Portuguese wine is the result of traditions introduced to the region by ancient civilizations, such as the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, and mostly the Romans. Portugal started to export its wines to Rome during the Roman Empire. Modern exports developed with trade to England after the Methuen Treaty in 1703. From this commerce a wide variety of wines started to be grown in Portugal. And, in 1758, the first wine-producing region of the world, the Região Demarcada do Douro was created under the orientation of Marquis of Pombal, in the Douro Valley. Portugal has two wine producing regions protected by UNESCO as World Heritage: the Douro Valley Wine Region (Douro Vinhateiro) and Pico Island Wine Region (Ilha do Pico Vinhateira). Portugal has a large variety of native breeds, producing a very wide variety of different wines with distinctive personality.
Romans did much to expand and promote viticulture in their settlements in the province of Lusitania (mainly modern south Portugal). Wines were produced across the territory for both local consumption as well as export to Rome.
For most American wine lovers Portuguese wine means Port, the rich fortified Portugal wine made in the hot, dry Douro Valley in the northern part of the country. But the past decade has witnessed a greater flow of high-quality table wines, mostly red, into the U.S. market.
In fact, Portugal has long been a reliable source for somewhat rustic but satisfying red wines that seldom exceeded $15 on American retail shelves. Most wines from Portugal’s Dão region, together with Alentejo, the country’s deepest source for quality red Portuguese wines outside the Douro, were under $10 until recently and still seldom exceed $20, even those from the top producers. The majority of today’s new Portuguese table wines are made in a more modern, fruit-driven style, with emphasis on ripe dark berry and plum flavors, often complemented (in some instances bullied) by lavish oak spice but less earthy and leathery than more traditional examples. Many of these new wines are priced rather ambitiously, so it remains to be seen how warmly they will be accepted by American wine drinkers and other export markets.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay enjoyed something of a vogue in Portugal. But despite the fact that there are scattered plantings around the country, as well as a handful of successful bottlings from these varieties, they have made limited impact on Portugal’s wine scene. On the contrary, today’s most interesting wines rely almost exclusively on indigenous grapes or on those of Iberian origin, such as Alvarinho (Albariño in Spain) and Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo in Spain).