Drinking in Portugal

Last month, Diane and I spent a tourist week in Portugal – a few days in Lisbon and almost a week cruising up and down the Douro river, best known to most winos as the pathway of Port to the world. Those who know me will find this perverse, because I never drink Port: It’s a palatal blind spot for me. I just can’t get past the sugar, in even the driest specimens. Fortunately, Portugal in general and the Douro valley in particular produce a great many other wines.
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Wine production in Portugal is really amazing. For a small country, it produces an astonishing variety of wines, from a truly enormous number of mostly native grapes, almost 500 of them by some counts. The best known – and that is not saying much – of the varieties cultivated and vinified are probably Touriga nacional and Touriga franca, which are very roughly comparable in character and vinicultural roles to Cabernet sauvignon and Cabernet franc, though I wouldn’t push that analogy very far.

Other widely grown varieties include Baga, Periquita, Tempranillo, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, and Tinta Francisca – and those are just the reds. The even more varied whites include Alvarinho, Arinto, Codega do Larinho, Moscatel, Rabigato, Verdelho, and Viosinho, and their roles range from light-hearted Vinho Verde to serious-minded dinner wines.

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The shipboard wines tended strongly to the lighter, easy-drinking end of the spectrum. That’s understandable, from CroisiEurope’s (our cruise line) point of view: We’re all there to have fun, after all, and very few of our fellow travellers’ ideas of fun included serious wine. Besides, most of the line’s clientele are French, and I am constantly surprised by how little many French people actually know or care about wine, especially that of other nations.

Here is the list of the ship’s endlessly pourable at-no-cost wines:
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And here is the for-a-fee list:
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We found nothing on either list that would change anyone’s life. Mostly, they were simple, agreeable wines that adapted well to the ship’s good French-hotel cuisine.

The single exception, which we chose to match with the cruise’s special gala dinner, was one of only four French wines on the list, a Château Carbonnieux rouge, which turned out to be a 2003 vintage. This had been a bit of a shot in the dark, since no vintage was named on the list, but 2003 was a better-than-respectable vintage and is just about at a ripe drinking age now – so we lucked in, and enjoyed a classic red Graves with our gala foie gras and roasted veal.

For all my disappointment with CroisiEurope’s wine lists, I give it credit for (a) trying to expose its clientele to the range of Portuguese wine and (b) stocking a wine of the quality of this good Bordeaux and selling it at such a reasonable price (€42).

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Our brief stay in Lisbon was vinously much more rewarding. As Diane has reported in her blog, we happened on a tapas bar named Bebedouro, where over two lunches we enjoyed flights of red and white Douro wines. These provided a tasty and informative introduction to Portuguese wine, at least that of the Douro.

Montes Ermos 2017 DOC Douro, Vale de Cavalos 2016 DOC Douro, and Carm 2016 DOC Douro Reserva were the reds, all substantial wines worthy of attention, and all fine companions for BebeDouro’s tasty tapas.
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The whites included Porrais 2018 Douro DOC, Lacrau 2018 DOC Douro (100% Moscatel Galego Branco, almost totally dry: very intriguing), and Quinta Seara d’Ordens 2017 Douro DOC, a substantial wine blended from several native varieties – Rabigato, Malvasia Fina, and Fernão Pires. This restaurant was a serendipitous find for a pair of foot-weary, wine-curious tourists.
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The vinous highlight of Lisbon for us, however, was unquestionably the lovely bottle of 1970 Dão Reserva we drank with dinner at La Varanda, one of Lisbon’s best restaurants. The bottle provided little information other than the maker’s name – Vinicola do Vale do Dão – and the wine list none at all, other than a price so low (€55) that I seriously asked the sommelier whether the bottle was sound.
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La Varanda is a restaurant that sports a wine list with many very pricey bottles – if you could afford it, you could arrange a lengthy vertical of Portugal’s legendary Barca Velha here – so the cherry-picker in me couldn’t ignore a nearly 50-year-old wine at a bargain price. And very happy we were with it: The wine was in perfect condition, and kept getting better and better, deeper and more nuanced, as it breathed. Part of the fun of it, by the way, was the elaborate – and we gathered, traditional Portuguese – way of opening the bottle by cutting its neck with red-hot tongs and pulling the still-attached cork out along with the neck piece.
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After Port, Dão used to be the most famous name in Portuguese wine, way back in the Salazar days, before Portugal joined the EU and started modernizing its wine industry. I’m sure I don’t have to tell any reader of this post that modernization is always a mixed blessing. Back then, wine makers’ fortunes rose and fell with the quality of their product, and even though Dão is the name of a now prestigious region, the producer’s reputation was always the key consideration. This was especially so because Dão wine was then an unregulated blend of varieties at the choice of the makers, so everything rode on their skill and consistency. Dãos could be wonderful wines, with all the qualities of depth, complexity, character, and longevity that we wine lovers prize – so when I have a chance to taste an old one, made back in those now legendary days, I leap at it and, as in this case, I love it.

4 Responses to “Drinking in Portugal”

  1. cgomezmoreno Says:

    Cool to see the wine tongs being used! Bagas from the Dao can last for a while!
    And what a deal! It reminds me of an old 1965 Valtellina we had 3-4 years ago at Bern’s Steakhouse which was also in great shape.
    Cheers!

  2. Tablewine Says:

    Enjoying the 1970 Dão Reserva, enhanced by its presentation, sounds like one of those “golden moments” in the life of a wine lover.

  3. ANGELO CLARIZIA Says:

    Tempranillo=Tinta Roriz

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