Leaving Port: The new Portuguese wines

Americans are rekindling their flame for pours from Portugal, which may surprise those whose first thought was of rich old British guys downing tiny glasses of port on Downton Abbey. Fortified wines from the Iberian Peninsula have been a favorite of the international elite for centuries – America’s founding fathers toasted the Declaration of Independence with Madeira – but the strong sweet stuff has long since fallen out of favor on this side of the Atlantic. Rejecting tradition, Portuguese growers are now turning away from those stuffy fortified wines and producing boutique reds in the styles of Bordeaux and northern Spain. The resulting flavors (fruity, dry, full and rich) and affordable price tags have experts like Andrey Ivanov, beverage director at Reeds American Table, head over heels. We talked to Ivanov about what makes these wines worthy of affection and which to look for. You never forget your first love, but thankfully both your tastes can mature.

Older than the Dowager Countess
Portugal boasts one of the world’s oldest appellations, or legally defined regions tied to a particular kind of wine. That would be the Porto, which in the 1750s was named the only place in the world that could make true port.

Port Shmort
Entering the European Union in 1986 made Portuguese winemakers eligible for grants to modernize vineyard equipment and facilities, and more accessible to the international marketplace. It broke up long-standing port monopolies and increased competition and quality, creating a wave of boutique producers making artisan wines. Today, young winemakers are combining family traditions with innovative techniques, international knowledge and bold marketing to introduce drinkers around the world to the unique qualities of Portugal’s many native grapes and wines.

Expensive-tasting cheap wine
The quality-for-price ratio in Portuguese wine is on your side. “Try a $10 bottle of wine from France or America and it tastes like red wine – it tastes like $10,” Ivanov said. “Some $10 bottles from Portugal taste like they cost a lot more.”

Regions to remember
The Minho region in northwest Portugal is known as Vinho Verde because it yields those crisp, light whites and rosés that come with a bit of fizz. Surrounded by mountains that prevent extreme weather, Minho’s cool, moderate climate produces the clean flavors that come with a slow and steady ripening. Low in alcohol, high in minerality and usually best enjoyed young, bottles of vinho verde are perfect for summer sipping. The Dão region produces well-balanced white blends and tart reds similar to those from northern Rhone. Wine from sunny Alentajo is juicy, plush and approachable, while reds from rainy Bairrada are tannic and age well. Along with its traditional ports, the warmer Douro region now produces red wines that Ivanov characterized as “full-bodied, rich and powerful,” comparable to Bordeauxs.

Put down the pinot
Bored with merlots and cabernets? Portuguese grapes offer something new to many Americans. The country doesn’t grow a lot of international favorites, but proudly produces wines made from hundreds of native grape varietals. Look for wines made from Alvarinho white grapes, which are acidic and reminiscent of riesling. Other white grapes include the peachy loureiro, common in vinho verdes, and the floral malvasia, which is a foundation for many white blends. Prized red grape touriga nacional, grown in the Douro and the Dão to make port and dry reds, has robust tannins, and is often blended with other red grapes like the berry-flavored touriga franca.

Buy it

Broadbent vinho verde
With its modest spritz, this light white wine is refreshing and citrusy. 
$10.50. 33 Wine Shop & Bar, 1913 Park Ave., St. Louis, 314.231.9463

2014 Lagar de Darei
This crisp, unoaked white blend is a good alternative for pinot grigio lovers. 
$14. The Vino Gallery, 4701 McPherson Ave., St. Louis, 314.932.5665

Alvaro Castro DAC Tinto
According to Kara Flaherty of Parker’s Table, this pretty light red wine from the Dão region has notes of roses and tea.
$17. Parker’s Table, 7118 Oakland Ave., Richmond Heights, 314.645.2050

2006 Quinta da Boavista Terras de Tavares
Before its release, this floral, fruity red was aged three years in old barrels, then a few more years in the bottle.
$30. The Wine Merchant Ltd., 7817 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, 314.863.6282

2013 Herdade do Esporão Assobio
Matured in French oak, this smooth, juicy red is a good pick for those who like California merlot and Argentine malbec.
$15. The Wine & Cheese Place, multiple locations, 314.962.8150 

2012 Quinta de Vale de Pios Excomungado
This tannic Douro blend features touriga nacional and touriga franca grapes.
$15. Parker’s Table, 7118 Oakland Ave., Richmond Heights, 314.645.2050

2010 Quinta da Zaralhôa Colheita
This dense red wine spends two years maturing in French oak and has notes of blackberries and vanilla.
$45. Reeds American Table, 7322 Manchester Road, Maplewood, 314.899.9821