Sign up for the Daily Sip

Your daily dose of wine knowledge.
Fun, short emails featuring wines, winemakers, regions, gadgets and more.

Email Address

- History - History of Portuguese Wine

History of Portuguese Wine

Winemaking in Portugal traces its roots back through the Phoenicians in around 1100 BC; to the Carthaginians, around 250 BC; and to the Romans, around 100 BC. After that, Portugal went through periods of Visigoth and Moor control before Christians drove them from most of the Iberian Peninsula in the twelfth century. Vines were cultivated for wine under all these ruling powers, but it wasnt until Christians had driven the Moors out of Iberia that trade with the rest of Europe took off.

In early trade, Portugal exported wine to England in exchange for food and goods. To ensure that Portugals big, tannic red wines survived the ship to England, they were often fortified with brand before the voyage. According to legend, a lone enterprising English merchant decided to fortify the wine during, rather than after the fermentation. The brandy added sweetness to the fermenting wine, and Port was born.

But Portugals perhaps greatest contribution to the wine world came when English shippers discovered that stoppers made from the bark of cork could preserve a wine for a long ocean voyage and beyond. The discovery may have been English, but most of the worlds cork trees grow in Spain and Portugal. To this day, Portugal is still the worlds leading producer of cork.

Unfortunately, the end of the nineteenth marked the beginning of a difficult time for Portugal. The vineyards were especially hard hit by the phyloxxera blight, and political disruptions in the twentieth century made recovery difficult. A bright spot came in 1916 when the world community agreed that only Portugal could legally call its wine Port and Madeira, but quality in the highly collectivized system remained generally low. Only when Portugal was admitted to the E.U. in 1986 did winemaking begin to improve rapidly. Today the focus in Portugal is on making quality wine and making a name for the country in the international market.

- Overview - An overview of Portuguese wine today.

Overview of Portuguese Wine

Portugals wine laws today are based on the French Appelation d'Origine Controlée. Portugals Denominação de Origem Controlada, or DOC, determines not only regional boundaries, but also which varieties are allowed to be grown, what sort of viticultural practices are permissible, what range of alcohol is appropriate, and what information levels must contain.

The three basic categories of Portuguese wine are Vinho de Mesa, Niho Regional, and Denominação de Origem Controlada. The lowest level is Vinho de Mesa, or table wine. For these wines, grapes can come from anywhere in Portugal and the winery need not even include a vintage. Above Vinho de Mesa is Vinho Regional, or regional wine. In a regional wine, 85 percent of grapes must come from the region on a label. Regional wines, however, are not subject to the strict requirements of a Denominação de Origem Controlada wine. Each DOC must obey specific guidelines and the grapes in these wines must come entirely from the region on the label.

Determining the boundaries of wine regions is relatively easy in Portugal because of the countrys clear climatic divisions. In the northern part of the country, the climate is maritime with warm summers and cool, wet winters. In some areas rainfall can reach 100 inches a year. Towards the south its a different story, as rainfall is lower and summer temperatures are much higher.

For hundreds of years, Portugal has enjoyed international fame for its Port wines and its Madeira; today some of its red table wines are becoming well known as well.

- Guide to Portugal Wines - A guide to reading about Portugal Wines

Guide to Portugal Wines

The port trade is at the center of Portugal’s winemaking industry, and by international agreement no country except Portugal is allowed to label its wines as “port.” In port, distilled brandy is added to the wine, arresting fermentation and leaving behind a touch of sweetness and residual sugar. The result is a world-famous dessert wine of 19 to 20 percent alcohol.
The British are usually given credit with inventing port, but in fact they merely knew a good idea when they saw it. In 1678, a Portuguese Abbot was entertaining English guests. The guests particularly liked one wine, which they noted was exceptionally sweet and smooth. The Abbot admitted that he had added brandy to the wine, the Englishmen purchased his entire stock and shipped it back to England, and an industry was born.

Styles of Port

Although there are many styles of port, there are two umbrella categories that capture the rest. If a port is wood-matured, this means it was aged for a short time in a wooden cask, fined, filtered, and bottled. If a port is bottle aged, it was left for a very short time in a wood cask and then bottled unfiltered. These wines continue to mature in the bottle, and may not achieve their full flavor for 20 to 30 years.


Rubies are the most basic ports, usually aged for less than a year in the cask. These wines are meant to be consumed young, and are full of warm and aggressive berry, pepper and grape flavors. These wines are named for their ruby color.


Still a simple port, a tawny lacks the aggressive fruit of a ruby. The amber color is not attained by allowing slow oxidation in wooden casks, but instead by blending in lighter-colored grapes or even some white port. The best basic tawnies will leave you wondering whether the wine might have come by its color legitimately, but most are simpler than their long-aged counterparts. Although ruby and tawny are the two most basic port styles, they account for a full 80% of port production


Aged Tawny

Some amber colored ports achieve their color not through the addition of lighter wine, but through long aging in wooden casks. Aged tawny can stay in the cask for anywhere from 6 to more than 50 years. Here it acquires its golden color and its soft, smooth texture. The best age tawnies boast subtle flavors of nuts, honey, dried fruit, coffee, caramel, chocolate, nutmeg, raisins and cinammon. They are generally made with very high-quality grapes


Vintage Port

In exceptional harvest years, winemakers may age their wine apart from the rest of their stock and petition the IVP for permission toe declare a single-vintage wine. By law, the wine can only be aged for two years in casks before bottling. But even after the wine is bottled, it continues to improve for decades in the buyer’s cellar. Vintage port is rare and expensive, and is often served at the end of fine meal. This is the culmination of port, known for its velvet smoothness and deep, rich, spicy flavors.

Late-Bottled Vintage

LBV port is made in years when the harvest is not quite good enough to justify a vintage port. The wine is aged in casks for four to six years to ready them for drinking. Unlike a vintage port, an LBV is ready to drink upon bottling. It will, however, continue to improve for another five or six years.

Crusted Port or Crusting Port

Superior ruby port that doesn’t quite make the vintage cut, crusting port is made from a blend of high-quality wines from at least two harvests. It is aged for up to four years in the cask and should be left in the bottle for at least another three.

White Port

White Port is made in the same way as red except that its maceration process is shorter. Brandy is added to arrest fermentation, but white port has slightly less alcohol than red at 16 or 17 percent. The lower alcohol content means they have more residual sugar than the reds, and indeed they are often quite sweet.


- Douro


Also known as the Upper Douro and Porto e Douro, this region is responsible for the production of Portugal’s famed port wines. The soil here is mostly schist, or a bed of rock and mineral. Although roots must struggle to reach the wetter earth beneath the hard schist, viticulture has flourished here for hundreds of years.

Today Douro region is beginning to produce some excellent red wines, known for the spicy flavor and full body that they share with port. It remains best known, however, for the port that made it famous. Although port is aged in traditional “caves” in the city of coast city of Oporto, it is grown and produced in the Douro.


The Douro Valley is located along the Douro River as it flows out of Spain in northeast Portugal.


Summers are dry and hot; winters are mild and wet. As you move northeast away from the Atlantic, the climate becomes more continental. Summers can be very hot, winters can be biting cold and rainfall is high.


The valley is hilly throughout, and with slopes sometimes reaching very steep angles.


The soil here is mostly granite and schist. Since the best ports come from schist soil, red table wines here are grown only in the granite areas.


The best port varieties are thought to be: Touriga Nacional
Tinta Cão
Tinto Roriz
Tinta Barroca
Touriga Francesa
Tinta Amarela

- Madeira


Located off the coast of Morocco, Madeira is actually closer to Africa than to Spain. Madeira is known for its plentiful sunshine and rainfall, its rich clay and volcanic soil, and its gorgeous terraced hillsides. In these favorable conditions, the island has been producing excellent wines since the fifteenth century.

In the nineteenth century, merchants began to fortify the wine with brandy for the long sea voyages. Adding brandy kills the yeast before fermentation, leaving the wine with residual sugar and a hint of sweetness. Much care is taken to simulate the original conditions of hot ocean voyages in the belly of a ship. Although some Madeira is heated naturally in barrels left in attics, the majority spends three or four months in an estufa, or heated vat. After aging, caramel sweetening is added.

The four varieties of Madeira are Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey. Sercial is the driest and lightest of the group, followed by Verdelho. Both have naturally high acidity and are often served as aperitifs. Bual is sweeter and is often served with coffee or caramel desserts. The sweetest is Malmsey, made from exceptionally ripe grapes. The sugar in this famous wine is so high that these wines can age well for 100 years, but its high acidity ensures it never tastes too sweet.


- Alentejo


Alentejo is a vast agricultural region in southern Portugal that is known not for its wine, but rather for its endless grain farms and forests of cork trees. More than half of the cork produced in Portugal comes from this region.

Winegrowing here is difficult due to the region’s harsh climate. Rainfall is scarce, and summer temperatures can be brutal. Modern technology makes it easier to overcome these obstacles, and most Alentejo reds contain Aragonêz, Periquita, and Trincadeira Preta. From the Aragonêz and the Periquita, the wine obtain their blackberry and licorice flavors; from the Trincadeira Preta, they obtain their structure. These wines are perfect companions to roasted meats and strong cheeses traditional in Portuguese cuisine.

- Bairrada


Winemaking in Bairrada has had a difficult history. Wine had been produced for centuries before 1756, when Portugal’s Prime Minister ordered the vineyards here destroyed as part of his attempts to curb the adulteration of the more famous port. The recovery here took 200 years, but in 1979 Bairrada was finally recognized as an official wine region.

The major variety here is the hardy Baga, which occupies the majority of the region’s fertile clay vineyards. All Bairrada wine, in fact, must be 50 percent Baga. The Baga grape produces stout, dark, and tannic wine with a distinctive taste. Winemaking practices here range from modern to rustic, and there is even a luxury resort – thePalace Hotel at Buçaco – that makes its own wine.

- Dão


Located to the east of Bairrada, Dão is known for its excellent red table wines. The region is surrounded by granite-rich hills that shield it from the influence of the Atlantic, and the slopes are often so steep that vineyards must be planted in terraces. Although the region struggled under excessive government interference for much of the twentieth century, today it is reemerging as winemakers unlock the potential of its granite soil. The wine here is mellow, with flavors of vanilla, red berries, and pepper. By law, any red wine produced here must contain at least 30 percent Touriga Nacional grapes. Most wines, however, blend at least one other variety with the Touriga.

- Vinho Verde

Vinho Verde

The northwest region of Portugal is known as Minho, and by far the largest DOC here is Vinho Verde. The name means literally “green wine,” and refers not to the wine’s color, but to the fact that it is meant to be drunk young. Vinho Verde is known for its bright, very dry, semi-sparkling white, although fully half the production here is red.

The climate is warm, humid, and good for vines. The high humidity, however, presents a risk of gray rot. Generally, winemakers grow vines on high trellises and a second crop of vegetables underneath. This not only increases the land’s yield, it also discourages the formation of rot. The main white grape here is Alvarinho, which is made into a popular spritzy wine.

- Setúbal


Located South of Lisbon, the Setúbal Penninsula lies between the Sado and Tagus rivers. The rivers form estuaries here and moderate the climate, creating stable warm temperatures and dependable rainfall. The most famous wine here is Moscatel do Setúbal, a sweet fortified wine made primarily from the Muscat grape. The wine spends up to 5 months in maceration and 4 to 5 years in wooden casks. When it is bottled, the wine is golden and redolent with caramel, honey, walnuts, spice and apricot.