Ordering Portuguese Wine in a Restaurant

You don’t need to be a Portuguese wine expert to have a great glass. Three rules of thumb on ordering wine in a restaurant in Portugal.

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There are two types of wine drinkers in the United States: tech bros who wax ecstatic about terroir, rare varietals, and this “amazing” boutique vineyard that makes organic sauvignon blanc in South Africa….and everybody else.  For those in the latter group, who may be travelling to Portugal but don’t feel like beefing up on back issues of Wine Spectator, what’s a good but simple way to pick a wine in a Portuguese restaurant? 
On the high end, if you’re in a fine dining establishment, there will be a sommelier and you can just ask for a recommendation, like anywhere else on the planet.  They may also have a prix fixe menu with wine pairings, which solves the problem for you.  But even if you’re in a mid-range restaurant, don’t be afraid to ask your server for a suggestion.  They are usually fairly knowledgeable about the wine offerings, which tend to be less extensive than in more upscale restaurants so it’s easier for them to really know their wine list well. 
On the low end, you can just order by the glass and experiment.  If you tell your server you’d like a glass of Portuguese red wine or white wine, they’ll bring you the house offering, which will always be Portuguese, so you don’t need to specify.  It will also be drinkable, if unremarkable.  (But you’re people watching anyway, right?)  If you feel like tackling the wine list yourself, look for wines that say copo or glass.  Some places will have a separate section of the wine list for wines by the glass, or have a little picture of a glass next to the wine.  Some won’t say anything and just list two prices for the same wine, the higher price being for a bottle.  If there’s only one price and no other information, it’s only available by the bottle.
A different strategy is to be a little more adventurous and make your own selection.  But fear not!  This is easier to get right than you think.  The average Portuguese restaurant won’t have very many international wines – this is usually the province of upscale establishments – and they usually arrange their wine offerings by region.  So, as long as you have a general working knowledge of a couple Portuguese wine regions, and you know your price range, you can make a selection that you will actually like.    
The key is to start off with a small bit of digestible information and build from there.  And so, I present: Ordering Wine in a Portuguese Restaurant: A Cheat Sheet

Rule 1: Know the (Wine) Metric System

Liters, and meters, and kilometers – oh my! In Portugal, you’re in the metric system, baby.
You might already know that a typical bottle of wine anywhere is 750 ml (that’s milliliters; sometimes written as 75 cl, or centiliters).  But some of the more popular, not particularly expensive (though perfectly drinkable) labels will also offer a 375 ml “demi” or half bottle, which you’ll sometimes see on a wine menu, usually only at mid-range restaurants, not fine dining.  That’s about 2.5 glasses of wine, and a good option if you know you’ll probably have a second glass, since you’ll have your own freshly opened bottle and not a glass poured from a bottle that’s been sitting out.
In the other direction, if you see something listed as 1.5 lt (liters) or greater, that is a massive bottle called a magnum, which has 10 servings (or more) instead of the usual 5.  Even if you are fully committed to a night of boozing, these are usually geared toward a large, festive group.  But of course, you do you.
Casual dining restaurants will often serve house wine or basic mixed drinks like sangria by caneca, or pitcher.  A smaller caneca will be around 500 ml (about 3-4 glasses) and a larger one may be 1 lt (about 5-6 glasses). 

Rule 2: Focus on the Largest Portuguese Wine Regions First

There are 31 registered Portuguese wine-growing regions and subregions (i.e., DOCs, denominação de origem controlada or protected designation of origin, basically the wine appellation) and around 300 native grape varieties.  That’s a lot of ground to cover.  Now, there are many online guides that go into exhaustive detail about all these regions and the hundreds of grapes grown there, so if you want to take a deep dive, Wine Folly has a good one.  Plus, every Portugal blogger worth their salt has a generic post listing all the Portuguese wine regions for you.  But so does Wikipedia.
My advice if you’re new to Portuguese wine? Start small and work from a few rules of thumb.
Concentrate on the largest Portuguese wine regions first.  You can easily remember a couple factoids about, say, two or three regions.  Then, pick the region that sounds most appealing to you personally, and select a wine in your price range.  Later, when you are sitting before a 10-page wine menu organized by sub-region at a restaurant your work friend’s sister who went to Lisbon four years ago recommended, you can save yourself a stressful 20 minutes.
Douro
Lisboa (Lisbon)
Vinho Verde
Alentejo
And here are some general rules of thumb to keep in mind when picking wines produced in these regions: 
  • Douro:  Historically, the Douro region mostly grew grapes destined for port and red wine, though starting in the 1980s, producers became more serious about white wines.  Still, after port, the region is probably better known for its red wines.  Douro reds tends to be drier – see my comparison of two Douro reds here – as opposed to fruitier or “sweeter.”  A dry red might pair well with a fattier meat dish to cut through the heaviness.
  • Lisboa: Wines from the Lisbon area vary quite a bit but tend to be lighter owing to their generally lower alcohol content.  Most of the wine produced here is red, and, fun fact, most of it is not DOC, but rather vinho regional (regional wine), which is a slightly less exacting standard that allows producers more flexibility in choosing either native Portuguese varietals or international ones.  For that reason, if you know your pinot noirs and syrahs, you’re more likely to find one from Lisbon.
  • Vinho Verde: Don’t be confused here that vinho verde means “green wine” or even just refers to white wine only, as I discuss in more detail in my comparison of two vinho verde whites here.  Still, the whites are what people typically think of first for this region and they tend to be dry, minerally, and crisp – not “honey” or “oaky” like, say, a chardonnay.  Dry whites are great with seafood and fish (especially grilled sardines, which I love), or as an aperitif.
  • Alentejo: The Alentejo is the hottest and driest of the four regions I’ve been talking about, and these wines tend to be less tannic, higher sugar (and higher alcohol), and more fruit forward than Douro wines. If you’re a fan of California reds, you’ll probably like Alentejo reds. (See my comparison of two Alentejo reds here.) These kinds of wines go well with a cheese course, or a pork dish typical of the region’s cuisine.

Rule 3: Have a Price Reference in Mind

The most important thing to keep in mind here is that the retail price of Portuguese wine is low compared to American standards.  As a consequence, most restaurant markups will inevitably seem pretty reasonable to American visitors.
The markup on the retail price for wine ordered in a Portuguese restaurant depends upon the restaurant, of course, but, generally, if the restaurant caters to tourists (i.e., if there’s an English version of the menu), or if it’s more upscale, the wine markup will be higher than if it’s a traditional restaurant with mostly Portuguese diners.  In the average restaurant, you will find plenty of bottles of Portuguese wine in the 30 to 40-euro range, and often in fine dining, too.  Lest you think this must be total rotgut – especially if you’ve ever ordered a 25-dollar glass of wine at JFK because it was the least offensive option – don’t be dismayed.  This is already rather pricey here. 
You’ve probably heard the one about how restaurants will mark up the second cheapest bottle of wine more than the cheapest because more people will order the second-cheapest than the cheapest so they don’t look…cheap.  Well, neither the cheapest nor the most expensive wines on a wine list have the greatest markups; it’s the mid-range wines that do.  At least, that’s true for London restaurants, but I’m guessing it’s likely to be true in Portugal, too, because it makes economic sense.  The least expensive wines are selected by price-sensitive buyers, while the most expensive wines are only chosen by connoisseurs who, in principle, know what they’re doing — or can afford not to.  
So, if you’ve got deep pockets, and especially if you’re not dining under the light of the Michelin stars, a high-priced wine on the wine list is probably going to be a pretty good value.  On the other hand, don’t be afraid to order the second-cheapest bottle. 
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