PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am

Mention the words 'wine' and 'Portugal' and most people will go into raptures about port, arguably the world's finest fortified, sweet red wine, before shuddering over the country's dry wines - usually associated with hangovers of the gargantuan variety.

Last week, 30 Portuguese wine producers were in town to set the record straight. With entry into the European Union, advances in global winemaking technology and a break-up of the co-op stranglehold on wine production, Portugal has begun to write a success story.

Portugal labels its wines by the region rather than grape variety, which is just as well as it produces wines from some 230 varieties. There are 55 Portuguese wine regions, but the four most important red-wine ones are Alentejo, Bairrada, Dao and Douro.

Comprising most of the southeast, Alentejo is the largest of Portugal's wine regions (one-third of the country), with its premium wines derived from the small towns along the Spanish border. Alentejo also produces more than half the world's supply of cork. The region's finest wines are red and derived from dozens of varieties, but the best are periquita (little parakeet), aragones (known as tempranillo in Spain) and trincadeira preta.

That Dao is another of Portugal's most promising wine regions is no surprise as it lies a mere 48km south of the Douro River, home of the famed port wine houses.

Dao is encircled by mountains that protect it from the cool, moist Atlantic air, helping to simulate the climate of the Meditteranean. Regulations authorise more than 50 grape varieties in the Dao region, but the finest are touriga nacional (of port renown) and tinta roriz (another synonym for tempranillo). Others include alfrocheiro preto, jaen and, my personal favourite, solely for the colourful name: bastardo.

West of Dao and closer to the Atlantic is Bairrada, named after its dense, clay 'barro' soil. Given its proximity to the cooler Atlantic influences, Bairrada produces wines with crisp acidity, which is why it is Portugal's most successful sparkling wine region.

The juicy red baga variety is the region's favoured grape and by law must make up at least 50 per cent of any local red wine. About 15 other grape varieties are grown in the region, many producing a rustic sparkling red excellent with roast suckling pig.

The Douro Valley, revered for its rich, sweet, long-lived port wines, arguably produces the country's finest dry red wines as well. Until recently, 'light' wines were simple beverages consumed by vineyard workers or before the 'real' wines were placed on the table. This attitude began to change when producers such as A.A. Ferreira, upon returning from a sojourn in Bordeaux, set out to produce a world-class dry red wine. Douro is now rife with quality-focused producers such as Miguel Champalimaud of the Quinta do Cotto vineyard, who even went so far as to buck the country's cork patriotism to bottle his wines in screw caps as he believes it yields a finer product.

Not surprisingly, Macau has the broadest selection of Portuguese wine in Asia, but a few Hong Kong importers and wine aficionados also carry them. Try Lam & Cerveira (tel: 3116 6668) and Watson's Wine Cellars.

For many of our recent Portuguese visitors, their ship is finally coming in. Don't miss the boat.