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Viticulture in Portugal

Portugal can look back on a venerable yet turbulent winegrowing history. It is chiefly known for its port, madeira and cork production. However, it also has numerous indigenous grape varieties, and the Douro was one of the world's first wine regions to introduce a formal demarcation of origin.

The history of viticulture in Portugal

The Phoenicians brought the first grapevines to the area that is now Portugal. The Greeks and the Romans also subsequently cultivated vines there. Following the conquest of Portugal by the Moors, wine production came to a standstill during the Early Middle Ages. It was only after several Christian monasteries were founded that Cistercian monks revived Portuguese winemaking. King Denis of Portugal (1279–1325) was also an important influence. As part of his efforts to promote the development of agriculture, he also encouraged the cultivation of vines. The proceeds were used to construct a naval fleet, an important prerequisite for maritime trading in the years that followed.
After achieving independence in 1385, the country's trading relationships flourished, especially with England. The taxes imposed on French wines after 1693 helped boost the sale of Portuguese wines all over the world. The discovery of the Douro Valley wine region led to the birth of port wine, which today accounts for the largest slice of Portugal's wine exports. Portugal was the first country in the world to demarcate a winegrowing area for a particular product to the Douro region. This not only ensured the quality of the sought-after sweet wine, it also cut out the competition. Since then, only wines produced in the Douro Valley have been entitled to use the designation "port wine". Winegrowers suffered a major setback in the 19th century when phylloxera and mildew wiped out large tracts of vines. It was not until the 1930s that winemaking saw a gradual revival. The Carnation Revolution and Portugal's accession to the EU boosted the fortunes of its wine trade.
Employing around 15% of its population, today viticulture is an important part of the Portuguese economy. As well as port, table wines are also becoming increasingly significant. In particular, the semi-sweet Mateus Rosé has many fans around the world.

Climate

Portugal has an ideal climate for cultivating vines. The climate differs from one region to another and these differences result in a wide variety of wines. Products from vineyards in the country's interior tend to be heavier, as the hot climate produces more tannin-rich and aromatic wines. In Portugal's more northerly wine regions the Atlantic brings cool weather and much rainfall. However, the long summers provide the ideal conditions for white grapes in particular to reach full ripeness and produce fresh and light white wines.

Portuguese wines

Reds and rosé wines predominate in Portugal. White wines account for only about 30% of production. The most well-known wine from Portugal is port, followed by madeira and Vinho Verde.
Vinho Verdes are light, fresh and slightly fizzy red, rosé and white wines. They are usually produced from a blend of various grape varieties grown in Portugal's northern wine regions. Winegrowers often make single-varietal Vinho Verdes from Loureiro or Alvarinho grapes. The Vinho Verde taste profile includes pronounced fruitiness and a wide aromatic expression. Spritzy whites and bubbly sparkling wines are perfect for light and refreshing summer drinking.

Grape varieties grown in Portugal

No other country in Europe has such a wide range of indigenous grape varieties. Thanks to the different climatic and geological conditions found there, around 500 varieties are grown in Portugal. Of these indigenous grape varieties known as castas , some 340 cultivars are approved for wine production.
The most planted red grape varieties are Castelão Francês, Touriga Franca, Trincadeira Preta, Baga, Vinhão, Tinta Barroca, Rufete, Aragonez, Tinta Carvalha and Mourisco tinto. The most important white varieties are Ferñao Pires, Malvasia, Síria, Loureiro branco, Arinto, Vital and Azal branco.

Producers

In most of Portugal's winegrowing regions, winemakers produce wines in relatively small wineries. Large companies like Sogrape dominate the export market.

Vineyard area and production volume

Portugal produces around 6 to 7 million hectolitres of wine a year with approximately 230 000 hectares under vine.

The wine regions of Portugal

Azores

Dry and fortified white wines with high acidity are produced from Verdelho, Arinto and Terrantez grapes. Vinho do Cheiro made from American varieties is found on all the islands.

Beiras

This wine-producing area encompasses the regions of Dão, Bairrada, Beira Interior, Encostas da Aire and Távora-Varosa. In the Dão region vines are mainly cultivated in granite soils. Over 100 000 small winemakers grow vines on plots of less than half a hectare. The Azores produce mostly dark, full-bodied red wines high in tannins. Dão Nobre is a designation for top-quality wines that must be vinified from authorized grape varieties. Like Dão, Bairrada can look back on a winemaking tradition stretching back to antiquity. It produces chiefly red wines made from the indigenous Baga grape variety.

Madeira

At the end of the 16th century the port of Funchal was an important staging post for Portuguese wines from where they sailed on to Africa, Asia and South America. As the wines rapidly spoiled on these long voyages, they began to be fortified using brandy made from distilled sugar cane. The madeira technique used to heat the wine after fermentation is known as "estufagem". For low-cost products, this process takes place in very large concrete tanks with a volume of up to 50 000 litres. Fine wines are fermented in lodge pipes (600-litre barrels) stored in heated rooms. All madeira wines are still fortified. However, this is used to arrest fermentation in the more noble wines, whereas thickened sweet grape must is added to cheaper ones. Caramel is often also added as a colouring. The wines are then matured in casks for between 3 and 50 years.

Ribatejo, Algarve, Estremadura

Ribatejo is Portugal's second biggest winegrowing region in terms of production volumes and hectarage. The red wines from this region are pleasantly fruity and tangy when young. They then develop a spicy character as they mature. The Algarve is the southernmost region of Portugal and is especially important for cork production. The wines produced here are strong in alcohol with low acidity and a yeasty character. Estremadura is Portugal's largest wine region and is known primarily for mass-produced wines. The indigenous grape variety Ramisco is vinified to produce the dark red tannic wines of the same name. It is matured in wooden casks for up to three years, and ages well for many years after that too.

Terras do Sado

Terras do Sado is in the central western part of Portugal's winegrowing region and includes the Setúbal peninsula which, along with Palmela, is one of its two DO appellations. It produces dry white wines, classic red wines and Moscatels, the most famous of which is the Moscatel Roxo de Setúbal which is aged for 20 years.

Trás-os-Montes

This DOC appellation in northeastern Portugal has a long tradition of winemaking. Trás-os-Montes is significant for its rosé wine production, while the most interesting wines are the heavy reds from the Valpaços subregion. Its Muscat dessert wines rank among the best in the world.Portugal offers extraordinary variety when it comes to wines. Both lightly fizzy Vinho Verdes and opulent ports are available in the Mondovino online shop and in Coop sales outlets.