My earliest recollection of Portugal as a wine producer was from parties that my parents would host in our basement in the 1970s. During that decade, approximately 70% of wine exported from Portugal was either Mateus or Lancers and for a period of time both were among the best selling wines in the U.S. and the U.K. Both had distinctive packaging: Mateus in a dark, rounded bottle with an epic looking castle on the label; Lancers in a red glazed ceramic bottle that evoked the terra cotta amphora of the Greeks and Romans.
The United States is in the top three export markets for Portuguese wine, but I suspect that most Americans would not remember the last time they tried a wine from Portugal. Likely, it is a Port wine as an after-dinner drink, or maybe a Vinho Verde as a summer picnic wine. On top of that, it is likely that the wine was from the Douro region, which is the more renowned (especially for Port wine) or the Alentejo, which is rising in awareness among oenophiles.
Ironically, despite the higher awareness of the Douro and Vinho Verde wine regions, the largest production of wine in Portugal occurs in the Estremadura region, which encompasses the Lisbon, Tejo and Setubal wine growing areas. Until recently, I could not name a wine from this area, but recent visits have helped me to become more acquainted with the product. I will begin with a winery that we discovered a couple of years ago which is located not far from Lisbon.
The AdegaMãe vineyard is located in Torres Vedras approximately 45 minutes north of Lisbon. The vineyard offers tours and tastings as well as a first-class dining experience from a modern facility with fabulous views over the vineyard. We first became fond of the signature Dory label (a dory is a small fishing boat), which celebrates the legacy of the owner, Riberalves, and its humble beginnings as a small cod fishing company.
Traditional grape varietals of the region are blended to produce both the red reserve (including Touriga Nacional and Touriga) and white reserve (including Viosinho and Alvarinho) wines. But on a recent visit we were impressed with the expanding range of wines, particularly the Terroir line, which are more complex than the Dory line. The white is made with Viosinho and Arinto grapes, the latter varietal a favorite of mine. The red is a blend of the aforementioned local red varietals of the Dory label with Cabernet Sauvignon.
Probably one of the more unusual growing areas in the Lisbon region is Colares, on the Atlantic coast to the west of Sintra and north of the resort areas of Cascais and Estoril where the estuary of the Tagos River meets the Atlantic Ocean. The vines are cultivated in sandy soil, but rooted in limestone and clay between three and fifteen feet below the sand. This made the vines resistant to the phylloxera plague of the 1860s. As such, they are among the oldest vines in Europe.
This arid climate is a perfect match for two grape varietals that are exclusive in Colares wines: Malvasia (white) and Ramisco (red). Our first experience of the Colares wines was by tasting the product of the Adega Regional de Colares, which is the oldest cooperative wine cellar in Portugal. The cellar is contained in a cavernous warehouse in the old center of the Village of Colares and, unlike many tasting cellars in Portugal, it is possible to just drop in for a tasting without a reservation. The Arenae label (latin for sand) is the headliner among the wines of the Adega de Colares.
In the coastal village of Almoçageme nearby is the Adega Viúva Gomes, which also specializes in the two grape varietals that make Colares special: Malvasia and Ramisco. A tasting and tour are only possible on Wednesdays and the first Saturday of each month and an advanced reservation is required. The building, which sits on a small village square has a very unassuming façade, but once through the lobby, visitors are treated to a grand cellar that doubles as the tasting room.