Sunday, September 18, 2011

ITALY: Defined by Grapes that Hang On

Life is wine and wine is life in Italy, among the world's largest consumers, producers and exporters of this ancient libation. If the whole of Italy is a vineyard, with over 300 defined production zones in twenty(20) political regions, then perhaps Italy can be defined by its regional and native grape varieties. The vine has been here in this hilly, mountainous peninsula with its moderating sea influences since the colonization of the ancient Greeks. Here it is the time-honored tradition to match the right grape(native or international) to the perfectly compatible climate, soils and landscape.

In the foggy North, from the Alpine foothills of Piedmont, the tannic red grape Nebbiolo(Spanna) produces the regions famed Barolo DOCG's within its delimited production zone of the Langhe hills. To the east of central Alba, the more feminine Barbaresco's are found from three(3) communes, and in the northern hills the communes of Gattinara and Ghemme produce lighter blended styles from the same grape base. The surrounding provinces produce defining whites from the Moscato and Cortese grapes(Gavi DOCG), as well as aromatic, red Brachetto d'Acqui DOCG, still or frizzante(sparkling), long established as a regional specialty. High acid, low tannin red Barbera and fruity Dolcetto are among the most widely planted varietals in these hills, but usually found in the less prestigious soils.

Head east and Chardonnay in Lombardy's traditional method Franciacorta DOCG is the sparkling superstar, while the remote outpost of Valtellina DOCG, is still a Nebbiolo(Chiavennasca) blend, and a white workhorse, Malvasia is found here as well. A Red Moscato, grown near Bergamo, is the passito base for the speciality Moscato di Scanzo DOCG. Emilia-Romagna, to the south is home to Italy's first white DOCG, Albana di Romagna, made from the local Albana grape, in a volume region mostly known as the producer of volumes of light, red Lambrusco blends.
Old & New: Alto Adige trellis & pergolas
One of the tri-states, autonomous Trentino-Alto Adige is a northernmost region proudly growing international varieties, most of it DOC status, with whites like Pinot Grigo, Pinot Blanco and Muller-Thurgau. Sweeping eastward is the Veneto, cultivating huge amounts of white Garganega blends for Soave DOC's. Another important regional grape is the red Corvina Veronese, found as the base in Bardolino and Valpolicella DOC blends,  reaching its greatest expression  as partially dried recioto in the notable Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG. Popular Charmat method Prosecco is made traditionally from the Prosecco(Glera) grapes, and the base of the region's Bellini cocktails. As the eastern border Slovakian neighbor, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, is a prominently white wine region, with a mix of international and native varietals like Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Malvasia. The region has one DOCG, sweet Ramandolo from the Verduzzo white grape. An important regional DOC is Colli Orientali del Friuli from the Friulano grape, with native Picolit produced as another important white grape which is allowed in the passito sweet DOC.

Montepulciano d'Abruzzo
Vast central hills of Tuscany, have cultured numerous clones of the native Sangiovese grape over the centuries. Delineation of a Chianti Classico region from 1716 recognized an original zone of production and was officially canonized in 1932, finally becoming part of DOC regulations in 1966. Hilltop Brunello di Montalcino DOCG is derived from an un-blended  Sangiovese clone, having a brown skin when ripe, it can produce one of the world's great wines.Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG is from the 'Prugnolo gentile' clone of the same grape, and can produce great wines of good value. Carmignano DOCG is also based in Sangiovese, but was the first DOC to allow amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc in its regional Italian blend. Notably, the region's white Vernaccia of San Gimignano was the first in Italy to be awarded DOC status

In the South, Umbria's popular Orvieto DOC is made from widely cultivated Trebbiano, Grechetto and Malvasia white grapes within the historic commune. The same grapes are blended further South in Latium's Frascati DOC, so popular in the cafe's of Rome. Local native Sagrantino grapes are the base of Umbria's Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG, which is produced in dry or sweet(dolce) styles, and we also find Sangiovese blended again in the communal DOCG Torgiano Rossa Riserva. Widely planted Trebbiano(Ugli Blanc) appears again in mountainous Abruzzo as Trebbiano d'Abruzzo, but the regions DOCG comes from a local red variety, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. Towards the Adriatic, the hills of Marche have the high-acid white grape variety Verdicchio, a perfect partner for the local catch of the day, as well as white Vernaccia grapes in numerous DOC blends. Red Montepulciano shows its cloned head again in the regions DOCG, Conero-Rosso Riserva.

Volume-producing Apulia is a dominant red-wine region and home for many migratory ancient varietals, such as the red/black Primitivo and Negromaro grapes. Aglianico is another ancient Greek variety, and known as the Nebbiolo of the South. It is proudly found as the principal red grape in Campania's Taurasi DOCG and in Basilicata's only DOCG, the volcanic-nurtured Aglianico del Vulture. As 'Magna Graecia' other historic white grape varieties, like Greco di Tufo, in still or frizzate styles, and the classic, aromatic Fiano di Avellino found DOCG homes in the Campania sunshine. Fiano was also planted on the large island of Sardinia, but is overshadowed by a more famous white, Vermentino di Gallura DOCG. Across the sea in Liguria the same Vermentino grape is known by the synonym Pigato. While under the Crown of Aragon, the vineyards of Sardinia also rooted imported varieties like the white Tourbat, the red Carignan and Nerello.Not every variety of the South has been imported. Autonomous and mountaneous, Sicily has the native black Nero d'Avola grape, important in producing the islands' Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG. Often conquered Sicily is known more as a volume producer and the home of Marsala DOC, a fortified and aged sweet wine from a collection of native white grapes dominated by Catarrato and Grillo.

Today, the wines of Italy are a curios mix of appellation and varietal labeling, as they have throughout history, perhaps because the region is defined by its grape(s). Labels offering a 'Riserva' designation additionally reflect additional aging, usually 2 years longer. While the often used 'Classico' claim typically refers to the original zone of traditional production for that regional product. Veiled over all of this are the top quality tier of the DOCG wines, those of 'controlled designation of origin guaranteed', applied to 47 regional wines, who in theory represent the best of their appellations. All that needs to be done is to match the right regional grape with the perfect spot to cultivate it, and then hang on for more than 2000 years.

Friday, September 16, 2011

RHONE: A River runs thru It

It is defined by a mighty river.

Head due South from Villefranche-sur-Saone, thru metro Lyon, and in about an hour's drive you are in the ancient capital of Burgundy, Vienne. But, surrounded by granite-based soils and the steep slopes on the eastern flank of Massif Central that shore the mighty river Rhone, it is not Burgundian. This is a rocky, uniquely continental environment that is only half of the Rhone wine region. The Rhone viticultural region is so unique that it produces world benchmarks of red Syrah and white Viognier in perhaps the steepest, most challenging vineyard sites in all of France from its thread-like northern region.  Cross a thirty mile stretch south of nearly vine-less landscape and even greater volumes of now mostly blended wines appear from the Rhone's Mediterranean climate southern half where these grapes(Syrah & Viognier) are in a minority and may not even appear in the wines. Tied together by one of the great rivers of Europe, such is the polarity of the diverse growing regions that make up the great Northern and Southern Rhone.

A narrow strip in granite-based soils, where the best sites triumph on stony terraces above the mighty Rhone River make the Northern Rhone world class. Here in Cote-Rotie AOC, Saint-Joseph AOC, and on the historic east bank promontory of Hermitage AOC, noble Syrah is at least 80% of their defining composition. South of the confluence of the river Ise're, tiny and mighty  Cornas AOC requires100% Syrah to assure its noble status. Sandwiched in the middle are the white grape AOC vineyards of Condreiu and Chateau-Grillet which exclusively produce some of the worlds greatest aromatic Viognier. Curiously, the wine offering aromas of apricots and peaches is not found significantly outside these two AOC's, except for some blending in Cote-Rotie.
Cote-Rotie vineyard terraces

South of Monte'limar, the region fans under a dryer Mediterranean climate and a limestone landscape of rugged, rocky rolling hills as the Southern Rhone. Perhaps among the earliest places to see the vine in all France, the regions wine production and prominence grew greatly under the Avignon Papacy from 1309. Re-actively, the import and export of Rhone wines were banned by the Dukes of Burgundy, and in 1446 the city of Lyon forbade all wines from the region south of the city. To further define the region, in 1737 the King of France decreed that all of this regions wines be authenticated by barrels branded 'CDR'. Importantly, in 1923 regulations of production were drawn to guard against the region's growing wine fraud, effectively becoming the first AOC laws in the country.
Predominantly a red wine region, blends of Grenache Noir, Syrah and other Mediterranean varietals proliferate in its rocky vineyards. Low-trained bush vines stand against the fierce 'mistral' winds; although powerful, the dry climate here is not receptive to most fungal diseases. The regions broad, general appellation of Cotes du Rhone AOC (CDR) produces volumes of the areas generic quality wine, with superior qualities found in specified village wines of Cotes du Rhone Villages AOC, from places like Cairanne and Vinsobres. Stars of the region include the red Grenache blends from the appellations of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, and Vacqueyras AOC. Nearby Lirac AOC produces generally lighter blends of all three(3) colors, with neighbor Tavel AOC originating some of the world's best dry rose' wines from widely planted Grenache and Cinsault blends. Regional whites here too are typically blends, including Grenache Blanc, Roussane, Marsanne and Clairette Blanche.

Natural sparkling wines can be found in the isolated, eastern region from the chalky soils of Clairette de Die AOC or Cremant de Die, using the native Clairette or Muscat blanc grapes. Other specialties include the eastern regions Muscat de Beaumes de Venise AOC, a sweet, fortified wine, and Rasteau AOC, with VDN's of all Greanache colors. Diversity in landscape, in climates, in grape varieties and wine styles is what makes the volume wine producing region known as the Rhone so important. Within its regional borders there are vineyards reclaimed from hillsides where nothing else will grow, and vineyard's planted in fields of pudding stones, known as galetts. Dominant single variety sensations and the artful balancing act of blending are found here, too. Holding all of its diversity together, threaded through its terraces and baked, wind-swept hillsides, is the meandering, life-giving Rhone.
Hermitage above the Rhone

Monday, September 12, 2011

BURGUNDY: A Triumph over Terrain

Cote d-Or vineyard
Soils of distinction are celebrated, even vaulted into esteemed status in Burgundy, where the best wine producers triumph over terrain. With more than 2000 years of wine history, and a maze of appellations, this prized region from frosty, isolated Chablis in the north, to its baked and hilly expanse in Beaujolais is confusingly without continuity.  It does, however, have a higher number of the French Appellations d'origine Controlee', over 100 AOC's, to be found in fragmented Burgundy compared to anywhere else. The esteemed Grand Cru's make-up a scant 2% of production here, with almost 85% composing the lower-tiered commune(village) and regional AC's. As a result of  Napoleonic 19th century law which decreed partible inheritance, familial parcels are consequently small and those prized sites like the 125 acre Grand Cru Clos Vougeot AOC today has 80 owners!
Chablis Premeir Cru Fourchaume
Isolated Chablis is Chardonnay, and Chardonnay is Chablis AOC. The commune's commerce historically comes from the River Serein, which flows northwest to the Yonne, which runs to the Seine, giving Chablis wines access to the important Paris marketplace. It sits closer the the Aube region of Champagne than it does to the Cote de Nuits, 80 miles away, and probably has more in common with Sancerre in the Loire's Central department.  In this Burgundian outpost erosion-formed soils north of town, seven(7) Chablis Grand Cru's share a Chardonnay south-facing hillside in the sea-fossil composed Kimmeridgean soils. Bougros and Blanchot are the bookends, Vaude'sir and Valmur share the middle separating the Grand Cru's of Les Preuses, Grenouille, and Les Clos. Chardonnay produced by these domaine's is naked and pure, ranking among the best examples of the noble grape in the world. The regions second-tier Premier Crus(40) fan around the commune on both sides of the River Serein, and the blended wines of Chablis AOC can come from anywhere inside the demarcated region.

When we think of Burgundy, we think mostly of the Cote-d-Or, or Golden Hillside, south of Dijon. Generally, vineyards are situated on a fault-line of elevations and hills on the western banks of the southerly flowing Saone River. Importantly, it was not until the Canal de Bourgogne was completed in 1832, that the wines of this region had easy access to thirsty Paris and the Atlantic shippers, rather than Lyon. Today, you could drive the length of this famous region in about 45 minutes. If you had a day, you could walk the 6 mile northern half of the Golden Hillside, spanning the 25 noble Grand Cru's of the  Cote de Nuits and its 14 villages. Facing east overlooking the river valley, exposed on an elevated, well-drained strata of limestone and clays; Gevrey-Chambertin, to Morey-St. Denis, to Chambolle-Musigny(+ Chardonnay), and on to Vougeot, and Flagey-Eche'zeaux, and Vosne-Romanee'  are the prized red wine kingdoms of 'an iron fist in a velvet glove', Pinot Noir.

More than eight(8) miles to the south, ringing the southern face of the Hill of Corton, the Grand Cru's of the Cote-d-Or begin again, in the region, Cote de Beaune.  Dominated by world benchmarks of rich, opulent Chardonnay, a trio of Grand Cru's: Corton, Corton-Charlemagne, and Charlemagne band around three(3) white wine communes: Pernand-Vergelesses, Ladoix-Serrigny and Aloxe-Corton, with only the lower elevations of Corton AOC producing Grand Cru Pinot Noir. Miles to the south lies Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet, esteemed Chardonnay villages that take, as is the practice, part of their commune name from their communes most important vineyard. In addition to their seven(7) Chardonnay Grand Cru's, these two villages hold 75 of the Cote-d-Or's prominent 448 Premiers Crus.
Chassagne-Montrachet Premiers Crus

Heading southeast towards the River Saone,  the important Premiers Crus district of Cote Chalonnaise begins at Chalon-sur-Saone. Of its five(5) communal AOC's, Ruilly, Mercurey, Givry and Montagny(+ Chardonnay), which produce mostly reds, only Bouzeron AOC in the North of the district is known for the lemony Aligonte still wines. Another hour south and your are in Macon, epicenter of the volume producing Maconnais appellation, where its 40 designated villages bottle generally serviceable red, white and rose' wines in greater quantity than any of the previously listed AOC's. Significantly better than the base Macon AOC appellation, the Chardonnay wines of Pouilly-Fuisse AOC are considered to be the stars of the region.
Crus Beaujolais Morgon

Less than 10 miles down the southern road and you are in the heart of largest district of Burgundy, Beaujolais AOC. Administered by the neighboring Rhone department, this sunnier region contains ten(10) communes(villages) or Crus which produce the world's best wines from the early-ripening red Gamay grape. Every year the Gamay district growers and cooperatives produce more than half of Burgundy's total production, even as Philip the Bold outlawed its northern districts cultivation in 1395. In the best years, the rolling hills of schist and granite soils from the Grand Cru villages of: St-Amour, Julineas, Chenas, Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regnie, Cote de Brouilly and Brouilly AOC's show how noble this less full-bodied grape can be. The lesser appellations, including fruity Beaujolais Superior and the designated Beaujolais-Village AOC's are volume tiers and benefit from Gamay whole cluster fermentation thru carbonic maceration.

Scattered over more than 200 miles from Chablis to Villefranche sur Saone in Beaujolais and across a number of administrative departments, Burgundy certainly appears to lack continuity. The locations of the Grand Crus more closely resemble pepper flakes on a yellow tablecloth than great estates sharing a common landscape. But beyond the basic negociant assembled regional appellation(s) and vineyard blends that are designated as Village AOC's, Burgundy wines coming from the specific sites that are the better Premiers Crus and illustrious Grand Crus are all about the best of expressions of their unique soil(terroir). Historical challenges include a few great vintages every decade because of the extremes of their continental climates and northern latitudes, as well as small production of the best sites. But when the best of Burgundy is displayed in its truth, it is a triumph over terrain.
Clos de Vougeot 
 A Votre Sante'!

Friday, September 9, 2011

VITICULTURE: Deciding on Nature's Variable

Growing grapes on the vine should be easy, but I've just had to dust my few ornamental vitis vinifera vines once again for the fungal powdery mildew, odium. Above average seasonal rainfall in our Winter was a good start this year, but it inhibited bud break as temperatures rose above 50 degrees, and flowering as it continued throughout the wet Spring. The self-pollinating fruit set that followed was spotty(shatter or coulure), as cooler temperatures combined with late rains; and when the growing season that is Summer finally started, it remained so cool that the stagnant fruit growth had berries of different sizes(millerandage). Finally, the color-change that indicates sugars translocation from leaves to berries, verasion, occurred here in late-July & August, but local growers expect that the cooler ripening conditions will result in a smaller annual harvest about two to three weeks later than usual. Growers now recognize that beyond the targeted threshold of developing grape sugars(ripeness), physiological maturity of the berry and its pulp, including its pips(tannin) and other phenolics are increasingly important for great fruit. Such is the life of the farmer.
Immature grape vine berries
Great wines are made in the vineyard, it is said, so wine consumers are quite fortunate that there is a science dedicated to growing the best grapes on the most appropriate vineyards sites: viticulture. This field science has evolved for more than a hundred years, from its origins in the great generation of agricultural science that was the late 19th century. Vitis Vinifera, the wild family of old world winegrapes, whose origins may be in the Caucasus' or Southwestern Asia, was found to grow best in between temperate latitudes of 30 to 50 degrees latitude(North & South). Across the globe, the perennial grapevine has propagated to Mediterranean, Continental and Maritime climates with not much less than an average 57 degree temperature; adapting to harsher vineyard environments when moderated by a significant bodies of water, like a river or lake. Grapevines can grow in a wide range of soil types: chalk to limestone, slate to loess soils, calcareous marls to sedimentary clays, but do best in well-drained high pH compositions. The vine only requires three major nutrients: nitrogen(N), phosphorus(P) and potassium(K), with a collection of minor nutrients including iron(Fe), manganese(Mn) and magnesium(Mg).
Sangiovese at Verasion

It has been determined that the vine requires a minimum of about 27 inches annual rainfall, mostly during its dormant period, and that irrigation can benefit the vine in the heat of its warmest stress periods. Further, a minimum of about 1500 sunshine hours annually are required during the vines growing season, with an average respective temperature of between 66 to 70 F degrees for white or red varietals to ripen.  A suitable growing regions Heat Accumulation can be measured by degree days. Locally the mean number of days over 50 degrees F is calculated by the California Summation Heat Index, where Region I is less than 2500 days F and ranging to over 4000 degree days F of Region V. My warm coastal vineyard's mesoclimate environment is in Region II.

Vine trellising for support and dormant season pruning are part of canopy management, combining to afford the vineyard manager important tools for achieving the goal of balanced growth. A principal of Australian enologist, Dr. Richard Smart, a balanced vineyard finds the relationship between the soil/root system and the total number of potential leaves it can characteristically maintain. Vitis Vinifera can be head-trained, which are either spur-pruned or cane pruned, or cordon-trained, which are exclusively spur pruned. Simplest form of spur-pruning is the ancient, unsupported Goblet system, which is used widely in the Southern Rhone. A basic type of cane-pruning is the Guyot system, developed in the 1860's by Dr. Jules Guyot, and is used widely in Bordeaux. Today, a vineyard manager has literally dozens of training systems from which to choose, ultimately to control vine vigor and to optimize the quality of fruit which it produces.

Cane pruned Medoc vineyard

Conventional, Sustainable or Bio-dynamic?
Increasingly, our local vineyards are employing poly-cultures or sustainable agricultural practices as a part of their ecological canopy management system. Integrated bio-dynamic agriculture, as promoted by Austrian Dr. Rudolf Steiner, was one of the first modern ecological, self-sustaining farming systems and continues to have its global practitioners more than eighty years after Steiner's passing.  Farming choices also include a vineyards propagation by either a nursery clonal selection or mass selection(selection massale), where a vineyard mass budwood selection is intended to reinforce positive traits of a vineyards favored vines.Once selected, the scion is grafted on to a separate rootstock, which may have been chosen for its tolerance to drought or for is resistance to the many vineyard diseases, such as the devastating vineyard louse phylloxera.

Vine diseases and pests are a constant threat in any vineyard, whether they be viral, such as the nematode soil pest spread Fan Leaf, or a native fungal malady, like the copper sulfate treated Downy Mildew(peronospera). Not all fungus is undesirable, however, as Botrytis creates a fruit bunch rot in humid conditions which is the "noble rot" producing some of the world's richest dessert wines. Bacteriological afflictions, like the currently fought scourge of Pierces Disease, continues to expand across the U.S. from leafhoppers. Insect infestations and other vineyard pests keep vineyard managers ever vigilant.

Extreme climate changes, such as high winds, hard frosts and hail, especially during flowering or harvest create even more natural challenges for the hard-working viticulturalist. The precise management of each different vineyard environment, understanding its changes and variables, is what the science of viticulture is all about.  With proper practice and maintenance the very best possible reward is produced in a healthy, balanced fruit yield each harvest season. To manage a healthy canopy, to control the vineyards yields, and to preserve its environment create a contemporary working legacy for each viticulturalist. Daily, they must decide on the variables of Nature.
Bulgarian Vineyard harvest

This is a good reminder to look again at my vine experiment. With a quick look to the garden's grapevine curtain outside, and I see that the birds have already eaten my ripest grape clusters.  I guess the farmer's mantra should be 'there is always next year'. Cheers!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

PORTUGAL: Paradox of Iberian Discovery

Distinct Discoveries of Difference await wine lovers in Portugal.
Douro Valley's Cima Corgo
Arguably among the world's great wines, Port, Moscatel de Setubal and Madeira's, all fortified, sweet wines, are produced with regional style in the independent country of Portugal. This is also the modernizing wine producer who in recent decades gave the world bulk, sweetened Lancers' and Mateus Rose', so perhaps the real Portugal lies somewhere in an exploration of what lies in-between. A wet and mountainous landscape, the wine grape has been part of this culture for 4000 years, and today proudly touts as many as 300 native varieties, few grown anywhere else! Following Roman and Moorish occupation, Portugal finally became independent with the 1143 Treaty of Zamora, and quickly developed a trade relationship with powerful England, galvanized with the protectionist 1386 Treaty of Windsor.

Atlantic accessed Oporto developed as a gateway trading center; only to find that conflict and international commerce were to become the parents of the modern Portuguese wine industry. Importantly, the Methuen Treaty(Port Wine Treaty) of 1703, established a military/commercial alliance and tax-free exchange status between Portugal and thirsty England. In an effort to protect its domestic interests, in 1758 Marquess des Pombal with a royal charter became the first noble ever to formally demarcate a European production area, the English influenced Douro, almost 200 years prior to the French AOC system. Following the devastating outbreak of the vineyard louse phylloxera, Portuguese wines remained stagnant throughout the 20th centuries authoritarian Salazar corporate era, then saw a quick rise of even more small farm cooperatives in the decade that followed, and only finally began modernization with newly adopted EU agricultural regulations and investment in 1986. Throughout all this turbulent Portuguese history, Port remained constant in wine quality.

Within the Douro DOC and more than forty(40) miles inland from Oporto lie the Porto DOC's three(3) important sub-regions: cool Baixo Corgo, the higher quality central Cima(Alta) Corgo, which produces more concentrated wines and Douro Superior, the warmer eastern sub-region.With more than 80 varieties of grapes(castas) sanctioned, only five(5) red(tinto) varieties: Tinta Roiz(Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cao, Touriga Francesa, and Touriga Nacional and three white varieties are recommended for quality Ports, as regulated by the I.V.D.P. This official body administers the Cadastro vineyard ranking system, regulating vineyard rank, grape production and price, as well as declaring the superior Vintage year classifications. Barrel(wood) aged that benefit from evaporation and reductive bottle aged(Ruby, Vintage, Late Bottle Vintage-LBV) are the two(2) principal families of Port production styles. Barrel-aged Tawny's from a single vintage are designated, Colheita, and a rare intermediate barrel & bottle aged Port from a single vintage may be labeled Garrafeira.

Single vineyard estate (quinta) Ports are becoming increasingly common, as the majority of Ports historically have been blends of grapes and quintas assembled, aged and bottled by the shippers lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia across the Douro river highway. The valley composed of pre-Cambrian schist is also home to quality regional table wine production from the same native Port grape varieties, as Douro DOC. Between the Douro and the Minho to the North lies the provincial provinces of Atlantic-influenced Entre-Douro-e-Minho, and Tras-os-Montes, with the important demarked region Vinho Verde DOC in the northwest being the most prominent. Portugal's largest production DOC, Vinho Verde, is a low alcohol, high-acid blended red or white(branco) wine from regional grapes(dominated by the white Alvarinho) that is produced in a light and fresh style from within the quality (9)sub-districts of the Minho VR. Today, it is Portugal's second most-widely exported wine(vinho).
Cool, Green Minho Vineyards

South of the Douro lies the inland high country of the Dao DOC; principally a red wine temperate climate region, and today producing increasingly elegant, quality wines from blends based in Touriga Nacional. Bairrada DOC is located on the Atlantic side of the Beiras VR, and finds the thick-skinned and tannic native red variety, Baga(Tinta Fina?) its most widely planted grape in its clay soils. This maritime environment proves beneficial too for a regional sparkling wine industry from the fragrant white native Maria Gomes or a blend of local red grapes.

North of  Lisbon(Lisboa VR) is the hilly wine region formally known as Estremadura VR, Portugal's largest bulk wine producing area(Mateus & Lancers). Prominent, historical DOC's within its demarcated region include Bucelas, Carcavelos, and Colares DOC, home to the un-grafted, phyllloxera-free Ramisco red grape, grown in the sandy vineyards of this maritime climate. Here near Lisbon, the Tagus or Tejo river out of Spain separates Portugal into halves with great plains fanning to the south. On the Peninsula de Setubal, south of Lisbon, one of the world's notable dessert wines is produced from fortified, wood aged Muscat of Alexandria grapes, Moscatel de Setubal DOC. Along with native red grapes(Castelao) and newly planted international varieties, like Merlot, there are local sweet wines here also similar to Port, but DOC rules require a minimum of 70% Moscatel for the regions most classic treat.

In the past, Portuguese were quick to joke that the expansive Alentejo VR region, with its broad, golden wheat fields, was 'the land of bad bread and bad wine'. Known mostly for cork oak production(about half of the world supply), this arid region has recently embraced investment and moderization, with eight(8) sub-regions entitled to the higher DOC designation for their production of fruity, improved quality native and international variety wines. Sunnier still is the touristy Algarve to the Mediterranean south,classified only as Algarve VR, the designation offered to the country wines similar to the Vin de Pays of France.

Off the northwest coast of Africa sits Madiera DOC, home to long history producing a fortified dessert wine that is both deliberately heated(estufagem) and exposed to air(oxidized); a process so unique it has an identity that is enshrined by the EU's Protected Designation of Origin status. Although the workhorse red variety, Tinta Negra Mole is most widely planted on these islands, it is the four(4) noble grapes from the graduating strata's of this volcanic landscape: Bual(Boal), Mavasia(Malmsey), Verdelho and off-dry Sercial, that give quality aged Madiera's their special status. Maderized and long living, wines labeled 'Finest' have been aged for at least three(3) years, while Seleccionado are between 3 - 5 years old, 5 Anos or Reservas are between 5 - 10 years old, and all the way to Mais de 40 Anos. Colheita's are minimum 85% single grape variety, minimum 85% single vintage, and the best of these is aged more than 20 years to earn the label, Frasqueira.
Modern Bairrada winery

One of the world's largest wine producers and exporters, Portugal today is a paradox that is greater than Port vs. Lancer's Rose'. It is the resolution of tradition against viticulture and winemaking improvements; going beyond Vinho Verde, to other regions like modernizing Alentejo, which is producing an ever increasing amount of Portugal's top quality DOC table wines. Among its rising stars today are the old, rustic provincial regions, now producing the best table wines from the Dao, like 'Alianca' and 'Grao Vasco' , or the Douro's Quinta de Crasto. Here native grapes grown for a thousand years are finding new contemporary markets to showcase how unique and individual they really are. Last year's Decanter World Wine Awards saw the Regional Trophy's and Gold medals to Portugal's sweet, fortified wines as expected, but a surprising 93 Silver medals to distinctive wines from the Minho, the Dao and the Alentejo. As we look to our rustic, Old World image of these wines, the discovery of what is different and distinct about today's wines of Portugal may be the biggest paradox of all.