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updated: 6/1/2011 5:59 AM

Portugal's wines worth knowing

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When my esteemed editor forwarded information, (courtesy of the U.S. Commerce Department) that Portugal is now our country's ninth top importer of wine, I was confused.

Ninth is a long way from leaders France, Italy and Australia, but that's a lot of wine for a country the size of Indiana.

I have reams of information on Port, Portugal's fortified wine, ranging from easy-drinking Ruby Port, to statuesque vintages capable of exquisite complexity from harvests dating into the past century and the one before that, to be served with the pomp and circumstance appropriate to liquid often valued at $20 per ounce and up.

I remember when pink, bubbly Mateus and Lancer's where favorite poolside refreshers and international success stories decades before Pinot Grigio or White Zin.

I know that Vinho Verde is Portugal's largest defined region, producing refreshing "adult lemonade"-type quaffs.

But my familiarity of Portuguese wine in general? Not much.

To correct this lack of knowledge, the first thing I did was learn how to spell Portuguese.

Next, I turned to my favorite wine retailer and the reason for my lack of familiarity became clear. Portugal lacks a culinary movement (like the one that solidified Italian wine in the U.S.); it lacks a spokesman (like Napa's Robert Mondavi); it lacks super-star grapes, gimmicky labels and ad campaigns. But Portugal owns the one word that matters in modern marketing: value.

Later we'll focus on the traditional and modernized red wines of the Douro and Dao regions, but for today I look at the polar opposites of Portuguese wine: Vinho Verde and Madeira.

Vinho Verde (VEE-no VAIR-Dee) lies in Portugal's verdant northwest, north of Oporto. Traditional Vinho Verde is a juicy refresher, with fresh cut apple and citrus flavors. The blend of grapes and vintages is bottled with a hint of carbon dioxide for delicate sparkle. Serve as a Pinot Grigio alternative. Less typical but highly respected are wines featuring the Alvarinho grape (identical to Spain's Albarino), with richer flavors of yellow apple, vanilla bean and brown spice; a nice, light alternative to U.S. Chardonnay. Look for producers Aveleda and Casa de Vila (see Ross' Choice), from $7 to $12.

Madeira (mad-DEAR-ah) is Portugal's other great fortified wine, named for its island-region that bobs in the Atlantic between Portugal and North Africa.

In other wines, "maderization" is a fault; in Madeira, the combination of high acidity, burned sugar and smoke makes for a luscious after dinner drink, complement to cheese and classic seasoning to slow-cooked meals. Open bottles last indefinitely, so avoid "cooking Madeira" and opt for a "Sercial" or "Rainwater" style from producers Blandy's, Cossart Gordon or Broadbent (less than $20).

• Write to Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at food@dailyherald.com.

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