I’m predicting that Portugal is poised to have a breakout wine year in 2020.
The tiny, coastal Mediterranean country is about the size of Indiana, but it’s punching above its weight when it comes to producing better wines each year.
In 2019 when the world’s total wine production declined 10 percent, Portugal topped global charts with a 10-percent volume increase over the previous year.
But statistics alone don’t tell the whole story. Portugal’s wines are on the rise because they’re so good and largely inexpensive.
In December, I traveled to Portugal’s Alentejo region, a warm, arid agricultural district situated between Lisbon and the southern coastal beaches of Algarve. Heritage and tradition play a big part in every-day life here. Winemakers are just as keen to discuss art, culture and food traditions as they are the crafting of wine in ancient amphorae clay pots. I saw a great respect for the land, biodynamic farming, and wildlife preservation.
Here are several wines to begin exploring Portugal’s wine bounty.
Monte Velho Esporao, Alentejo, $8.99 – Three time winemaker of the year David Baverstock has charted Herdado de Esporao’s course since 1992. The Aussie native combines Syrah with three of Alentejo’s top grapes in this blend – Touriga Nacional, Aragonez, Trincadeira. Stainless steel fermentation and organic farming ensures purity in wild berry expressions and smoothness. Monte Velho is featured at Cavaleiro’s, a family-run Portuguese restaurant in Lowell where it pairs superbly with a traditional dish of pork tenderloin, baby clams, and bite-sized potato pieces cooked in Esporao’s spicy olive oil.
Jose De Sousa Red 2017, Alentejo, $15 – The Jose Maria da Fonseca winery ferments 5 percent of the blend in clay pots (amphorae), boosting the wine’s ruby color, dense texture and juicy fruit flavors. Ripe tannins and mouthwatering acidity add to the appeal. Ranked No. 11 on Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 List of 2018, JDS earned a solid 93 points. Quite a value indeed.
Murcas Minas Esporao 2016, Douro, $18 – Home to Portugal’s world famous port wines, Douro makes a big impression in this intense, elegant, dry red blend (0.6 grams sugar per liter). The region is hot, but vineyards are cooled by water springs called “minas”. “Foot-treading” in large, granite “lagares” is part of the traditional grape-crushing process. The wine is further defined by a mesmerizing violet color.
Dona Maria Grande Reserva 2012, Alentejo, $28 – Winemaker Sandra Goncalves has a knack for making the fruit do the talking, and she’s got a conversation piece here. It’s a varietal mix of Portugal – Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Nacional – and France – Petit Verdot, Syrah. Sophisticated and complex, Dona Maria speaks volumes to rich, ripe blackberry and raspberry notes and a long, spicy finish. Wine Advocate gave it 93 points.
Casa Americo Encruzado Reserva 2014, $16.99 – This 100 percent Encruzado white ages three months on its lees in French oak and five months in bottle. At six years old, the wine is full-bodied, creamy, and captivating for its lemon and citrus peel notes. The alcohol (13%) and acidity are well integrated, making it a fine pairing withchicken, turkey and fish stew.
Rocim Alicante Bouschet 2016, $20 – The winery is in Vidigueira, an eastern town close to Spain’s mountainous border where searing daytime heat meets cooler night-time breezes. Alicante Bouschet, a resilient, fleshy grape, has “noble” status here. Intense, vibrant, smoky and tannic, Rocim is big and bold for an American market.
Quinta da Fonte Souto 2017, $15 – The sprawling, 400-acre estate in Portelegre is a “winery-resort” project purchased in 2017 by Symington Family Properties. Twenty farmhouses are being modernized into lodgings and restaurants to reflect the region’s art, culture and heritage. Vineyards are bounded by elevated hillside forests. This five-grape blend based on Alicante Bouschet and Syrah is a plush powerhouse at a remarkable price.
Confidencial Reserva Red, Lisbon, $11.99 – Stamped with a 91-point Wine Enthusiast rating sticker, this field blend of 10 grapes was an instant hit at a house party. It’s stoked by layers of black fruit flavors and ends on an enduring flinty mineral note
Silk & Spice Red Blend, $12.99 – As the name implies, it’s front-loaded with rich, ripe, red fruit on a lush frame and finishes toast and somewhat dry. Grapes come from all over Portugal. Wine Enthusiast placed it No. 15 on its Top 100 Best Buys List of 2018.
Forma de Arte Reserva Red, $14.99, Tejo – The Quinta do Casal Monteiro estate uses an equal mix of Touriga Nacional and Cabernet Sauvignon in this sturdy, tannic red that would need a big grilled steak or thick game stew to unleash its full attraction.