Portugal’s Wine Identity Through Heritage & History
January 5, 2020
Admittedly, I know a lot more about the wine industry in Portugal than I do about the country itself. I shared a few tidbits earlier this year following a Wines of Portugal showcase in Vancouver. A quick Google search told me that its coastline sees some of the biggest waves in the world – up to 100 feet! I also learned that Portugal is one of Europe’s oldest countries with 700 years of (nearly) unchanged borders. And aside from Port, its most famous export is Christian Ronaldo. Not surprisingly, these things (except the soccer superstar) play a big role in Portugal’s wine identity.
Portugal’s Wine Heritage
Grapes have been growing on the land of this coastal Atlantic country for 4,000 years. Isolated from European influences (aside from neighbouring Spain), Portugal has remained unique in its wine persona. World economic policies are to thank for the success of both Port and table wines. They’ve been shipping to England since the 12th century and were used to toast the signing of the Treaty of Windsor in 1386. Amicable trade between the two countries persisted through the 17th century when England went to war with France. Portugal’s wine trade to Britain remains strong to this day.
Madeira, a fortified wine made on an island off the south coast, was the first European wine exported to America. It was toasted with during the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Today, the United States receives roughly 10% of Portuguese wine exports (the most of any other country). Canada isn’t far behind at 7%. Demand for non-fortified Portuguese wine has exploded in the past 10 years. In Canada, we’ve seen nearly double the amount of wine coming from Portugal.
The Blending Heritage
Portugal’s wine identity lives in blends. However, it’s actually rare to find a varietal breakdown on the back of a label. The reason for that lies in the country’s historic affinity for field blends. With 250 indigenous varieties, producers often didn’t know the composition of their finished wines. Field blends are less common today as Quintas became more popular in the ’80s and ’90s. These single estates replanted large portions of vineyards with specific varietals, thus providing the opportunity to blend in the winery. But the historic blended profile of Portuguese wines remains a commitment for producers.
Terroir wines are the focus of many producers all over the world these days. Terroir = wines that tell a story about where they’re from. From the characteristics of its climate to the composition of the soil. This is most evident in Portugal where two of the wine world’s most contrasting styles are grown in neighbouring regions. Vinho Verde produces light and refreshing white wines and sees high rainfall with cooling influences from the Atlantic Ocean. The Douro, which produces Port, bumps right up to the south east corner of Vinho Verde. Yet it has a hot and dry climate with very little rainfall.
Portugal’s lack of singular identity speaks to the diversity in styles it can produce. Its expansive offerings are the crux of Portugal’s character and why the search for interesting and unique wines is never ending.
I recently attended a tasting hosted by Wines of Portugal. Here’s a quick look at what we tasted.
And a shoutout to Pigeonhole for the stellar service and fabulous food pairings.