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).
Richly aromatic yet delicate white wine, some with a bit of residual sugar
Spicy cuisine, shellfish
Emerging from the tiny appellation of Condrieu in the northern Rhone, Viognier has become a rising star in California vineyards, as our American palates have evolved to appreciate more aromatic white wines. Still, the most desired bottlings of Viognier continue to come from Condrieu, a region just south of the city of Lyon.
Centuries of cultivation here have taught producers how to deal with some of the temperamental characteristics of the grape. Viognier is highly sensitive to mildew and generates low and unpredictable yields. Proper harvesting is also a challenge: if picked too early, the grape fails to display its full profile of flavors and aromas; picked too late, the grape makes wines that are oily and lacking perfume.
In Condrieu, local conditions are also unique: the Mistral winds off the Mediterranean play a moderating role in viticulture, cooling the wines after the heat of the summer. Vines grow on steep, granite-rich slopes, allowing grapes to reach great concentration. The age of the vines also makes a difference, for Viognier vines don't hit their peak until at least 15-20 years of age-- some of Condrieu's vines are at least 70 years of age. The result is a delicate white with the aroma of a powerful sweet wine.
Viognier from Condrieu is also an exception to the rule under which expensive wines are also age-worthy wines. Condrieu is generally best in its first year or two after release, because its distinctive aroma often mellow after this period. Yet this wine is not cheap; the small size of the appellation limits the amount of wine produced. Look for wines from E. Guigal and Yves Cuilleron.
The improving quality of California Viognier has provided an lower-priced alternative to the wines of Condrieu. Viognier is a bit of trail-blazer-- its success in California helped pave the way for other Rhone varietals, like Roussane and Marsanne. Here, Viognier has recovered from an early impulse among producers to apply vinification techniques better suited to Chardonnay. Now, the best examples retain the aromatic complexity of the grape-- ill-fated experiments using lots of oak barrels are largely resigned to the past. Look for wines from Cold Heaven and Alban Vineyards.
Thanks to its aromatic intensity, Viognier can stand up to spicy foods like Thai or Indian cuisine better than most wines. Another reliable bet is chilled seafood, especially shellfish.