Leaving port

Looking beyond the fortified wines of Portugal

Harvesting grapes for vino verde.

Harvesting grapes for vino verde.

Photo by Feliciano Guimarães

If the French truly live longer than other people because they consume so much red wine, then the Portuguese can’t be far behind. There, the average man and woman drinks 60 bottles of wine per year. Only France, Italy and Luxembourg exceed this per capita rate. The country is one-fifth the size of California, yet grows about the same acreage of grapevines. Hundreds of indigenous varieties occur there—and winemaking itself began in Portugal more than a millennium before the French or Italians ever purpled their hands, feet or carpets.

In spite of its vinicultural street cred and despite its well-known port—the brandy-fortified dessert wine—Portugal has remained a relatively quiet player through the modern global wine craze, and its other wines are only beginning to trickle into Chico. Wine Time (26 Lost Dutchman Drive), the north Chico wine bar, currently features one, a red blend called Vale do Bomfim from Dow’s ($6/glass), while the just-opened Unwined at 980 (980 Mangrove Ave.) doesn’t yet carry any Portuguese varietals (other than port).

And at Chico’s major wine retailers—BevMo and Trader Joe’s—Portuguese wines have only a slightly surer foothold. The former currently carries many of the young, light and summery vinho verde styles, as does the latter, in addition to a red table wine, the Tuella Douro ($5.99). All are fine entryways for newbies into Portugal’s wine world.

Deeper into this wine-dark land, one will encounter region names like Dão, Bairrada, Alentejo, Tejo and Lisboa. The most reputable region may be Douro, origin of port dessert wines.

Vinho verde is the summery, drinkable star of the north. There, grapevines are often trained up fences, trees and telephone poles in a rustic, guerilla-style approach to wine-growing that likely will not appear in California.

But there are Portuguese grapes increasingly taking root around California as winemakers take greater interest in exploring new varieties. Hottest among these is a burly red-wine grape by the name of touriga nacional. Traditionally reserved for port-style sweet wines, touriga nacional can be fermented to dryness and may be shaping up to become the red-wine superstar of Portugal, with shoulders broad enough to bump a Napa Valley cab off the table and with enough presence to draw the spotlight from Spain’s tempranillo. In the Sierra foothills, Wise Villa Winery, Bumgarner Winery and Jeff Runquist Wines have each made a touriga nacional.

Statewide, a miniscule 258 acres of the variety are grown (the state’s cabernet sauvignon acreage tops 80,000), though just a decade ago that figure was closer to zero. In El Dorado Hills, at Shaker Ridge Vineyards, Andy Standeven grows five Portuguese varietals, including touriga nacional, which he sells to several wineries. Standeven notes that marketing a new variety at the retail level is not always easy in established wine markets.

“It’s very hard to break a new varietal into the people’s vocabulary,” said Standeven. “Someone has to experiment with these new grapes.”

Winemaker Stuart Spencer is doing just this at St. Amant Winery in Lodi. Spencer’s family vineyard, best known for zinfandel, includes 25 acres of touriga nacional and other Portuguese grapes, such as souza, verdelho, tinta francisca, bastardo, and tinta cão.

“These wines can be great, but they’re still a hard sell,” Spencer acknowledged. “You need to have people taste them if they’re going to buy them. They won’t just jump up and move off the shelf.”