Portuguese Sparkling Wine: More Than Just Vinho Verde

What comes to mind, when you think of Portugal?

For us, it’s custard tarts and Portuguese rotisserie chicken, white and blue tiles and cobblestone streets, friendly people and glasses of Vinho Verde (oh, and probably Port and Madeira). 

Outside of Port and Madeira, Vinho Verde – which translates to ‘Green Wine’ – is one of Portugal’s larger wine exports. It’s probably what also comes to mind when you think of “Portugal” and “Sparkling Wine.” Certainly, the country’s fortified wines do not conjure up visions of effervescence.

Por que é verde?

Vinho Verde is a youthful wine style, originally achieving its slight spritz from malolactic fermentation taking place in the bottle. It is now largely force carbonated, but remains beloved by consumers the world over for that slight spritz. It’s easy drinking and makes for a perfect pairing with the plethora of cod dishes you’ll see in Atlantic-facing Portugal. 

In our market, Vinho Verde is usually presented in a way that emphasizes how verde, or green, it appears with marketing and bottle choices hammering it home.

But a deeper look into northern Portugal’s Vinho Verde Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC) will reveal that the wine can be made from a variety of grapes (including Alvarinho) and in a variety of ways, from fully sparkling to late harvest and so on. You can even find red or rosé Vinho Verde.

Surprising, no?

Well, even more surprising, is that Portugal has an exciting sparkling wine scene.

Vá em frente, Espumante

We must admit, Portugal does not necessarily come top of mind when thinking about bubbly. 

Espumante (pronounced ‘esh-pu-man-te’) is the Portuguese term for sparkling wine and it is produced throughout the country (however surprising that may be!). 

From the Vinho Verde DOC in the north west, to the almost centrally located Duoro, to Bairrada and further south to Alentejo, there is Espumante to be found in this coastal nation. This is different than in neighbouring Spain, where Cava production is limited to the (somewhat) cooler climate Catalunya and is regulated by one DOC (Espumante is permitted across many DOCs in Portugal, with varying standards).

Portugal’s various wine regions have long histories in winemaking, with some records dating back to the Roman times, and as such you can expect there to be significant variety in approaches and grapes used throughout. 

Recent interest in Portuguese wine across the world (beyond Port and Madeira), has been linked to an increase in quality production, the value proposition (as wines tend to be affordable, even in high-quality categories) and a growing interest in indigenous grape varieties which are found across the country. 

On that note, grapes such as Arinto, Fernao Pires and Malvasia Fina – known and grown throughout the Mediterranean region – are common in the production of Portuguese Espumante, but many other grape varieties can be found, including Chardonnay. Arinto and Fernao Pires are known for their high acidity, and as we know, acidity is king when it comes to sparkling.

Portugal’s wine appellation system can be a little complex to navigate but can be generally broken down into the categories of DOC, Regional and “table” wines. Pretty much the same goes for the Espumante category, but there are some DOCs which have more stringent standards (such as the standards used in Bairrada).

Próxima parada, vinho espumoso

COVID-19 has made it nearly impossible to travel, and we don’t foresee ourselves hopping on a plane anytime soon. 

So, it’s with grape, er – we mean great – pleasure that we tasted through a selection of Portuguese Espumante, produced by Vinhos Borges. It’s as if we can hear the conductor telling us that we’re almost at our destination, ready to hop off the train to taste some sparkling wine in Portugal.

Located near the city of Porto, Vinhos Borges was founded in 1884 by brothers Antonio and Francisco. The company soon became one of the largest in the country (and no surprise, as Porto is home to many exporters, unsurprisingly, due to global interest in Port). Vinhos Borges was founded on the premise that Portuguese wines can be known for their excellence, and the company has committed to quality production. 

Today, they export to more than fifty countries across the world, including to Canada’s Ontario, where their sparkling wines can be found in the LCBO!

Winemaker José Maria Machado is tasked with overseeing production, including the Fita Azul (“Blue Ribbon”) collection of Espumante and vintage releases under the premium “Borges Real Senhor” label.

With no real reference point – beyond a few rare examples of Portuguese Espumante that we’ve been lucky to try, and a couple of glasses of Vinho Verde over the years – this tasting was a real treat!

Fita Azul Celebration (Sec, Demi-Sec)

Life is a celebration, right? 

We can’t help but love the name of this wine. So, kudos to Borges.

The Fita Azul Celebration is a non-vintage, traditional method wine that was aged for 15 months sur lie in Borges cellars. Made from a blend of indigenous and non-indigenous grapes (including Arinto de Bucelas, Gouveio, Malvasia Fina, Codega de Larinho), you could say this wine celebrates the potential of Portugal’s high acid white wine grapes in the sparkling category. That said, this wine is medium in terms of acidity, and could use a touch more with a touch less sugar. With notes of lemon and crisp, freshly picked orchard apple, there’s plenty of orchard fruit to appreciate on the palate.

The Demi-Sec Fita Azul is similar, but with a much more pronounced sweetness.

Though made in the traditional method, the Prosecco-consumer will likely be very happy to enjoy these two wines in the glass.

Fita Azul Attitude

Fita Azul Attitude a non-vintage wine made in the traditional method, aged in Borges’ cellars for 15 months. Made from a blend of indigenous and non-indigenous varieties – including Gouveio, Malvasia Fina, Códega, Arinto – all of which are prized for their acidity and which originate from the Trás-os-Montes, in the Duoro.

The wine is yellow straw in colour, with fine bubbles and a surprisingly complex nose, including biscuit and brioche (no doubt from maturing in the cellar). On the palate, it is zippy with acidity, with plenty of citrus.

Fita Azul Passion

Fita Azul Passion is a non-vintage wine made in the traditional method, from a blend of Tinta Roriz, otherwise known as Tempranillo, and Touriga Nacional, grown in the Duoro. It was aged for 15 months sur lie.

The wine is rose petal pink in hue, with fine bubbles and a fruit nose composed largely of red fruit (think currants and ripe strawberries). A perfect summer sipper, it is not overtly complex but still enjoyable for those who enjoy pink bubbles, such as rose Cava.

Fita Azul Intense

Fita Azul Intense is something different, that’s for sure! 

This non-vintage wine is made in the traditional method, from 100% Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo). Can you say you’ve tried a traditional method sparkling wine made from Tempranillo? We sure can’t… well, we can now!

Spending 12 months sur lie, the wine has an intense palate (perhaps reflective in its name) of stewed red fruit and coca cola. Somewhat tannic on the palate, this wine is rich in brambly fruit flavours, blackberry and a long finish.

Borges Real Senhor 2015

We were very excited to try this wine, which is vintage-dated and regional (coming to us from the Dão). This particular Espumante is certified by the regional appellation system of Dão, which is different from the rest of the Borges wines in the line, which are certified by the country-wide system (notwithstanding the fact that many of the wines are made from grapes coming from the Duoro). 

And so, you’re probably thinking… Blanc de Noirs from Portugal, what a treat to savour Portugese Pinot Noir, right? Wrong! We thought the same, and this particular wine is made from Touriga Nacional. 

Originally used in Port wines, Touriga Nacional is coming into its own. Prized for its acidity, the grape variety lends itself to aging potential as well. But how is it sparkling, you may ask? Well, the fruit in this wine comes from the Dão, which is much higher in elevation than the Douro (where much of the grapes for the other wines come from) and the region also receives quite a bit more rainfall. All this to say, these traits lend themselves to wines with higher acidity than other regions … and that’s perfect for sparkling!

The is straw in colour with a fine bubble, and a nose that is both fresh and complex, revealing a youthfulness despite its vintage. The Touriga Nacional comes through, with a nose that is somewhat dominated by red fruit and florality. With a zippy acidity, nice mouse and plenty of crème, this vintage dated sparkler is a nice showcase of what Portugal can do in this category. Lots of fruit on the palate, from citrus to cherry, and a touch of brioche with a long, fresh finish.

A few concluding remarks

Warm climate wine growing regions often struggle to produce sparkling wine, which find their foundation in acidity.

That said, we were pleasantly surprised by Borges’ array of wines in the Espumante category, which achieve a nice, balanced level of acidity thanks in part to a selection of grapes grown at high altitudes in the Duoro and by using indigenous varieties (like Arinto) known, and prized, for their high acidity. The traditional method suits these varieties well, and as we’ve seen, Portugal’s ability to produce sparkling wine should not go unnoticed. 

So, when taking a stroll down the wine aisle, why not try something sparkling from Portugal, when you can get your hands on it? This alternative to Cava just may be a pleasant surpresa (or, surprise)!