Best Portuguese Wine Regions: The Chess Game

Chess pieces

Wine production is an ancient art that keeps growing, spreading, and, over time, has become one of the most studied/researched subjects in the ultra-competitive food and beverages industry. Chess, the age-old game has also evolved into a cultural phenomenon that has transcended time, cultures, and geographies. Both wine and chess have their hardcore fans around the globe, and if alcohol can spark creativity, some say, it’s not granted that drinking will help you mate your opponent. 

The goal of this article is to use the chess metaphor to bring some context to the various Portuguese wine regions. Which are the best Portuguese wine regions? How can such a small country be able to boast such a diverse wine production? By reading this article you’ll realize, among other things, that it’s mainly due to its century-old wine tradition, local grape varieties, diverse terrains, and climates.

If you’re familiar with The Royal Game, this is how the different Portuguese wines and regions would be represented on the chessboard.

AlgarveTávora-VarosaTrás-os-MontesMadeiraBeira InteriorBairradaColaresAçores
DouroDão e LafõesLisboaAlentejoPortoSetúbalTejoVinho Verde

The King ♔ Port

Known in Portugal as Vinho do Porto, Port is a fortified wine produced with distilled grape spirits from the Douro Valley, one of the oldest protected wine regions in the world. It is typically a sweet, red wine, often served as a dessert beverage. Ruby, Tawny, LBV, and Vintage are the most common forms in which it’s traded. 

Forbes rated Taylor’s Portuguese Port 1968 in fifth place among The World’s 30 Best Wines In 2019. Like the chess piece, Port wine is a classic, slow-moving actor in the Portuguese wine scene, nevertheless, without it, it would be game over for the Portuguese wines’ international reputation.

The Queen ♕ Alentejo

It’s quite odd to call this region a Queen, but it’s undeniable that, after Port, Alentejo is the most important Portuguese wine region brand. With over one million hectoliters produced in the 2018/2019 campaign, it has become a respected player. It comprises 54 thousand acres of vineyard with a total of 263 producers and, like the piece in the chessboard, it has expanded its influence and activity thus dwarfing other important surrounding regions, namely, Setúbal, Tejo, and Lisboa. The aforementioned Forbes article places Cartuxa Alentejo Red 2005 as number nine on the list. Being a heavyweight doesn’t mean to be a monolith. Ranging from the Atlantic coast to the inland dry planes, Alentejo is a rich and diverse region that can hold many surprises. But that’s another article. 

The Rooks ♖ Vinho Verde and Douro

Like Port, Vinho Verde wine can’t be produced anywhere in the world but in Portugal, yet you can find it anywhere. This original product has found its way to the most exquisite markets like Germany, Japan, or the United States where exports almost tripled in the last decade. The rook metaphor is related to the late entrance in the international wine game but, as we have seen, Vinho Verde has the potential to travel far, very fast.

Another latecomer is Douro wine. For centuries overshadowed by the fortified variant, it has recently broken away and is now carving its own path. In the turn of the last century dozens of producers, both established ones as new estates, started moving into table wine. A project in great part headed by the Douro Boys. Back in 2016, Guardian’s journalist, Kevin Gould, had the chance to testify this revolution in the splendid, well documented, article Ports of call: a wine tour of the Douro.

“Portugal’s Douro region is famous for its port, but also produces fine, good-value reds and top nosh.”

The Guardian

The Bishops ♗ Setúbal and Lisboa

The Setúbal region has been associated with the inception of wine production in Portugal. The official producers association traces the origins back to 2000 BC. It was recognized as Região Demarcada in 1907.
Leaning on the Atlantic and crisscrossed by the rivers Tagus and Sado this area produces some of the most distinctive Portuguese wines and is best recognized by its whites and the fortified Moscatel variety.

Lisboa region, with nearly 1.2 million hectoliters produced in the last campaign, still reflects a traditional mindset focused on high volume production. Nevertheless, like other Portuguese wine regions, it has shifted to a lower volume and higher quality output. Today Região de Lisboa wines are best known in Portugal for their great quality-price-ratio. This transformation was recently recognized by the American magazine Wine Enthusiast by naming it as one of the 10 Best Wine Destinations in the World.

“Today, it stands at the intersection of heritage preservation and welcomed change.”

Wine Enthusiast Magazine

The Knights ♘ Dão and Tejo

Dão one of the oldest Portuguese wine regions, becoming Região Demarcada in 1908. It is also, arguably, the cradle of the notorious grape variety Touriga Nacional.
Post-war regulations established the use of co-operatives in the region, creating a monopoly that had an adverse effect on the Dão wine. This was overturned under EU rules and Dão has been zigzagging its way towards excellence in wine-producing.

Tejo is the Portuguese name for the Tagus River. Watercourses have an immense influence on wine characteristics and this region pays homage to that. Formerly known as Ribatejo, this area was the main wine supplier to Lisbon. Charters from the kings of the Alfonsine Dynasty document its ancient existence. In recent decades has shifted from volume to quality production by betting on planting international varieties like Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon alongside traditional ones like Touriga Nacional, Castelão, and Trincadeira.

Central Pawns ♙Trás-os-Montes, Madeira, Beira Interior and Bairrada

Trás-os-Montes is a sheltered, inland wine region with great unexplored potential. Akin the nearby Douro is equipped for the production of quality wines as it’s drier climate and alluvial soils force the vines to dig deep, strong root systems.

Like the “d” pawn, Madeira was a first mover in the Portuguese wine chessboard. There’s an unconfirmed story that the signers of the Declaration of Independence toasted their achievement with Malmsey Madeira. This fortified wine has an almost unlimited capacity of storage, surviving for more than two centuries. Due to several factors, there was a decline in Madeira’s popularity over the past century and this region has now to fight to return to the game.

Beira Interior is an arduous and mountainous region located in the central interior of Portugal. Like the soils, the climate is also harsh, with negative temperatures in the winter and very hot, dry summers. This combination of factors produces white wines of great aromatic exuberance and freshness.

Bairrada is a small but important Portuguese wine region. Their grapes, with a high degree of acidity, along with their low graduation, are perfect for the production of sparkling wine, characterized by their great freshness and fruity notes.

Side Pawns ♙Távora-Varosa, Colares, Açores and Algarve

Távora-Varosa is a small, 8600 acre, wine region in continental Portugal. Embedded between Dão, Douro and Beira Interior has built its reputation by producing high quality sparkling wines.

Colares is a tiny DOC sub-region from Lisboa. It is famous not only for its sandy soils and ungrafted vines but also for the robust, tannic red wine it produces made from the local Ramisco grape.

The Açores archipelago in the Atlantic presents harsh climatic conditions. However, the vineyard, cultivated since the 15th century, has a long tradition in the region. Stands out the production of fortified wine from the Pico e Graciosa regions.

Algarve region saw many of its vineyards replaced by hotel and golf development courses. The surviving ones produce wines characterized by aromas of very ripe fruits with a velvety, warm flavor.

The board is set

This article covers only the fourteen wine regions, being Port (a type of wine) and Colares (a DOC sub-region) the exceptions. There’s much more to discover about Portuguese wines, its grape varieties, like the much appreciated Alvarinho, or landscapes, like the ten Lisboa DOC sub-regions.

Now that you know which are the best Portuguese wine regions, if you had to open a bottle, what would be your first move?

Written by

My name is Sérgio Abreu, a multimedia designer and digital marketing specialist that has spent many years dealing with pixels, color charts and image editing software. Like Jon Snow, the Game of Thrones character, I know nothing… about wine. This is my quest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *