The Best White Wines of Portugal

Think you can't get a good white wine from Portugal? Think again

OK, bear with me for a second. These wines may not be amazing in your "THIS GOT 90PTS AND IT'S ONLY $8!!!" kind of way, but they are great values and are a wonderful opportunity to add some amazement into your life. Not in a "this is a great sauvignon blanc" kind of way but rather in a "WOW! WHAT IS THIS?" kind of way!

Now, I'm a pretty savvy guy when it comes to wine, and the truth is I'm pretty sure I've had all these grapes before, save for the fernão pires, but with the Portuguese accents everything sounds Russian, or maybe Turkish? I can only guess what I've thought I've heard in the past. The amazing thing here is that for several days all I had was these wacky Portuguese varieties, red and white. And I do apologize for all the punctuation within sentences here. I'm sure it's bad form but as much as I like to think I write I am a wine guy who exercises creative license in quite the liberal way.

Anyway, I do digress. So the thing here is, Portugal is a land of  indigenous varieties, at least that's what they were showing me on a recent visit to area around Lisbon and to the north. From the south, in the Alentejo in particular, you will find quite a significant number of wines made with the more familiar varieties, but here in the northern half of the country such progress has been absent. It's obvious almost everywhere, except the new stadiums and impressive highway system where an abundance of progress was to be had, progress that in turn forestalled a step ahead in other parts of the economy.  No, things do not look as though moved ahead much for the Portuguese wine industry in the last decade. In fact I would say that some parts of the industry seem deeply rooted in an industry more fit for the 1980s than the 2000s. And you see, that is not a bad thing.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that the Portuguese wine industry is operating like it's 1980. Quite the contrary, they seem to be quite modernized in most of the ways that count, or moving there rapidly. In a few ways though these remain some of the most reliable, exciting and rewarding options for old world plates looking for value options, or any option for that matter.

The Portuguese are not going to like seeing that I'm calling them a value play. As with most regions or countries who are value plays, they don’t like that. Fortunately for them I don't care about the opinions of others when it comes to values. Just like points are a fungible concept so too with the concept of value. That's what I told them, but then I got home and did a little research. Hey folks. Your wines are terrific values. People should know. Let's get it straight here, I'm trying to help you sell some wine because what I tasted last month was fascinating, delicious and, then I checked the prices.

With vinho verde it is expected. Even alvarino, but what is this encruzado that you speak of, and what is up with the 2011 Quinta dos Bageiras Branco or the 2008 Bucaco Branco Reservado, which has plenty of Lopez de Heredia character! See, I'm getting excited writing about these wines. Truth be told these wines are worth it, whether out of sheer quality or the experience of discovery that one can feel here. Don't undersell it. Discovery becomes rarer with age, so imagine combining it with buckets of complexity and lots of sheer fun. That in a nutshell is Portuguese wines, red and white, though today I want to focus on the whites.

I've had more than my share of fat, even oxidized Portuguese whites. these aren't them. For the most part these are remarkably fresh and detailed wines, though more than one drifts off into the arena of roundness and fruitiness. Many combine blazing acidity with a touch of sugar, but few are fat and lumpy. And therein lies part of the modest silver lining to a lack of progress. The wines are the way they are because the use of oak and other advanced techniques are very well considered indeed. It may be master winemaking, but you have to think that no small part of the reason the white wines of Portugal tend not to be overoaked or thoroughly massaged is because they have historically sold for less than a vigorously oaked or thoroughly massaged wine could, or at least should have. That and there must be a local predisposition to little overt oak. We like that.

In any event the wines are what they are today and one hopes that what one sees is the direction for the future. If one were asked one would suggest as much, that this be the true way forward, and in fact such a message was relayed, with varying response on the part of the Portuguese. Lets just say the Portuguese wine industry has wide and varied objectives. In the meantime, while waiting for traction in some markets, where even a little slippage would in fact be an improvement, growth seems to be coming from the most unlikely places. Unlikely of course to those with not much of an understanding of the colonial world and some skewed sense of how grievance should be settled. I am speaking obliquely, because I can, and because a bottle of chardonnay is coursing through my veins, of Portugal's former colonies of Mozambique and Angola; both significant new markets for Portugal's wine industry.

So today these wines remain values, though with a ready and growing market they are not likely to remain that way. Remain in the same style a market grows accustomed to, one would hope, but soon the prices for many of these wines will begin their inevitable drift up. It won't take much. Portugal is not that big of a country, though part some to planted double deep in vines, and many of the wines I was able to taste are produced in modest amounts. "No it won't take much," I'm sure they've been saying for years. It'll just take those last few years. I've been around long enough to know that those few years aren't three. No they're closer to seven or eight but, they’ll get there. They'll get there producing some of the last undiscovered indigenous grapes out there, and they’ll get there based on wines that for the most part aren't going to scream "I am the shizzle." First time using that word professionally so I get double word score by the way and triple bonus because no Portuguese ever said that, ever. That's not their style.

No they’ll get their by making wines that say look right through me instead of at me. Wines that speak of new grapes and the soils they come from. Wines that will appeal to a new audience precisely because they offer a unique and accessible wine experience. Financially accessible of course but also in the sense that these wines are for the most part easy to get. Easy to like. There's very little of convincing oneself that "it's good for the style it's made in" stuff.

They are table wines, not display wines. They are bical and maria gomes, which seems to be like fernão pires in drag seeing as they are supposed to be the same variety just coming from different parts of Portugal. They are also polite and in that they are very Portuguese. In short they are, in some small way or another, a little bit of what anyone wants once in a whole. And yet we don't. It's not that we don't want them, its just that we don't know about them, so how could we ever want them, vinho verde for the most part excused here.

Taste them. Discover them. Then you'll want them, but they're going to be harder to find than your average wine. Don't let that deter you, they are not your average wines. Track a few down, they're worth it and at these prices it'll be particularly rewarding.

Click here to find more great white wines from Portugal.


— Gregory Dal Piaz, Snooth