By Ron and Mary James
During our several visits to Portugal, we’ve grown fond of the country’s wines – they are good and cheap. Oh, there are expensive ones to be sure, but the majority offered at mini-markets around town are less than $5, and only double that in most cafes.
The problem is selection. In America, we pick wines by varietal. Here, the region is first, followed by the varietal or blend and finally the vintage year. Scanning wines in a supermarket or wine shop here makes your head spin. Every once in a while, you’ll spot a familiar label like Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, or Chardonnay.
But mostly you’ll be a stranger in a strange land of grapes. Touriga Nacional, Aragonez, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Trincadeira, Tinta Amarela, Castelão, Alvarinho, Arinto, Fernão Pires/Maria Gomes, are the top varietals in Portugal. Plus, there are another 250 others you’ve never heard of. If I were taking a Master Sommelier Examination and learned that the blind tasting included Portuguese wines, I’d ask the examiners to “just shoot me!”
So that begs the question. “How do you learn about Portuguese wines?”
We’re glad you asked. Most of us just want to find a wine to enjoy before or with a meal. It’s not that hard at restaurants, where inexpensive house wines are a good bet by the glass, liter or bottle. Most of the time, these are very easy-to-drink table wines. We’ve also found servers and sommeliers to be very helpful if you can explain the characteristics you like in a wine. Often, especially the wine recommended is being sold by the glass, they will pour you a taste.
Finding wines you love on supermarket shelves can be a crap shoot. Sometimes I focus on regions – there are 14 – if had a wine from, say, Dou or Alentejo or Douro that I liked. Or, I look for bottles with a tag touting high marks from Wine Spectator. But mostly it’s trial and error – a wine enthusiast Russian roulette. If you lose, pour out the offending bottle and try again until you find a wine that hits your sweet spot.
You can also do wine tastings in shops and wineries all over Portugal, but that can be expensive and time-consuming. In Lisbon, the Wines of Portugal Tasting Room on Plaza Comercial offers a fun, easy shortcut, drawing on their large, ever-changing selection of wines from around the country. The main tasting room is large and comfortable, with automatic machines lining the walls that dispense tastes. You can do flights of, say, bubby or reds, and you can book personal and group tastings. These are a kind of Portuguese wine 101 where guests learn about the wine regions and grape varieties. We enjoyed a private tasting from expert Luis Mota that was informative and gratifying.
Still, after a month here… and several previous visits to Portugal, learning about Portuguese wines is a lifelong undertaking. It’s an education I’m happy to continue. Cheers or, as they say in Portugal—Saude!