How understanding the differences can lead you to an opulent or simple wine that is right for you
In this article, we’ll take you on a journey across the wine regions of Portugal to discover the grapes, vineyards, and places of one of the world’s leading wine exporters.
For those of us struck by oenophilia, understanding the wine regions of Portugal expands our world as travelers and aficionados.
Portugal, one of the world’s leading producers of wine, may be most famous for Port and Madeira wines, but the viticulture on the southwestern Iberian Peninsula produces some of the most sought after red and white wines as well. From ancient vineyards to innovative practices, the wine regions of Portugal continue to gain ground in the world of wine.
Portugal’s diverse climate, soil, and geography, along with ancient traditions and new approaches, merge into a unique terroir that places Portugal among the world’s most important wine producing nations.
We organized our journey through the wine regions of Portugal by sections along with a few wine recommendations. Feel free to follow us or use the Table of Contents below to move around the sections.
In Part 1 of the article, we explore details regarding each of the wine regions, including grape varietals, unique terroir information, and history. In Part 2, we take you on a quick tour of tourism destinations in the wine regions of Portugal.
What kind of wine is Portugal most famous for?
If your answer is Port, then you are right. However, it’s only a partially correct answer.
Authentic port wine (vinho do Porto) only comes from Portugal, although outside of Europe, other winemakers may use the designation of port for their fortified red wines.
The European Union says only wines grown and processed in the Douro, one of the wine regions of Portugal, are allowed to label their fortified, often sweet, red wines as port.
Although Port is the most associated wine of Portugal across the world, wine consumers understand that wineries in Portugal produce some of the world’s best wines.
Ranking 9th in the world, Portugal is one of the world’s leading countries for wine exports, including port, red, rosé, white, and sparkling.
Why? Portugal wine country is vast, versatile, and venerated.
“With a heritage of more than 250 native grapes, Portuguese wines offer a unique experience, taking advantage of the diversity of Portuguese terroirs and grape varieties, thanks to the techniques and people who make them,” according to ViniPortugal, the leading association representing Portugal vineyards.
“In their diversity, they are versatile and gastronomic. In their quality, they rival the best in the world.”
Perhaps that is why Portuguese wine steadily grows in popularity in the U.S.
ViniPortugal data shows that the export market for Portuguese wine grew more than 2% early in 2020. In the United States, though, exports increased by nearly 20%. Portugal is ranked 8th in the list of countries exporting the most wine to America.
Top 5 destination markets for the wine regions of Portugal
- United States
- United Kingdom
Portugal’s wine association invested more than 6 million euros in 2020 to promote the wine regions of Portugal and the key targets were Canada, the United States, and China.
How many wine regions are in Portugal?
Each of 14 wine regions of Portugal have not only unique wines but unique opportunities for travelers. Culture, history, and geography come together to make Portugal, roughly the size of Indiana, one of the most remarkable wine and tourism destinations in the world.
To help you narrow in on your perfect Portuguese wine touring experience, let’s take a bird’s eye view of the demarcated (DOC) wine regions of Portugal, starting with one of our favorite regions – the Douro Valley.
After we make our way north to south in the wine regions of Portugal, we’ll revisit the areas for things to do and historical sites. So, keep on reading. It’s a long read, but after all, we’re going on a journey!
The Douro River Valley: The most famous among wine regions of Portugal
For some 2,000 years, this UNESCO World Heritage site – the Alto Douro Wine Region – has been molded by human hands, transforming steep mountainsides into stunning slopes of terraced vineyards.
Situated in the northeast, about 100 km inland from Portugal’s second largest city, Porto (Oporto), these world famous vineyards are protected from the cold, harsh Atlantic winds by two mountain ranges – the Marão and Montemuro.
The world’s oldest demarcated and regulated wine growing region (est. 1756) produces the world-renowned Port wine. The valley itself includes around 250,000 hectare (more than 600,000 acres), but only about 40,000 ha are planted under the vine, including the 25,000 ha marked as a world heritage site.
The official Port and Douro Wines Institute would have us stop to consider the thousands of years of human toil behind the magnificent stepped terraces. According to the institute, evidence has been found that vine husbandry was practiced here as early as 137 BC in the time of Roman occupation.
“First the river, then human effort transformed the schist mountains of the Cambrian and Pre-Cambrian periods into walls and terraces, illustrating the collective achievement of various cultures: a lifetime task, a true human epic!” according to institute documents.
“The terraces! Stretching for as far as the eye can see, they give the region its unique contours. Seen from the air, they resemble a succession of Aztec pyramids.”
For you bibliophiles and history lovers, discover a fascinating history going back to Roman viticulture and arriving at today’s new directions in Portuguese winemaking in Richard Mayson’s Port and the Douro. Mayson, a British wine writer, is the eminent authority on Portuguese and Spanish wines.
Main Douro red grapes: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinto Cão, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca
Main Douro white grape: Malvasia, Viosinho, and Rabigato
Our recommendations for Port wine
We could be here all day with this! But, we’ll keep it short! In general, start with an original Port.
Also, something to keep in mind, if you associate port served alongside a cheese tray at your grandparent’s house over a holiday, think again. Let’s branch out to quality but affordable ports to help you gain an appreciation of one of the world’s most famous wines.
The place to start is with a Ruby port.
We recommend a bottle from the Quinta de la Rosa in Pinhão, Portugal. The origins trace back to 1815 when a German explorer arrived in Portugal and began to trade in Port.
The estate passed into the hands of the current owner’s family in 1906. The quinta also offers lodging.
For a high quality, affordable ruby port, we recommend the Quinta de la Rosa Lot 601 Ruby.
It is rich with a vibrant color, great depth, body and fruit, with a long finish,” according to the Winemaker notes. “Like all La Rosa Ports, not too sweet. It should be consumed within 2 to 3 years of bottling. Made with traditional port varieties, mainly Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Roriz.”
For an affordable vintage port, we recommend Quinta de la Rosa’s Late Bottled Vintage
“An exceptionally complex wine – rich but in great harmony, full of life and very long,” according to the quinta. “The port gives immense pleasure for immediate drinking. Please make sure the bottle isn’t kept in direct sunlight otherwise it might oxidize.”
What to pair with port
In general, keeping in mind that there are different types of port, the fortified, blended wine most often pairs with:
- Rich cheeses
- Chocolate (milk and dark) – You can’t go wrong with Godiva (one of my favorites!) or Leonidas Belgian chocolates.
- Red fruits
- Caramel desserts
- Salty nuts, such as this wildly popular assortment from Nut Cravings.
- And even salty meats, like barbecue!
Port is often used in making a glaze for ham and can be used in chocolate sauces and desserts to impart a rich flavor.
Vinho Verde wine region of Portugal
Although the name Vinho Verde literally translates into “green wine,” when it comes to wine, it simply refers to young wines. The wines are known for a slightly fizzy nature, akin to sparkling. Nowadays, winemakers often create the sparkle by adding artificial carbonation.
To avoid confusion, Vinho Verde is a region. Not a grape variety. Not a blend. The region, comprising nine sub regions, is the largest DOC in Portugal. Vinho Verde’s western border is the Atlantic Ocean with mountains creating a natural eastern border. The Mihno River flows along the North.
The lightness of the wines produced in the region remind me of a soft, fizzy lemonade that is refreshing to drink, especially outdoors.
Main Vinho Verde white grapes: Alvarinho, Arinto Avesso, Azal, Loureiro and Trajadura
Main Vinho Verde red grapes: Alvarelhão, Amaral, Borraçal, Espadeiro, Padeiro, Pedral, Rabo de Anho and Vinhão
Trás-os-Montes wine region of Portugal
Vinho Verde’s smaller neighbor to the east is bounded on the north and east by Spain, by the Douro River to the south, and mountains on the west. In the northern part of this region, you’ll find rolling hills and arid plateaus. Whereas, in the southern part, the valleys of the Douro.
The cultivation of vineyards dates back to Roman times in this region. The white wines are crisp and fresh, sometimes sparkling. The red wines range from dry and firm to light.
Trás-os-Montes (“Beyond the Mountain”) is subdivided into 3 regions:
- Chaves – vineyards planted on the hillsides of small valleys.
- Valpaços – located on a plateau with plenty of water
- Planalto Mirandês – located in the plateau of the Mogadouro mountain
Main white grapes: Côdega de Larinho, Fernão Pires, Gouveio, Malvasia Fina, Rabigato, Síria and Viosinho
Main red grapes: Bastardo; Marufo; Tinta Roriz; Touriga Franca; Touriga Nacional and Trincadeira
Tavora-Varosa (Terras de Cister) wine region of Portugal
Rounding out the northern wine regions of Portugal – to the south – is the small, remote mountainous region of Tavora-Varosa, also known as the Terra de Cister.
In 1989, Tavora-Varosa was the first region to be demarcated for sparkling wines and remains a key producer for grapes used in this type of wine. Most of the grapes produced here are sold locally, with the exception of grapes used in sparkling wines.
Main Tavora-Varosa white grapes: Bical, Cerceal, Fernão Pires, Gouveio and Malvasia Fina
Main Tavora-Varosa red grapes: Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional
The region is also responsible for significant plantings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes.
Dão wine region of Portugal
Continuing with our southern direction, we come to one of the oldest established wine regions of Portugal, the Dão, a mountainous region with a gentle climate. Here, the vineyards have been in the same families for generations.
Because many of the vineyards here are small, co-operatives play an important role in winemaking.
The climate is helped by the shelter of three mountain ranges that surround the wine plateau on three sides. The area receives ample rain in the winter and the vineyards benefit from the long, dry summers. The granite soil creates a good drainage system. The region is perfect for winemaking – almost like it was made for it!
Most of the production here is red wines; however, experts say the white wines from the Dão area are improving.
Main Dão red grapes: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Jaen, Alfrocheiro Preto, and Encruzado
Main Dão white grapes: Encruzado, Bical, Cercial, and Malvasia
Bairrada (Beira Atlântico) wine region of Portugal
On the Atlantic side of the Dão, the Bairrada region is an emerging producer of rosé but traditionally, it is known for deep red wines with high tannin and notes of bell pepper and black currants. Grapes from this area have long been important in the blending of sparkling wines.
Although it begins to seem that the wine regions of Portugal all have ancient roots in viticulture (that’s fairly true), grape cultivation here dates back to mid-medieval times when the Moors were driven out of the peninsula in the 10th century.
The maritime climate deposits plenty of rain and in general the weather is mild. Although the region is hilly, most vineyards are located on the flat lands. By harvest time in the fall, the Atlantic winds – infamous on coastal Portugal – can play havoc with the harvesting.
Main red grape – Baga, makes for intense, high tannic wines that need to be softened by other varietals.
Popular white wine grapes – Fernao Pires and Bical
A tour of 9 remarkable Marian Shrines to engage your wonder
Beira Interior wine region of Portugal
In the hinterland of Portugal lies the somewhat new demarcated region (2005) of the Beira Interior, but the cultivation of the vine goes back to Roman times.
These vines are protected by the mountain ranges of Estrela, Marofa, and Malcata. The area is also Portugal’s main winter sports destination.
The climate is harsh, with freezing temperatures in winter and a hot, dry summer. But many grape varietals are grown in the area and as such, several types of good wine come from here, including red, rosé, white, and sparkling.
The grape that steals the show here, and exclusively so, is the Fonte Cal, which produces wines that are honeyed, fruity, and floral. However, the acidity of the grape is low, and is most often used in blends.
Main white grapes: Arinto, Malvasia Fina, Fonte Cal, and Rabo de Ovelha e Síria
Main red grapes: Bastardo, Marufo, Rufete, and Touriga Nacional
Lisboa wine region of Portugal
Most travelers to Portugal arrive in Lisbon, which comprises nine sub regions for wine and runs along the Atlantic coastline. More than 30 grape varietals are grown in this area. Until 2009, this region was known as Estremadura. Although Lisboa is not the most famous among the wine regions of Portugal, it may be one of the most visited.
Popular beaches and suburban living have turned at least a few of the nine regions into either tourist destinations or bedroom communities for Lisbon. As such, little wine is produced.
The Serra de Montejunto hills help shield many of the Lisboa vineyards from the often harsh weather conditions and winds coming off of the Atlantic Ocean. Although these winds make Portugal a sought-after location for water sports, especially surfing, they would devastate the grapes.
Key features of wine in the Lisbon region
- 2nd largest producer of wine in Portugal
- Best Portuguese quaffing wines
- Mostly small producers who deliver their grapes to large co-operatives
- Some of the oldest grape vines in Portugal are located in the Colares DOC
What to buy from this region
- Sparkling wines from Óbidos
- Red wines from Alenquer
- White wines from Bucelas
- Low-alcohol, simple wines from Torres Vedras
- Prestigious wines from Colares
Main Lisboa red grapes: Alicante Bouschet, Aragonez, Castelão, Tinta Miúda, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional and Trincadeira
Main Lisboa white grapes: Arinto, Fernão Pires, Malvasia, Seara-Nova and Vital
Tejo wine region of Portugal
While we are in the area of Lisbon, let’s head into the wine region known for monasteries, Roman ruins, cork forests, olive groves and the famous Lusitano horses – the Tejo appellation, which covers the same area as the Ribatejo province.
As in Lisboa, wine here comes mostly from co-ops and offers low-cost quaffing wines, although higher quality wines can be found in Bairro and Charneca.
Although Tejo has been known for quantity over quality (their grape yields are impressive!), winemakers with an eye toward the future are focusing on higher quality red wines that can compete internationally.
“Old World heritage is being combined with fresh, forward-thinking approaches to wine production,” according to the experts at Wines of Portugal. “The results are wines that appeal to modern-day wine sensibilities and enjoyment.”
Main Tejo red grapes: Touriga Nacional, Castelao, and TrincadeiraMain Tejo white grapes: Fernão Pires and Arinto
Setúbal wine region of Portugal
Directly to the south of Lisboa and Tejo, lies the Península de Setúbal, whose Mediterranean climate and sandy soil lends itself to producing the Muscat of Alexandria grape that is used for fortified, sweet wines.
“Grape seeds were found, dating from the 8th century BC, in recent archaeological excavations, highlighting the ancient culture of the vine, which goes back in the region to a period long before the formation of Portugal,” according to the travel experts at Wine Tourism in Portugal.
“It is estimated that the cultivation of vineyards has entered the valley of the River Sado by the Tartessians, for about 2000 BC.”
Wine designation can get a little confusing in this region. Wines can have a DOC of either Palmela and Setúbal. Regional wines are labeled “Peninsula de Setúbal.”
The name “Setúbal” may only be labeled on the two Moscatel wines.
How to unwind with the best wine board games and wine pairings
Alentejo wine region of Portugal
Covering one third of the country of Portugal, the Alentejo wine region is widely known and beloved in and outside of Portugal.
“The reds, easy drinkers, rich and fruity, are the darlings of Lisbon cafés and restaurants, also to be found on wine lists the length of the country,” according to Wines of Portugal. “There are quaffing wines, but also fine wines, especially in the red department.”
Vistas of vast plains accented by olive and cork trees cover most of the region. The Spanish border lies to the east, the São Mamede mountains hem in the southwest, and the Algarve wine region is just beyond to the south.
Winemakers who cultivate these Portugal vineyards must be tenacious. The harsh climate (bitterly cold winters and hot, dry summers) make it difficult to produce wine. Yet they have persevered to produce some of the most popular everyday drinking wines and some wines of exceptional quality.
Look for the label Vinho Regional Alentejano or Regional Alentejo wine. The eight subregions rarely appear on a label, but in case they do, here are the names to watch for:
Main red grapes: Aragonez, Trincadeira, Castelão, Alfrocheiro, and Alicante Bouschet
Main white grapes: Arinto, Antão Vaz, Roupeiro, Fernão Pires, Perrum
Algarve wine region
Continuing south to Algarve, vineyards share the southernmost region with some of Portugal’s most sought-after tourism spots, such as golf courses and beach resorts. The not-too-hot, not-too-cold sunny location also helps produce some really good white wines, although the predominant wines here are red.
Evidence suggests that vines were planted here as early as 2,000 BC. As the centuries and conquerors progressed across the land, others (Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans) brought their vines and cultivation techniques
There are four DOCs in this region: Lagos, Portimão, Lagoa and Tavira – names that correspond to the major towns in Algarve. Each of these demarcated zones produce their own wines. The wine that is produced region wide is called Vinho Regional Algarve.
Private wineries, rather than cooperatives, are what’s trending here, making Algarve a region to watch.
Main red grapes: Negra Mole, Trincadeira and Castelão
Main white grapes: Siria, Arinto and Malvasia Fina
Portugal’s island wine growing regions
The Azores, an archipelago of nine islands, have been known for sweet, fortified wines since the 18th century but cultivation traces back to the 16th century, when the islands were a stopover for voyagers to the New World.
The volcanic soil along with the mild climate give Azores wine a distinction in taste and in the presentation of its vineyards. Growers use volcanic rock as a key component of grape cultivation.
Winemakers grow the vineyards with small areas called “currais” (corrals), which protect the vines from the Atlantic winds and salty air. The corrals are constructed of volcanic rock (basalt) and typically configured in squares, rectangles, and semi-circles.
The historic vineyards are a treasure and unique in the world. UNESCO declared the curraise vineyards on Pico as a World Heritage Site.
The main grapes are white: Azores Arinto, Verdelho, and Pico Terrantez
Madeira, another Portuguese archipelago, is also the name for one of the world’s most famous fortified wines.
Our suggested Madeira wine
Broadbent 10 Year Boal Madeira
Broadbent Madeira is the result of a collaboration with one of the world’s oldest producers of Madeira wine. Bartholomew Broadbent, CEO, is one of the most influential figures in the wine world. He’s also one of the world’s leading authorities on Port and Madeira wines.
According to tasting notes of Wilfred Wong: “The Broadbent 10 Years Old Boal Madeira is a satisfying fortified wine exhibiting flavors of caramel, toasted nuts, and toffee. This wine should pair well with aged hard cheeses.”
Touring the wine regions of Portugal
In addition to wineries, each of the 14 demarcated wine regions of Portugal have unique opportunities for people who love to travel for history, leisure, architecture, and spirituality.
Let’s quickly revisit the regions and summarize the top things to do and places to see in each of Portugal’s wine regions.
Douro River Valley
- River cruises and train rides are the most popular way to take in the majestic scenery of the Douro Valley, a UNESCO heritage site.
- Visit vineyards for Port tastings and take part in historical traditions of wine making, like crushing grapes with your feet.
- Take in the architecture. Visit the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies in Lamego.
Vinho Verde wine region
- Marvel at the centuries of architecture in what is called Portugal’s most beautiful town – Viana do Castelo.
- View the stunning landscapes of the Peneda-Geres, Portugal’s only national park.
- Cross the famous Roman bridge into Portugal’s oldest town, Ponte de Lima, known for a series of flower gardens as well as its historical sights.
Trás-os-Montes wine region
- Take a guided tour through one of Portugal’s most magnificent Baroque masterpieces, the palace of Casa de Mateus.
- Take a hike to one of Europe’s natural wonders: the Fisgas de Ermelo waterfalls.
- Enjoy wine while you feast on the Mirandesa beef steak.
Tavora-Varosa wine region
- Learn about Cistercian heritage at the Monastery of S. João de Tarouca, Portugal’s first monastery for Cistercian monks.
- View Roman artifacts in the Museum da Região Flaviense.
- See an ancient tower that stands as a testament to a 10th century castle in the town of Chavez.
Dão wine region
- Wander around the twisting alleys of Viseu’s historic quarter.
- Admire the paintings in the Grão Vasco National Museum, named for one of the most important Portuguese Renaissance painters.
- Relax in the Parque do Fontelo where you are surrounded by forests of oaks and chestnuts.
Bairrada wine region
- Join the thousands of tourists who come to this region just to explore one of the western world’s oldest universities – University of Coimbra (est. 1290), classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
- Nearby the university, tour the Se Nova (New Cathedral) to see its spectacular high altar.
- Walk the landscaped pathways of Portugal’s largest Botanical Garden in Coimbra, the one-time capital city of Portugal.
Beira Interior wine region
- Take a stroll in the region’s most visited place – the gardens of the Episcopla Palace in Castelo Branco.
- After your stroll, visit the Covento da Graça, dating from the 16th century, to view sacred art.
- Traverse the maze of narrow streets in the medieval centre of Castelo Branco.
Lisbon wine region
- Dine and wine in one of hundreds of Lisbon’s amazing restaurants.
- Book a guided walking tour.
- Shop until you drop and then head to your appointment at one of Lisbon’s plush spas.
Tejo wine region
- Visit the Convent of Christ, a UNESCO World Heritage site that was once a 12th century Templar stronghold.
- Stop by the Abraham Zacuto Portuguese Jewish Museum, originally medieval synagogue.
- Walk along the conduit of a 16th century six-kilometre aqueduct.
Setúbal wine region
- Stand in a fortress and admire the breathtaking vistas from the castle of Palmela, part of which is now a luxury hotel.
- Go on a dolphin and nature tour at the Nature Reserve of the Sado River.
- Take a beach walk on some of Portugal’s most pristine beaches in the Troia Peninsula.
Alentejo wine region
- Send a chill up your spine at the Chapel of Bones, built by Franciscan monks from the remains of 5,000 corpses for the purpose of contemplating mortality.
- Take a picture beside Roman ruins (Templo de Diana) that dates back to the 1st century.
- Get lost in Evora walking along the web of ancient cobblestone streets.
Algarve wine region
- Join locals at the Mercado Municipal market in Tavira.
- Climb the ramparts of a 12th Moorish castle.
- Schedule a boat tour to navigate the caves along the coastline near Lagos.
The wine growing regions of the Azores and Madeira
- Scale the heights of a stratovolcano on Pico island.
- Drive the rim around a breathtaking crater lake on São Miguel Island.
- Hover over the garden city of Funchal in Madeira on a cable car ride.
Historically, the British, French, and Germans are better acquainted with the nuances of Portuguese wines than are Americans – even though the U.S. is one of the main consumers of wine from Portugal.
However, Americans are well on their way to becoming knowledgeable about Portuguese wines, beyond Port and Madeira.
We hope our narrative journey has encouraged you to try more Portuguese wines as well as consider booking a trip to the magnificent country of Portugal.