The vineyards along Portugal’s windy Atlantic coast (the ones that make light, fresh, fruity whites) also make some of their reds in a similar light, tangy style, with alcohol typically nowadays around 11%. This includes the cool, often rainy Vinho Verde region in the north west. To people outside Portugal it’s a fairly well-kept secret that around 40% of all Vinho Verde is red, its deep red colour, unusual for such a cool region, coming partly from the red flesh of the local Vinhão grapes, as well as their skins.
Red Vinho Verde goes well with freshly-grilled sardines, and with the often rich or fatty meats, offal and charcuterie that are popular in these parts. It tends to come in a tall, lean bottle, like white Vinho Verde. Give it a try! If it won’t come to you, you may need to take a trip to the North West.
Alentejo hot summers make ripening easy, and sweet grapes mean rich fruit and lots of body. Alentejo reds are made from a variable blend of grape varieties, including Trincadeira and Aragonez, Alicante Bouschet and Syrah, Touriga Nacional and Cabernet Sauvignon. They may be inexpensive, rich, round and full, or very expensive, even richer, dense, and oak-aged, but still with a certain opulence and easy-drinking charm. Occasional other red wines from elsewhere in Portugal also fall into this rich, ripe style, from the upper reaches of the Douro, or the Tejo, for example.
Relatively low tannin makes these wines quite easy to pair with food, but the food flavours need to be equally big if they are not to be overcome by the wine. Game, lamb, beef, pork, offal, charcuterie, plainly cooked meats or richly sauced meats, all can work well with this style of red wine. Ripe Touriga Nacional (so long as it is not too heavily oaked) is particularly wonderful with beef, as is Aragonez with lamb, especially lamb flavoured with thyme.
The Douro Valley is the most reliable source for this style of red wine. Serious, big and often firmly tannic in their first few years of life, top Douro reds nevertheless have their own robust style of elegance, and often a complexity of flavour that comes from the mix of grapes, sometimes “vineyard blends” where old vines of mixed varieties are planted together. These are wines that age and develop well, their tannins softening, their fruit mellowing. The higher the price, the more you might expect them to repay ageing – but this can only be a generalization. Trás-os-Montes is the wine region to the north of the Douro Valley, also mountainous, growing the same grapes and also making big, robust reds. Another source of firm, robust reds is Bairrada. In good, hot vintages, red Bairrada made from the traditional Baga grape has full body as well as high acid and tannin, maturing to a softer, complex, savoury, malty wine of great originality.
Robust reds are a fine match also in summer for game, meats, and offal. The tannin of young robust wines seems softer and easier with meats cooked in stews, especially when red wine is an ingredient. Both Douro/Trás-os-Montes wines and Bairrada Baga make good matches with certain cheeses; both are, surprisingly, delicious with fresh, curdy goat’s cheese.
Dão has perhaps the greatest concentration in Portugal of elegant reds; altitude is high, the soils granite, the climate cool, ripening slow. Fine-quality Touriga Nacional is blended with Tinta Roriz, Alfrocheiro, Jaen and other grapes to make intensely-flavoured, perfumed reds with good acidity and lovely balance. The red wines of Palmela on the Península de Setúbal can be elegant, made from the Castelão grape, which is difficult elsewhere but able in the sandy soils of the Setúbal Peninsula to ripen well and give reds wines with complex, fruity flavours, good acidity and balanced tannins, ageing to a cedary character not unlike that of mature Cabernet Sauvignon.
These are versatile wines, fine at any time of year, good to drink by themselves, and easy with a range of food, from poultry to red meats to cheese.