Portugal is a country of strong wine tradition, and the excellent quality of its wines is recognized across the world, with numerous awards and distinctions won in international competitions. And to appreciate and know them, nothing like visiting the regions where they are produced, and wine is an excellent excuse to also discover the landscapes, heritage, culture and the people who live here. Taste the wines of Portugal!
The Douro and Alentejo regions are where you will find the largest number of places dedicated to wine tourism, but there are wine production units receiving visitors all over the country, including the Algarve. To fully get to know the vineyards, the wineries and taste the wines, why not stay overnight and explore the surrounding area too?
It is in the Alto Douro Wine Region, created in 1756, that Port wine that has always been intended for export is produced. No wonder that there is a centuries old tradition here of welcoming visitors and sharing with them the best that the region has to offer. To start with, there’s the superb scenery of the Douro valley, where man built terraces to plant vines on the region’s rugged slopes.
A landscape was produced that was classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, populated by farms traditionally linked to wine. It’s possible to get here from Porto, where the Port Wine Lodges are, and a good way to discover the region is on board a cruise ship, visiting some of the most iconic sites linked to the production of fine wines from the Douro and Porto.
The foundation of Portugal started in the north, the cradle of the oldest noble families who helped our kings in the conquest of the territory. This is why the north, which is the home of vinho verde, boasts so many palaces and manor houses displaying their coats of arms, in which the hospitality is in the best aristocratic tradition.
You can stay in many of these houses and farms, where you can have wine tastings and other experiences, such as visits to other features of their heritage. This region also has several historical cities such as Braga, Guimarães, Viana do Castelo, and many others on the coast and in the interior, some of them on the banks of rivers that add extra freshness and fascination.
The central region contains historic cities like Viseu, Coimbra – recently included on the World Heritage list – and Aveiro on the coast, and other charming places like Buçaco with its century old spa. You will also find excellent wine tourism units, some of which are owned by old Portuguese wineries, although they have all have kept up with current trends in wine production and use the most modern production methods. These establishments are well-equipped, and take advantage of their ancient historical legacy, sometimes even including small museums.
Lisbon region holds an important place in the Portuguese wine landscape, due to the extension of its vineyards but especially due to the quality of its wines and brandies.
In Portugal the growing of grapes dates back to before the Roman occupation: (200BC). It was further developed by the various religious congregations which settled in the country, and acquired an increasingly important place in the economy and culture of the region.
Carcavelos, Colares and Bucelas were the first denominations to be created in the Lisbon Region. All three are located on the outskirts of the city of Lisbon and produce wines with completely different characteristics, though each has its own remarkable identity and quality.
Further north we find large stretches of vineyards planted on the slopes and hills that characterise the area where they are. The wines from this region bear the controlled denomination of Alenquer, Arruda and Torres Vedras, and have obtained due recognition. Close to the sea we find the delimited region of Lourinhã which produces wine suited for high quality brandies.
The wine region of Setúbal includes a large coastal chunk of the administrative region (as opposed to the wine region) of Alentejo. Much of the area is flat and sandy, with the exception of the Serra da Arrábida, a short chain of mountains running along the south coast of the peninsula, where the soils are limestone or clay-limestone. It is on these Serra da Arrábida slopes that the grapes are grown for the famous sweet Moscatel de Setúbal wines.
The climate is Mediterranean, with hot, dry summers and mild but rainy winters. Vineyards in the Serra da Arrábida are cooler, owing to the higher altitude and the proximity of the sea.
There are two DOCs, Setúbal and Palmela. Setúbal is sweet and fortified, made primarily from the Muscat of Alexandria grape. It can be labelled Moscatel de Setúbal when Muscat makes up more than 85 per cent of the blend.
It’s a very sweet, fragrant wine, with candied orange flavours, floral and raisiny when young, developing nutty, toffeed aromas with maturity. Moscatel Roxo (a pink grape) makes wines that are even more scented. DOC Palmela is mainly red, and based on the late-ripening Castelão grape, which is more at home in the hot, sandy soils of Palmela than anywhere else in Portugal, ripening well to make wines of complexity and depth, elegance an balance, with good cherry fruit.
The Alentejo is a fertile region in wine tourism units, and it is here that one can find several leading national producers and its quality is appreciated worldwide and was considered the best wine region in the world to visit in 2014 by readers of the prestigious American newspaper USA Today. The wine producing quintas (farms) and herdades (estates) lay within this landscape of vast horizons, and they are also renowned for their hospitality and cuisine.
At their centre is Évora, another World Heritage city, whose beautiful, serene historical centre will leave you enchanted. You can also participate in the grape harvest and observe the different stages in the making of a wine. Highlight also goes to Reguengos de Monsaraz, which in 2015 was the European city of the wine and proposes many initiatives which are not to be missed such as astronomical observations with wine tasting, harvesting of grapes to create a commemorative wine, themed events and food and wine dinners.
On the other side of the Atlantic highlight goes to the Madeira wine that has gained fame and prestige in all four corners of the world, a real “treasure” that already in the eighteenth century was appreciated by kings, princes, generals and explorers. Among the more than 30 different varieties, emphasize is placed on the finest – Sercial, Boal, Verdelho and Malvasia, the latter representing sweet wine, full-bodied with an intense perfume and red color. The vines arranged in terraces supported by stone walls, resemble stairs, which in some parts of the island connect the sea to the mountain boasting breathtaking landscapes.
What about tasting a wine that grows on basaltic rock? It seems strange that such conditions produce such a delicious nectar, but the truth is that in days gone by, this wine went directly from the Azores to the table of the Russian Tsars.
The cultivation of vines on Pico began in the late 15th century, when the island was first settled. Thanks to the volcanic soil, rich in nutrients, the dry, warm micro-climate of slopes protected from the wind by walls of rough, dark stone, heated by the sun, the Verdelho variety vines have exceptional ripening conditions here. The wine was later exported to many countries in Europe and America, and even arrived at the table of the Russian Court. The vineyards that dot the landscape of the island, still produce a crisp, fruity, dry and mild wine that is an ideal companion for a plate of seafood or fish, as well as the vinho de cheiro (fragrant wine) that is so popular at the tables on feast days.
These lands, the Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture, combining their volcanic nature and ancestral cultivation practices, were classified by UNESCO in 2004 as World Heritage. The vines planted in the lava rock are tightly enclosed by dry stone walls in plots called “currais”, that are protected from the sea wind but let in the sunshine necessary for their maturation.
In short, Portugal offers excellent opportunities for wine tourism, often associated with rural tourism and boutique hotels in prime locations. Besides the wines, you can enjoy other farm-produced products, such as fruits and jams, cheeses, olive oils, traditional sweets and the local cuisine itself. Despite their often rustic appearance, don’t be mistaken, because these are modern hotels with wineries and cellars that have invested in advanced technology, some designed by internationally renowned architects. Come taste the wines of Portugal!