The Best New Wines from Portugal

While a growing number of Portuguese table wines have passed the $20 barrier, most can still be found for less than $12-many in the single digits. Don't laugh. The best of these food-friendly wines are more distinctive and more concentrated than interchangeable, and often much pricier, bottlings from familiar standbys like Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot.

Finding some of the best wines noted below, unfortunately, may require some effort. In general, only the wines made by larger, export-minded firms like J. P. Vinhos and Jose Maria da Fonseca are available at a national level, while older-styled wines are largely relegated to markets with sizable populations of Portuguese immigrants (such as San Francisco, Rhode Island, coastal Massachusetts and Newark, NJ).

My report on the following pages also includes the best ports I've sampled in recent months (with the exception of 1994 vintage ports, which were covered in Issue 71). The better Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV) ports from the early '90s generally offer terrific value for the price, but single-quinta releases, especially those from the very good but not widely declared '95 vintage, are not the bargains they were just a few years ago.

Wood Port vs. Bottle Port. The two basic types of port are defined by the medium in which the wines reach maturity. Wood ports are, in theory at least, aged in wooden casks, but in fact are frequently aged in cement tanks. They are decanted off their sediment at the time of bottling, and are considered ready to drink upon their release. The two most common types of wood port are rubies and tawnies. Rubies are bottled young, after just two or three years in wood; they are very dark in color, and usually quite sweet, with an aggressive, almost peppery fruitiness. Tawnies, many of which have generally spent much longer in wood (20- and 30-year-old tawnies are widely available in the retail market), are less relentlessly fruity and considerably mellower, offering notes of nuts, dried fruits and vanilla, and silkier textures.

Bottle ports, in contrast, spend a relatively short time in barrel prior to bottling, and can require many years of bottle aging to harmonize, soften and express themselves fully. "Classic" vintage port is the apotheosis of bottle port. These are wines from a single vintage, usually made from superior grapes grown in the finest vineyards owned by the producer. They are made in years whose raw materials have the depth and structure to benefit from early bottling and o reward aging in bottle rather than cask. As these wines are generally bottled without filtration, opening a maturing port many years later will require careful decanting of its heavy sediment, or crust.

Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV) ports, which share some characteristics of both bottle and wood ports, are relatively affordable wines from a single vintageusually a good but unexceptional onebottled four to six years after the harvest. The best traditional LBVs are bottled without filtration and show some of the fruit concentration and backbone of true vintage port. While these LBVs also call for decanting, they generally require considerably less time to reach full maturity. With prices for the '94 vintage ports now extremely high, LBVs offer the twin advantages of earlier drinkability and far lower prices.