Many of us have drunk a little bit of Spanish brandy on holiday, but few people know that neighbouring Portugal produces some of Europe’s best brandies.
The Lourinhã region close to Lisbon in central Portugal is one of only three regions in Europe that is a Denomination of Controlled Origin for brandy and therefore subject to an array of complex regulations that keep quality (and prices) high. The other two regions are the much more famous Cognac and Armagnac.
Brandy isn’t really French at all. The word comes from the Old English word ‘brandewine’ which, in turn, comes from the Dutch brandewijn or ‘burnt wine’. Confusingly, the Portuguese use the word aguardente for all sorts of badly made spirits but reserve the term aguardente vínica for what most English-speaking countries called brandy or distilled wine. In the Algarve, you may have come across aguardente de Medronho, which is fun but made from cane sugar and liable to give you an awful hangover.
To make sure you’re getting good brandy, you need to pay close attention to the label. What you are looking for is aguardente vínica which is mostly produced with acidic white wine. After it is distilled, the spirit is then aged in oak casks before it is cut with water to reach the desired alcohol content of 40pc ABV. Ageing must be carried out in oak or chestnut barrels. Climate, terroir and proximity to the sea all contribute to the character of the individual brandies.
The best place to buy aguardente vínica is Portugal where you can find a good array of this local hero, but it can be found here occasionally in some off-licences, although it is not common. The Celtic Whiskey Shop on Dawson Street in Dublin doesn’t stock any Portuguese brandies for example, despite having an absolutely astonishing array of French and Spanish varieties. The same is unfortunately true of Mitchell & Son and many other go-to spirits experts.
Perhaps the price plays a role? Good-quality aguardente vínica is not cheap. The excellent Quinta do Rol XO sells for €81 for a 500ml bottle in Portugal, while decent rivals such as Zacapa XO are even more expensive. There is, in short, nothing cheap about Portuguese brandy but it is a treat that you should not forgo next time you find yourself in that wonderful country and want something stronger than a port.