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 Dao 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 (Albarino in Spain) and Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo in Spain).
Multiple styles: dry and aromatic, light and sparkling, and rich and sweet
Asparagus and artichokes
One of the more versatile white wine grapes, Muscat is grown around the world for use in use in light and dry wines, low-alcohol sparkling wines, and sweet, late-harvest wines. Its proliferation around the world (and especially around the Mediterranean) leads us to conclude that Muscat was one of the first domesticated grapes. Indeed, scientists from the University of Pennsylvania have analyzed pots excavated from King Midas's burial mound to conclude that Muscat was a major component of the alcoholic beverage served at his funeral feast.
Even if Muscat is cultivated across the Mediterranean basin and in some New World locales, we find that the best dry expressions of the wine come from Alsace. When vinified dry, to eliminate all residual sugars, Muscat makes a pungently aromatic wine that can handle the two wine killers, asparagus and artichokes. Gewürztraminer may be Alsace's standard-bearer with regard to intensely aromatic wines, but Muscat is no wimp, even if it is a little tamer and more refined. Expect to find notes of ripe peach and apricot, flowers, and fresh herbs. We like wines from Domaine Barmes Buecher and Domaine Ernest Burn.
Many may remember the ubiquitous advertisements for Asti Spumante, the sweet sparkling wine from Piedmont in Italy. This wine is also made from Muscat grapes. We prefer its cousin, Moscato d'Asti, which is bottled within months of the harvest at an even lower alcohol level- sometimes below five percent. This light, sweet, bubbly wine shows exuberant flavors of peach, apricot and pear, and is an outstanding apertif. Its low alcohol is also refreshing at the end of a meal, paired with fresh fruit desserts. Look for wines from Saracco and La Spinetta.
Muscat also makes traditionally-styled, carbonation-free sweet wines in many parts of the world. Some of these are consumed almost entirely within the country of origin, while others do make it onto the international market. Australia has a long history of fortified wine production, especially in the Rutherglen region of northeast Victoria. Here, old stocks of Muscat are blended to produce a non-vintage fortified wine that is typically between 18 and 20 percent alcohol. These bottlings are marked by flavors of caramel, toffee, and exotic spices. Try wines from R. L. Buller and Sons as well as Chambers Rosewood.