Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau
Set in the heart of Lisbon on the famous Comercio Square, a small door leads to an unexpected journey through Portugal’s most secret vineyards where small producers work their sunny lands to produce beautiful wines. Gathered at Vini Portugal, a non-profit governmental organisation promoting the native grapes of Portuguese varieties, these gems are waiting to be tasted.
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Stepping inside we meet the passionate Beatrice Correia who is eager to have us explore the Portuguese wine culture, very specific and so different from the more famous French wine culture or the ones of new wine countries such as South Africa. “Do you know that Portugal has about 230 grape varieties?”, our sommelier states while carefully placing down some cherry-picked bottles from different regions of Portugal, next to a colourful map of Portugal. “The beauty of Portugal is that the terroir and climate vary greatly and grapes are grown everywhere, even on the islands of Madeira and The Azores! It means that our wines can be very specific and perfectly aligned with what you are in the mood for.”
Generally speaking, white wines from the north are dry, citric (with notes of pear and apple) and kind of fresh. The reds are more Burgundy-style; smooth and with a good aging potential. As the climate in the south of Portugal is a lot hotter, the grapes there contain more sugar resulting in heavier wines with a higher alcohol content, and often notes of cherry, tobacco, and spices. The whites from the south are more exotic with hints of peach and pineapple.
Contrary to what most first-time visitors assume, the Vino Verde has nothing to do with a green wine, nor the colour nor maturity of the grapes! Like in most old wine countries, it simply refers to the name of the specific wine region. Skilfully, Beatrice opens a Miogo Vino Verde DOC / Branco 2018, ripened for 3-4 months in oak barrels. Its freshness and hints of green apple and grass on the nose of the mineral wine take me to Northern Portugal. Beatrice nods: “As the area is quite rainy, the vines are grown on arches to get as much sun as possible and the minerality comes from the limestone and granite soil.” These young, easy-drinking wines match well with seafood, and their popular bubbly version flows abundantly at the many Lisbon festivals to accompany grilled sardines and loud traditional tunes.
Building up on the tasting, a 2017 Cabo da Roca, Arinto Reserva Bucelas DOC is next. It immediately evokes continental Europe’s westernmost point, a short ride away from Lisbon and a perfect extension to a day trip to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Sintra. Much more south, the chilled and windy cape with its acidic soil composed of clay, sand, and chalk shapes a rather acidic white wine.
Portugal is home to some excellent reds, such as the Maria Joāo from the upcoming Dão wine area with its earthy aromas of mushrooms, pine, wet forest and blackberries. Further south and also inland, the Alentejo region is quite hot, regularly reaching temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius during the summer. These DOC wines feel heavier and more tannic, pairing perfectly with a rich red meat.
However, if Dão, Douro, Tejo wines start making a name for themselves internationally, Portugal’s most well-known exports are the fortified wines. The same reason that expanded the reach of South African wines explains the creation of port: in 1678, England tries to impoverish France by forbidding French trade. England turned to its centennial-old ally, Portugal, to supply wines. To resist the shipping, wines were fortified – the fermentation process of the grapes is stopped by adding a strong brandy-like spirit to the wine leading to a sweet drink high in alcohol, as the residual sugars are kept. Port was born. “Today, it can only be called Port when it comes from the Porto do Douro valley, which has nothing to do with the city of Porto!” Beatrice exclaims. “Aged in a city called Villa Nova, barrels were transported by river to Porto. The name was simply too long so the drink was referred to as Porto instead.”
It seems that more myths are about to get busted during this interesting tasting as our wine specialist describes the differences between the two most famous ports: “The Ruby is mostly aged in the bottle and usually spends only two to three years in a barrel. The colour is ruby and the taste is rather fruity.” Turning to the other bottle: “Tawny ports, mostly made with red grape varieties, are aged in the barrel for a minimum of five years, giving them their dark colour. They have a nutty and caramel flavour.” The tasting obviously backs up the explanations. And more surprises are coming with a generous glass of white port. The sweet Bulas Porto which grapes are ripened on the UNESCO World Heritage terraces tastes heavenly and exotic.
Surprisingly, Beatrice comes back to our tasting table with yet another bottle. After such a finish, it is hard to imagine what else she had planned for us. She slowly pours a smooth golden liquid from the 500-millitre bottle with the utmost respect, and smiles. We check its viscosity by slowly rotating our glasses, smell its gourmand flavours, and marvel at how sweet on the palate this delicacy is. Beatrice is clearly proud of her effect. She has just had us experiment a Bacalhôa Moscatel Roxo de Setúbal, aged for no less than 20 years. What a better way to conclude this amazing wine tour through Portugal!
- In a rush and just curious to taste one wine or in for a full thematic tasting? Make sure to visit Wines of Portugal during your trip to Lisbon.
- Interested in Portuguese cuisine? Make sure to follow a cooking class in the heart of Lisbon and learn even more about relationship the Portuguese have with food and wines.
- To get to Sintra and Cabo da Roca, a scooter is the ideal means of transport.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)! The black pins will lead you to other articles:
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