Ask anyone what destinations are on their ‘must visit’ list for 2017 and Portugal is likely to be pretty high up there. Luring travellers with a sunny climate, never-ending coastline and culinary wonders, cities such as Lisbon and Porto have become go-to destinations for the culturally curious foodie traveller. And where there is food on the table, there is wine – and lots of it in Portugal’s case. Moving away from the reputation for making only fortified wines – namely port and madeira – winemakers across the country are now working hard to show a different, fresher side to Portuguese table wine.
Colares (Cascais coastline)
On a tiny strip of craggy Atlantic coastline just an hour west of Lisbon and a stone’s throw from Sintra National Park, lies Colares. Due to its sandy soils (imagine vines growing wild on a beach), Colares skipped the pandemic known as ‘phylloxera’ – a disease that that wiped out most of the world’s vines in the early 1900s – and consequently boasts some of the oldest surviving grapevines in Europe. The region has found itself in the spotlight recently, partly due to its obscurity and diminishing size, but also because of the refined, older wines that it used to produce. For a taste of tradition, visit the cellars of Adega Regional de Colares or Viúva Gomes. The whites, made from malvasia, and the reds, made from ramisco, have an unmistakably salty character to them, and the huge, old Brazilian wood barrels known as foudres that fill each of the wineries are a sight to behold. For something a little different, visit Casal de Santa Maria. Once owned by an eccentric (now deceased) baron, the winery has been making traditional wines in the region for centuries, but also experiments with international grape varieties such as sauvignon blanc and pinot noir. It would probably be rude not to finish the day at Restaurante Piscina Azenhas do Mar, with a glass of vinho verde in hand as you gaze over the Atlantic Ocean. Order a plate of octopus rice and some percebes – strange creatures of the deep that resemble chicken’s feet, but are a rare delicacy of the region.
Known for its cork trees, pink marble, and black pig (pata negra), the Alentejo is the largest wine-producing region in Portugal. Having a reputation for housing bigger, more commercial wineries, there are now some producers who are working hard to focus on quality over quantity and elegance over strength. João Afonso of Cabeças do Reguengo is one of them. A ballet dancer turned wine writer turned winemaker, João works with his daughter Ines to make a range of wines – from a chardonnay-based fizz made in a blanc de blanc style to a field blend (where red and white grape varieties are grown freely together) called Respiro – that are light, natural and downright delicious. And quite literally made in their garage. They are tiny, so it’s more of a ‘pop in, say hi and pick up some wines to try back at your hotel’ scenario. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Esporão, a grand, impeccably designed winery flanked by endless vineyards and ancient olive trees. They’ve done a lot to establish quality in the Alentejo, and don’t miss a walk around their olive mill (and a taste of their olive oils), where the walls are made entirely of cork and sustainability is the name of the game.
A three-hour drive along winding roads to the east of Porto, you’ll find the Douro. With its rolling hills and amphitheatre-like vineyards, the Douro is a classified Unesco World Heritage site and has become a holiday destination in itself. Producers such as Dirk Niepoort, the enfant terrible of the Portuguese wine world by way of Switzerland, have inspired a lot of change in a region traditionally known for port production. Although Dirk no longer has a tasting room, you’ll see his wines on the shelves of nearly every (good) wine shop – from his ports to a riesling and his infamous ‘Clos du Crappe’, a Douro take on Burgundy – so make sure to try one. It is still relatively rare for adegas in the Douro to open their doors to the public, so make the most of an idyllic visit to Quinta de La Rosa. They oversee the entire process of port production in their winery (most port houses make their wine in the Douro and store it in Vila Nova da Gaia in Porto) and make some lovely table wines. On your way back to the airport via Porto, don’t miss popping into Prova – a wine bar in the city that showcases a different side to Portuguese wines. Taste with the owner, Diogo, and try anything from a rare bottle of vinho verde from the 1990s (almost unheard of!) to a glass of bastardo, a beautifully light red made in the Douro by one of Portugal’s’ most talented female winemakers.
Featured image is Six Senses Douro Valley hotel