Lisbon Story

The Douro and Alentejo are probably the first wine areas that spring to mind when it comes to Portugal, but the products of the Lisbon area have many virtues to recommend them, writes Rupert Millar.

Feature Findings

> The Lisbon wine region is made up of nine denominaçoes de origem controlada (DOCs).
> Because of Portugal’s close relationship with England and then Great Britain (going back to the 14th century), a number of wines from the Lisbon area used to be hugely popular in the British market.
> The coming of phylloxera in the late 19th century hit the region hard, and, the shortage of wine in Portugal from 1865 to 1904 caused governments to collapse.
> Grape diversity is part of the region’s strength and appeal.
> The fresh whites and juicy reds make Lisbon wines perfect for the tastes of consumers in China and Hong Kong.

OF ALL the many distinctive and historic wine regions in Portugal, the Lisbon region is probably the one most people know least about.

The Douro is the country’s best-known region, and the Alentejo, Vinho Verde (technically the Minho) and Dão are all increasingly famous, but the nine denominaçoes de origem controlada (DOC) that make up the Lisbon wine region can easily match any of their counterparts with their historical legacy, diversity and, naturally, their quality.

Wine has been made in the region for more than 2,000 years, with the Phoenicians and Carthaginians establishing vineyards in the area before 200BC, which marked the arrival of the Romans into Lusitania (as most of Portugal was then known).

Because of Portugal’s close relationship with England and then Great Britain (going back to the 14th century), a number of wines from the Lisbon area used to be hugely popular in the British market before and during the times when Portugal’s other famous wines found their followings there.

The coming of phylloxera in the late 19th century hit the region as hard as anywhere in Europe and, indeed, the shortage of wine in Portugal from 1865 to 1904 caused many governments to collapse.

In the wake of the vine contagion, much replanting was done with the aim of making brandy. The area was for many decades the chief supplier of brandy to the Port trade, and many wineries either still make some eaux-de-vie or at least still have some of the old distilling equipment.

From the 1950s onwards came huge changes in Portuguese winemaking, and when the Port trade went looking elsewhere for its brandy in the mid-1970s, the Lisbon producers were forced to readapt to winemaking themselves.

In 1981-1982, producers began to coalesce into a wine body going by the name of Estremadura (not be confused with the region of the very similar name in Spain). In 2007, more DOCs joined the group, and the decision was made to rename the region ‘Lisbon’ – a reference not just to the DOCs’ proximity to the capital city, but also the name by which many of the wines had been known during a period of popularity in 19th-century Britain.

The DOCs are all located either to the west or north of Lisbon itself, and the region overall is long and thin with a great exposure all down its western side to the Atlantic ocean, which contributes enormously to the overall climate of the area and character of the wines.

At its most extreme in Colares, the vines by the sea are so wind-battered and exposed to the raging ocean currents that they are trained to practically crawl along the ground, while, a little further inland, a range of hills offers more protection but every area experiences the ‘rocio’, the water-laden mist blown in by the Atlantic that swirls through the hills and valleys every spring and summer morning and the drying winds, the ‘vento’, that follow. Some areas are so renowned for being windy that certain parishes are named ‘Ventosa’ – ‘the windy place’.

The region is capable of producing, therefore, everything from light and refreshing Vinho Leve (literally ‘light wine’) very much like Vinho Verde, to hearty reds, fortified wines and excellent brandies, and there are increasing amounts of sparkling wines and rosé too.

Today, the Lisbon region ranks as the third-largest wine producing area in Portugal behind Alentejo and the Douro, with average annual yields of around one million hectolitres.

The region is dominated, as are many Portuguese regions, by co-operatives, and the majority of the wines produced are IGP, bottled as Vinho Regional Lisboa (Regional Wine of Lisbon), with a lot of the DOC wines being produced in the historic areas of Bucelas, Carcavelos and Colares.

The region boasts a typically eclectic array of grape varieties, ranging from traditional Portuguese grapes such as Castelão and Arinto to international varieties including Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

DOC wines usually call for just Portuguese grapes but the IGP wines can be blended with the international varieties, with many winemakers thinking it’s a good way to introduce new consumers to their wines. As one export director noted: “It’s a way to familiarise them [native varieties]. It’s easier to taste something that you know.”

Lisbon boasts a wide array of soil types, from sand to clay and marl and more, and they have left their mark on the place names too. Any past or future visitors to the area should take note of the town of Bombarral, whose name is derived from the Latin for ‘good clay’, a feature noted by the Romans, who knew it would lead to the production of quality wines. There are many other examples of this throughout the region, and in Portugal as a whole.

As well as a chocolate box of grape varieties to pick from, it’s hard to pin down any one style that could be said to represent the region: that diversity is part of its strength and appeal.

If speaking generally about the region, however, one can’t escape the all-pervading, cooling influence of the Atlantic and the fact that the reds and whites are marked by a definite freshness and mineral quality, while the reds also enjoy long hours of southern European sunshine to make them ripe and well-rounded but with gentle tannins.

“The region has a very specific microclimate which allows us to have ripeness, minerality and freshness,” says Ricardo Correia, director of one of the leading wineries, Casa Santos Lima. “Many winemakers would want to have this, and for us it’s very little effort.”

He’s right too because it’s exactly this style of approachable, drinkable wine that suits the palates of so many consumers in northern Europe, the US and Asia.

ASIA

The nature of the wines, the fresh whites and juicy reds, makes them perfect drinking wines for any number of markets, not least China and Hong Kong.

They’re also available at quite astonishingly good prices, with the retail cost for a bottle starting at HK$40 from some larger companies but rising to as much as HK$500+ for the very top wines.

Some companies have made inroads into Asia; Casa Santos Lima exports about 15% of its production to China, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, while the ever-busy minds behind Vidigal Wines are creating a new label for China that features one of Lisbon’s most famous musical forms – Fado.

The challenge Lisbon wines and, indeed, all Portuguese wines have to overcome in the collective Asian market is their general lack of exposure.

In terms of imported volumes, Portugal lags a long way behind the market behemoths such as France and Australia but also, of course, Chile, Spain, Italy, the US, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina.

The old Portuguese colony of Macau is no guaranteed market either. A lot of Portuguese wines are imported and enjoyed there but on a more local level, while the high rollers in the glitzy casinos only want the most famous of wine names on their tables as they gamble the days away.

So Portugal and the wines of Lisbon have to hope their wines can do some shouting on their behalf, as long as some adventurous buyers are willing to give them a try.

As Correia concluded, unique grapes, value for money and food matching potential are the reasons “why Portugal and this region in particular can be the next big thing in wine around the world”.

3 Responses to “Lisbon Story”

  1. Jonathan Rodwell says:

    Very pleased to read mention of Colares – true coastal viticulture and fascinating . Also an important heritage to nurture

  2. Nick Oakley says:

    Colares is tiny, a restored relic of the past. Elsewhere in the Lisbon area there is a peppering of first rate vineyards making truly world class wines. Cerejeiras, Sanguinhal, Vale de Capucha, Quinta de Satn’Ana and many others. The Atlantic brings freshness, and a climate that is uncannily similar to Bordeaux. They are virtually homoclimes.

  3. Regina M Lutz says:

    Wait….what? Absolutely no mention of the incredibly important cork forests — Alentejo!–and super important Portuguese cork industry??!!!

    Wow Rupert…where have YOU been? Not in Alentejo evidently. Odd that you could write an in-depth report on that region of Portugal — and talk about wine — and not mention cork.

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