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Four bottles that prove it's high time to get hip to Portuguese wines

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It's technically February 29, but if it weren't a leap year, today we'd be flipping the page on the calendar over to the month of March. Seems like mere days ago we were ringing in the new year and plotting all manner of ways to help you live up to the only resolution we urged you to pursue: to make 2012 the year you fully embrace living a wine lifestyle.

One critical tenet of what it means to really be a wine lover is to push beyond your typical boozing routine and sample juice you've never tried before. As with just about everything in life, the only way you get better at anything is to practice -- and that tenet applies to wine more than you might imagine.

Those of us who deal in the business of wine have been hip to all things Porto for a minute now. Wanna know why? Because the wines of Portugal bring the trifecta of wine magic sommeliers and buyers drool over: They're unbelievably food friendly, they're value priced and they're not...well, in a word -- boring. Having said all of that, we completely get why you've perhaps been a bit reticent to explore this ancient wine producing state. For starters, there's the matter of the hundreds of varieties (very few of which you're likely to have familiarity with). Then there's that pesky label-language barrier thing - and you thought French labels were tricky to decipher. But don't go getting all overwhelmed; you don't need to speak Portuguese to fall under the spell of these fantastic wines. Without further ado, we're about to push you way outside your comfort zone and dare you to start drinking Portuguese juice.

Broadbent Vinho Verde NV ($9): Chances are pretty decent that you've actually heard of these top-selling Portuguese wines, but we'll go ahead and clarify a few things for you. First of all, bear in mind that vinho verde is in fact a style, not a grape. That style, whose name translates to "green wine", is synonymous with bright little rock star wines just like this one: They're endlessly crisp, quaffable and crazy cheap. If you're thinking that a high-acid white is best reserved for a sweltering summer day, think again. Just like that refreshing glass of Champagne we've been known to knock back after a tough day at work, we're just as liable to reach for a glass of this low alcohol, slightly sparkling number as an equally attractive aperitif. Unsurprisingly, the wine tasted a lot like albariño (which was included in the blend of grapes used to make this particular wine), which is to say full of zesty lime zest and lively minerality.

Carta Vinho Lisbon White 2009 ($12): We were delighted to discover this gorgeous number during a recent happy hour excursion to Trillium. Why were we so tickled? Because Portuguese varietal whites are extremely rare to score upon our shores, particularly those made from the 100 percent fernão pires variety used in this bottling. Featuring aromas of fresh, ripe pear and fragrant white florals, it went down like a pinot gris: lush and easy to drink. No surprise, then, to discover that this medium-bodied white paired wonderfully with the seafood-driven snacks we sampled that evening -- recreate the experience at home by serving it with an hors d'oeuvre of smoked trout spread piled onto a buttery cracker.

Casa Ferreirinha Vinha Grande Red 2008 ($27): Generally speaking, you'd probably trust a brand that had been making their product for more than 250 years, right? Then believe us when we tell you that the good people behind Casa Ferreirinha, one of Portugal's oldest winemaking houses, knows what it takes to produce truly outstanding wines. An elegant, complex blend of a few indigenous varieties (touriga nacional, trincadeira, tinta barroca) and two French ones (cabernet sauvignon and syrah) enticed us right away with its purplish ink-stained color and violet aromas. The resulting wine might remind some people of a beautifully mature Burgundy, given all of the tangy currant and boysenberry fruit that was back-ended by elements of spicy white pepper and dusty cocoa nibs. Perfectly balanced alcohol and acidity levels are another reason we're so fired up for these wines, and means they won't overshadow the savory dishes they're served alongside.

Quinto de Crasto Douro Superior 2008 ($32): If you have Barolo tastes but you're ballin' on a Budweiser budget, let us introduce you to the next best thing. Another sassy blend that included an all-star lineup of Portuguese red varieties touriga nacional, touriga franca, tinta roriz, and others, this was yet another classic representation of the kind of incredible quality-to-price ratio wine Portuguese wine virgins have been missing out on. You'll be surprised as we were at the intriguing mash-up of aromas you'll detect: ripe-to-bursting raspberry and boysenberry made fragrant friends with contrasting leather, tar and slightly gamy notes. If that sounds kind of funky, it was -- but in the best possible way. In fact, the slightly confounding nose of the wine made us appreciate even more the vivid explosion of flavors that hit our palate; a heady, juicy wash of luxurious dark berry fruit with a finish so long we lost track of it. Time to make some room in the wine rack for your new collection of Portuguese wine.

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