More than port

Americans are finally tasting all the wines of Portugal

In Portugal, high-climbing Vinho Verdes grapes are harvested.

In Portugal, high-climbing Vinho Verdes grapes are harvested.

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, Portugal has remained a quiet player through the modern global wine craze, and its wines are only beginning to trickle into Chico. At Creekside Cellars, the wine shop’s owner, Dennis McLaughlin, says Portuguese wines simply don’t sell fast enough to merit keeping a ready supply. Monks Wine Lounge & Bistro, which carries nearly 200 wines, does not currently carry even one Portuguese table wine. At Trader Joe’s, Portuguese wines have only a slightly surer foothold. The local branch currently carries two Vinho Verdes, a light, spritzy, and summery white-wine style from northern Portugal. Each bottle, at $3.99, makes a fine entryway for newbies into Portugal’s wine world.

Deeper into this wine-dark land, one will encounter region names like Dão, Bairrada, Alentejo, Ribatejo and Estremadura—the last two of which changed names in 2010, to Tejo and Lisboa, respectively (however, bottle labels of earlier vintages will naturally feature the old names). The most reputable region may be Douro, origin of port dessert wines.

Locally, those who embark on determined Portuguese wine-hunting outings may watch for Winery Esporão’s mighty red Reserva blend, a ripe, rich, and toasty Alentejo wine made of the relatively unknown arinto grapes, antão vaz and roupeiro. Another Alentejo red, a four-grape blend called Mariana, from Herdade do Rocim, is earthy and robust, but with an acidic, tingling spark that speaks to elegant terroir and sophisticated winemaking.

Vinho Verde is the summery, drinkable star of the north. Here, 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—though the wines are here. Shannon McGahan, manager and wine buyer at Monks, says she does at times carry Vinho Verdes—and, better yet, McGahan believes that soon she will rotate into her inventory some red Portuguese blends.

Portuguese grapes themselves are now taking root increasingly 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, Bumgarner Winery, Obscurity Cellars, Oakstone Winery, and Jeff Runquist Wines have each made a touriga nacional.

Statewide, a miniscule 200 acres of the variety are grown (the state’s cabernet sauvignon acreage tops 70,000), though just a decade ago that figure was closer to zero. In El Dorado Hills, at Shaker Ridge Vineyards, Andy Standeven grows just a single acre of 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.”