Portuguese whites
Photos by Megan Baggott

Up and down this wine-soaked country, Portuguese producers are making great white wines in regions you may never have heard of, from grapes you’re probably not familiar with.

In Vinho Verde, Douro, Dão, Beira ­Atlântico, Bairrada, Lisboa and Alentejo, winemakers are turning native grape varieties like Alvarinho, Encruzado, Arinto, Viosinho and Bical into crisp, refreshing wines and full-bodied, wood-aged powerhouses.

The combination of rugged Portuguese individualism—which helps keep winemakers loyal to their native grapes—and the country’s ­centuries-old spirit of exploration results in world-class wines. Over the years and through tasting hundreds of samples, I’ve become convinced that Portugal is a great white-wine country.

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    Vinho Verde | Starring Alvarinho & Loureiro

    In the series of mountain ridges that define the Vinho Verde region of northern Portugal, one can stand on the top of Monte de Santa Luzia and look north to the Minho Valley, the home of Alvarinho, and south to the broad Lima Valley, where Loureiro flourishes.

    Alvarinho (the same grape as the Spanish Albariño) is widely recognized for its quality. Loureiro is coming into its own, as producers like Quinta do Ameal and Quinta Casal do Paço Padreiro take it to new heights.

    While tasting a range of wines at Adega de Monção in 2006, one wine stood out: the Deu-la-Deu. It was pure Alvarinho, so ripe and so opulent. In that moment, I was sold on the grape’s potential.

    Anselmo Mendes, whose family owns vineyards in the Minho Valley and is one of Portugal’s best-known ­consultants, says his Alvarinho grapes produce “great white wines that can age well for 10 or even 20 years.”

    While off-dry and lightly fizzy, white Vinho Verde is ideal for summer sipping. Today’s best wines are bone dry, often rich and concentrated, and pair well with the incredible range of the local seafood.

    Anselmo Mendes 2015 Muros Antigos Alvarinho; $25, 91 points. The family vineyards of consultant Anselmo Mendes are in the north of the Vinho Verde region the home of Alvarinho, so it’s no surprise that this wine is a great interpetation of the grape. It is almost luscious in its intensity and richness. Orange, ripe apple and intense citrus flavors are encased in a generous, full-bodied wine. Drink now, although this wine will be even better from 2017. Aidil Wines.

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    Douro Valley | Blended Wines

    It’s hot in the Douro Valley. During summer down by the river, the temperature rises well above 90˚F. This is land for Ports and red wines. Find your way up to the plateau, however, and things are different.

    “You need to go high for white wines,” says Jorge Moreira of Poeira, who also works with Quinta de la Rosa and Real Companhia Velha. “You can do that in the Douro. That way, you get the cool air and the breeze.”

    Just as with the region’s red wines, the whites are blends. Most bring together, in varying proportions, Gouveio, Malvasia, some minor grapes, and the two best, Viosinho and Rabigato. With a strong mineral character, the wines have tight acidity, yet rich textures.

    Some of the most exciting age in wood, including Casa Ferreirinha’s 2012 Antónia Adelaide Ferreira (93 points) and Quinta do Vallado’s 2014 Reserva Branco (91 points).

    Quinta da Rede 2014 Grande Reserva Branco; $26, 93 points. Due to its location near the western end of the Douro vineyards, this vineyard makes very fine white wines. This one is at the top, with wood fermentation and aging giving richness, intense flavors and a fine structure. It’s a wine that demands serious aging—ripe and full of zesty acidity as well as toast and spice flavors. Start drinking this impressive wine from late 2017. M Imports. Cellar Selection.

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    Dão | Encruzado Land

    Encruzado is, arguably, Portugal’s greatest white grape.

    My “wow” moment came when I visited Quinta dos Roques for the first time in 2001. There, about an hour east and 1,100 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, the grape grows in the harsh granite mountain soil of the Dão.

    Luis Lourenço, a math teacher and winemaker, showed me his Encruzado. Slowly and surely, its underlying richness and aging possibilities revealed itself. It surely had the potential to achieve greatness.

    It’s taken time and dedicated growers to reveal the full glory of Encruzado. Wines that convince me over and over include Casa da Passarella’s O Oenológo Branco 100% Encruzado and the Quinta dos Carvalhais Encruzado, Sogrape Vinho’s showpiece.

    In Quinta da Pellada’s field blend, produced by Alvaro Castro, a giant of the Dão, the Encruzado gives the wine its signature richness, long life and ­concentration. Characteristics like fresh acidity, mineral texture and complexity—these are the highlights of Encruzado’s bright future.

    Try Encruzado (with or without wood aging) in place of Chardonnay the next time you’re having risotto or river fish.

    Vinha Paz 2014 Colheita; $35, 92 points. This is a new wine from Vinha Paz. It is right up to the standards of the vineyard’s reds: a beautifully perfumed, ripe wine that has Encruzado in the blend. Rich, full of yellow and spicy fruits, it is both structured, toasty and intense. Drinkable now. Specialty Cellars.

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    Beira and Bairrada | A Tale of Two Grapes

    Among the welter of white grapes that grow easily in the sand and clay-soil vineyards of Bairrada and Beira Atlântico, which sit just inland from the Atlantic coast between Porto and Lisbon, two shine: Bical and Cerceal (the local name for Arinto).

    The Pato family is almost inextricably associated with Bairrada and Beira. Luis Pato and his daughter, Filipa Pato, who both have their own wineries, demonstrate how Bical can age beautifully in oak. Most notable are Luis’s rich 90-point 2013 Vinha Formal (Bairrada), and Filipa’s smooth, intense 91-point 2009 Nossa Branco (Beira). It’s surprising how close the flavors come to great Chardonnay.

    For Cerceal, look to Quinta de Foz de Arouce Branco from Beira Atlântico and Quinta do Encontro, created by Dão Sul, from Bairrada. The 2012 Encontro (91 points) is cool and crisp, with extra richness from wood aging. It goes surprisingly well with suckling pig, the regional specialty. Try it on a rotisserie over a fire—it’s worth the effort. The tight acidity cuts through the fatty meat.

    Quinta de Foz de Arouce 2014 Branco (Beira ­Atlântico); $35, 91 points. This wood aged wine is ripe with perfumed fruits and an open, generous structure. It is full of ripe apricot and red apple flavors tightened with a mineral texture and acidity. The toast from the wood aging is a gentle theme in the background. Drink from late 2016. Winebow.

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    Alentejo | Coping with the Heat

    Driving east from Lisbon, the temperature rises. The dry heat prickles in the air. So how is it that Alentejo and its region-wide appellation of Alentejano can make some top-class white wines as well as big, burly reds?

    Vineyard and regional selections, and some ­impressive vineyard and winery management, are the secrets behind some of Portugal’s best white wines, including the 2013 Pêra-Manca Branco (95 points) and Luis Duarte’s 2014 Rubrica Branco (93 points).

    Australian by birth and Alentejano by choice, David Baverstock knows heat. He’s the technical director at Herdade do Esporão.

    “We plant Arinto and Verdelho in cooler sites,” Baverstock says. “We rely on grapes like Roupeiro and Antão Vaz that cope with the heat. And, of course, we harvest in the early morning to preserve freshness.”

    To the south, Vidigueira gives serious white wines. Good examples are Herdade Grande and Herdade da Malhadinha Nova. Amidst cork oak forests, islands of vines in the north produce Mouchão’s Arinto-inspired 2012 Dom Rafael Branco (90 points), a concentrated wine boasting mango and yellow fruit flavors.

    Herdade do Esporão 2014 Esporão Private Selection White; $28, 91 points. It’s rare to find a Sémillon in Portugal, let along the Alentejo. And yet the wine works beautifully. Wood aging has given it sophistication while the natural creamy texture of the grape is enhanced by the ripe yellow fruits that are lightly lifted by a herbal, citrus aftertaste. This wine could well age, so drink now or, better, keep until 2017. Aidil Wines.

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    Lisboa | Anything Goes

    North of Lisbon, past the industrial cities that line the Tagus River, turn west. Soon, vineyards roll across hills closer and closer to the surf of the Atlantic Ocean. Once this was where Lisbon found its bulk wine. Now, even as the quality has increased, the value has remained.

    For white wines, the sweet spot is around the town of Bucelas. Here, Arinto comes into its own in a series of mineral, crisp, yet creamy wines popular in Lisbon seafood restaurants. The best come from Quinta da Romeira, with its 2014 Prova Régia Reserva (89 points) and 2013 Morgado de Santa Caterina (91 points).

    Elsewhere, indigenous and classic grapes abound, including Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Chardonnay. There are some terrific blends like Quinta da Chocapalha’s 2013 Reserva Branco (90 points), a blend of Chardonnay and Arinto.

    DFJ Vinhos 2013 Quinta do Rocio; $15, 90 points. A fine and rich blend of Chardonnay and Arinto, this wine has touches of spice and vanilla as well as crisp, bright fruit tones. Citrus and yellow fruit flavors show strongly through the lacy texture of this wine, which has a cool character from the proximity of the vines to the ocean. Drink now. Lionstone International. Best Buy.

Published on June 6, 2016
Topics: Wine Guide