Got your eye on the wine shelf, but not sure what to grab? This guide will teach you how to read a Portuguese wine label so you can get home faster and pour yourself a glass.
For some people, Portuguese wine is still unknown territory. There are around 14 wine regions in Portugal and more than 200 native grape varieties, not to mention unique fortified drinks like Port and moscatel. With all this choice, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed when you jump into a local wine shop or the duty-free on your way home.
If you’re considering buying a bottle of Portuguese wine or want to decipher the one you just ordered at a restaurant, this guide will help make things easier. We’ll tell you all about our quality standards and the best wine regions, and we also threw in some useful wine vocabulary in between. You can thank us later with a glass of wine (we’re not picky).
Deciphering the Front Label
Portuguese wine bottles may vary in design, shape and size, but the label is always the most important clue to deciphering what’s inside. Below are six things you can expect to find on the front label of a Portuguese wine bottle.
1. Name of the Winery (Adega/Herdade/Quinta)
This is the name of the wine estate or company that produced the wine. It’s usually at the top or bottom of the label and is sometimes followed by their address.
In Portuguese, there are several words for describing a winery. Quinta or Herdade is a common name for a rural estate that makes wine. We also use the word adega for both winery and cellar.
2. Region of Origin (Origem)
This shows the region where the grapes came from. It can mention a demarcated wine region such as Alentejo, or a town inside it like Évora. It’s one of the most important things to look for in a bottle, as different regions use different grapes.
Every region has a Comissão Vitivinicola Regional (C.V.R.), an organization that’s in charge of controlling the wine quality. In a shop, wine bottles are often organized by region. We already gave you an overview of the wine regions in Portugal, but here’s a list of the best ones:
- Vinho Verde – Vinho Verde is both a wine region and a type of wine. It translates as “green wine,” but it refers to a young wine. The bottles are released 3–6 months after the harvest season and drunk straight after.
- Douro – Douro is one of the oldest wine regions in the world. You might know it as the birthplace of Port wine, but it also produces great table wines, as well as moscatel.
- Madeira – Madeira Island is mostly famous for its fortified wine, known as Vinho da Madeira. It’s similar to Port wine, but the aging process is different, with barrels exposed to high heat, which gives it a smoked nutty aroma. Both wines can be drunk as an aperitif or with dessert.
- Alentejo – Alentejo is one of the largest regions in Portugal, and its wines are among the best you’ll taste. Within it, there are eight subregions: Évora, Reguengos, Borba, Portalegre, Redondo, Granja-Amareleja, Vidigueira, and Moura. A bottle of wine from here will either say the name of one of these subregions, or simply Alentejo.
- Dão – This mountainous region produces some of the best red wines in Portugal. You can learn more about it at the Solar do Vinho do Dão in Viseu.
- Setúbal – Just a few miles south from Lisbon is Setúbal, a region known for its fresh fish and delicious moscatel.
3. Wine Type
Once you choose a region, you’ll need to decide what type of wine (vinho) you’re getting. Below is a list of useful terms to help you make sense of what’s in the bottle:
- Vinho Branco – White wine
- Vinho Tinto – Red wine
- Vinho Rosé – Rosé wine
- Vinho Espumante – Sparkling wine
- Vinho Natural – Natural wine
- Vinho Orgânico – Organic wine
- Vinho Biodinâmico – Biodynamic wine
- Bruto – Dry sparkling wine
- Doce – Sweet
- Meio-Seco – Semi-dry or off dry
- Seco – Dry
If you’re getting a bottle of Port wine, you’ll probably find these words as well:
- Cave – wine cellar for aging wines like Port.
- Branco/White – Port wine made with white grapes. This wine has a citrus flavor and is often less sweet than the average Port wine.
- Rosé – Usually tastes of berries like strawberry or raspberry with a hint of caramel.
- Tawny – Aged for at least two years and has a slightly nutty flavor. The age on the label can range from 10–40 years and usually refers to the number of years it’s been in a barrel.
- Ruby – Named after its ruby color, it’s usually the most affordable option on the market and meant to be drunk young.
- Vintage – Port wine aged for 2–3 years in a barrel and then bottled for a few more years. The best ones have between 20–40 years of age.
- LVB (Late Vintage Bottle) – Port wine aged for around 4–6 years in a barrel and then transferred to a bottle.
4. Vintage (Ano)
The year you see on the bottle refers to the year of the grape harvest, also known as vintage. If a label says “NV” or “nonvintage”, it means that the wine is a mix of juice collected from different years. Here are a few useful Portuguese words related to the age of wine:
- Ano de Colheita – Year of Harvest
- Idade – Age
- Vinho Velho – Red wine aged for at least three years or two years for white and rosé.
- Colheita – Wines made with grapes harvested in the same year, bottled at least seven years after the date of harvest. You can also find Colheita tardia (late harvest); this is a wine made from grapes that were harvested later than usual.
- Reserva – A vintage wine, usually of higher quality that must be at least 0.5 percent higher in alcohol than the legal minimum set. This label is also used in terms of aging with the following meanings: Reserva (aged for at least 12–24 months), Super Reserva (aged for at least 24–36 months), Velha Reserva/Grande Reserva (aged for more than 36 months).
- Garrafeira – A wine from a single harvest that follows specific rules, usually the best wine from a given winery. Red wine must be aged for at least two years in a barrel and one year in a bottle. White or rosé wine must be aged for at least one year in a barrel and six months in a bottle. The word garrafeira also means “wine cellar” in Portuguese.
5. Quality Classification
Like many other countries, Portugal has come up with a system to measure the quality of its wine. These are the main categories:
- Vinho de Mesa – Basic table wine, the bottle label often doesn’t refer to the region or the grapes used.
- VR (Vinho Regional) – This translates as “regional wine.” It’s slightly better than vinho de mesa but doesn’t follow the same strict rules as an IPR or DOC. It allows winemakers to be a bit more flexible with their process and use international grape varieties if they want to.
- IPR (Indicação de Proveniência Regulamentada) – Wines made in newer regions waiting to get DOC status. This designation appeared in the 90s as an intermediate quality level, but it’s not that common anymore as most wines fall into one of the other categories.
- DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada) – This is the highest rank for Portuguese wines, equivalent to the AOC in France or DOC in Spain. These wines are produced in a specific demarcated region and are subject to strict regulations defined by their local wine commission.
- CVR – Wines produced in a specific region using at least 85 percent of locally grown grapes.
Note: If you don’t see the classification on the front label, it might be on the back.
6. Grape Varieties (Castas)
This refers to the kind of grape or grapes used to make a specific wine. In Portuguese, grape varieties are known as castas. If a bottle mentions a grape variety on the front label, it’s because the wine used 85 percent of that specific grape. If it doesn’t mention it, it’s probably a blend of different grapes. Below is a list of some of the most common grape varieties in Portugal.
White grapes: Alvarinho, Antão Vaz, Arinto, Fernão Pires, Encruzado, Loureiro
Red grapes: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinto Cão, Aragonês, Baga, Syrah (non-native, but very common)
What’s on the Back Label
While the front label gives you a hint of what’s inside the bottle, the back label tells you the story behind the wine. Sometimes this section is only in Portuguese, but newer bottles include an English translation too. Every label is different, but here are some of the things you might find:
- A brief history of the winery
- Explanation of the winemaking process, including what grapes were used, how the wine was stored and for how long
- What the wine tastes like: berries, citrusy, caramel, etc.
- Ideal serving temperature
- What kind of food goes with the wine: cheese, seafood, meat, etc.
- How strong is it (most Portuguese wines have around 13 percent ABV).