This is an unusual assignment for me as I am a great champion of the Portuguese native grapes, and have written several articles in this magazine highlighting the more prominent ones and the important role they have to play in promoting the unique qualities of Portuguese wine.
However, it is curious that even within this context of some 250 native Portuguese grape varieties, there is enough local consumer interest in wines made in Portugal from foreign grapes. I don’t believe many of these wines are being exported – in my experience, the reaction from foreign wine buyers to wines not made from Portuguese varieties is almost always very negative. For this article, I have tried to discover the most important of these varieties and the best wines derived from them on the local market.
It was not unusual to find that nearly all of the prominent varieties are French; after all, France has long been recognised as having some of the best wines in the world, and certainly in New World wine countries French varieties are the most commonly grown.
Starting with the whites, Sauvignon Blanc, whose home is the Loire Valley and Sancerre in particular (also widely grown in New Zealand) is successfully grown in the Douro Valley, in the higher altitude vineyards, where cooler temperatures allow the variety to express its aromatic freshness and acidity. The best exponents are Lavradores de Feitoria with a wine called Três Bagos, and also Real Companhia Velha with Quinta de Cidrô. Fiuza in the Ribatejo also does well with this variety although it is less expressive, and Cortes de Cima has just released an example made from grapes grown on the Atlantic coast.
Chardonnay is probably the most famous white grape in the world thanks to the amazing wines from Burgundy, and also its adaptability to New World climates where it is widely grown, but it hasn’t achieved great success in Portugal. Cova do Urso from the Palmela region has been around for a long time and is probably the best example, Quinta de Cidrô. Fiuza and Quinta do Pinto from the Lisboa region are the best of the rest. Barranco Longo in the Algarve blends this variety with Arinto which works well.
Viognier, the enigmatic grape from the Rhône Valley where it produces the very exclusive Condrieu wine (and is also co-fermented with the red Syrah grape in Côte-Rôtie), has adapted well to the warm conditions in this country and shows particularly well in the Lisboa region in the form of Monte d’Oiro Madrigal, and recently, Terras de Alter in the northern Alentejo have produced good examples.
Riesling, the classic white grape from Germany, has achieved good success in the cool Mafra region with an excellent wine from Sant’Ana, and Dirk Niepoort has also experimented with it in the Douro, but it is not very popular in this country.
Sémillon, the fine white variety from Bordeaux, is grown a little in the Alentejo where it has achieved some fame, being the main variety in Esporão’s Private Selection White, while Dona Maria uses it in its blended Amantis White.
Foreign red grapes have been more successful than their white counterparts, probably because red wine sales in this country far outweigh sales of white wines.
Syrah, the main grape from the Rhône Valley, also responsible for some of Australia’s top red wines, is gaining increasing popularity in this country, being well-adapted to a wide range of climates. Probably the most famous is Cortes de Cima’s Incógnito – the Alentejo is also well represented by Esporão’s monovarietal Syrah. Another iconic wine based on this variety comes from Monte d’Oiro, whilst others include Onda Nova from the Algarve, Ermelinda Freitas from Terras do Sado, and the João Portugal Ramos varietal.
Cabernet Sauvignon, the principal red grape from Bordeaux, has a long history in this country, largely based on a single estate wine in Palmela called Quinta da Bacalhôa. Quinta de Pancas also does a good job in the Lisboa region and Fiuza likewise. It is planted in Bairrada and used in blends there (Campolargo) and there are also some good blended wines from Pinto and various producers in the Algarve such as Quinta do Francês and Quinta dos Vales.
Merlot, the great red grape of Pomerol, has not been a big success here, and apart from Má Partilha, an excellent wine from the Bacalhôa company, it is hard to find good examples. Fiuza has had some success and Pinto uses it in blends.
Pinot Noir, a very difficult and site-sensitive grape variety, is responsible for the great red wines of Burgundy – despite many attempts in the New World to replicate the quality of fine burgundy, the Pinot Noir grape has not lived up to expectations. Probably because of the known difficulties of this variety to adapt well to soil and climate, it does not have a great history in Portugal and only recently have wines from this variety begun to appear on the market. Campolargo in Bairrada is doing a good job, as are Santa Ana and Olho no Pé (Douro).
Petit Verdot, used in Bordeaux in small blending proportions because of its strong varietal character, is increasingly being grown and made as a monovarietal in countries such as Spain and the USA – it handles the heat well, and for this reason could be useful in the future when climate change becomes more of a problem. Good examples here can be found in the Alentejo from Azamor, Esporão and Cortes de Cima.
I have deliberately omitted Alicante Bouschet from this article – it is a foreign grape grown in the Languedoc region of southern France where it has a very poor quality reputation, and is only used as a blending variety because of its red juice properties. Its real home now is the Alentejo, where it performs extremely well in the heat, and is increasingly being recognised as the premium red grape in this region and as such is no longer considered a foreign variety.