Let's play a little wine-related word association. What is the first thing that you think of when I say "Portugal?" Port, you say? Maybe you came up with Douro or even Dao? I bet you didn't think about Lisbon. And you would not be alone. Most wine consumers think of Lisbon as the capital of Portugal, but not necessarily as a wine-producing juggernaut of the country. While the history of wine in Portugal dates back before Roman occupation, all the way back to the Phoenicians, it really took off during the Middle Ages. As wine production increased in both quality and quantity, so did Lisbon's social status. The city became the capital of Portugal in the middle of the 13th century, but it wasn't until the 15th century, when Portuguese explorers established trade routes with Africa and the Far East, that the city became one of the most important cultural cities on the European continent. Spices, gems and textiles flowed into the city as wine flowed back out and around the world. It was only a matter of time before vineyards began to sprout up in and around the capital city. However, it wasn't until 2009 that Lisbon's Wine Board was formed as the regulatory body to govern the appellation surrounding Lisbon and its nine distinct subregions, using the strict policies of the Denominacao de Origem Controlada (DOC, a system created to protect a specific region's superior wines from inferior ones). This large appellation encompasses more than 61,000 acres of vineyard land planted by 200 different wineries. The total production, including both DOC and regional wines, exceeds 1 million liters annually.
The Carcavelos, Colares and Bucelas regions are all located within a 20-mile radius of Lisbon. North of the city, the regions of Alenquer, Arruda, and Torres Vedras are planted on picturesque rolling hills where the vines are planted facing coveted southern exposure. Continuing north is Obidos, known for its distinctive red and white wines. The northernmost region extends from the hills of Serra de Aire to the Atlantic. This vast district is known as the Encostas d'Aire. The newest region, Lourinha, borders the Atlantic Ocean and is known for whites wines.
Today, the wines produced in the Lisbon region are some of the best examples of Portuguese winemaking. Not only are these wines versatile -- they pair beautifully with food or can be enjoyed on their own -- but they also offer exceptional value. Retail prices are approximate.
One of the best values in the "everyday drinking" red wine category is the 2007 Alta Corta from the Lisboa area ($9). Made from a blend of tinta roriz and caladoc, this value-oriented beauty is aged in a variety of oak barrels for three months, then bottled. Flavors of black cherry, dried fig and tart plums are nicely integrated on the medium-balanced frame. The pleasant finish is accented by subtle hints of vanilla from its time in oak.
Another exceptional value hails from the Estremadura region (also known as Lisboa), the 2008 Casa Santos Lima Quinta de Bons-Ventos ($9). Made from a blend of five different varietals, this wine exudes so much charm that it is a steal for the price. Full of ripe black and red fruit on a well-balanced body, the flavors glide through to a pretty finish, featuring pepper and spice notes.
The 2007 Quinta do Carneiro Vinho Tinto ($12) is an easy-drinking, charming dry red wine from the Alenquer region. The front of the palate is full of bright red fruit flavors, including red cherries and ripe plums. The smooth, soft finish has just enough tannins to carry off the hints of fresh blueberry on the very back of the tongue. This is a versatile wine that would pair well with either spicier fare, such as lamb rogan josh, or supple cheeses.
Another incredible red wine value hails from the Obidos appellation, just north of Lisbon. The 2007 Quinta de San Francisco Red ($12) is a blend of castelao (60 percent), aragonez (20 percent) and touriga nacional (20 percent). It is smooth and silky with rich, ripe dark fruit flavors up front and a long, spicy finish. Notes of toasty vanilla are courtesy of the eight months spent aging in small oak barrels. It would be a fine accompaniment to venison or other game.
One of the most popular red wine grape varietals in Portugal is the touriga nacional, often used in port wine production. In the 2007 Grand'Arte Special Selection from Lisboa ($14), this varietal really shows off vibrant flavors of jammy black fruit, cassis and violets on the front of the tongue and hints of clove and black pepper on the long, lush finish. The structure and balance are reminiscent of wines twice the price.