"Let’s keep Portuguese wine a secret," says a vino-friendly acquaintance. "A few nights back I bought a Portuguese wine for $60 at a five-star restaurant. It was a delicious value."
Most people associate Portugal with Port wine, the sweet after-dinner fortified wine made from an assortment of native grapes. Yet Portugal makes excellent dry wines from these grapes, and in the last few decades the country has improved quality to the point that wine from Portugal is the newest trend among wine aficionados and value-oriented consumers alike.
In the last month alone, wine from Portugal made the scene at the New York Wine Expo (with a seminar led by Professor Michael Weiss of the Culinary Institute of America), a walk-around tasting, seated lunch, and lecture (again by Professor Weiss) for the prestigious Wine Media Guild at celebrity chef’s Lydia Bastianich’s upscale restaurant Felidia, and at the Astor Center.
In addition to a walk-around tasting wine at the Astor Center, expert Robin Kelly O’Connor and Portuguese cuisine expert David Leite spoke on Vinho Verde (the term loosely translated to "young wine" meant to drink early) and gave a tutored tasting of five white Vino Verde wines from different regions.
The wide diversity of Portugal’s native grapes was apparent at the Wine Media Lunch, where journalists could sample everything from light, refreshing white wine to deep, richly decadent port during an hour of walk-around tasting. I personally fell in love with the Quinta da Romeira 2007 ($10, imported by Aidil wines), which had the fresh lemon/citrus flavors of a Sauvignon Blanc and is an excellent pairing with seafood.
The grape is called Arinto, and it is common to the Bucelas region of Portugal (near the coast in the lower third of the country). What is interesting about this grape is that it can take such different expressions, depending on how it is matured. The Quinta da Romeira was fermented in stainless steel, which gave it a fresh citrus aroma and light weight on the palate.
Next to it was a barrel-aged Arinto, Campolargo from the Beiras/Bairrada region (Tri-Vin Importers), which was rich and succulent and would pair well with more savory dishes such as caramelized scallops. White Esporao Verdelho 2007 ($12.00, imported by Aidil) was characterized by a lean fresh fruity nose. The palate was quite rich and fruity with some honeyed notes and fresh acidity. I could imagine it pairing very well with white fish sautéed in brown butter.
Red wines overall were characterized by jammy red fruit, moderate acidity and tannin, and a very smooth viscosity. Hans Kristian Jorgensen, Cotes de Cima 2004 ($43.25, Tri-Vin importers) was one of the more expensive reds in the tasting (most reds were under $20) – very thick and viscous, with notes of cherries, violets, and a smoky quality from nine months in French barrels, a good match for duck marinated in a fruit sauce.
A similar flavour profile can be found at a lower price with the Esporao Alicante Bouschet 2004 ($18.00, Aidil), a nicely structured wine with more candied cherries on the nose and palate.
Touriga Nacional is the national grape of Portugal, and a personal favorite varietal. I enjoyed the Quinta da Aveleda Follies Touriga Nacional 2005 ($17.50, Tri-Vin), a very balanced wine with delicious aromas of plum, spice, and prune echoed on the palate, as well as the Casa de Santar Tourigal Nacional 2001 ($22.00, imported by Opici), a complex wine with raspberry and black fruit on the palate.
Felidia restaurant performed a fantastic job of pairing the Portuguese wines with food. Speaker Michael Weiss, author of the newly released book Wine Wise: Your Complete Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Enjoying Wine, offered some pairing suggestions, but journalists were free to choose their own wine to pair with a four course menu that began with shrimp with smoked beans.
This dish was excellent when paired with the oaked Arinto, the Compoloargo 2007 described above. I liked the Cotechino (fresh sausage) with spicy clams and tomato with both of my favorite Touriga Nacionals.
Wines from Portugal have much to offer – the crisp refreshing whites for summer and the warm, soul-satisfying reds for a chill winter evening. You can easily find these wines at your local wine store. To discover more about the varietals, ask the clerk if it is possible to arrange an in-store tasting of Portuguese wines, or bring a bottle of Portuguese wine to a friend’s house for dinner. You may well make an instant name for yourself as the go-to expert where wine is concerned.