Wines of Portugal Challenge 2018

Douro, Dão, Vinho Verde and Alentejo lead the Medal Count

By John Szabo, MS

The 2018 edition of the Wines of Portugal Challenge took place in Santarém and Lisbon during the week of May 14th. The annual national wine competition engaged over 160 national and international judges (including several Canadians) to evaluate a total of 1307 wines this year from across Portugal.

That’s a relatively small number of entries, considering that Portugal has some 5000 wine producers farming nearly 240,000 hectares (the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada will see over 1700 entries this month, in a country with just 700 producers and some 12,000 hectares under vine), so certainly not an exhaustive representation of the state of the Portuguese wine industry, but every corner of the country was nonetheless accounted for, and opportunity was provided for some new names to rise to the top.

The heavy lifting was done over the first three days of preliminary rounds when judges whittled down the entries to 130 or so wines with scores high enough to earn gold medals. It then fell to the Grand Jury, composed of six judges – San Francisco-based Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein, London-based consultant and Master of Wine Dirceu Vianna, Buenos Aires-based ASI President Andrés Rosberg, Portuguese journalist and competition president Luis Lopes, Director of Technical Services & Certification for the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto (IVDP) Bento Amaral, and this writer – to sort out the very best from the 130 best and award the Grand Gold medals (and knock a few wines that somehow snuck through down to silver) as well as the best in class awards.

Wines of Portugal Challenge

Evan Goldstein, MS (L) and ASI President Andrés Rosberg in the final round of Grand Jury judging.

Overall, quality was very good to excellent, with only a couple of seductively sugary-woody wines making it through to the final round (and then eliminated). What struck me most was the high performance of single-variety wines in a country best known for its blends. Indeed, the “Best of the Year” award went to a pure touriga nacional from the Douro, the outstanding 2015 from Quinta do Crasto. Other single-variety standouts included a pair of alvarinhos from Vinho Verde, several encruzados from the Dão, which is for my money one of Portugal’s finest white grapes, and red Baga from the little-known Beira Atlântico DOP and better-known Bairrada.

And beyond these relatively well-known varieties, Portugal remains fertile hunting ground for utterly unique grapes like whites arinto and vital and reds rufete and sousão, all of which earned grand golds, and which prove that, in the right hands and vineyards, they are capable of excellence on their own.

But there is a reason why Portugal is best known for its blends. Historically these were often, and still are in some cases today, field blends of up to 40-50 varieties planted, grown and harvested together. Many of the countries 250-odd identified grape varieties make better blending components than stand-alone varieties. (To understand why Portugal has such a wealth of indigenous grapes, see my article on Portugal the Refuge.) The synergistic effect of multiple varieties makes the whole greater than the parts, and puts much more emphasis on regional, rather than varietal character. I know, I know, that’s a harder road to haul for the marketing department, but that’s where the world seems to be headed anyway.

Thus there were many impressive blends, red and white. And the regions which, unsurprisingly, stood out for both general quality and number of grand golds, were the Douro Valley, Dão and the Alentejo. And although some of Portuguese winemaking’s most luminous names were absent from the list of award winners (because they didn’t enter?), there are evidently dozens of others deserving of a moment in the spotlight. It’s a testament to the depth of the Portuguese wine industry. I also might add that a good number of the winning wines are genuinely inexpensive, re-emphasizing the fact that Portugal is a hotbed of not only diversity but also of value.

The winning wines, where available, will be used to promote Portuguese wines around the world in Vini Portugal educational initiatives. See the full list of gold medal-winning wines, or skip straight to the Best in Class.

Below are my personal favourites from the Table Wine category (fortified wines were tasted separately), with brief (unedited) notes. All wines were tasted blind.

White Wines

2015 Quinta de Porrais Reserva “DOP” Douro

A more serious wood-aged version. Cool white fruit, pear, white grapefruit, very gentle wood. This has some serious density and weight on the palate, classy, elegant, great length. Outstanding stuff. Tasted May 2018.

2015 Alvarinho Deu La Deu Premium “DOP” Vinho Verde (Alvarinho)

Evolving beautifully, though some oxidation is noted on the palate. Mostly apple fruit. Very riesling/grüner-like. Long finish. Also very good indeed. Drinking perfectly. Sapid. Tasted May 2018.

2011 Castelo de Azurara – Encruzado “DOP” Dão

Mature, golden colour. Polished by time. No wood, gentle oxidative character, well integrated. Great range of creamy flavours, fine penetration/length. Superb.  Tasted May 2018.

2016 Esporão Private Selection “IGP” Alentejano (Semillon)

Ripe citrus, tangerine-orange peel and juice – aromatic. The palate is lightly tannic-grippy, with fine floral component and lengthy finish. Some oak is evident but not obtrusive. Give a little more time. Quality. Ambitious, concentrated. Almost late harvest style. Tasted May 2018.

2016 Aveleda Reserva da Família Alvarinho “IGP” Minho

Showing beautifully at the moment, opening up into the floral spectrum of the variety, Ripe lemon, some custard creeping in, but not oxidative. Full, dense, structured, lots of mineral. Long, long finish. Sauvignon blanc character is enhanced. Top notch, complex. Tasted May 2018.

2016 Empatia Vinho de Casta e ou Ano (Vital)

Attractive, fresh-creamy nose, with no detectable oak (perhaps old) with a definite mineral streak. The palate is equally impressive, creamy-rich but also very fresh with high acids and lots of citrus/stone fruit flavour, some pineapple on the finish. High intensity and length. Great stuff. Tasted May 2018.


Properly terpenic-aromatic, very floral, malagouzia-like on the nose, slightly tropical, pineapple-melon more than floral. The palate is just off-dry but full and concentrated, with sharp acids propping up the ensemble. Very good length. Impressive. Tasted May 2018.

2016 Casa da Passarella O Oenólogo Encruzado “DOP” Dão

Open, fragrant, very pretty, spanning green apple and citrus, no obvious wood. The palate is opulent, framed by tight acids. I like the mineral streak here, the excellent use of (old) wood,  and the flavour range, including some vegetable character, especially tea leaf.  Nicely balanced, great length. Tasted May 2018.

2017 Malo white “IGP” Península de Setúbal (Arinto, Verdelho and Moscatel graúdo)

Floral, aromatic white blend, apple blossom, tree fruit, pear, bright and with no detectable oak. Balanced, fresh, with long finish. This is pretty wine, stylish, of the times. Tasted May 2018.


Classy nose here with elegant, high quality wood. Slightly excessive but within bounds. The palate holds it together nicely. Quite classy, balanced and firm, mid weight. Wood is/will integrate. Tasted May 2018.

2015 Flutt “IGP” Beira Atlântico (Maria Gomes – Bical)

A more toasty, oxidative style, mostly autolytic with less fruit. The palate is creamy-round, with caramel/yeasty/toasty flavours leading. Very good length. Nicely done, complete. Tasted May 2018.

2017 Vinha da Valentina Branco Premium “IGP” Península de Setúbal (Verdelho, Arinto and Fernão Pires)

Open, inviting, fresh pear-scented white blend, also Asian pear, lightly creamy, very delicate wood influence. The palate is fleshy and balanced, with good presence and depth, not to mention length. Complete, complex. Nice. Tasted May 2018.

2017 Adega Vila Real Reserva Branco “DOP” Douro

A very flinty-reductive style, with evident sulphides – this looks a bit like chardonnay; the palate is firm, gently caramel, with very good length. I like this, but will be controversial. Should age very well. Tasted May 2018.

2015 Lua Cheia em Vinhas Velhas Reserva “DOP” Douro

Ahh, the open, pleasing, highly aromatic style, lots of creamy fruit and yoghurt, fleshy, fullish, round and satisfying palate. Very good length. Powdered orange finish. Nice, but not category top. Tasted May 2018.

Red Wines

2000 Quinta do Moinho “IGP” Beira Atlântico (Baga)

Marvelous old wine smell. Old school. Earthy, mushroom. Like old Chianti, or more old school Barolo. I love this stuff. Balanced, evolved, depth, complexity. What more can one want? Tasted May 2018.

2015 Adega de Penalva – Tinta Pinheira “DOP” Dão (Rufete)

Pretty wine; wood noted, light coconut, but it seems to integrate well here. Smells very Spanish. Delicate, balanced texture, light, dusty tannins, succulent sappy acids. A real wine of the times. Great sapidity. Great length. Fruit is all fresh, red and black. Really like this – reminds me of fine mencía. Tasted May 2018.

2015 Crasto Touriga Nacional “DOP” Douro

A ripe and fruit forward style, modern and very appealing, with limited wood. The violet character shows through nicely, plus a little wet rock. The palate is balanced-fresh, firm, stylish, nicely composed. I would easily drink this, slightly chilled as some heat emerges on the back end. Textbook. Tasted May 2018.


Impenetrable colour. Funky, vegetal, earthy, rotting vegetal matter, but all the more interesting for it. Fresh open fruit. Really modern style aromatics for the funky wine bars. The palate has a couple of grams of sugar, but balanced by the phenolic load. Acids are also high. A full-on palate assault. How will this age? Intriguing in any case. Crunchy, honest fruit, ambitious.  Tasted May 2018.

2016 Herdade da Calada Touriga Franca “IGP” Alentejano (Touriga Franca)

Lifted, elegant nose, dried strawberry, and cherry, sappy, fullish, very ripe fruit impression. Boozy, hot finish. Very close to greatness, but not quite there. Tasted May 2018.

2011 Aliança Baga Clássico By Quinta da Dôna “DOP” Bairrada (Baga)

Evolving nicely now, but not fully there. Solid, savoury notes, but ultimately not a wine of great complexity or depth. Tasted May 2018.

Late Harvest

2014 Falcoaria Late Harvest “DOP” do Tejo (Fernão Pires and Viognier)

Late harvest, botrytis-heavy. Clean and really well balanced, volatility is low. Full-bodied. Excellent wine. Excellent  length/wine. Tasted May 2018.


That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS