Power to Portuguese wines and the stunning value they deliver

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What is the only European Union country to have increased its wine exports the past two years despite the COVID-19 pandemic?

The answer is PortugaI.

Not bad for the EU’s fifth largest wine producer (behind Italy, France, Spain and Germany).

The new question is why?

The panelists: Eugenico Jardim, Jen Ziskin, Nick Lisotto.

Well, one only had to be in attendance at the Wines of Portugal’s “Discover the Difference” Grand Tasting at Boston’s City Winery in early April to figure it out.

Judging from the crowd’s enthusiastic reaction, Portuguese wines are primed for another big leap in sales this year and for years to come in the United States and beyond. The wines – both reds and whites – are fresh, expressive, approachable, high quality and affordable.

“I don’t know any better value than Portuguese wines,” said Nick Lisotto, the renowned chef-sommelier who owns Sorriso Vino & Market in Brookline.

“What you get for your money is so incredible,” echoed Jen Ziskin, the owner of three Massachusetts restaurants – La Morra, Heritage, Punch Bowl – where Portuguese wines are popular food companions.

Dona Maria-Julio Bastos wines are made in the Alentejo region.

Lisotto and Ziskin made their comments as panelists during a “conversation” on Portuguese wines moderated by Eugenico Jardim, Wine of Portugal’s U.S. Ambassador.

The hourlong discussion, originally limited to a room-capacity maximum of 42 people,  attracted an overflow crowd of media and industry representatives.

Later, the crowd swelled to approximately 100 people – if not more – in the City Winery’s  grand tasting pavilion where 30 producers showcased 250 fabulous wines.

Jardim said the focus of his organization is building awareness of Portugual’s 14 wine regions and quality wines.

Many highly rated Portuguese wines, he said, sell for less than $30 a bottle while the vast majority government classified wines – DOP, IGP – fit into the $15 to $20 range.

Moscatel ROXO is a sweet, opulent dessert wine that won over my palate with one sip.

“And Portuguese wines shine with food,” exclaimed Jardim, noting that the country produces wines from 250 indigenous and international grape varietals. Cultural and historical ties matter, he added, and wines often reflect the unique sense of place where vineyards are planted.

I love Portuguese wines.

I toured the Alentejo region in December 2019 with six U.S. wine and food writers and came away with a remarkable affinity for the winemakers’ respect and care for the environment and ecological systems. To them, the vineyard is a living, breathing organism and the best way to create great wines is to leave well enough alone.

The quality of the wines also made a deep impression – even if the name of the grapes were unfamiliar to my ear –  Aragonaz, Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Nacional, and Trincadeiro just to name a few.

One winemaker said simply: “The names of the grapes in the wine are not as important as the aromas and flavors. That’s what worth remembering about Portuguese wines.”

Bico Amarelo: a refreshing white blend.

Still, what really blew my mind were the prices. Even top Portuguese wines – compared to those of U.S., French and Italian counterparts – can be purchased on a workingman’s budget.

The Wines of Portugal event only served to heighten my affection for these wines.

My takeaways from the grand tasting. (Note: I could not taste every wine on display. In fact, I tasted 24 wines in just under three hours. So I apologize to those producers not included in my limited survey.)

Best in Show Surprise: I flipped over Moscatel ROXO 2010, a sweet dessert wine made at Casa Ermelinda Freitas. This luscious wine mesmerizes with honeyed apricot and nut flavors. It’s aged seven years in large oak casks at high temperatures. Enjoy it on the rocks. Only 10,000 bottles are made annually. Thanks to Export Manager Marcio Ferreira for a taste of this $50 a bottle treasure.

Vinha Grande Douro from Casa Ferreirinha.

Coming Sensation: Producer Dona Maria is introducing its 100 percent Petit Verdot to the U.S., courtesy of importer MS Walker. What’s in store for consumers? A Bordeaux-varietal that hits its peak in Alentejo: : black violets, black plum, black berries, black-purple color and black velvet complexity – all for $20..

White Delights: Esporao’s Bico Amarelo ($9.99) has got to be one of the world’s most underrated year-round wines. A blend of Loureiro, Alvarinho and Avesso, this Vinho Verde  white has a refreshing, restorative quality to it … Then there’s Wine & Soul’s Guru ($44.99), a premium blend from the Douro with more depth and structure. Though aged in wood, Guru’s vibrant minerality and citrus flavors stay front and center.

PATIO & PARTY REDS: Here are several easy-drinking, juicy choices for your backyard barbeque.

Casa Ferreirinha produces two blends using similar grapes: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, and Touriga Franca. The key difference is how they are aged. Papa Figos ($16.99) splits its time in both stainless steel tanks and concrete tanks. It’s fresh and elegant.  Vinha Grande ($19.99) ages 12 months in neutral French oak barrels. It’s refined and smooth with nice cherry-chocolate notes.

Comboio do Vesuvio falls under the Symington Family Estates umbrella.

Quinta De Chocapalha Castelao ($14.99) is made entirely from Portugal’s most widely planted red grape, Castelao, which is also found in some Port wines. This is a workhorse red – pleasant, plum tasty, and ready for grilled burgers and grilled chicken topped with salsa.

Comboio do Vesuvio Douro ($15), produced by Symington Family Estates, plays bigger than its price tag with concentrated red berry flavors. For a few dollars more, Pombal do Vesuvio Douro ($20) exhibits precise balance, lush texture and a long, strawberry-filled finish.

Wine & Soul’s Manoella ($21.99) is smooth and dry, featuring violet notes and supple, yet persistent tannins. A plush plum taste that proves eternal.

Esporao Quinta dos Murcas Minas ($18.99) is an incredibly savory blend from a winery that’s been crafting authentic wines since the early 18th century. It’s partly aged in concrete tanks to protect its pure fruit expressions.

Wine & Soul’s Manoella

Dona Maria Touriga Nacional ($19) stands on its own with outstanding character traits of cinnamon spice aromas and chocolate-laced fruit flavors. Impeccable in a lot of ways. Interestingly, the grape is now the subject of intense study in the U.S. as a climate-change alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon.

Vinha da Valentina Reserva ($15) is a Merlot, Syrah, Castelao blend that puts emphasis on the beautiful Peninsula de Setubal region’s Merlot. Ripe blueberry fruit with black licorice accents make for a very inspiring wine from Casa Ermelina Freitas.

KNOCKOUT RED: Off all the blends I tasted, Casa Ferreirinha’s Callabriga Douro ($34.99) was the best of show. The producer compares it to Napa Valley blends and that’s a fine description. However, Callabriga (KAH-lah-bree-gah) is incomparably Portuguese from its sumptuous mouthfeel to its fully loaded dark cherry tastes that come with a mix of mocha, chocolate and coffee. The finish i dry, lovingly long and memorable. This is new to the U.S. in 2022 and it should be on your To-Buy-List.

Calabriga is coming to the U.S. in 2022.