Whether you are a wine connoisseur or just looking to buy a bottle, there are certain things you should be looking for when reading a Portuguese wine label. These things will help you make the right buying decision.
How to Decode the Front Label
Portuguese wine varies greatly in style and packaging. The labels will give you important clues to decode what’s inside the bottle.
Below are six things you can expect to find on the front label of a Portuguese wine bottle.
You can find the name of the producing winery on the top or bottom of the front of the bottle. In addition, the label may include additional terms that refer to the place and size of production:
The expressions Quinta or Herdade are used to refer to a rural estate that produces wine. Quinta is traditionally used in the north and Herdade in the south of Portugal.
On the other hand, Adega appears on the label when the wine is produced by a commercial winery.
Quinta, Herdade and Adega are often included as part of a winery’s name.
Origin (or Origem)
Portugal has 13 wine regions. Each region is governed by a Comissão Vitivinicola Regional (CVR), a vine and wine commission for a specific region. There are 31 DOC and 14 Vinho Regional.
The Appellation of Origin refers to the place where the grapes were grown. Some famous examples of Appellations of Origin are:
Vinho Verde: the main grape varieties used for this appellation are Alvarinho, Loureiro, Trajadura and Pederna for Vinhos Verdes Blancos and Azal, Vinhao and Espadeiro to produce Vinhos Verdes Tintos.
Vinho Historico de Madeira: this appellation has a particularity, and that is that the varieties Malmsey (Malvasia), Azal, Vinhao and Espadeiro can only be used if at least 85% of the grapes used are of that variety.
Vinho Historico de Setabul: in this case, only three varieties are allowed to be included in the DOC, Moscatel de Setubal, Moscatel do Douro and Moscatel Roxo.
Like many other European countries, Portugal has a quality classification system for its wines. The CVR determines the specific rules that a wine has to adhere to in order for wine to be classified as VR or DOC:
Vinho de Mesa or just Vinho: translated as table wine, is the lowest category in the Portuguese classification system. Generally, there are no references to the region or the type of grapes used.
Vinho Regional (VR): the translation is Regional Wine. It is a widely used category because although it indicates better quality than a Vinho de mesa, it has fewer regulations than the higher categories. For example, for Vinho de Lagar Rupestre, a Vinho Regional Trasmontano, the vineyards must be at least 20 years old.
Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC) is the highest classification level for Portuguese wines. Wines must not only be made in a specific region but must also conform to different regulations.
Indicação de Proveniência Regulamentada (IPR)*: The Indication of Regulated Provenance category was more common in the 1990s for regions still waiting to obtain the DOC appellation. It is the designation given to wines that, although enjoying particular characteristics, will have to comply with all the rules established for the production of high-quality wines for a minimum period of five years in order to then be able to move on to DOC status.
Wine is undergoing a renaissance. The proverbial baton is passed from one generation to the next. Many young winemakers are taking over from their parents or entering the wine business with a vision of what they want to make. While tradition is important, they don’t want to be restricted by rules. They sometimes opt to label their wines as just Vinho rather than VR or DOC. This gives them greater creative expression. If in doubt, ask your local purveyor of Portuguese wine to recommend a bottle.
Some of the specific terms included on the label, that denote style, are:
Vinho Branco: White Wine
Vinho Palhete: Claret Wine
Vinho Rosé: Rosé Wine
Vinho Tinto: Red Wine
Vinho Espumante: Sparkling Wine
Vinho Biodinâmico: Biodynamic Wine
Vinho Natural: Natural Wine
Vinho Orgânico: Organic Wine
Vinhoverde: Vinho Verde
Vinho Generoso/Licoroso: Fortified Wine.
Vinho Pico Açores: These are typically fortified wines from the Azores, unless the wine naturally achieves 16% ABV.
Vinho Biscoitos: Fortified wines from one of the Azores islands producing wines under the Denominação de Origem Protegida — Biscoitos.
Vinho Tranquilo:Still/table wine.
Vinho Varietal: Wine made from a single varietal.
Vinho do Porto: Port
Vinho da Madeira: Madeira
Vinho Moscatel: Moscatel
Discover the meaning of the most common wine agriculture terms that appear on the label:
Vinha Velha: Old Vineyard
Vindima: Wine harvest
Casta: Grape Variety
Vintage and Aging
In Portugal, different terms are used to refer to the vintage year. However, these are the most common ones found on labels:
NV or Non-Vintage: the product is a blend of grape juice obtained in different years.
Colheita: refers to the vintage, date of harvest.
Ano de Colheita: refers to the vintage year.
Colheita Tardia: refers to late-harvest wines. It is also an official designation for DOC and Vinho Regional wines.
Idade: refers to the age of the wine.
Vinho Velho: refers to a red wine that has been aged for three years or a white or rosé that has been aged for two years.
Reserva: refers to a vintage wine with at least 0.5% of the legal minimum alcohol content, aged between 12 and 24 months.
Super Reserva: refers to a wine that has been aged between 24 and 36 months prior to release.
Velha/Grande Reserva: refers to a wine aged for more than 36 months.
Garrafeira: refers to wines with very specific aging requirements. In the case of red wines, they must be aged at least two years in a barrel and one year in a bottle. On the other hand, white and rosé wines must be aged at least one year in a barrel and six months in a bottle.
Grape Varieties (Castas in Portuguese)
Portugal is a country rich in indigenous grape varieties. There are more than 250 native grape varieties, plus many of the internationals can be found thriving in the country. Such great diversity enables the production of wines with distinct personalities and unique characters.
The primary white varietals are: Alvarinho, Arinto, Encruzado, Fernão Pires / Maria Gomes, Antão Vaz, Bical, Fonte cal, Gouveio, Loureiro, Malvasia fina, Moscatel de Setúbal, Rabigato, Síria, Trajadura, Verdelho, Viosinho
As per the CVR, if the label specifies a grape varietal, the wine should contain at least 85% of this varietal.
How to Decode the Back Label
Sulphites are commonly used to control fermentation and are an everyday preserver in most food and beverage products. The European regulations, as well as those of many other countries, require that wines containing more than 10 mg of sulphites per litre must have the statement ‘’Contains sulphites’’ on the label.
The residual sugar of wine is generally measured in grams per litre and results from the natural grape sugars remaining in the wine after fermentation. The residual sugar will allow you to estimate the sweetness of the wine: the more residual sugar, the sweeter the wine will be.
Seco (Dry): Wines with less than 4 g/l of residual sugar
Bruto (Brut): In the case of sparkling wines, wines sugar dosage of less than 12g/l.
Meio Seco (Medium Dry): Champagne, sparkling and semi-sparkling wines with a residual sugar content between 33 g/l and 50 g/l
Doce (Sweet): A sweet wine that contains more than 50 g/l of residual sugar.
Now that you know how to read a Portuguese wine label, it’s time to enjoy an intense and sweet Port or a classic fortified Madeira wine. However, remember not to be entirely guided by the quality level: even a Vinho Regional could surprise you.