Portugal has undergone something of a wine revolution in the past couple of decades. This archetypal Old World country has long been famous for little more than its fortified wines (port and madeira) and tart, light whites (vinho verde), but is now stealing headlines the world over for its new wave of rich, ripe, dry red wines. While it would be simplistic to brand these styles as New World, there is a supple, fruity intensity to many of them which is a key trademark of New World wine regions.
One might argue that Portugal's place in the international wine world has centered around its cork production rather than its wine, but this depends largely on which period of history one chooses. In the 18th century, when the supply of French wines to England was threatened by deteriorating international relations, Portuguese wines happily took the place of the Bordeaux claret no longer making its way across the Channel.
It was in the 20th century, when international demand for Portuguese wines had dwindled to almost nothing, that Portugal rose to dominate the world's production of cork. Now, as modern technology offers alternative methods of closure (such as plastic corks and metal screwcaps), the cork industry is on the wane. However, the current generation of Portuguese winemakers and marketeers are doing great work for their nation's vinous reputation. All wine nations have experienced this inter-centennial seesaw effect to some degree, but nowhere is it more obvious than in Portugal.
Portugal's temperate, predominantly maritime climate has a great deal to offer ambitious vignerons. The country's portfolio of terroirs is not as broad as that of, say, France or Italy, but there is significant variation nonetheless between its mountains, river valleys, sandy littoral plains and limestone-rich coastal hills. The high levels of rainfall that blow in from the western Atlantic are a boon to those seeking high yields from their vineyards, but they come at a price: the significantly increased risk of fungal problems in all but the best-ventilated sites.
Provided the risk of disease can be effectively managed, producers in coastal regions such as Lisboa (formerly Estremadura) and the Setubal Peninsula have little problem generating prolific yields. Quality – increasingly the demand of international wine consumers – can be achieved in these fertile environments only by limiting quantity through careful canopy management and judicious green harvesting. Sheltered, inland wine regions, such as Transmontano and Douro, are typically better equipped for the production of quality wines as their drier climate and alluvial soils force vines to dig deep, strong root systems. Illogical as it might seem, stressed vines make quality wines.
Portugal's complex array of vine varieties (and their many synonyms) is the bane of ampelographers. Some of these are endemic to Portugal (Touriga Nacional), some are shared with neighboring Spain and masquerade under a variety of pseudonyms (Tinta Roriz/Tempranillo), and an increasing number have proved internationally popular over the past few decades (Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay). Happily, the current success of Portuguese wines has not heavily depended on the latter category, as has been the case in other renascent wine countries (Italy the most notable among them), which bodes well for the future stability of this paradoxically Old World/New World country.
For more information about Portuguese wine regions, please see the links below.