For one thing, the vineyards in this small, roughly rectangular country on the Atlantic are populated with uniquely Portuguese grape varieties, most of which are grown in Portugal alone. The Portuguese have little use for international grapes--the big exception to this rule being Tinto Rouriz, which is the Portuguese name for Spain's Tempranillo grape.
So if you're looking for wines that really "taste of a place," consider Portuguese wines. Like many other European wines, they are typically labeled according to place rather than grape.
Let's take a quick peek at Portugal's wine country. Along the way, we'll include a few recipes that should pair nicely with the wines we discover.
The situation for wine in Dao, once so dour, has been steadily improving since Portugal joined the European Union back in the 1980s. Today, Dao is proving Portuguese red wine means more than port. The region is producing some of Portugal's best red wines, based primarily on the Touriga Nacional (a port grape), which is sometimes blended with a multitude of other native grapes. Dao is in north central Portugal below the Douro River and surrounded by tall mountains that help tame the wind and rains that come lashing in from the Atlantic.
If port could have a polar opposite, it would be the bright Vinho Verde white wines that come out of the upper northwest corner of Portugal above the coastal city of Oporto. In a land of robust red wines, Vinho Verde is an oasis of bright, fresh-tasting whites, occasionally with a light fizz and alcohol levels that often lean toward the low side. The wine is called Vinho Verde, which means "green wine." The word "green" here refers not to the color, nor to the fact the grapes grow in lush valleys along the Green Coast, but rather to the fact the wine is released early while still in its bright-eyed youth.
After an adulteration scandal hit the Port industry in the 18th century, the Marquis of Pombal took quick legislative action to protect the industry from further mischief. What was good for port, however, proved nearly fatal for Bairrada, the coastal stretch of vineyards south of Oporto between Dao and the Atlantic. The vineyards of Bairrada, lying beyond the area the Marquis deemed suitable for lawful port production, were ordered ripped out. For Bairrada’s wine industry, recovery would be measured in centuries rather than years. Today, things are finally back on track. Bairrada banks almost exclusively on the Baga grape, which makes dark, fruity, tannic red wines. These robust wines are occasionally tamed somewhat by the addition of Touriga Nacional, one of the most important port grapes. The word "Bairrada" comes from the Portuguese word for clay, "bairro," which gives some insight into the soil that dominates this region.
Douro is port country, where the vines are planted on steep, terraced slopes that drop precipitously to the river below. Most of the non-fortified wines are made from the same grapes that produce port; namely, Tinta Nacional, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Tinta Barrocca. The Douro is also significant because it was an early example of geographic delimitation, the practice, now common, of defining a specific area for the production of certain grapes. In 1756, the Portuguese drew boundaries around the Douro Valley in an effort to protect the integrity of the port industry from a rash of adulteration (the unkind additives were primarily sugar and elderberry juice). By laying down the law, the Portuguese hoped to maintain friendly trade relations with the English, who not surprisingly had become increasingly dissatisfied customers.