LISBON, Dec. 12, 2005 - Say "Portugal" to just about any wine lover around the world, and he's likely to respond (if at all), "Port." Ask for a second Portuguese wine association, and you may get "Madeira," if your target really knows his stuff. Ask for a third Portuguese wine reference, and only the most ardent wine "geek" or well-trained sommelier will easily come up with another.
I've only been over here for a long weekend so far, and let me tell you, I'm quickly learning that there's a lot more to the Portuguese wine scene than just Port and Madeira. Not, needless to say, that these are not good things. But just as Portugal's splendid cuisine extends far beyond bacalhau (salt cod), so does its wine culture go far beyond those historic fortified wines.
I'm looking forward to getting my feet on the ground in a number of those regions this week, from Alentejo in the South to the Douro River valley in the north. But if ever you find yourself in the lovely and historic Portuguese capital, Lisbon, without enough time on your hands to venture farther out, here's a wine lovers's tip to tuck safely into your pocket:
Along with an intriguing assortment of Portuguese sausages and cheeses, you'll find an imposing array of more than 200 representative Portuguese wines presented by wine bar manager Nonu Santos, a man whose knowledge of and passion for the wines and food of Portugal - and his fluency in English, French and Spanish as well as his native Portuguese - makes him a remarkable ambassador for his country's good things to eat and drink.
Here's the collection of wines he poured for us, accompanied by mounds of regional sausages and cheeses, during an amiable two-hour Sunday afternoon visit. (Prices shown are the wine bar's retail tag for a full bottle.)
Valle Pradinhos 2004 Tras-os-Montes Branco - This is an offbeat and highly non-traditional wine from Northern Portugal's "across the mountain" region, which includes the Douro Valley of Port fame. It's an aromatic blend of Gewurztraminer, Malvasia and Riesling. Transparent and golden, it breathes appealing peachy-pine and mango aromas and offers a rich-textured, nicely balanced flavor that finishes dry and tart.
Esperão 2004 "Private Selection" Alentajo (Reguengos) Reserva (30€) - Made from a blend of typical white Port grapes and vinified by a Burgundian "battonage" technique that involves frequently stirring the yeast lees after fermentation to develop complexity, it's a clear light gold color with a distinctly oaky aroma; full-bodied, nicely balanced, there's plenty of fruit, but oaky vanilla and spice dominate in an "international style" wine that I'd be hard pressed to distinguish from an oaky Chardonnay. A good oaky Chardonnay, but still ... this could be an Australian or California or Portuguese white, in my opinion, and I'm here to explore Portugal. For what it's worth, a few bites of a mild-tangy, creamy sheep's milk cheese banish a good bit of the oak and render the wine much more appealing.
Now, on to some reds.
J. Portugal Ramos 2003 "Quinta da Viçosa" Single Vineyard T.M. (35€) - From the Alentejo region of Southern Portugal, the section also known for cork-oak plantations, this wine is a blend, as the monogram hints, of the Touriga Nacional variety of Porto with the more international Merlot. Inky garnet in color with a violet edge, its aromas offer ripe black fruit, cherries and berries and a spicy dash of nicely integrated oak; smooth tannins and acidity build a structure further bulked out by 14.5 percent alcohol. Another wine in a markedly "international" style but likable and good with these robust afternoon snacks.
Dolium 2003 "Selectio" Touriga Nacional Vinho Regional Alentejano (35€) - Another Touriga from Alentejo, this one's not quite so "Parker-ized" and thus a bit more refined (and frankly more to my liking). Inky blackish-purple in color, its aromas focus on blackcurrant with hints of black olive and discreet green bell pepper, an herbaceous quality that I enjoy and liken to Cabernet Sauvignon. Nuno reacts with some shock, declaring that it's cloves and carnations, not olives and capsicums. Maybe. It's complex, that's for sure, with mouth-filling black-fruit flavors and spicy oak, well built on a structure of crisp acidity and smooth tannins. It's particularly good with a rustic sausage dish of morcela, a black pork blood sausage served with applesauce.
Moving upscale, we finished the reds with a "cultish" label that lives up to its reputation: Chryseia 2003 Douro P+S (75€) is a joint venture of the Symington family of Porto and Bruno Prats of Chateau Cos d'Estournel in Bordeaux. A blend of the Port varieties Tinto Franca, Tinto Roriz and Tinto Cão, it's black in color, with beautiful aromas of black plums and an earthy but clean red-clay minerality; flavors follow the nose, mouth-filling fruit and grippy acidity, tannic and unyielding. Almost like a "dry Port," it's appealing but clearly will benefit from extended aging.
Next another white, a dry wine but so big and rich that Nonu intentionally saved it until after the reds.
Quinta do Monte d'Oiro 2003 "Vindima de 7 de Outobro" Viognier Vinho Regional Estremaduro (50€) - The first Portuguese Viognier I've ever seen or heard of, this rarity from Southeastern Portugal is an impressive entry in the world sweepstakes for this once-obscure French variety that's gaining international attention. An exceptionally pretty bright bronze color with greenish glints, it breathes a classic Viognier aroma profile, peaches and heady flowers. Very rich and full but dry, it seems to expand in your mouth to fill your head with luscious floral Viognier. (Website: http://www.quintadomontedoiro.com)
It went very nicely with two traditional Portuguese desserts: encharcada, a pudding-like cake that Nuno described as "eggs, eggs, eggs, sugar, sugar, sugar, and then a little more eggs;" and pão de rala ("crumb bread"), made from a bizarre-sounding but delicious combination of marzipan, spaghetti squash ("chila" in Portuguese) and eggs.
Finally, with espresso, Nuno couldn't bear for us to leave without a little taste of Port, and he poured a very good Tawny indeed:
Krohn 30 Anos Porto - Thirty years in the wooden barrel has evolved this clear, pale-bronze potion into pure essence of dried apricots and pecans; nectar-sweet and silken-smooth, powerful and properly acidic and long enough to last until sundown.
It's hard to imagine a better place to sit and learn about Portuguese wine in the space of an afternoon. "I came to Portugal to have a Port experience," said Peter Van Niman, a Canadian gent from British Columbia who we met in the wine bar. "I've had it right here."
Even if an afternoon in a wine bar doesn't quite add up to a week on the wine road, if you're ever within hailing distance of Síntra, I urge you to find a way to spend little time in Binhoteca with Nuno and his crew, soaking up Portuguese hospitality, Portuguese wine knowledge and, of course, Portuguese wine.
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Speaking of Port, here's a good, affordable model that I auditioned last week at home to get myself into the Portuguese spirit.
Noval 1998 Unfiltered Late Bottled Vintage Porto ($18.99)
Inky dark reddish-purple. Plums, stone fruit, anise. Mouth-filling; sweet fruit well balanced with acidity, distinct but smooth tannins. It's a bit more fruit-forward and mellow after 48 hours in the open bottle, still quite tannic and showing absolutely no signs of deterioration. Even though it's billed as a drink-now Port, it will still clearly benefit from extended breathing and vigorous aeration. Bottled in 2003. U.S. importer: William Grant & Sons, NYC. (Dec. 5, 2005)
FOOD MATCH: Served alone as an after-dinner libation; it would go well with strong cheeses from Stilton to sharp Cheddar to aged Gouda; dried fruits and nuts are also a traditional accompaniment.
VALUE: Very good value.
WHEN TO DRINK: Meant to be consumed in the short term while the Vintage Ports are maturing, it will nevertheless reward careful cellaring and may be kept for years.
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Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
Because of my travel schedule, The 30 Second Wine Advisor was published only on Monday last week:
WT101 - Festive holiday wines (Dec. 5, 2005)
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Monday, Dec. 12, 2005