Every year, a small group of Master Sommeliers gathers in a room for a week to blind taste through nearly 600 Portuguese wines. Their goal? Produce a list of 50 incredible bottles to represent Portugal’s breadth of indigenous grapes, regions, styles, and quality for the coming year.
“I put on five pounds that week just eating nuts. I needed the fat to help cut through the tannins,” Master Sommelier Dennis Kelly told the Village Voice at the unveiling of the 2016 lineup this week in New York City. Joining Kelly in the deliberations for Portugal’s 50 great wines were Peter Granoff and Madeline Triffon — both contributing an impressive resume to the sum of the panel’s collective expertise. Kelly spent a decade at the French Laundry, Granoff once earned the James Beard Foundation’s “Sommelier of the Year” title, and Triffon was the second woman in the world to pass the rigorous Master Sommelier examination.
At this year’s event unveiling the final list of 50 Great Portugese Wines, media and industry guests were treated to a seated tasting at the historic General Theological Seminary. Tasters received a thorough, guided explanation of each of the 50 chosen bottles which included whites, reds, Port, and Madeira. The panelists — Kelly, Granoff, and Triffon — presented the honorees, and several of the noted producers flew in to present their wines and tell the story of their creation.
Portugal consistently turns out excellent, fairly priced wines — but don’t pigeonhole the region as just a value-driven producer. While the country is ever focused on wine quality, this year’s list of 50 Great Portuguese Wines did underscore their reputation as a source for inexpensive wine.
So how can Portugal sell such great wine for so little?
“Low labor cost combined with multiple generational land ownership are major contributing factors. The high costs associated with new land purchases are eliminated,” explains event moderator Eugenio Jardim, Wines of Portugal‘s U.S. ambassador.
Event organizer and Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein of Full Circle Wine Solutions further elaborates: “With the exception of some sites in the Douro, vineyard costs are simply not what they are in other places, and the cost of living keeps wages lower in relation to neighboring nations.” Goldstein also cites supply and demand as a contributing factor. “In the global market place, there has been less historical demand on the wines since they are not at the top of the consumer’s mind,” he says. “Recall, it was not that long ago that the Portuguese wine market was primarily Port, Madeira, Mateus, and inexpensive Vinho Verde.”
The good news for Portuguese producers — confirmed by export data released from ViniPortugal, as reported by the Street — shows that “Portuguese wines to the U.S. increased by 16.3 percent in 2015 with dry wines leading the charge with an increase of 22.6 percent.” This bodes well for both winemakers and lovers of the Iberian nation’s wines. Just remember: Prices creep up with demand, so why not add Portugal to your wine repertoire now?
Don’t miss these five of the 50 Great Portuguese Wines for under $15:
Lavradores de Feitoria Douro
Producer: Lavradores de Feitoria
Don’t be discouraged by this white blend’s unfamiliar grape names like Malvasia Fina, Síria, and Gouveio. This bright quaffer explodes with juicy citrus, apple, and mineral zip. It’s perfect for an aperitif or a party, especially given the price tag. The wine derives from a project in the Douro Valley composed of 18 young winemakers (“lavradores” means growers). Under the direction of the renowned Dirk Niepoort, Lavradores de Feitoria have decided to work together to bottle their labor instead of selling it to a local co-op. Imported by Polaner Selections.
Casal de Ventozela Loureiro
Producer: Soc. Agrícola Casal de Ventozela
Region: Vinho Verde
Ocean breezes off the neighboring Atlantic bring freshness to this floral and fruity expression of the Loureiro grape. Delivering pear, apple, and peach notes with striking acidity, this wine tastes like spring on the verge of bloom. Take it outdoors with a platter of shellfish on a sunny afternoon. This wine is produced by a family estate located in Mogege, Vila Nova de Famalicão. Imported by VOS Selections.
Dona Ermelinda Reserva
Producer: Casa Ermelinda Freitas
Region: Península de Setúbal
Notes of violets and blueberries pop from a glass of Dona Ermelind Reserva. In the mouth, the wine’s firm tannins bolstered by oak aging beg for a grilled lamb chop. The producer dates back to 1920 and is one of the fastest growing companies in the Portuguese wine sector, having recently won several awards. Translation: Their wines will get easier to find in the U.S. Imported by Aidil Wines & Liquors.
Barão De Vilar
Producer: Baos Quintas
Cool nights contribute brisk acidity to this blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, and Jaén. The silky texture and juicy red fruits — especially notes of fragrant strawberry — make this medium-bodied bottle a food-friendly weeknight sipper. The winery, established in 1996, is managed by a family with 14 generations of experience behind them. Imported by Votto Vines.
Vale do Bomfim
Producer: Symington Family Estates
A Touriga-heavy blend (Franca and Nacional) with Tinta Amarela, and several others grapes, this bottle is an absolute bargain. Smoke, pepper spice, and cassis notes create flavor complexity, while smooth tannins offer versatility with myriad meats from pork chops to flank steak (even a portabella mushroom for the vegetarians out there). This wine is produced by the Symington Family who have been making Douro Valley wine and Port for 125 years. Imported by Premium Port Wines.
Lauren Mowery is a drinks and travel writer, and Master of Wine candidate.