by Zoltan Szabo

A fantastic multi-course meal was prepared by chef extraordinaire Albino Silva of Chiado the other evening for the kick off of this year’s Vini Portugal affair, a really smart trade seminar and hundreds-of-people-in-attendance tasting that took place at Frank and the third floor of the AGO respectively (I overheard a respected Sommelier colleague saying “some of these wines are the best value in the world” and so, I was tempted to agree). Anyway, the super-talented Silva hit all the fine keynotes of classic Portuguese cuisine and more, he has brought the menu to a cosmopolitan level presenting his dishes with unrivaled style, colour and flair. At one point throughout the divine meal I thought that the gates of heaven are located at 864 College St. A highlight wine of the evening was renegade Luis Pato’s 1999 Vinha Barrosa, an incredible red made from Baga grapes from Bairrada, still so youthful and multi-dimensional, it was superb with juicy, pink lamb.

Many of the Portuguese producers who were in town for the above event are not yet present in Ontario’s market, though agents should jump on the opportunity of signing them up, the restaurant sector and Sommeliers, along consumers and collectors alike would be thankful for sure. On that note, popular chef and friend Chris McDonald of Cava Restaurant was telling me the other day “Zoltan, there are a few good Portuguese wines around, but certainly not too many, I’d buy if I could find more.” I purchased wines from Portugal in the past from agencies like 3050 Imports, B & W Wines and others. FWP specializes in wines from Portugal, representing Luis Pato for example; Le Sommelier has a few really good Portuguese wines on the portfolio; try Lifford also.

Days later showman chef Michael Blackie of The National Arts Centre in Ottawa (in town for The Wine & Cheese Show where he placed second at the Chef and Sommelier food and wine matching challenge) , John Szabo and I popped by Union and had the indulgence of being served a superb red by smart and savvy Sommelier Chris Sealy. It was Campolargo’s 2006 Rol de Coisas Baga from Bairrada (I crystal-clearly remember tasting at this winery with its owner, a former attorney, watching the sunset over the valley and sipping some outstanding wines, a glorious momentum, just confirming that my job is not that horrible, after all…), and we had it with elk sliders, and it turned out that they are a sublime match. Drinking this marvelous wine I had memories surfacing in my mind of a recent trip to Portugal, so here we go, I’d like to share some of my experiences with you all.

I have asked the server at my hotel’s resto in Lisbon to tell me five important things about Portugal that everyone would or should know, so here they are: Cristo-Rei, Porto, bacalhau, fado and Amalia Rodrigues. And after eight days of touring some of the lesser know wine regions of Portugal, I’d add few other things to the list such as Baga, Touriga Nacional, Bical, Jaen, Alfrocheiro, Trincadeira, Arinto, Siria, Fontecal, Encruzado, queijo da serra, cabrito, leitão assado à Bairrada, sardinhas, aguardente (!), and the list could go on and on.

Visiting vineyards and wineries in Bairrada, Dao and Beira Interior I have quickly realized how little I know about Portugal, its wine industry and phenomenal gastronomy. I knew of Port and Minhos’ Vinho Verde, of course, and the nowadays much-in-vogue Alentejo and its somewhat modern-style wines, but I had an eye-opening and heart-warming experience in Bairrada and Dao, and the learnings and findings in Beira Interior topping the trip for me with shockingly beautiful nature and topography, castles and history, wines and people, and food to die for.

Carlos I of Portugal (full name Carlos Fernando Luís Maria Victor Miguel Rafael Gabriel Gonzaga Xavier Francisco de Assis José Simão de Saxe-Coburgo-Bragança e Sabóia) once said that there are only three ways to prepare bacalhau (codfish), roasted, boiled or spoiled. There was codfish served in some form or way everyday throughout my visit and learned that there are over 1,000 recipes as how to prepare it. Portuguese get their codfish from Norway, and Canada. Rice and potatoes are also served throughout meals on daily basis.

In Bairrada, located in the Beiras region, having Portugal’s highest wine classification as a Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC), located close to the Atlantic, so ocean currents have a moderating affect on the climate, a relatively small region, there are more than 800 restaurants, and they all serve leitão assado à Bairrada (slow roasted suckling pig) with sparkling wine – lots of it produced here, and many are seriously good. I was also struck by the capacity of the grape called Baga, a thin skin grape compared to Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, making wines of high quality, structure and age-worthiness. I tasted twenty years old version of it that reminded me of a “cru” Barbaresco of same age. Grown in pretty heavy gravel soils – to the most part, although alkaline-containing shallow soils are praised as perhaps best in Portugal – that are also water retentive and rot-friendly, this finicky grape thrives and I have come across a few world-class examples of it. Apparently there are more than 300 indigenous grapes grown across Portugal with more than 200 of them are to be found only in the aforementioned country. At Museo do Vinho Bairrada I admired the world’s largest collection of corkscrews and barrel making via a photo collection of tasteful erotica by artist Diogo Moreira, an exposition organized in conjunction with Caves Alianca, one of the largest co-operative producer in the region. Let me add, I would have never thought that banding wood could be so much extreme hard work.

Viseu is a beautiful city and municipality in the Dão-Lafões sub region of Centro Region, an important city of the Dao wine region, heard that is the cleanest city in Portugal, with a medieval cathedral and The Church of Merci, Vasco Fernandes’ St. Peter (painting) hanging on its wall; orange, lemon and palm trees all over. The Dao, sitting on a plateau that is sheltered on three sides by the granite mountain ranges of Serra da Estrela, Serra do Caramulo and Serra da Nave, is the land of large size co-operatives belonging to the Union of Co-operatives with 40% of total production going to export markets. Heard that farmers owing as small as 0.4 HA parcels to others with 100 HA of land make up these pretty big nine co-operatives in this region. Despite that Portugal is the hottest country in Europe, terraced vineyards across the Dao are planted high altitude, sometimes 550 meters above sea level. Wines produced here certainly don’t lack acidity and freshness. I had a memorable luncheon at Casa da Insua, surrounded by begonia, sequoia, acacia, eucalyptus and magnolia trees. A self-sustained estate nowadays, once owned by Brazilian governor, produces olive oil and soft, sheep’s milk cheese, queijo da serra. Having said cheese, I found out that those making it must have cold hands. Portugal used to be called Lusitania back to Roman times, and I re-call crossing the Dao River by the ruins of a bridge built back to those ancient times, passing by granite-walled vineyards and wild pigs running around. Remains of XIIth century monastery adding to the landscape packed with huge size granite blocks. And the grape called Touriga Nacional is “king” here, originating from here, planted in extremely well drained sandy soils with granite rock atop, wines made from it are so pretty, aromatic and floral, currant, blueberry-flavored, fresh and firm in the same time when young, of course, although they can age, soften and develop a neat dried fruits character, herbaceous and leather-like nuances. With many occasions it is blended with other indigenous grapes, but I much preferred the varietal examples of it.

I had an incredible meal in the village of Sebugal, nearby the Spanish border, in the region of Beira Interior, centrally positioned and located in a valley between tall mountains, and bordered by the Douro and Tejo rivers, with average altitudes of 700 meters. Murcela, chouricho, and especially the cabrito (baby goat) slow roasted over wood-burning open fire by chef Joao Robalo himself at his namesake restaurant, Robalo, well, Sara “The Cutest Sommelier on Earth” d’Amato, Evan “The Professor” Saviolidis and Michael “Mighty” Vaughan would agree, it was simply superlative. The head waiter and his wife were both from a city nearby my hometown, go figure, small world, eh?! It’s also here, at this very restaurant where I learned about the festival “Capeia Arraiana” involving bull fighting, “forcao”, where a bunch of men with excess of testosteron, regardless of age (20 to 80 years old), try to tease a massive 600-700 KG bull with a big and wide, wooden fork-like “construction”, the animal is not harmed, and most of the times neither the men….Festivities take place in the month of August and attract many locals and foreigners alike. Actually, I was watching a video of the “sport” while having dinner. I liked so much the red wines made from a grape called Trincadeira, and whites from the grapes called Siria and Fontecal, the latest two grown only here, cultivated in well drained, granite soils. Granite rocks the size of a house are laying all over the place, making the surroundings look like a playground of giants rolling huge, stone dices. They actually plant vineyards around some of these incredibly big stones as it would be nearly impossible to move them. It was also here where I tasted Portugal’s first-ever Kosher wine, and learned about this place being a crucial location of Judaism since the days of the inquisition.

So, I initially thought that these regions perform much better with their red wines, against my expectations I have discovered whites that blew my socks off, some made from grapes, I must for sake of honesty admit, I have never heard of. I also must admit that I tasted and even drank some bag-in-box wines, many very tasty, much of it produced across these regions. Oh yeah, and those of you romantics, not to worry, lagares are still in use, saw many old ones carved out of granite, more modern ones made of concrete, so you can foot-crush grapes if you visit at harvest, a practice not only traditional, but admittedly is the most gentle way to process grapes, some swear that better than any machinery. So, there you go.

One the last night of the trip back in Lisbon I ended up going to a traditional fado club to eat and drink, and most importantly to listen to some extraordinary live music and artists singing melodramatic songs majestically, accompanied by guitar and base. Walking back to my hotel late at night on the cobblestoned streets of Lisbon a melancholic feeling took me over due to some unexplained reason. Was it the fantastic food? The wines that were so much above my expectations? Fado? Or the whole week-long experience altogether? I don’t know. Saudade, Portugal, I will be back, and I that’s what I know for sure.

2008 Vinha Formal Bruto, Luis Pato, Bairrada
50% Bical and the other half of Touriga Nacional, grown in chalky soils and sourced from single vineyard, sparkling that received a brief oak fermatation too. Aromas of star anise, floral and minerals. Dry, fresh, some leesy notes on its palate, the finish comes with white peach nuances.

2008 Vinha Formal, Luis Pato, Vinho Regional Beiras
Made from 100% Bical grapes, fermented and aged in 50% new French oak casks of 650 L, Pato uses only casks of this size, no barrels. This is an exotic white with tropical fruit aromas and flavours, med-weight, so clean and fresh, with an on-going finish.

2007 Vinhas Velhas, Luis Pato, Vinho Regional Beiras
100% Baga. Blueberry, raspberries, cassis, deep spice and herbal. Medium to full bodied, tannins keeping it tight, just great, and will age very well. A wine with “hips”.

1990 Vinhas Velhas, Luis Pato, Vinho Regional Beiras
Reminds me of a great Barbaresco, dried cranberry and marjoram, truffles and leather, so much alive over the palate, with viscous, dried fruit notes on the finish. An excellent wine. So “bagalicious”…

2009 Abafalco Molecular Vinho Branco, Luis Pato, Vinho Regional Beiras
A most interesting dessert wine, made from Cerceal, Sercialinho and Bical grapes. Fuzzy peach and white blossoms aromas here, so pretty, juicy and with a long, fresh finish. 11% alc. Pato makes a rose and Vinho Tinto as well in this sweet-style from Baga grapes. Panty-removers.

NV Picos do Couto Bruto Blanc de Noirs, FTP, Dao
Traditional method sparkling wine, made from Alfrocheiro & Touriga Nacional. Very light pink colour with tiny and many, very active bubbles. .Red apple, brioche and yeasty notes. Crisp with a long-lasting, tart finish. Great with food of all kinds.

2004 Adega de Penalva Garrafeira, Dao
Blend of Touriga Nacional, Jaen, Alfrocheiro and Tinta Roriz. Cherries, violet and cinnamon aroman accents. Medium to full with a luscious texture, blueberry and herbal, savoury flavours with a bit of funk coming on its finish. This sexy red drinking very well now. Great with veal and beans stew or traditional Aroz de Pato (rice with shredded duck, duck bacon, purcella).

2007 Picos do Couto Reserva, FTP, Dao
Cherries, currants, savoury, spicy, white pepper and minerally. Medium plus bodied, lots of ripe fruit flavours, juicy with a spicy finish. A polished and elegant red.

2008 Cabriz Bruto Metodo Classico Vinho Espumante de Qualidade, Quinta de Cabriz, Dao
Bouquet of lime, citrus, some floral, mineral and strongly leesy. Green pineapple, sour fruit flavours, very crisp, needs some aging.

2007 Praca Velha Carrafeira, Adega Cooperativa do Fundao, Cova da Beira
Cova da Beira is a sub-region of Beira Interior. This red is made from 100% Trincadeiro grapes and it is very interesting indeed. Juicy, fruity and pretty soft, with savoury nuances over its long and pleasant finish, drinking so easily, and is outstanding with cabrito (slow fire-roasted baby goat).

2003 Quinta dos Currais Reserva, Beira Interior
50% Touriga Nacional, rest is Tinta Roriz and Aragones. Grenache-like, with aromas of raspberries and fresh herds, exotic spices. Not a heavy-weight, rather fresh and soft with sour berry finish. Very pleasant. Drink now.

2007 Almeida Garrett Reserva, Beira Interior
Touriga Nacional, Syrah and Merlot. Red and black fruits, especially currants and raspberries. Soft and juicy, light tannins, just a touch of spice and sweet earth, musk shining through the finish, modern, already approachable, although it can also age 3 to 5 years, there’s just enough extract, glycerol, acids et al. to keep it goin’ for a short term.

2008 Quinta dos Currais Colheita Seleccionada, Beira Interior
Blend of Siria, Fontecal and Arinto grapes. I hear that the Siria and Fontecal grapes are only grown in the Beira Interior region. Citrus fruit, orange blossoms, mineral aroma notes here. Light to med-weight, clean and fresh with savoury finish. Highly food-versatile.

2007 Versus, Vinhos Andrade de Almeida, Beira Interior
100% Siria. Apples, lime, white pepper and wet, crushed stone aromas. Medium bodied and tart with clean, somewhat neutral and mineral finish. Simple, yet a great little white, straightforward, likes food too. Versus also makes a great rose that I much enjoyed.

2006 Colheita do Socio Garrafeira, Adega da Covilha, Beira Interior
My hand-written note states that this is a “goddamn good” wine…I even scored it, but that’s that, sorry. But, hey, just take my word.

2005 Terras de Belmonte, Adega da Covilha, Beira Interior
Blend of Jaen, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional and Rufete. Portugal’s first Kosher wine, flash pasteurized. Strawberry jam, herbaceous, tobacco, earth and leather. Medium plus bodied, lively, with a tart, tannic grip. There’s something special about this wine.

2007 Alpedrinha, Adega Cooperativa do Fundao, Beira Interior
The bouquet displays aromas of kirsch, floral, five spice. Medium bodied with soft tannins and a long-lingering finish. A neat wine, drinking now, but will age and show even better with some time, will cellar up to six to eight years easily, considering some older versions that I’ve tasted and their shape.

2008 Siria, Quinta dos Currais, Beira Interior
Made from 100% Siria grapes coming from the Cova da Beira sub-region of Beira Interior. . Lime aromas with stoney, minerally nuances. Light to medium bodied with awesome acidity and a never-ending finish. Its minerality and acidic vibe remind me of a Santorini Assyrtico and / or Mosel Riesling. An outstanding white, so food-friendly. Theres a selected harvest version of this wine too, also very good.

2006 Seleccionada Tinto, Caves Primavera, Dao
An excellent red from all perspectives, smooth and elegant, lots going on here, time will bring this wine to an ever higher level of enjoyment, stay put and cellar it for 2-3 years.

2004 Quinta da Dona, Alianca, Bairrada
Made entirely from Baga grapes. Cassis, coffe, herbal – sage aromas and flavours. Superb texture, all elements integrated, mega-fruit coming on the long, warm finish, so this red will benefit from some cellar time for sure. Excellent.

2004 Bruto, Alianca, Bairrada
60% Chardonnay, the rest Baga. Apples, lime and mineral notes all the way through. Crisp and so persistent, a wonderful sparkler.

2006 Calda Bordaleza, Campolargo, Dao
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. Deep, dense and broad. Tons of sour fruit and mineral flavours. A grandiose wine. The lady tasting it beside me was saying “this red got some serious hips”, indeed. Sexy stuff. Termeao by Campolargo also wonderful.

2004 Blaudus, Quinta de Baixo, Dao
Touriga Nacional. Showing young, cherry-berry aromas and flavours, juicy and fresh, lots of extract, sweet tannins and everything else, a really good wine, surprisingly good, actually.

2007 Diga Tinto, Campolargo, Dao
100% Petit Verdot. Sour fruit-packet, some pink grapefruit, soft and juicy, with an unmistakable white pepper taint on its finish. “Diga” means “Tell me”. Wish I could get it in TO, so to pour it by-the-glass here and there. Good juice here.

1998 Quinta de Cabriz, Dao
I was shocked how great this white wine was, and how well it aged. Lemon, chamomile flower, spicy, mineral, broken oyster shell aromas. I believe that is made of Cercial and Bical grapes, to be honest, I am not so sure. Regardless, this magnificent white is medium bodied and quince-flavoured with a great deal of liveliness and freshness, and a superb length. If Dao whites can age in this fashion, well, than all of us should pack up our cellars. This was an eye-opening find of the trip, a ridiculously good wine. Enjoyed it with rosemary-roasted black pig “lombinho” and rice with field mushrooms. And yes, it was orgasmic.

1974 Porta dos Cavaleiros, Caves Sao Joao, Dao
The grapes are Encruzado, Bical and Malvasia Fina. Holding up to its age so graciously, acids are still kickin’, some dried fruits, wet wool and minerally notes, needed decanting and some time to warm up, so that I could realize its greatness. A novelty white, perhaps once in a life time affair.

2007 Quinta do Poco do Lobo Reserva, Caves Sao Joao, Bairrada
Made of Baga, Touriga Nacional and Cabernet Sauvignon. Cassis-bomb, full and satisfying, a textural wine with integrated tannins. Will age well and reach its full potential in five to eight years from now.

1983 Porta dos Cavaleiros Reserva, Caves Sao Joao, Dao
Currants, anise, leather and seashell. Med-weight, not giving up yet, fresh with a lift of soft tannins on the finish. For the sake of total gratification and satisfaction this red it’s very much ready to be enjoyed immediately.

2005 Frei Joao Reserva, Caves Sao Joao, Bairrada
Label made of cork. Baga, Camarate and Cabernet Sauvignon. Cassis, floral, some soft leather and spicy aroma nuances. Medium to full-weight, yet fresh and juicy, sweet tannins come on the finish.

2008 Vinha do Contador, Paco dos Cunhas de Santar, Dao
Made from Encruzado, Bical and Malvasia Fina grapes, batonage in effect, oak fermenting and aging et al. Ultra-sophisticated white with aromas of pineapple, white blossoms, minerals and savoury fresh herbs. Medium plus bodied with a superb mouthfeel balanced by succulent acidity, the finish is going on and on. Love it.

2007 Cabriz Four C, Dao Sul
Grapes for this red come from four regions, hence the name, Bairrada, Dao, Douro, Alentejo and they are Touriga Nacional, Baga, Tinta Cao and Tinta Roriz. Complex and multi-layered red, aromas of black currants, spice, rose petals, flavoured tobacco and dark chocolate. Full, sweet and seductive, balanced and not yet fully developed, needs a little time, a blockbuster wine here to be sure of.

2005 Grande Escolha, Quinta de Baixo, Bairrada
Blend of Baga, Touriga Nacional and Syrah. Bright aromas, spicy, white peppery nuances, blueberry and savoury flavours, smooth, an elegant red, somewhat Rhone-like, and I like it too.

2008 Martinho Alves Vinho Branco, Dao
Clean, fruity, lime and pear-flavoured, fresh, minerally accents show on the finish, great in its simplicity, food-friendly too. Tasted the red version too, also good. The beautiful Ana Leal is the winemaker here.

2007 Quinta de Baixo Bruto, Bairrada
Sparkling wine made from Bical, Maria Gomes, Arinto and Baga grapes. Aromas of pineapple, herbal, minty, savoury, minerally. Limey and fresh over the palate, persistent, with a great, clean length. Very good.

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