Portuguese Wine Guide
I ain’t gonna lie to you. More than a few times over the past 5 years I’ve contemplated throwing all my worldly possessions off the balcony, kissing my plants goodbye and moving to a former Portuguese colony in Africa. I really don’t care which one: I’ll kick it in Cape Verde, I’ll go all in on Angola, I’ll mosey up to Mozambique. I’ll sashay off to São Tomé e Príncipe for all I care, it doesn’t matter. I just want it to be developing, Third World, and a former possession of Portugal, just to ensure a steady and ready supply of Portuguese wine. I’ve been drinking it exclusively for the better part of a decade with no end in sight, and if I happen to die tomorrow, then you have my permission to put that on my gravestone.
While Portuguese wine might not be as internationally well known as their French and Italian counterparts, the truth is it’s just as good, if not better. The simple reason being that it packs a vicious punch, so much so that wines from other countries inevitably end up tasting more like water, with hardly any body, nose or finish. It also doesn’t hurt that Potrtugal has probably mastered more styles of wine that any other country in the world, with their reds, whites, ports and madeiras all of exceptional quality.
One look at their history and it’s not hard to see why. Portugal has been producing wine since 2000 BC, a practice started by my spiritual heroes and communal ancestors, the Tartessians, who took the lush fertile land and made it grow. The Phoenicians, Greeks, Celts and Romans kept a good thing going in subsequent generations, and by the time Portugal was established in 1139, the region had been producing wine for more than 3000 years. (Common sense interlude here. When you’ve been doing something for over 4000 years now, you’re probably going to be pretty good at it, right?)
Wine is not just a drink in Portugal, it’s a way of life. Many families grow their own grapes, make their own wine, and consume a glass or three at night with dinner. It’s just as much in the soul of the country as it is in the blood of its people – and I mean that literally!
The first country in the world to give wine growing regions exact geographical boundaries and to classify the vineyards, Portugal is home to unique terriors that are centuries old, as well as the greatest variety of native grapes in the world, with well over 500 kinds. And since such little Portuguese wine is mass produced, that means that even ordinary Portuguese wine is often of great quality.
The following Portuguese wine guide is designed for novice wine drinkers, or those unfamiliar with Portuguese wine. I’ll explain the different styles: Rosé, Espumante, Vinho Verde, White, Red, Port, and Madeira, before offering suggestions on bottles that I personally enjoy. I’ll then conclude with some general tips and guidelines to make sure you get the most out of your Portuguese wine experience when in Macau.
In fact, I’m so enthusiastic about spreading the love that I’ll be happy to take you on a first class wine tour of the city, provided of course, you foot the bill. (I’m only half kidding of course… um, maybe. Actually, shouldn’t we talk more about this???)
Portuguese Wine Guide: Rosé
After Port and Madeira, Rosé was the third style of Portuguese wine to make a big splash internationally, when Mateus Rosé exploded on the scene in the 1960’s.
I’ve always found ironic for two reasons. First, the Portuguese are not particularly adept at making rosés and two, Mateus Rosé is an offensive wine closer in structure and finish to carbonated soda. Seemingly popular only with wannabe trendsetters and misinformed millennials, the brand is shunned in Portugal and rightly so. I’d go so far as to say that it’s precisely wines like Mateus Rose that give rosés such bad names.
A good rosé should be clean and refreshing, spritzy but not too sweet, almost like champagne without the bubbles. Unfortunately that level of sophistication has yet to be achieved by any Portuguese rosé I’ve ever tried, so you have my permission to just leave it to the French with this one.
We simply have bigger and better places to be when discussing Portuguese wine.
Portuguese Wine Guide: Espumante
No sparkling wine can legally be called Champagne unless it originates from the Champagne wine region in France, but that doesn’t stop other countries from producing their own. The Portuguese version is called Espumante, and it’s a pretty good facsimile of the real thing.
Here are a few recommendations to help you choose the bottle you like.
Brut Rosé 2013: $230 (More flowery, more floral)
Vertice, Gouveio 2007: $250
-A Balance Between Sweet and Dry-
Vertice, Rosé 2013: $200
-Are You Sure This Really Isn’t French Champagne??-
Czar, Grande Cuvee Rosé 2013: $450
Yes, the Czar is a step up in price granted, but it’ll be worth every Mop.
Portuguese Wine Guide: Vinho Verde
For years I’ve thought that Vinho Verde meant any young white wine from anywhere in Portugal, but the truth is that it’s the name of a wine region in the Northwest, and they make reds and rosés too. It literally translates into “Green Wine”, but youth is really the point here, since it’s harvested quickly and at its best extremely young, often right after bottling. There’s no need for your wine cellar with this one, the idea is to strike while the iron is hot; age is wasted on the old, and all that jazz.
Light-bodied and low in alcoholic content (often between 8.5% and 11%), almost all Vinho Verdes in Macau are whites, and share some of the same qualities as champagne. A good Vinho Verde should rock some fizz, some sparkle, some spritz, some panache, and is the ultimate summer drink, perfect for Macau’s steaming 40 degree Celsius days.
A staple in many Portuguese restaurants since it pairs so well with food, and especially seafood, Vinho Verde often sells for about $85 to $125 a bottle, making it tremendous value as well. After all, in terms of drinkability, it rates about 15 on a scale of 1 to 10.
Most Vinho Verde wines are complex blends of white grapes; however, some producers have started to make some single varieties that are excellent.
Here are three bottles that I think you’ll enjoy.
Palacio da Brejoeira Quinta em Moncao
Alvarinho 2015: $290
-Drier, In So Much That Vinho Verdes Can Be Dry-
Palacio da Brejoeira Quinta em Moncao
Contacto Alvarinho 2017: $200
-Smooth and Pleasant (And Cheap!)-
As an aside, many supermarkets and small shops around Macau sell a $55 Vinho Verde called Aveleda. Totally acceptable, it’s an amazing buy at that price. Also, stay away from the junk that is Casal Garcia, which might even be worse than Mateus Rose, if that’s even possible.
Portuguese Wine Guide: White Wine
Portuguese whites can be absolutely fantastic, so long as you choose the right one. Here is a selection of my personal favourites, divided by style.
Herdade dos Grous (Alentejo)
Grous, Reserva 2017: $245
Sandra Tavares da Silva (Douro)
Guru 2008: $340
Quinta do Mone D’Oiro (Estramadura)
Madrigal, Viognier 2014: $295
-Fruity & Refreshing-
Reserva 2017: $225
Quinta da Pellada (Dao)
Primus, Doc 2011: $420
Bucaco Alexandre d’Almeida (Dao)
Palace Hotel do Bussaco, Reserva 2013: $425
Palace Hotel do Bussaco, Reserva 2014: $445
By the way, the Bucaco is worth buying just for the label alone!
-Just Because It Tastes So Damn Good-
Fundacao Eugenio de Almeida (Alentejo)
Pera Manca, Evora 2015: $360
Portuguese Wine Guide: Red
For this section on the reds, I was helped out a great deal by David Higgins, the President of Asia’s best wine bar, MacauSoul. Having been in the business of selling only Portuguese wine for the past decade, he’s seen firsthand how difficult it’s been to make inroads into Asia, where well known French and Italian brand names trump all.
He’ll be at the Hong Kong Country Club, for example, sharing a top Portuguese red with some esteemed surgeon or other, who initially compliments it before spitting it out once told it came from Portugal. Still David soldiers on, fighting the good fight, championing Portuguese wine and all its greatness, so much so that he was made a Cavaliero da Confraria do Vinho do Porto by the Portuguese wine authority in 2016, a very prestigious honor his wife Jacky will receive in 2020.
Regarding reds, David’s first piece of advice is not to have any preconceptions about how a wine should taste or how complex it should be. French and Italian wines for example, are predominantly single grape varieties. Burgundys are almost exclusively Pinot Noir, while an Italian Baralo or Bararesco is but a single Nebbiolo grape.
Portuguese reds, on the other hand, are almost always complex blends of over 30 different grape varieties. For me, drinking it is like getting entangled in the growth and undergrowth of a dense tropical forest – the depth is astounding, and there’s no easy way to break loose from all the tentacles, roots and layers. At the same time, that also means there is no exact Portuguese equivalent for a Merlot, Cab Sauv, or Chianti, because the wines simply aren’t made that way.
Rather David suggests the best way to get an understanding of Portuguese wine is to try a representative red from the four major wine growing areas (Douro, Dao, Bairrada, Alentejo). Only then can you see how they’re similar, how they’re different and which style suits you the most.
Let’s start by introducing these four main regions, before hand picking a few bottles that you simply must try,
Portugal’s largest wine producing region, the Douro Valley probably makes more bottles of wine than Burgundy and Bordeaux combined. Renown for their robust full-bodied reds, Touriga Nacional is the signature grape, but vineyards often harvest more than 20 different varieties, with Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cao and and Tinta Roriz also widely planted.
Expect typical Douro reds to be about 60% Touriga Nacional, with the rest a blend of about 30 different grapes, resulting in a deeply structured, heavy complex wine that’s very conducive to aging.
In this part of Portugal, just stick to anything from the Douro Boys (Niepoort, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Vallado, Quinta Vale Meao and Quinta Vale Dona Maria), and you can’t go wrong.
Quinta do Vale Meao
Quinta do Vale Meao 2008: $660
Quinta do Crasto
Vinha Maria Teresa 2011: $1100
Vinha da Ponte 2012: $1100
Quinta do Vallado
Reserva 2000 to 2014: Price varies from $380 to $800
Sandra Taveras da Silva
Pintas Reserva, 2001 to 2015: Price varies from $650 to $1750
People drink Niepoort reds and conclude he must be using different production techniques and/or different grapes. “Dirty” Dirk swears he isn’t though, but I don’t know if I buy that.
Regardless, Batuta and Charme are his signature reds, with the latter just as good as any Burgundy.
Batuta 2005: $750
Robustos 2007: $750
Charme 2010: $630
Charme 2011: $620
Completely encircled by mountains and blessed with a plethora of high altitude vineyards, it’s been said that the Dao region was put on Earth to do one thing – and that’s make wine! Lighter and less intense than Douro reds, Dao reds are renowned for their elegance and balance, owing in large part to the fine natural acidity of the grapes. Like the Douro region, Touriga Nacional dominates, but Jaen, Tinta Roriz and Alfrocheiro Preto grapes are also heavily grown.
In the past decade, Dao wines have started to gain more of a foothold internationally, with some christening it the Portuguese Burgundy, in terms of style, quality and drinkability.
Quinta da Pellada
Touring Nacional 2004: $480
Carrocel 2011: $600
Quinta de Lemos
Alfochiero 2010: $290
Dona Georgina, Touriga Nacional 2008: $325
Bairrada is home to the distinctive Baga grape, which is used in more than 75% of Bairrada reds. Decades ago, it was common for vineyards to produce single variety Baga wines that were intense, blackberry driven monsters, complex and somewhat astringent in youth, yet able to age remarkably well.
In recent years they’ve moved more toward blends, by utilizing Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Touriga Nacional grapes, which produce fruity, floral wines that are smoother and more refined.
If you enjoy Pinot Noir or medium-bodied Nebbiolo, then the Bairrada region could be the place to start.
Quinta do Monte D’Oiro
Syrah 1997: $920
Homenagem a Antonio Carquejeiro 2001: $1250
The Homenagem is the best Portuguese red I’ve had anywhere… anytime.
Somewhat similar to the Bairrada wine region, change is afoot in the Alentejo, and you can generally divide their reds into two categories. The first is the old school Grandpa style, which are your typical heavy Portuguese numbers: rich, concentrated, red, herby and hot. They contrast with newer, more International varieties, which are fruity and far less burdensome, somewhat akin to a smooth and pleasant Australian red.
Principal grapes used in these highly drinkable Alentejo wines are Alicante Bousche, Aragonez, Castelão and Trincadeira,
Herdade da Malhadinha Nova
Malhadinha 2012: $395
Very heavy, but very fruity, the Madhadinha is an excellent example of newer Alentejo reds.
Cortes de Cima
Incognito 2011: $530
Bonus Red Suggestions
Just because we can never have enough of a good thing, here are some more reds for your drinking pleasure.
-Power wines, full bodied, with a big taste-
These are the raging infernos, the five alarm blazes. When a block party breaks out in your mouth and refuses to die.
Quinta do Sogrado (Douro region)
VT 2005: $520
Lemos and Van Zellars (Douro region)
CV 2007 to 2013: $640 to $750
Very soft finish, light bodied, with zero burn. Small and elegant, the ingenue of wine.
Fundacao Eugenio de Almeida (Alentejo region)
Scala Coeli, Viognier 2010: $350
-Just Because It Tastes So Damn Good-
Quinta do Fojo (Douro region)
Quinta do Fojo 2000: $900
Sandra Tavares (Douro region)
Pintas Character 2007: $330
Portuguese Wine Guide: Port
Port was Portugal’s first great wine export, a significant hit with the British in the 18th Century, who had to get new wine from somewhere after declaring war on France in 1689. I mean, talk about shooting yourself in the foot. You don’t pick a fight with the nation that supplies your wine. You just don’t do it. Anyway, Portugal stepped in and filled the void, supplying the English with a sweeter heavier type of wine, a style they took to immediately.
According to winemaking law, Port can only be grown in the Douro Region, and they’ve had strict guidelines in place monitoring its production since 1756. Although over 100 kinds of grapes can be selected to produce it, only five types are typically used in a blend, with Touriga Francesca the most popular variety.
Port is different (and much more lethal) than ordinary wine because it’s fortified with a neutral grape spirit called aguardente, which is similar to brandy. Since it’s added during the process of fermentation, not all of the sugar converts into alcohol, resulting in a wine that’s sweeter, heavier and more potent, with an alcoholic content of about 20%.
Port comes in variety of types and styles, according to how it’s made. Let’s go through some of the major ones below.
The red headed step child of the port family, white port is not well regarded and is often used in mixed drinks or taken as an aperitif. They’re produced the same way as red ports, except white grapes are used instead, which age for 2 to 3 years in stainless steel vats. Often described as thin and superficial, that’s mostly been true of the few white ports I’ve ever had, so just steer clear of it when in Macau.
Ruby Ports & Tawny Ports
When drinking beer you need to decide between a lager or ale; for whisky it’s a single malt or blend; and for port, it’s a ruby or tawny. Trying to explain the difference between the two is like comparing a person when they’re 20 and when they’re 40.
At 20, you’re a monster of energy, without beginning, without end, intense incandescent midnight oil madness burning up the cosmos on a joyride to hell. And such it is with ruby port, it’s bottled young after spending no more than 3 to 5 years in stainless steel or wooden barrels, and is renowned for its energy, vibrance and youth.
Named after its ruby red color, the best ruby ports are sweet, fruity and full bodied, characterized by an exceptional smoothness. There’s been no trauma in life, no setbacks, no scars, just success that breeds success, which makes it extremely pleasant to drink, but also less interesting in a way, since there’s not much depth or complexity to it.
Tawny ports, on the other hand, are far more synonymous with my current station in life – middle age! After 40, you’re wiser to the world, more circumspect and battle worn, humbled by experience and better off for it. Unlike rubies and vintage ports which primarily age in the bottle, tawnies spend most of their formative years aging in wooden barrels, sometimes as long as 40 years. The more time that they’re in the barrel, the less original ruby red hue is retained, which is why the wine eventually turns brownish yellow. Due to this increased exposure to wood, tawnies are renowned for their wide array of flavours and aromas, with everything from nuts, almonds, butterscotch and dried fruits to honey, coffee, cinnamon and chocolate.
Apart from colheitas, which we’ll get to below, all tawnies are blends of grapes from many different years, with the best quality examples 10, 20, 30 and 40 years old. Keep in mind that this indication of age is the average age of grapes used in the bottle, so a 20 year old blend could conceivably include young 5 year old tawny and tawny older than 30 years.
If you’re looking to save a little money but also ensure quality, try starting from Tawny Reservas, which spend a minimum of 6 years in a barrel.
The big question, of course, is which style is better, rubies or tawnies? Personally speaking, I’m totally in the tawny camp, as are the majority of local Portuguese, but it really comes down to personal taste and/or what you feel like drinking at the moment.
Vintage Ports & Colheitas
Now we’re starting to get into the really good stuff. The highest order of ruby ports are vintages, while single year tawnies are called colheitas, which are criminally unknown outside of Portugal.
Vintage ports come from a single year that was deemed to be exceptional, in terms of weather and growing conditions. In the past there were strict rules on which years could be classified as vintages and only three years could be declared in a decade. With modernization however, some wine houses have the authority to declare a vintage every year, simply because they think they can always make the wine to that standard, regardless of weather and other mitigating factors. To me, that’s severely reduced the appeal of vintages and what it means to drink one, because if EVERY year can be declared a vintage, then is anything really vintage anymore? Just in terms of acquiring more international power and prestige, that rule might be one that the Portuguese wine authorities reconsider.
Since vintage port only spends 2 years in the barrel, most of its aging happens in the bottle. That why it can theoretically keep improving for decades if stored properly in a wine cellar. By far the most celebrated of all port wine varieties, vintages are intense yet elegant, characterized by highly concentrated fruit aromas and a long smooth finish. Since they don’t last very long after being exposed to air, vintage port needs to be finished quickly after opening, usually within 48 to 72 hours.
While vintages get all the press worldwide, colheitas exist in relative obscurity, outside of Portugal anyway. One severely underrated drink, a colheita is tawny port from a single vintage year aged entirely in small oak barrels, for a minimum of 7 or 8 years. A good bottle can be had for about 20 to 25 Euros, and tastes just as good to me as 20 or 30 year old tawny blends, which routinely cost three to four times more.
The best bargain in the Port category is definitely a good Colheita from a top wine producer like Niepoort or Graham’s. Mark my words, on a cold and lonely night, a few hits from that is all you’ll ever need or want.
There are two other Port styles that you need to be aware of.
Back in the day, this type of Port was called “Vintage Character” before that moniker was abandoned in 2002. Ruby Reserve is an upgrade to normal Ruby Ports, usually coming from older vines and better vineyards.
A blend of several different years of Vintages, it spends more time in the barrel, usually 4 to 7 years. Offering extremely good value for the price, Ruby Reserve is generally the lowest grade of Ruby Port that I’ll touch.
Late Bottle Vintage
Late Bottle Vintages are another good choice if you’re looking to save a few dollars. I believe these ports were originally earmarked to be vintage ports, but after spending a year or two in the barrel, they weren’t deemed special enough to make the cut. So winemakers keep them aging in the wood longer, often for 4 to 6 years, thereby producing a wine with far more maturity than standard ruby ports, but not quite the same concentration and complexity that vintages are so celebrated for.
However, just like colheitas and tawny blends above, the difference in quality between Late Bottle Vintages and Vintages is often negligible, so much so that I often can’t differentiate between them. Vintage ports have the big name (and price), but a good Late Bottle Vintage will also deliver every time.
Colheita, 2001: $300
The gold standard for Port, nothing Dirk Niepoort makes will ever let you down.
Wiese and Krohn
Colheita, 1967: $1480
Wiese and Krohn makes lighter ports than Niepoort. Any year will do, but the 1967 is special.
It’s difficult to single out any particular Vintage port, but let’s try to anyway. The 1985 Fonseca derserves mention, and only goes for $1000. The Olzabal and Filhos Vintages from 2000 to 2011 are all excellent and the price is right too, just $455 to $600. Slightly more expensive is the 2007 Taylors, but $880 is a steal for a bottle of that calibre.
For tawnies, try a 20 years Niepoort ($495) or a 20 years Graham ($520).
Portuguese Wine Guide: Madeira
Madeira is a small island in the Atlantic Ocean, located about 1000 km southwest of Portugal and 800 km west of Morocco. The Portuguese colonized the island in 1420, marking the beginning of their Golden Age of Discovery, which would span the globe and continue until 1542. They soon got to producing and exporting wine in their newfound territory, only to see it spoil before it ever got to far flung settlements in Brazil and the East Indies.
Being Portuguese however and masters of Port they knew exactly what to do to solve the problem. They fortified the wine by adding distilled alcohol from cane sugar during fermentation, which upped the alcohol content to 20%, making it much more durable to withstand the long voyages. Although the process sounds very similar to Port and how it’s made, Madeira is not Port and is in fact quite different, thanks to some accident in history that occurred some time in the 17th Century.
Through luck, fate, fortune or just good old divine intervention, a ship that had sailed for the East Indies returned to Madeira with its original wine cargo on board. When the locals tried it, they discovered the wine had improved over the course of the voyage, mostly due to the intense warming it had undergone in the holds of the ship. From then on, Madeira started to be produced through the process of estufagem, which essentially means heating the wine. After fermentation is complete, the wine is stored in estufus, which are “stoves” or “hot houses” for at least 90 days at a maximum temperature of 55 degrees Celsius. Some producers prefer to keep the temperatures lower, while others like to alternate between periods of intense warming and cooling. After three months are up, the wine rests for another 90 days before being stored in casks and aged. No wine that has undergone estufagem can be bottled until two years after the harvest.
Another way to heat the wines is through a much more natural process called Canteiro. The wine ages in wooden casks that sit in attics for a minimum of two years, warmed by the sun and natural heat of the room. This slower maturation process produces a smoother and more well rounded wine, eliminating most of the coarse, bitter and burnt tastes and aromas that result from rapid heating. Wines that have undergone Canteiro may not be bottled until at least three years of age, with the best examples not bottled until more than thirty or forty years later.
No matter which method is chosen, estufagem or canteiro, the final product is usually indestructible. Madeira can and has lasted for centuries, and will not get worse or deteriorate for years or months – even after the cork has been removed. If a scorched earth policy ever had a drink, then Madeira would be it, because that’s exactly what it tastes like. Sometimes sour, sometimes burnt, but always arresting and attacking, it’s destruction and defiance in a glass.
Madeira reached its nadir of popularity in the 18th Century, and was especially welcomed in America, which accounted for 90% of its sales. American forefathers loved it with Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton notable devotees. Even the man himself, George Washington, was said to drink a pint of Madeira every day. It was used to toast the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and even inspired revolution when John Hancock’s boat was seized along with the 3150 gallons of Madeira that was aboard it.
Curious fact: when you’re drinking Madeira you’re drinking wood, because that’s what it means in Portuguese.
No matter how you cut it, I’m pretty confident in calling Madeira the best drink you’ve never had. It’s my favourite kind of Portuguese wine, bar none, and you definitely need to try it if you can.
Most Madeira is classified into four styles, which I will describe below:
Sercial is the rarest and driest kind of Madeira. It’s also the most difficult to drink, so I wouldn’t start here if it’s your first time trying Madeira.
Six years in, I still haven’t acquired the Sercial taste.
Verdelho is medium dry Madeira and quite possibly my favourite kind. There’s a rich range of flavour that doesn’t get obscured by any syrupy sweetness, which can sometimes overwhelm.
Bual is medium sweet Madeira that’s extremely easy to drink. Since it’s undoubtedly the most pleasant of all Madeira, I would recommend starting here.
The sweetest of all Madeira wines, this is only one that I could see being labelled as a dessert wine. Like the Sercial, it can sometimes be too strong and singular in its nature, so if you don’t like sweet wines that much, stay far far away.
Madeiras made from Blandy’s are generally considered to be a touch sweeter than all of the other producers, so keep that in mind when making your selections.
Like ports, Madeira is available in blends of years, which start from 3 and going all the way up to 30 or 40, as well as colheitas, which are single year varieties of exceptional quality. Generally speaking, I always go with the colheita if I have a choice.
- 1995 Blandy’s Sercial, $550
- 1995 Blandy’s Verdelho, $600
- 2002 Blandy’s Bual, $360
- 2001 Barbeito Malvasia, $400
All bottles are 500 ML Colheitas.
Portuguese Wine Guide: Guidelines and Advice
—Portuguese wine accounts for more than half of the city’s wine imports, and is widely available in bars, shops and restaurants. The best place to try it is at MacauSoul, located seconds away from the ruins of St Paul’s. In fact, all of the wine recommended is available there at the prices listed above. 100% of what I know about Portuguese wine originated from many a hard long night there, and I’d like to thank David and Jacky for all of their patience, help and guidance through the years. Your bar’s a treasure and so are you!
—In terms of restaurants, the best Portuguese wine list I’ve seen, both in terms of range and price, is found at the IFT Educational Restaurant on Mong Ha Hill. It’s actually attached to a school for students in training, who are learning the hospitality industry. Food is very reasonably priced, the quality is high and they also have a good Portuguese-Macanese buffet on Friday nights. Forget about dining there on the weekend though, as it’s closed.
—The type of wine glass is important. Decanting times are important. How the wine smells is important. Make sure you’re sticking your nose deep into the glass to achieve maximum exposure and effect.
—Whenever I’m scanning a wine list full of wines I don’t know, or in some random supermarket aisle, I always look for those two words: “Vinha Velhas” and “Reserva”. Vinha Velhas translates to old vines, which in general produce higher quality wines. Reservas meanwhile, or Reserve, is typically the best wine that a winery produces.
Barring that, just get a wine from the Douro, in particular anything made by the Douro Boys (Niepoort, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Vallado, Quinta Vale Meao and Quinta Vale Dona Maria). They are generally regarded to be among the best wineries in Portugal and even their lower grade wines are often exceptional, in particular, the Niepoort ports.
—Tawny Port and Madeira blends. For single malt scotch, I usually draw the line at 16 years; anything older just isn’t worth the extra price. For tawny ports it’s 20 years, which many consider to be the pinnacle of Tawny blends, anyway. While 20’s are clearly and obviously better than 10’s, I see no obvious improvement when going up from 20’s to 30’s. Older tawny blends tend to be overrun by a weariness and age that obliterates all, while 20 year olds hit that sweet spot between experience and youth, allowing it to be vibrant yet complex at the same time.
Besides that, there’s also the price issue: 20’s are usually only a little bit more expensive than 10’s, but then the price jumps up dramatically when you go up from the 20s to the 30s.
As for Madeira, 15 years is as low as I’ll go for most producers, while Barbeito makes excellent 10 year blends. Never touch 3 and 5 year old Madeira, which should only be used as cooking oil. Man, are they ever harsh and unpleasant.
—To chill or not to chill Port? I don’t believe Port needs to be chilled – ever. Doing so takes away some of the nose and flavour and you lose out on all the beautiful scents and aromas. Of course the local Portuguese will tell you to chill it, and they actually chill reds there as well, something I find even more egregious. Just as the Bronx Bull would say, chilling Ports is just like overcooking a steak, it defeats its own purpose.
—What about Madeiras then? Okay, Maderia is a little different. I actually think their Sercials improve when chilled, because it’s not as dry and some of the rough patches get softened out to produce a more well rounded flavour. From Verdelhos on up though, just drink those at room temperature.
—The best news of all??? Outside of actually being in Portugal, I don’t think there’s a place in the world with more styles of Portuguese wine than Macau. For that reason oenophiles need to seize the day (and night!) and try as much of it as they can when in town. Take a crash course two-fisting with three bottles in hand. See for yourself how rubies and tawnies differ. Try a couple styles of Madeira. Find out if you prefer colheitas to vintages, or if late bottle vintages will do. Blast through some vinho verdes, rock those reds and wear out those whites. Leave no rock unturned, leave no bottle behind!
—As a matter of convenience, I’d like to repeat again, ALL of these wines are available at the lovely lucent MacauSoul, which is simply the pinnacle of life.