There are some wine trends that are the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard (i.e. blue wine and celebrity wines come to mind – yes, Jon Bon Jovi I’m including you even though I had a mad crush on you 30+ years ago!). But there are others that I can really get behind with the rest of the masses. Right now, that trend seems to be Portuguese wine. To clarify, I’m talking about wine from Portugal that isn’t Port – which has been a “trend” since the late 1600s.
Seriously, take a minute and open another window in your browser and Google “Portugal Wine Trend” or something of that ilk and you’ll see several articles pop up about the subject. Portuguese dry wine is enjoying a serious resurgence right now, although to be fair, I’m not certain that it ever had an initial surge to begin with.
I’m admittedly quite unfamiliar with Portuguese wines, so when my local(ish) wine store LCA advertised a tasting and seminar on the wines of Portugal, I signed up immediately. The evening was hosted by Quinta de Chocapalha – a truly family run operation.
Alice and Paulo Tavares da Silva acquired the Quinta de Chocapalha estate and began their family’s operations 30 years ago (the business itself actually dates back to 1855). The estate’s vineyards are located in the hills of Alenquer, just northwest of Lisbon. Alice and Paulo soon discovered that the vines planted at the estate were primarily successful at one thing: producing high yields of rather poor quality grapes. After studying and speaking to local villagers about the region’s tradition and nature, they immediately set out to replant and regraft the 110 acres of vineyards to better reflect the estate’s terroir. Today – the estate produces a wide variety of wines that include native Portuguese grapes as well as international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
The family’s youngest daughter, Sandra, began her role as winemaker in 2000. And their other daughter, Andrea, is the winery manager. It was Andrea who led us through a tasting of 8 of her family’s wines – from an Arinto that tasted of citrus and sea spray to a Castelão that make me think of a bigger, more badass Beaujolais. If you’ve never heard of these grapes before, you’re certainly not alone. They are just a few of the over 250 (!!) traditional Portugese grape varieties.
After the tasting, I sat down with a glass of Chocapalha’s Arinto and did a little more digging into the Lisboa region:
Lisboa is one of Portugal’s 14 wine regions. Wines from the region are classified as Vinho Regional (“VR”) unless they meet the requirements of one of the smaller Denominação de Origem Controladas (“DOC”) discussed in more detail below.
The rules for making VR are much less stringent than those that govern DOC wines. For example, a wine labeled “Lisboa” must be made from certain permitted grape varieties (of which there are over 90 to choose from) as well as meet certain minimum alcohol content requirements. On the other hand, a wine labeled from the smaller “Bucelas DOC” has many more hoops to jump through. First, the permitted grapes are much more limited: Bucelas wine must be made from at least 75% Arinto, and the balance can be made up of only a few other varieties. The wine must have a minimum alcohol content of 10.5% and then there are additional restrictions on yield and planting density of vines. Finally, samples of the wine must be submitted to the local body controlling Bucelas’ wine industry, who will grant numbered seals of origin if it is determined that these wines have satisfied all the regulations of the DOC.
A wine labeled Vinho Regional does not mean that it is lower quality. Many prestigious Portuguese wines are classified as Vinho Regional because the producer has chosen to use grape varieties that are not permitted for the local DOC, or decides use them in different proportions than the DOC regulations dictate. The looser regulations for Vinho Regional give producers greater flexibility and permit them to produce more unique, individualized wines.
There are 9 DOCs within Lisboa. In total, these account for only 6% of the region’s total wine production. Some of the more well-known are:
- Encostas d’Aire: the region’s largest DOC
- Obidos: windy and cooler, known primarily for sparkling wines
- Lourinhã: produces aguardente (aka brandy) as opposed to wine
- Bucelas: dry whites only, must be at least 75% Arinto
- Carcavelos: produces fortified wines that often resemble a tawny port. Vineyard area in this DOC has been significantly diminished due to the capital’s expanding urban population.
- Colares: production in this small DOC rarely exceeds 10,000 bottles (yes – that’s bottles, not cases!) Sadly, this area’s saving grace from phylloxera devastation has also been its downfall. The pest that destroyed nearly all European vineyards avoided Colares due to the area’s sandy soils (which phylloxera hates). However, sandy soils mean beachfront property – and many old vines have been ripped up to make way for new homes with a view.
Lisboa releases a larger volume of wine than any other region in Portugal. The vast majority is produced by larger co-ops which dominate the region. However, in the past 15-20 years this has slowly been changing. There has been a significant increase is smaller, ambitious estates (such as Quinta Chocapalha) that are proving that the area can produce good, quality wine.
GuildSomm has an awesome podcast about dry wine from Portugal (Sandra Tavares is featured in an interview about halfway through). And if you’d like more information on this region specifically – check out my outline on Lisboa – and why you’re at it, don’t forget to follow my blog (the button on the right!).