Editor’s Note: During our month long dedication to Cava wine, we’ve made a little detour to the west, bringing you a unique style of sparkling wine elaborated in the heart of Portugal. However, when starting this article, I quickly realized that I dove into a subject that few have tackled. What is listed in wine encyclopedias, wine journals, websites and Portuguese books barely skim topic as to what defines a Portuguese sparkling wine. Try looking for information on exports, pricing or major producers, and you might as well throw in the towel. Hence, what I’ve compiled below is my best effort at trying to understand this topic with the help of from Viniportugal (Thank you Maria Joao!). I will be adding more details to this article, or posting additional articles, on the topic. In the meantime, if anyone can offer information, please don’t hesitate to chime in! I would love for us to put together something more comprehensive, and dare is say, accurate.
For those of you who can time travel back to August, when we attended a mask exhibit and wine tasting in Lisbon, you may remember an article where we essentially gushed adoringly over sparkling wines made by Murganheira, a Portuguese wine producer based in the Tras-o-Montes region. Today, with a bottle of Quinta da Lixa Espumante Bruto from DOC Vinho Verde, sitting in front of me, we thought it would prudent for us to give you a more expansive understanding of what it means to produce sparkling wine in Portugal.
Espumante, pronounced esh-pu-man-te, is the Portuguese version of a sparkling wine. And unlike Cava, produced solely in northern climates, Espumante is not only produced in the northern wet region of Vinho Verde, but also throughout Portugal all the way to the southern region of the Alentejo, known for its extreme temperatures and arid climate.
Now, this is where things get tricky. While Spain has one regulating body, DOC Cava, spread across several different political regions, quality Espumante is produced solely in DOC Bairrada, located just south of Vinho Verde. In order for a wine to be certified as a quality Espumante from DOC Bairrada, it must be made in the traditional Champagne (indicating the year of harvest) and stamped with the VEQPRD (Vinho Espumante de Qualidade Produzido em Regiao Determinada) certification.
The remainder of the Portuguese sparkling wines may either fall into one of three categories, sparkling wines from a specified set of regions called, VFQPRD (Vinho Frisante de Qualidade Produzido em Regiao Determinada), wine produced under the DOC or IPR classification, called VQPRD (Vinho Frisante de Qualidade Produzido em Regiao Determinada), or your run of the mill table wine called Espumoso.
VFQPRD: is a regional sparkling wine made in the traditional champagne, charmat or transfer method in one of the following determined regions: Douro, Ribatejo, Minho, Alentejo or Estremadura.
VQPRD: is a sparkling wine that can made by injecting the wine with gas in the traditional champagne, charmat, transfer method anywhere in Portugal.
Espumosos: the cheapest and lowest level of sparkling wine, made by injecting the wine with CO2. .
To clarify, when we make sparkling wine, regardless of the method of winemaking, we always must start with a still wine, a wine that has completed its first fermentation. From this point forwards, there are three different ways a wine can become a sparkling wine based on the winemaking method chosen by the producer: traditional champagne, charmat or transfer method. In all of these methods, there is a second fermentation which is preceded by the addition of a still wine, containing both must and sugar. In past articles, we’ve given you a general understanding as to what defines the traditional champagne method when producing a sparkling wine, but we haven’t described either the charmat or the transfer method. The charmat method allows the secondary fermentation to occur in a specially designed pressure tank. Whereas, like the champagne method, the transfer method completes the secondary fermentation in bottle, but once finished, the bottles are opened under pressure and emptied into a tank, allowing the wine to be fined and filtered in mass and then re-bottled ready for shipping.
Should you really care about all this? Yeah, you should, because both place and method of winemaking help you know what kind of wine you’re about to experience. While bouncing around your wine store, gitty with excitement as to which Espumante you’d like to bring home to the family this holiday season (assuming that you’ve stuck gold and can find one), you’ll at least be informed when Aunt Gertrude asks you what in the Lord’s name that acronym means. Granted, she may not care about your answer, but at least you’ll appreciate the difference between a DOC, Regional or Table Espumante.
As for varietals you’ll most often encounter in a Portuguese Espumante, Arinto is most predominate, renowned for elaborating wines with ridiculously high acidity. Other commonly used white varietals include Avesso, Bical, Malvasia, Chardonnay and Fernao Pires, alongside their red counterpart Baga.
So what can we tell you about the quality of Portuguese sparkling wines, absolutely incredible. From our experience tasting Espumantes both in Portugal and here in Spain, they are expressive, fragrant wines with great acidity and rich, earthy fruit flavors. Beyond that, like the majority of Portuguese wines, you can find incredible quality at a very low price. And although I’ve had difficulty hunting down comprehensive information on producers, I can tell you that Murganheira, Tapada do Chaves, Raposeira, Heredade Esporao and Casa de Saima are just a handful of quality producers you might consider seeking out. Additionally, in the Bairrada region, check out these recommended producers: Caves Alianca, Caves Messias, Caves S.Domingos, Caves Primavera, Caves S. Joao, Adega Coop. Cantanhede, Adega Coop. Mealhada.
Lastly, what should you pair with your delicious Espumante? The most famous dish commonly paired with Portuguese sparkling wine is “Leitao da Bairrada”, roasted suckling pig, but like cava, espumante can be paired with a variety of dishes, ranging from light white fish to rich, greasy roasts and from a simple aperitif to a dessert wine.
What is your favorite food to pair with sparkling wine?