There is always something to discover on the wine road and this summer’s two week trip to Portugal didn’t disappoint. Enjoying the magnificent landscapes of the Dao, and Bairrada, where vineyards, farms and vast stretches of rural countryside, populated by those whose families have worked the land for generations, has a certain old world charm in major contrast to the cities of Lisbon and Porto.
The steep terraced vineyards and dramatic vistas of the Douro region seem lost in time in a place where little has changed for centuries. The constant is the passion of people and the wines they produce. Benefitting from the extraordinary opportunity to meet the vineyard workers, winery owners and wine makers significantly contribute to the personal relationship between me and the wine. It is important to keep in mind that the wine we drink is the end result of the seasonal cycle of the vine where Mother Nature controls the native grapes, and with man’s assistance in maximizing what is metaphysically contained in the fruit of the vine.
Although the Dao and Bairrada have gained some recognition outside of Portugal, the wines from these regions remain virtually unknown in the United States. It was my mission to discover the people and the wines produced in these ancient vineyard areas. Often I thought of the famous Portuguese explorers Vasco da Gama and Magellan who set out from Lisbon in hopes of discovering new worlds and how much easier my quest would be traveling with driver guides.
Showcasing their wines with the local cuisine is a highlight of the experience and the lunches and dinners served at Campolargo and Casa Passarella were memorable. Wood fired grilled octopus (pulpo) drizzled with the local olive oil was tender and smokey, a locally raised roasted suckling pig (leitão), its subtle and delicate pork flavor enhanced with crisp crackling, and a shoulder joint of goat (cabrito), was slightly reminiscent of a leg of New Zealand lamb was served with a red fruit preserve. Eating the local foods with wines produced in the region is the ultimate gastronomical experience.
From refreshing dry white wines produced from discovery grapes such as Arinto, and Gouvinho or drinking a 10-year-old rustic red called Baga with its deep color, full body and exotic aromas of black plum, coffee bean and tobacco, the pairings always seemed to complement each other perfectly. In the country, the foods are extremely localized with farm-to-table, the established practice whereas the cities offer a more complex cultural influence relying in the colonies of Portuguese Angola and Mozambique in Africa, Brazil in South America, and the colony of Goa on the west coast of India. Their cooking techniques utilizing native spices and unusual ingredients was always presenting an opportunity to taste something different.
Dried salt cod (Bacalhau) and its ever present listing on every menu offers an opportunity to enjoy this staple of the Portuguese diet. It is said that there are 365 classic recipes, one for each day of the year. After soaking in water or milk, as the salt is leeched out, the flesh expands and is removed from the bones. For hundreds of years Portuguese fishermen harvested the vast supply of cod from the north Atlantic and the stored catch would be barreled and preserved in salt enabling the fish to be transported back to Portugal.
Most bars have Bacalhau fritters as appetizers, but a most memorable seafarer’s stew was served to me, which sang of the sea with a flash back to the middle of the 16th century. The cod was immersed in a tomato broth enhanced with garlic, olive oil, potatoes, olives and kale. Filling and very delicious, served with locally baked bread and glasses of chilled dry Hera Vinho Verde 2016. Vinho Verde or “green wine”, refers to its youthful character and not the wines color.
Spanning the Tagus River Estuary, the imposing 17-kilometer Vasco da Gama Bridge was a morning’s gateway into the territory of Coruche approximately a scenic one hour drive from Lisbon. Archaeological digs confirm a history of human inhabitation spanning 7,500 years. Today this economically important area is home to Portugal’s significant link to the global wine industry. The cork oak forests of Portugal supply 50% of the world’s cork production and is an enormous contribution to the country’s economic engine. Witnessing the last day of the annual cork bark harvest, it was a morning of observation and education. Owned by the Corticeira Amorim, this family company is a global leader in the production of cork stoppers. Upon arrival to the 20,000 acre forest, our host led us deep into the forest where skilled workers armed with medieval looking axes were stripping the bark from identified cork oak trees.
In the silence of the groves the only sound was the ax meeting the bark, and the teams of workers methodically moving through stripping the native bark from these ancient trees. Many of these stately oaks have stood for more than a century, identified by their heritage and state of bark regeneration. Only after nine years of growth will they permit the tree to once again be asked to give up its protective shield. After close inspection by a foreman, the bark is loaded onto flatbeds and hauled away to be washed, dried and graded. Ultimately those selected to be used for corks are stamped out in their modern production facility and eventually will find a home in the neck of a bottle. One cork, one bottle, one wine. Cork closures are 100% recyclable, sustainable and arguably the most effective sealing system for preserving the sensory quality of wine.
Across the Douro from the city of Porto is the important riverfront town of Vila Nova de Gaia. For centuries it has been the location of the Porto wine ageing cellars and visits to the lodges of Taylor’s and Sandeman were impressive. Within these vast houses called storage lodges, hundreds of thousands of barrels contain the port wines in various stages of evolution and maturation. Once labeled and bottled, the wines are shipped to the four corners of the world.
A memorable tasting of a range of aged Tawny Ports in the cellars at Sandeman exposed the complexity in styles of wines blended from 10 to 40 years old. The luxurious texture and long finish of a aged Tawny combines an intense bouquet of vanilla, oak and honey with flavors of dried fruit, spices and nuts.
We traveled by train from Porto’s Campanha Station to the town of Pinhāo, in the heart of the mystical Douro Valley. Our driver guide was at the station to meet us and we soon traveled over mountain passes where some of my vertigo traveling companions were seriously challenged.
The Qunita do Portal’s vineyards, winery, restaurant and guest house provided me with two days of memorable experiences.
By mid-afternoon the storm clouds became visible far to the east across the vast valley reaching to the distant mountains. As the wind accelerated and the warm temperatures gave way to an increasingly cooler air mass, a storm with drenching rains, and thunder was rapidly approaching. Torrents of rain, lashed the landscape causing vine terraces to yield and soon marble sized hail stones lashed the vines, shearing leaves and shattering berries. Once the cluster has been damaged, fruit reduction, yield potential and without rapid drying, the threat of fungus immobilized the winery team into damage control. Early the next morning after assessment, certain parcels suffered crop loss. As a witness to the power of Mother Nature, she wields the upper hand in this challenging agricultural endeavor. From vine to glass is a long journey.
During an early morning meeting and tasting with Portal’s winemaker Paolo Coutinho, he expressed his feelings about the unusual weather they have been experiencing and that it is his belief that global warming will have serious impacts on grape growing in many of the traditional areas of Western Europe and Mediterranean wine regions. After tasting a range of dry still and sweet potions, a 2014 Late Bottled Vintage stood out due to its richness, concentration and wonderful balance.
The coastal fishing village of Cascais was where my Portuguese odyssey ended. Enjoying tastes of wine served by a very knowledgeable gentleman named Fabio and the appropriately named The Tasting Room, the extensive selection, and enthusiastic server made this Tapas Bar a Vinho a memorable discovery.
If you are not planning a trip to Portugal anytime soon, I suggest you ask your favorite retailer to offer Portuguese wines for you to enjoy. A young refreshing Hera Vinho Verde from the 2016 vintage, an aromatic, dry white produced from Arinto, Gouvinho made by Herdadge Grande, or a perfect after dinner sip such as the Portal Late Bottled Vintage Ruby Port will be your own personal discovery.
Photography by Michael Venezia and Kelly J. Huff