Northern Portugal indigenous grapes
A brief introduction to some of the grapes native to this glorious region
Wednesday 02 March 2022
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The North of Portugal is a diverse landscape, which means that you will, of course, find a diverse range of wines here. The choppy Atlantic ocean breathes cool, salt-laced air throughout this region, bringing summer temperatures down and keeping winters mild and largely frost-free. What sets the land apart here is the mountains and the valleys, producing the perfect conditions for growing indigenous grapes who have thrived here for centuries — some for almost 1000 years.
There are three regions in the Northern reaches of Portugal that you need to know about before you clink your way through the delicious wines in the Glug box this month. The Dao, the Douro and the somewhat lesser-known Bairrada. Each region has, you’ve guessed it, a different expression of what it means to be growing grapes and making wine in North Portugal, and unlike the rich, velvety wines of the Algarve, they have a freshness and acidity that matches the blustery sea air.
The Douro is probably the area’s most well-known winemaking region. It’s here where Port is made, and where a wide variety of grapes thrive in the cooler climate — some of them unique to Portugal. It’s the oldest demarcated wine region in the whole world, settled along with many other winegrowing regions of Portugal by the Romans from the 1st Century CE. It’s a gorgeously green region split by the winding River Douro, which gives terraced vineyards built up from the schisty soil an extra dose of reflected Portuguese sunshine.
Tinta Amarela (or Trincadeira) is widely grown here for its herbal hedgerow flavours and aromas, and Tinta Cão, which nearly became extinct because it doesn’t produce a lot of grapes each harvest. Thankfully it was saved, and while it only makes up around one per cent of the grapes grown in the Douro, it’s vital to Port production because of its elegant spice and complexity.
Just south of the Douro is the Dão, a wine region prized for its granite soil along the banks of the River Dão. All around to the North, East and South are granite mountains keeping the area secluded and protected from extreme weather. Most of the vines are grown at least 500m above sea level, keeping them cool at night to keep acid levels in the grapes nice and high.
The Dão also contributes a lot to Port wine production, with a vast number of vineyards given over to the Touriga Nacional variety, an important grape in the making of the famous fortified wine. These grapes press into dark, intense juice packed with punchy fruit flavours (think plum, blueberry and every purple boiled sweet you’ve ever eaten) and a massive wave of tannins. Taylor’s port house say they give “stamina” to their wines. They certainly prolong the ageing process, as their tannins mellow and become velvety soft over the years. Encruzado is an indigenous white grape found in the Dão, argued by many wine critics to be a forgotten gem of the region. As versatile as Chardonnay, it can be drunk young or aged, oaked or left to its own zesty devices. However, according to wine writer David Kermode, the pine needle aroma and resinous notes stand it well apart as a wine to be enjoyed on its own merits.
In the Atlantic coast climate of Bairrada, vines were originally cultivated by monks in the 12th and 13th centuries. Here, lemony Arinto, high acid Bical and minerally Cercial (or Cerceal) are used to make bright, refreshing sparkling wines made in the traditional method (otherwise known as the Champagne method). Baga is also grown here, a red grape that you’ll definitely have tried before without even realising it — it’s what gives Mateus wine that signature rosy tint. Retro. Wines from the Bairrada region must have at least 50% Baga within them to be labelled “Clássico”.
Jaen, known as Mencía in Spain, is a red grape that produces pale, fragrant wines with aromas of blueberry and cherry. It does its best work in the Dão, becoming a low-acid, aromatic wine that’s great for blending. For a bit of colour, Alfrocheira brings a simple fruit flavour and dashing red visuals, again, another winning grape to use in a blend.
A bit of a ruffian, Tinta Pinheira or “Rufete” is a thick-skinned red wine grape with the potential to produce full-bodied wines with power. However, it can make a deliciously fruity rosé too over the border in Spain. She’s got range. Red wines made with Tinta Pinheira can use the high acidity and tannins (which can sometimes be a little rough) to mature well in the bottle, enjoying a nice long rest before pouring out silky and satisfying. If picked too young, Tinta Pinheira can have a menthol-spearmint aroma, which isn’t characteristic of the wines it is used for and is actually the sign of a bad bottle. Which is a shame, as that sounds pretty interesting, don’t you think?
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