Portuguese wines offer some of the best value in the world. The country may be small, but its geography – with coast on one side, mountains in the center, and an arid region to the east – has created a number of diverse wine-growing regions. While most people know Port and many have come to love Vinho Verde, other Portuguese wines and the regions that produce them are just starting to burgeon. The country itself is low-key and scenic – and currently, a bargain, even factoring in euro-to-dollar exchange rates. Read on for five great Portuguese wine regions to explore.
The Region: Alentejo
One of Portugal's two best-known wine regions (the other being Douro, where Port comes from), the Alentejo sits in the southeast part of the country, away from the Atlantic's influence. Its best-known wines are reds, both spicy, savory traditional styles and more intensely fruity modern wines.
The Winery: Herdade do Esporao
While many wineries in the country are still adapting to the surge in vinotourism, Esporao has it nailed – the state-of-the-art facility that houses its winery has an architecturally stunning visitors center complete with restaurant, wine bar, and shop constructed in a contemporary style. The family-owned winery routinely wins awards for its more traditional wines and its modern riserva styles, both reds and whites. Don't neglect to taste the olive oils, either – there are four varieties ranging from mild to spicy. You'll want extra room in your luggage to bring home bottles of both wine and olive oil, many of which are available at the shop for under $10. Vineyard and winery tours are available for those who want to learn more, and there's even an archeological museum on site.
The Town to Visit: Évora
The Alentejo's small towns are as much a treat as its wines. UNESCO World Heritage Site Évora features well-preserved Roman ruins in the center, with a 600-year-old aqueduct surrounding the city (if you'd like views of this from your hotel window, boutique hotel M'AR de AR Aqueducto offers just that, starting from $165 per night). Don't miss the Capela dos Ossos, a chapel plastered in intact human skulls and bones. Also in the vicinity is the castle-town of Monsaraz, a tiny walled city perched atop a hill with views off toward Spain and a handful of restaurants, shops, and inns hidden in its narrow alleys.
The Region: the Dao
The emerging wine region known as the Dao is situated in Portugal's central-north, just below the Douro. Like the Alentejo, its wines offer a superb bang for the euro. The mountainous area gets some Atlantic influence; as such, it's cool and wet in the winter and hot and dry during the summer. The Dao is known for elegant reds, which are sometimes compared to burgundies (but are much more affordable).
The Winery: Casa De Mouraz
The husband-wife proprietors here are some of the country's biggest proponents of organic and biodynamic wines. Mouraz exports 98 percent of its bottles, many of which end up in renowned restaurants around the world, including Copenhagen's Noma. Reds are marked by cherry and ripe fruit flavors, while whites evoke apple and pear.
The Town to Visit: Coimbra
The onetime capital of Portugal boasts one of the oldest universities in Europe, which history lovers will want to check out, along with the medieval center and a number of historic churches. The city is also a culturally rich place, with its own style of Fado music (distinct from Lisbon's) and a centuries-old pottery and tapestry tradition – so be sure to leave room in your suitcase for purchases. What's more, reasonable accommodations abound, including the conveniently located Hotel Jardim (from $64 per night), which is just a five-minute walk from the town center.
The Region: the Douro
One of the most stunning wine regions in the world (evidence above), and the home of Port, the Douro Valley is characterized by treacherously steep, vine-planted granite hillsides cascading toward the meandering blue river below. The region is dotted with quintas, or farms, marked with stone farmhouses and, often, large signs visible from down below announcing the quinta's name.
The Winery: Sandeman's Quinta de Seixo
The contemporary wine center here offers tours (starting from $8) of its facilities including the open-topped granite lagares, where the region's grapes were traditionally foot-stomped. From the tasting room, enjoy views over the Duoro River while sampling the winery's award-winning Ports. Extra-curious types can check out the Sandeman Porto Wine Museum in nearby Vila Nova de Gaia.
The Town to Visit: Porto
Portugal's second-largest city is a very old and lovely town – its old town, known as Ribeira, is another UNESCO Heritage Site – split in half by the Duoro River where it meets the Atlantic. Take in the scope of the place from the grand Yeatman Hotel, located in Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the river from Porto and next to the “lodges” where the namesake fortified wine has traditionally been stored. While the historic Relais & Chateaux property is out of reach for most budgets (even with Portugal's reasonable prices), a drink in its bar is a worthy splurge. Be sure to step out onto the balcony to take in the sweeping river and city views. At the other end of the spectrum, Hotel Universal is centrally located and no-frills, but starts at just $27 per night. For a further taste of Porto's past, check out the grand century old-bookstore Livraria Lello, with a dramatic spiral staircase and stained-glass ceiling, and the divinely deco Majestic Café, where you'll want to, of course, have a glass of Port.
The Region: Setubal Peninsula
Just across the Tagus River to the south of Lisbon, this region has a Mediterranean climate and is best known for producing the moscato grape. It's also a prime culinary destination – be sure to sample the soft sheep's cheeses and fried cuttlefish, or cephalopoda.
The Winery: Jose Maria da Fonseca
This seventh-generation-owned family winery is just 35 minutes from Lisbon in the charming town of Azetao. It's known as the first in Portugal to bottle red wine and is best known for its moscatos. Daily tours ($5; note the very-Portuguese two-and-a-half-hour midday lunch break when they're closed, though) offer a glimpse of the manor house and tastings of wines and cheeses.
The Town to Visit: Lisbon
Your trip to Portugal wouldn't be complete without a visit to its enchanting, low-key capital city, dramatically perched where the Tagus river washes into the Atlantic. For dining, don't miss simple Portuguese seafood paired with beer at 60-year-old Cervejaria Ramiro (try the garlic-butter shrimp and some perceves, a gnarly barnacle that looks like a dragon's talon but tastes divinely briny); and make a reservation to splurge at Belcanto, where the young chef José Avillez is turning out the country's most innovative takes on its traditional cuisine (like Wave Breaking, his collage of seafood, foam, and edible sand). There's good shopping in this cosmopolitan city, too; don't miss A Vida Portuguesa which recreates vintage housewares and other typically Portuguese items. Hotel Jorge V won't break your heart with its historic charms, but the location is good and, starting at $90 a night, the price is right.
The Region: Vinho Verde
These bright, fresh, lightly effervescent wines represent one of the best all-time values – even factoring in importing costs, it's rare to find them priced at more than $10 a bottle. “Verde,” of course, means “green” – but what you might not have known is that they're labelled this way because they're young wines, meant to be drunk straight away. (They're also lower in alcohol than most.) The region abuts the Atlantic in Portugal's northwest corner; it's lush, green, and windy, which gives Vinho Verde its acidic bite.
The Winery: Quinta da Aveleda
Aveleda is one of Portugal's most decorated wineries and also one of its prettiest. You may have tried Casal Garcia Vinho Verde, which for your money is one of the best easy-sipping, affordable wines around – and thanks to wide Stateside distribution, your local store probably stocks it. But Aveleda has many more complex wines, including celebrated reds and whites. The winery is open daily for visits and tours. A tour ($6) includes glimpses of the family-owned winery's grounds and historic manor house, ending with a wine-and-cheese tasting overlooking the vineyards.
The Town to Visit: Melgaço
Porto is the gateway to the Vinho Verde region, but if you find yourself in the far northwest of the country, Melgaço, right near the Spanish border, is a lovely option for an overnight. The town has an impressive castle at its center whose grounds afford views of the surrounding mountains and countryside; pay a euro ($1.33) to climb to the bell tower for even better vistas. Water from a nearby hot springs is thought to have curative properties; stop by the Termas de Melgaço medical spa for a dip and also to scope out the beautiful 19th century building. For an affordable night's stay there's Casa da Calcada, a 17th century manor home whose rooms start at $107 per night.