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For a twist, this year try a wine or two from Spain and Portugal.

photo: Renee Sprink Photography

Vino or vinho?

Wines from Spain and Portugal are worth checking out

by Craig Heffley and Mic Finger


Heavy, rustic red wine, or spicy, mature red wine. If you’ve experienced anything about the wines of Portugal and Spain, then these tend to be your introductions. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find a wealth of variety in the Iberian Peninsula, including some of the most exciting white wines in the world.


Spain generally is broken into six primary wine communities: Andalucia, Basque, Castilla, Catalonia, Galicia and Valencia-Murcia. Each region has distinct specialities influenced by historic kingdoms, climate and terroir.


Portugal, meanwhile, can be split into two general regions: the north includes the core regions of Bairrada, Dão, Douro and Vinho Verde, while the south includes Alentejo, Algarve, and Tejo.


No matter which variety you go with here, these tasty European treats are sure to inspire.



In Spain, Andalucia primarily serves as the land of Sherry and the wonderful dessert wines of Montilla and Malaga, where the sun bakes the grapes to raisiny goodness.


The Basque region, located near France’s border, lies on the Atlantic Coast. Here, the speciality is Txakoli (Chak-uh-lee), a tart, spritzy white wine that’s perfect for quaffing with seafood and spicy Basque cuisine.


Castilla is known as the land of  wineTempranillo, the base wine of Rioja and Ribera del Duero and Spain’s signature grape. The most exciting white here is Verdejo from Rueda, which has Sauvignon Blanc-like citrus flavors.


In the wine world, Catalonia often is considered an extension of France’s Rhone Valley and Languedoc-Roussillon, with red wines based heavily on Grenache and Carignan grapes. Bold, berry and thyme-scented, they’re generally rich and higher in alcohol. The best-known white here is Cava, a sparkling wine that’s Spain’s answer to Champagne.


Galicia is considered the green Spain of the northwest because it’s influenced by the Atlantic’s weather patterns. It’s best known for the juicy, mouthwatering whites from the Albariño grape along its coast. Slightly inland, the most exciting grapes are the white Godello and red Mencia. While Albariño is highly aromatic with citrus and floral aromas, Godello is more subtle, powerful, and lush, with complex mineral flavors, and the exotic Mencia grape’s flavors are peppery and supple, with tastes of cranberry and pomegranate.


Valencia-Murcia is home to the hearty Monastrell and Bobal grapes, the darkest, heaviest red wines of Spain. Muscat is the white grape that mimics the region’s famous orange orchards in dry or sweet wines.



Portugal is a small yet diverse world in itself, with numerous enchanting grape varietals found exclusively within its borders.


Dão and Douro, perhaps the most famous regions, are home to some of the world’s greatest — albeit well-hidden — red wines. The star here, the Touriga Nacional grape, is conducive to dark wines that exude both power and finesse.


Minho is virtually synonymous with one of the most refreshing white wines of all time, Vinho Verde. These crisp, often effervescent wines often are blends of up to six bewitching white varietals, one of which is Alvarinho, from northwestern Spain’s famous Albariño grape.


The Bairrada region is a relative newcomer to the international scene. Its Baga grape is capable of serious and age-worthy wines.


The south is led by Alentejo, where one of Spain’s most cherished grapes, Tempranillo, plays an important role under its Portuguese name, Aragones. It dominates many of the wines here and often is blended with Castelao and Trincadeira — and sometimes even Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Setubal is best known best for its intensely aromatic, fortified wines made from Muscat (known here as Moscatel), while Ribatejo is home to an extensive army of grapes — both Portuguese natives and trendy French newcomers.


Contrary to Portugal’s propensity toward tradition and its arsenal of exclusive grapes is a dynamic climate of quality improvement and an intensifying philosophy of family-owned estate production, shadowing Spain’s similar transition a decade ago. 


Craig Heffley, Grand Poobah Wine Swami, is owner of Wine Authorities in Durham; Mic Finger is the shop’s Vinodrome. To learn more, call (919) 489-2844 or visit


Iberian wines to savor

Here are some good wines to try from Spain and Portugal:


  • Mas Codina – Brut Cava, $12
  • Los Frailes – Monastrell, $9
  • Vinae Mureri – “Xiloca” Garnacha, $13
  • Vina Aliaga – Tempranillo, $10
  • Touquinheiras – “Clemen” Vinho Verde, $11
  • Lezirias – “Samora” Red, $8
  • Fracastel – “Lua Nova” Douro Red, $12