelves and purchasing wines that my lovely wife and I really enjoy. This was a thrilling experience because I was still paying US$5-10 equivalent less per bottle than I spent for wine back in Panama or the States.
I was a happy guy pushing my shopping cart out to the parking lot loaded with six bottles of white and six bottles of red that didn’t cost me more than €40. I know teetotalers who never drank before moving to Portugal but now have a nip every once in a while, because, in their words, “it’s so affordable”; which is an understatement. Portuguese wine is not ‘inexpensive’; it’s ‘cheap’, which is the lowest score on the cost chart, way under ‘affordable’ or ‘good value’ or ‘priced right’.
Even somewhat more importantly, the wine is often of excellent quality – in other words it tastes good, mostly even very good. We’re not sacrificing to live outside of Trump’s orbit, we’re being rewarded. Most of my fellow expats agree that they enjoy paying under €20 at a restaurant for a comparable bottle that would cost at least twice as much back home (wherever that is).
In my experience, I almost always go with the house wine, because the proprietors not only take pride in serving the good stuff but want to make it attractive and price it most reasonably. Yup – cheap again.
During a road trip through Évora, I noticed that wine offered at our hotel was priced at around €7. So after lunch out, I thought it might be economical to buy another bottle of the type we enjoyed at the restaurant to bring back, just in case. I was pleasantly surprised to discover it cost €3. I was then tempted to procure more than one bottle, maybe a case, just in case.
Now, I’ll admit I’m not a connoisseur, and I’m kinda glad I’m not an expert like the Resident’s very own Patrick Stuart. It would be a shame to not be able to enjoy the cheap stuff.
I do wish that Monsieur Stuart would just sometimes venture off the top shelf (if he can stand it), and help out ordinary smucks like me who are on a fixed income by spotting some real steals on the lower tiers of the wine rack. On the other hand, the very good wines he is recommending would cost a fortune at a liquor store in New York or London. So, in actuality, his choices are true bargains.
Portugal is the 10th largest wine producer in the world with more indigenous (native) grape varieties than any other country at around 200.
In 1756, the Douro Valley was the world’s first official demarcated wine region and now Alto Douro is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. All Portuguese wines are stamped with an authenticity seal. Port, or Vinho do Porto, the world-renowned fortified wine from the Douro River Valley, has the same kind of regional exclusivity that the Champagne region enjoys in France. It is why a cruise across on the Douro River is such a treat, besides the beautifully scenic vineyards.
It hasn’t taken me long to have my own favourite regions. It is the ideal combination of microclimates and soil types, matched with the specific and unique features of the various varieties developed over the centuries, that makes Portuguese wine so outstanding. Personally, I prefer the full-bodied Douro reds, while going for the clean, dry and straightforward whites from the Alentejo region. We’ve also enjoyed some wines from the Setúbal region and recently tasted a very nice white from Bairrada while on a delightful trip to Coimbra. And on it goes. The Dão blends are also very reliable. A little known fact about Portuguese wines is that Madeira was used to toast American Independence at the inauguration of George Washington. So it’s never been a secret that Portugal provides some of the more preferred wines.
While some of the names for native grapes are tongue twisters, such as Alfrocheiro or Trincadeira, it’s usually safe to order the house wine by colour alone. To be honest, my lovely wife and I are not fans of Vinho Verde and not just because “green” doesn’t sound right. Few folks like everything, but we have plenty to choose from and finding more all the time is one of the pleasures of residing where we do.
Portugal leads the world in wine consumption per capita at about 54 litres, or 72 bottles, per person per year, which is more than double what Spain is able to accomplish. I know my buddies at the pub take pride in their contributions to this impressive statistic. Portugal also ranks between the seventh or ninth (depending on your source) largest exporter of fermented grape products.
So why is local wine so cheap? For one thing, I have read different numbers, but it is possible that the Portuguese themselves consume as much as 70% of the wine produced. This means that the wine doesn’t have to travel far before it meets the lips of an appreciative taster. When wine is exported and then imported somewhere else, like the US or the UK or even the USSR, that means it’s stacked on pallets and then rides on a truck or trucks, maybe a train, then on a ship or airplane and then on another series of trucks, through customs and other formalities. While here, the vineyards are literally in the neighbourhood. Since Portugal is also the number one producer of cork in the world, that means that a factory producing real corks is literally next door to the bottler.
Some of us, in fact, were first introduced to Portuguese wines way back in our college days. Ah, those were the days! I think quite possibly, the first wine that I purchased while putting forward a fake ID, since the drinking age was 21 in Maryland, was a good old bottle of Mateus Rosé. Not only did it not challenge my unsophisticated taste buds, but the bottle was a popular feature of low budget student décor. A fond memory of youth is that many of us stuck a white candle in the bottle and liked the look when the wax melted.
By Pat, the expat
For the previous 10 years, Pat lived in Panama which used to be rated above Portugal as a top retirement destination (but not any more), where he wrote a column for a tourist publication.