One thing’s for certain: no one could ever accuse Portuguese wines of lacking personality. Forget Cabernet or Chardonnay – well, almost – and enter the kingdom of Touriga Nacional, Alvarinho, Baga, Fernão Pires, Arinto, and Castelão. Distinctive grape varieties that create an evermore distinctive range of wines, as they are generally blended in very different ways depending on local traditions or local climate, creating an even greater range of possibilities.
There’s no shortage of tools for Portuguese winemakers to work with and create wines that are unique on an international, national, and regional scale: the country has over 250 known local varieties. No other country in Europe has a higher density of native grape varieties on its own territory, often with very distinctive genetic signatures, a sign that local winemakers have been doing their own thing for quite a while.
In old vineyards high up in places like the Douro Valley – one of the oldest regions to have been defined and regulated legally, in 1756 – it’s quite frequent for a good portion of the vines to be unidentified, after growing side by side for generations. As time went by, the vinhateiros just propagated what worked well and what they liked in their fields.
This co-planting approach and its gradual evolution in harmony with local conditions and tastes goes hand in hand with another distinctive feature of most Portuguese wines: blending. With notable exceptions like varietal Alvarinho in the Monção and Melgaço area of Vinho Verde or wines made from 100% Baga in Bairrada, most wines in Portugal build complexity and personality on the contributions of several or many grapes bringing various degrees of fruit, acidity, structure, aromatics, or mouthfeel. Savoury herbal or spicy notes emerge in unique and striking ways. Even Alvarinho most often shines in Vinho Verde in conjunction with varieties like Avesso, Loureiro, Azal, or Trajadura.
Red grapes recommended for use in Douro wines are another great example. They include Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão, Sousão, Bastardo, Mourisco Tinto, Castelão, Rufete, Tinta Amarela, and Tinta Francisca. Some twelve different grapes, with several more also authorized: imagine how many combinations that allows…