For many of us, Portuguese wines are a return to our roots, even if we are loath to admit it. Millions of boomers had their first "serious" wine experiences with a bottle of Mateus or Lancers, later to be crowned with a candle.
Today's wines from Portugal are a far cry from those fizzy, treacly pink bombs, although the most popular whites -- vinho verdes -- often have a dash of effervescence. The generally rustic reds tend to have a great combination of earth and fruit, with lean but smooth texture. In short, some serious, and seriously tasty, table wines are emanating from the steep hillsides of the western edge of Iberia.
And while its only adjacent nation has stayed well ahead of Portugal in producing and exporting great juice, Spain's success has been both a prod and portal for its neighbor.
"Portugal is more viable than it was five years ago because it has ridden in on Spain's coattails," said Brian Mallie, manager of Kowalski's wine store in Eagan. "You do find folks saying 'Well, I like Spanish wines, what else do you have like that?' "
The connection goes further, as Portugal's foremost red-wine region, Douro, is named after a river that flows through one of Spain's top wine areas (with a slightly different spelling), Ribero del Duero.
The Spaniards also brought their favorite red grape, tempranillo, to Portugal, where it is known as Tinto Roriz. But most of Portugal's red grapes -- aside from a bit of recently arrived syrah and cab -- are indigenous and bear names such as Touriga Nacional and Tinta Amarela (also known as Trincadeira Preta).
That can be a problem for U.S. retailers, especially because most Portuguese reds are blends rather than varietals. "It's hard enough to get California cab drinkers to bite on even better-known grapes like grenache," said Mallie, "let alone try to take that one step further with these unfamiliar grapes, all of which have 10 syllables."
Mallie calls that "a hurdle rather than a barrier," and it probably helps that many of these grapes also are used to make Port, the dessert wine that Americans have enjoyed for years.
"Don't be afraid of these grapes because you've never heard of them," said Chuck Kanski, whose Solo Vino store in St. Paul is more than a little Iberia-centric. "You're not going to get a great chardonnay or cabernet from Portugal, but you are going to get a damn good arinto or an amazing Touriga Nacional.
"The Portuguese are very proud of their indigenous grapes, and they're not crafting wines for a specific palate. They're proud of their history and protective of their culture.
"I think that of all the wine-producing countries in Europe, the wines of Portugal reflect the people the most."