Bottles of Wine Under $25 That Taste as if They Cost Twice That
(Bloomberg) -- One freezing night last month, I sipped several red blends alongside a spicy beef stew studded with olives. The price of the best-tasting bottle—$7—stunned me, but its source didn’t: Portugal.
I’m addicted to tracking down wine bargains (maybe you are, too) and this European country is my new hot spot for exciting, wildly underpriced reds and whites that have authentic character. What’s not to like about fresh, savory whites and delicious, plush-textured reds made by talented winemakers from more than 250 exotic native grape varieties? And that value?
No wonder sales of Portugal’s wines are on a roll. One well-known U.K. retailer. Berkmann Wine Cellars Ltd., is now selling nearly five times more Portuguese wines than five years ago. ViniPortugal, a group of trade organizations representing wineries and regions, reports that sales to the U.K. increased 22 % in 2019, and according to Nielsen data, U.S. sales surged an astounding 35.1% in just the month of September 2020. (The fact that U.S. tariffs bypassed the country’s wines surely helped.)
Perhaps an additional part of the appeal of these wines in an age of lockdown is our urge to feel as if we’re exploring such places as the steep, terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley, or relaxing in whitewashed Algarve villages by gorgeous beaches.
A Long Time Coming
If you don’t know anything about Portuguese wines, it’s time to learn. There’s much more to them than the sweet, rich ports you may have sipped after dinner—or even the cheap, fizzy, pink Mateus your grandparents drank from a squat-shaped bottle. The Iberian nation has a host of hidden treasures, unusual grapes, and little-known regions.
What spurred this current interest in Portuguese wine? First, the dry reds and whites have been getting better and better. Joining the European Union in 1986 opened the doors for new investments and EU subsidies that boosted small boutique wineries over big cooperatives and helped them upgrade their winemaking techniques with modern equipment. And tourism did its part, introducing wine lovers to the wines from regions that stretch from the south coast of the Algarve to northern coastal Minho, the land of bright, fresh vinho verde. Each has its own constellation of grapes you’ve probably never heard of—such as delicately spicy white Maria Gomes, deep-colored red alfrocheiro, and trincadeira, with its raspberry fruit tang. Most often, winemakers combine them into red or white blends that are definitely new twists on familiar styles, with unique flavors.
Places to Know
The Douro region, with its steep vineyards above the winding Douro River in northern Portugal, is famous for fortified ports, but in the past decade or so top quintas (wine-growing estates) have started making prestigious dry table wines, red and white, from some 80-odd grape varieties, with as many as 20 growing together in the same vineyard. Touriga nacional is the main red grape to know, but try the whites, too.
In Bairrada, on the country’s rainy north-central coast, vineyards lie between pristine beaches and low hills; increasing temperatures due to climate change have helped the region craft reds with elegance. Baga, the key grape, makes long-lived, smoky, perfumed reds that are Portugal’s answer to Italy’s barolos. Bairrada’s white blends are starting to get more attention. One of the newish showstopper estates is Quinta d’Arguieira, founded by the family that runs the giant Aveleda winery in Vinho Verde, which is just launching its wines in the U.S.
The sunny, dry Dao region, east of Bairrada, with vineyards on mountain slopes, is another place to watch for quality. The reds are lighter than those of the Douro, but have lots of structure and age well.
But the newcomer area making a big push is hot, dry Alentejo in the southeast, which enjoys more than 3,000 hours of cloudless sunshine annually, as well as nights so dark, it boasts the Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve, the world’s first certified starlight tourism destination. It’s also home to one-third of the world’s cork forests and a new sustainability program that includes water conservation and reduced energy use.
Big players such as the Symington family and Sogrape have rushed in to invest in Alentejo’s cool areas, and a revival of traditional amphora wines (vinho da talha) is sure to please adventurous U.S. drinkers. Most wines are full-bodied red blends, but dynamic, ambitious winemakers are experimenting with foot treading to crush grapes, reviving ancient varieties, and creating rich, aromatic whites from grapes such as roupeiro.
Yes, there are brilliant wines that cost $35 and up in Portugal, but below you’ll find 15 surprising bottles that cost $25 or less.
2018 Quinta de Chocapalha Arinto ($15)
Made by one of Portugal’s exceptionally talented female winemakers, Sandra Tavares da Silva, at her parent’s wine estate near Lisbon, this succulent, juicy white is a perfect pour with salads and grilled fish.
2018 Cartuxa Branco Evora Eugenio de Almeida ($16)
A lush, deep blend of antao vaz and arinto grapes, this Alentejo white has a smooth round texture and smoky overtones.
2018 Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas Branco ($20)
This elegant, mineral-crisp blend of bical and cercial grapes gives sancerres that cost $50 a run for the money. The winemaker, a legend in Bairrada, also makes stellar reds from the baga grape.
2019 Luis Duarte Rubrica Branco ($23)
Round and rich, with floral aromas and ripe tropical fruit flavors, this Alentejo blend of antão vaz, verdelho, and viognier is creamy textured, yet lively. Duarte is one of Portugal’s most awarded winemakers, and this label is his personal project.
2019 Luis Seabra Vinhos Branco Xisto Ilimitado ($24)
A blend of rabigato and viosinho with dashes of two other white grapes, this bone-dry white from the Douro is so mouth-watering and layered, you’ll crave another glass.
2017 Quinta d’Aguieira “Arco d’Aguieira” Branco ($25)
Wonderfully complex, this silky-smooth white from an ambitious project in Bairrada is based on the Maria Gomes grape, known in other regions as Fernao Pires. (It’s one of the few varieties named for a person, but the historical origins are mysterious; ViniPortugal says it’s probably the name of a long-ago farmer who did especially well with the grape.) The wine’s white-flower aromas and star fruit flavors give it exotic flair.
2018 Niepoort Redoma Branco ($25)
This fresh, sophisticated white from the Douro has lime and spicy ginger aromas and salty, mineral flavors, with a long finish. The blend includes five grape varietals, including rabigato and codega do larinho.
2019 Herdade do Esporao Monte Velho ($7!)
Think juicy, gulpable burger wine. No, it’s not complex, but this plummy red blend of four grape varieties from Alentejo has spicy-savory character. (Also, 2018 Esporao Trincadeira, a soft ripe red with tobacco hints and blackberry fruit, goes for $11 a bottle.)
2018 Casa Ferreirinha Papa Figos ($16)
This four-grape blend from the Douro, with deep purple color and intense aromas of violets and cedar, is soft, round, and mouth-filling.
2018 Herdade dos Grous Vinho Tinto ($16)
This huge Alentejo estate raises cattle and champion horses, but also makes top quality wines such as this balanced, intensely fruity blend of aragonez, alicante bouschet, touriga nacional, and syrah.
2016 Casa de Mouraz Tinto ($18)
The first estate in the Dao region with certified organic vineyards is now biodynamic as well. Some nine grape varieties go into this soft, spicy, lush-textured blend.
2019 Filipa Pato Tinto Dinamica ($18)
Pato, daughter of winemaker Luis Pato, is also a star, noted for experimental wines made in Bairrada with her husband William Wouters. This fresh, medium-bodied red, made from baga grapes, tastes of dark berries and spices.
2018 Herdade do Rocim Amphora Tinto ($18)
The Vieira family has poured huge investment into its large Alentejo estate; all its wines are worth trying. This fresh, light, tangy red blend is made in traditional clay amphora.
2017 Herdade de Coelheiros Tinto Coelheiros ($20)
Lush pure fruit with moderate tannin mark this blend of alicante bouschet and aragonez from Alentejo. It’s fruit forward, but not simple, with enough structure to age.
2019 Fitapreta A Touriga vai Nua ($23)
A British viticulturist and a Portuguese winemaker who loves to experiment are behind this unoaked Alentejo red made from touriga nacional. It’s light and fresh, with gorgeous floral aromas and dark-fruit flavors, and it’s super food-friendly.
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