Log In / Join Now

Drinking Out Loud

Is Portugal the Most Exciting Wine Place on the Planet Today?

It may well be. That’s why I moved there

Matt Kramer
Posted: March 18, 2014

PORTO, Portugal—If you’ve read my stuff over the years, you may recall that I like to dive into places that grip my wine imagination. So in the past I, and my wife, Karen, have lived in Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Venice and Piedmont for varying lengths of time, our minimum residence three months. If there’s a privilege to being a wine writer, this is it.

Deciding where to go is not an entirely rational thing. Although all sorts of places appeal, the decision to set up house elsewhere is fundamentally emotional. Something about the culture, the landscape, the people and, not least, the wine, has to exert a siren call, an irresistible pull.

That, in the proverbial nutshell, is what happened with Portugal. For all the time I’ve spent in Europe over the decades—we’ve bicycled for months at a time in France alone, never mind living for long stretches in Italy—I have to confess that we never bothered with Portugal. The wines, apart from Port, for so long seemed lackluster. You could taste the lack of ambition.

But in the course of tasting, I began to receive different messages in the bottle, as it were. Something seemed to be stirring, or so the wines suggested. So in the past year or so, we visited Portugal twice. I loved what we saw, who we met, what we ate and, above all, what I tasted.

So I began to investigate Portuguese wines more closely. What at first appeared promising—and extremely enjoyable—turned out to be nothing less than revolutionary. I came to what I freely confess is an emotional conclusion: Portugal is arguably the most exciting wine place on the planet today.

Now, whether that’s demonstrably, provably so is beside the point. It’s how I as a wine lover, a wine taster, a wine drinker, felt. And that’s all that matters for any of us, isn’t it?

“Let’s live in Portugal for a few months,” I proposed to my wife.

“Why not?” she agreeably replied.

So now, as I write this, we’re newly settled into pretty nice digs in the Ribeira district of Porto. (And, yes, everything about this jaunt is on my own dime, just in case you were wondering.)

Much as we enjoyed Lisbon, there was no question that for us Porto would be “home.” It’s just the right size (1.3 million people in the larger urban area); it’s an ancient city that has retained much of its architecture intact (the Ribeira zone where we live is a UNESCO World Heritage site); and not least, it’s the closest city to the great Douro wine region.

That last fact is not insignificant. In the same way that you’ve really got to see the Grand Canyon sometime before you die, the same—for wine lovers, anyway—applies to the Douro wine zone. It is, in a word, boggling. Really, I’ve never seen anything quite like it: more vast than I had imagined, more forbidding in its endless stone vineyard terraces, and just plain more improbable than any other wine area I’ve seen. I mean, what kind of a wine area has growers using dynamite just to create a hole in which to plant a grapevine? It’s scary beautiful.

And now it’s changing. The Douro has famously been consecrated for more than three centuries to just one wine: Port. But the past few decades have not been kind to the Port business. The modern mass palate turned away from it, although there’s still a sizable number of drinkers who enjoy at least a sip from time to time. Make no mistake: Port is hardly about to disappear.

That noted, there’s no question that the Douro zone is changing. One (rough) fact tells all: In the past 15 years or so, about half of the wine production from the larger Douro zone—an area that extends beyond the boundaries designated for Port production—is now table wine. That’s really incredible. I know of no other historically significant wine zone that has transformed to anywhere near that degree.

So I wanted to be close to the Douro action. The table wines emerging from the Douro can be thrilling. Many—most even—are still works in progress. After all, nobody knew how to make table wine in the Douro. But they’re learning mighty fast. The best wines are stunners, truly world-class in their originality, flavor distinction, character, depth and finesse.

The dry white Douro wines can be surprisingly compelling. It’s surprising because the place is take-your-breath-away hot in the summer. (One winegrower said to me: “The Douro is eight months of paradise and four months of hell.”) So how can the white wines be so crisply good? Elevation. The best whites come from old vines grown in elevations upwards of 2,000 feet.

So the Douro is mighty interesting. But it’s not the real reason why I’ve chosen to take time to live in Portugal. It’s because of the grapes. Portugal is home to a dazzling number of indigenous grape varieties that create wines of supreme originality. You’re looking at red grapes such as Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinto Roriz, Baga and hundreds of others, and white grapes such as Arinto, Viosinho, Rabigato, Códega do Larinho and Gouveio, among many others.

Until very recently, the Portuguese did a pretty poor job with this patrimony. Too often the wines were dirty-tasting, from old, unclean barrels. The winemaking was crude, the ambition for greatness non-existent.

No more. Portugal is now gushing with stunning wines—and yes, stunning deals. Call me a value hound, but except for a tiny handful of reach-for-the-sky wines (and every wine nation needs those, too), Portugal very likely now offers some of the greatest wine values on the market today. The reason is easily grasped: Portugal’s achievement is still recent, and the word hasn’t quite made the rounds.

That’s why I’m here. And that’s why you’ll be hearing yet more. (And no, we don’t have a guest room.)

Heitor Almeida
champaign, IL —  March 18, 2014 1:32pm ET
good luck in Portugal, my favorite country in Europe! (I am from Brazil so certainly not unbiased). Make sure you take some time to visit Colares (close to Sintra and Lisbon), one of coolest terroirs on earth! I hope you write a book about Portuguese wine soon, we are lacking a modern book that talks about the quality revolution you are talking about.
Larry Kantrowitz
Atlanta Georgia USA —  March 18, 2014 3:57pm ET
I just got back from a week in Portugal, I went for much the same reason you are there. I focused more on the Alentejo area around Evora and Lisbon. I am itching to go back and I am willing to do what it takes to introduce Portuguese wines to the masses. I am on board and awaiting instructions. LOL
Douglas Webster
Canada —  March 18, 2014 5:42pm ET
For me the most exciting place right now...is South Italy....specially underrated Calabria
No other place on Earth can offer as much
Benoit Souligny
quebec canada —  March 18, 2014 6:22pm ET
for my 40th birthday this year we spent 10 days in portugal,loved it,the douro is beautiful,porto superbe also visited setubal region where nice wines are made also,loved moscatel roxo which is tough to get!!We assisted the Festas das Vendimas in beautiful Pamela a wine festival celebrating wine in the setubal region well worth the detour(fireworks,street food and many activities).Portugal will see me again.
Jeffery Bakke
Chicago —  March 18, 2014 8:06pm ET
I loved this article. As a wine traveller and wine enthusist we ended up going to Lisbon for 6 days for nothing more than curiosity of the unknown as it was one of the last regions that we knew nothing about and couldn't find much more on our store shelves aside from fizzy cheap vihno verde, we were thinking it would be alot of port and possible disappointment on red wine front and were absolutly blown away by the many new grapes, varieties, and way wine is done there. It is endless blends of countless grapes that are all unique to portugual and amazing. Quality for the money is far greater than Spain, Argentina, Chile, or any other. With the great English spoken there we too have considered moving there should the opprotunity arise. Great food, wine, and weather.
John Pires
Okanagan - British Columbia - Canada —  March 18, 2014 11:18pm ET
Thanks Matt!
Being from Portugal, I will be following your articles with great interest.
I'll take some notes for our three weeks there next November.
Madeline Puckette
Seattle, WA —  March 19, 2014 12:52am ET
Dear Matt,

Happy to hear your on the front lines with all that's been happening in the wine world of Portugal. It's too old and too cool a region not to be excited about! Do you plan on spending time in Madeira and Lisbon scene as well? Can't wait to hear more.

Madeline P.
Pedro Mansilha Branco
Porto, Portugal —  March 19, 2014 8:06am ET
Dear Matt,
It was a great pleasure to read that you and your wife are living in Porto for a period of time.
I'm winegrower at Quinta do Portal and while you are here it would be a pleasure to welcome you in the Douro.
Please contact me anytime on pmbranco@quintadoportal.pt or 962374532.
Ron Brooks
Alexandria VA —  March 19, 2014 9:08am ET
All I can say is it's about time! Thank you, Matt, I have been beating this drum for five years now and you are so right. As great as the Red wines are try a Douro white with five years on it Pow! Right in the Kisser!
Steven Filipe
Philadelphia, PA —  March 19, 2014 11:49am ET
Great article. I have been to Porto, Vila Nova de Gaia (the Port houses) and some wineries in Douro. Amazing places with great wines. I wish we had better access to Portuguese wines in the USA.
Enjoy your stay and I look forward to your articles.
Ernani L Silva
Harrison, New York, USA —  March 19, 2014 2:27pm ET
Being of Portuguese decent, I am a Brazilian leaving in the US for the past 45 years, I took upon myself to learn all I could about Portuguese wine before entering the trade. I am proud to be extremely knowledgeable about their wines, all of it, and have for the past 15 years worked in Manhattan promoting their wines on and off premises successfully so. Knowing that Country well, and many wine growers and makers, I fully understand your excitement and must say, it has crossed my mind to have a little spot in Porto for my retirement years. Enjoy your life!
Michael Hutchinson
Los Gatos —  March 19, 2014 2:49pm ET
MatadorVino has been bringing in some really exciting Portuguese wines for years.

The New Old World.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  March 19, 2014 4:55pm ET
Other than Portos, my first experience with (dry) Portuguese reds was the Old Vines Reserva from Quinta do Crasto 2004, which I uncorked in July 2011. Talk about beginner's luck! Having sufficiently had my mind blown by it, I now buy some from every vintage, in hopes that a few years time brings me a similar experience. Regrettably, shops see so little of this kind of thing, "this one is what I have to choose from" (LOL) but at least I have it on my radar, and it's a stunner!
Carrie Jorgensen
Cortes de Cima, Alentejo, Portugal —  March 19, 2014 8:00pm ET
Bem-vindos a Portugal Matt!

25 years ago, my Danish husband and myself (a Californian girl) arrived in Portugal in our sailboat, and the same passion grabbed us at the time – we found Portugal to be the perfect place to settle down, plant a vineyard and start a family.

We first looked at the Douro, but later fell in love with a farm in the southern Alentejo – Cortes de Cima. We look forward to welcoming not only you Matt, but all other #winelovers who read this -to come and discover firsthand one of the ‘Planet’s most Exciting Wine Places’ – the Alentejo, and of course all of the great wine areas in Portugal!
Hannon Library
Ashland, Oregon  —  March 19, 2014 9:38pm ET
Hello Matt,

Could not agree more ... I lived in Portugal on a sabbatical in 2010-11 and found the wines unique and wonderful. I was fortunate to conduct some research there and thought you might be interested in the report. It can be found at: http://www.youblisher.com/p/456494-A-Climate-Assessment-for-the-Douro-Wine-Region/

Make sure you are around for the sardine festival in Porto!

Greg Jones
Thomas Kobylarz
Hoboken, NJ, USA —  March 20, 2014 11:41am ET
I could not agree more Matt. My wife and I spent 10 days in Portugal last September traveling in the shape of a horseshoe from Porto, to the Douro, down to Alentejo through Fatima back west to Setabul and then to our final destination Lisbon. We met highly skilled and passionate winemakers, toured more vineyards than on any other wine vacation (the Pintas vineyard is a real sight to behold and the views of the Pinhao Valley laid out in from of you are breathless) and broke bread at many unforgettable restaurants. Top accommodations are affordable, the wines even more so. I hope to go back soon and make it to Douro Superior, the Dao and a few other places we discovered back home through their wines.

I would love to know your thoughts on this wine we had there: Monte Cascas Fernao Pires, Ribatejo
Steve Smith
Troy, NY —  March 20, 2014 12:59pm ET
Even when the wines were not made as well as they may be today, Portuguese wines were interesting and different. I used to buy arm loads of funky old negociant wines and little gems like Colares in the Boston area back in the mid-80's. I banged around Lisbon, Oporto and some of the countryside on a couple of trips and always loved the wine, the food, the people, the beautiful tiles and history. What a great place to settle for awhile. Can you say "roast suckling pig"?!
Eric Campos
Canada —  March 21, 2014 8:59am ET
Definitely one of the most charming countries to visit, my wife and I have fond memories of quality vinho verde with fresh salted cheese. Besides these, and surprisingly, white blends that use portions of chardonnay and/or viognier, I confess that I have found the majority of Portuguese table reds unexciting. Most of the ones I have had have been purchased based on strong WS reviews, and while technically sound, good wines, I find those based on Touriga Nacional to lack unique character, not dissimilar to Madirans that fit the bill when looking for an unobtrusive full, dark, vinous red. The one that does stand out from memory is Niepoort's 2008 Redoma, which was absolutely moreish by virtue of it's balance.

Anyhoo, I look forward to your findings!

Joe Dekeyser
Waukesha, WI USA —  March 21, 2014 12:00pm ET
I haven't given up on port, in fact I have been acquiring more dessert wines in general, but I have found the table wines to range from at least good to downright compelling and, yes, value is a big factor.
Preston-sylvia Childs
St. Simons Island, Ga. —  March 21, 2014 10:12pm ET
To us, Western Spain & Duoro Portugal are the most under-discovered wines around. Barcelona, Rioja, Priorat (recently), Rebera del Duero, etc., OK. But go down the Duero to Toro country, and further down-river westward to Douro River areas,in Portugal. Once, the many-faceted Touriga grape there was converted into Port wine,kegged, and sent down the river in kegs to Oporto - for aging, blending, etc. Then,electric dams for power, and they started making regular wine out it,too; blending in its many offshoots with tempranillo, etc. But. Alas, economics, etc. has slowed output. Hey, Spainards/Portugese! Don't let economics and the Pyranees brrier between you guys and the rest of Europe stop you. EXPORT MORE TOURIGA stills!!
Casca Wines
Cascais, Portugal —  March 22, 2014 2:55pm ET
Indeed it is. We Casca Wines started our company to share the excitement to be winemaker in Portugal. This is why we are producing in 9 DOCs of Portugal with the aim to show the best of each of them. DOC Colares is one of them and we are very proud to be exporting it to the most important cities in the world.
Helder Cunha
Founder and Winemaker at Casca Wines
Al Alverez
New York, NY USA —  March 22, 2014 11:03pm ET
This summer I went to Portugal, rented a car and drove around a lot. I loved Colares wines although it can be a bit of a hit or miss thing. I drove through the Douro for a few days staying at Quinta de la Rosa. I was just amazed at the quality of the red table wines there. I'd recommend, just driving around, staying at small hotels and exploring.
Marie-louise Schyler
Porto, Portugal —  March 24, 2014 11:16am ET
Dear Matt,

What a pleasure to read your article about Douro wines! We too find them very exciting - we would be pleased if you could find time while you are nearby Porto to taste some of our wines from Quinta do Noval.

I am sure you have received plenty of invitations - but I am trying nonetheless! With best wishes, MLouise Schyler, mlschyler@axamillesimes.com
Vishal Kadakia
Mumbai, India —  March 27, 2014 3:57pm ET
Recently at prowein 2014 I took a complete day to taste some very exciting wines from Portugal. Douro and alentejo regions are super exciting and I am looking forward to importing some great wines to india. With hardly any wines from Portugal available I think the quality with amazing pricing should make Portuguese wines the talk of town with some savvy marketing. It high time indeed!
Austin Beeman
Maumee, Ohio —  March 28, 2014 3:07pm ET
Shhhh. Don't tell the world how amazing these wines are! There has to be some secrets left for those of us who want superb values from Europe.

And be sure you don't tell anyone how beautiful the country is and how nice all the people are.

Efrain Rodriguez
New York —  March 29, 2014 11:30pm ET
Looking forward to more commentary on Portuguese wines. I am a fan of Old World wines mostly French but am currently on a Rioja kick. We need a credible critic like yourself to present wines from this region.
Boa sorte, espero que tudo deu certo. Aproveita bastante!
S M Greenberg Md
Boston, MA —  October 3, 2014 9:19am ET
Hi Matt and Commentors
I will soon be traveling in Portugal looping through most of the country for 2 weeks. I would be most grateful for any recommendations for Vineyards to visit as well as dining. Please send me some names.

Many Thanks
Steven Greenberg

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 365,000+ ratings.