Portugal: Tip-to-Toe

By: Tod Stewart

When it comes to wrapping art, history, culture and, perhaps most importantly to people like me, gastronomic and vinous excellence, into a (relatively speaking) small chunk of real estate, you can’t really beat what Portugal has to offer.

  I’ve had the extreme pleasure of touring the country tip-to-toe – including a stopover in the Azores – and if you are looking for a country that’s geographically diverse, visually stunning, and, well, extremely civilized, a visit to Portugal should be high on your “to-do” list.

  My Portuguese travel memories were rekindled just the other day when I took part in a virtual tasting of some of the wines of Quinta da Aveleda located in the Vinhos Verde region. If you’re going to travel Portugal’s many wine zones, this area in the northern Minho province is as good a place to start as any.

  Known for its ultra-drinkable, low-alcohol, slightly effervescent white wines that are essentially perfect with anything at any time, the wines of Vinhos Verde have a more serious side, one that Isabel Abreu e Lima, wine educator at Quinta da Aveleda, and Vitor Cardadeiro, owner of Reguengo de Melagaço, let me try first-hand.

  I still recall sitting on the patio of the Reguengo de Melagaço hotel, sipping one of the most exceptional aguardientes I’ve ever experienced. Across from the south bank of the Minho river, I took in the somewhat surreal sight of the woods of neighboring Spain’s Galicia region burning and lighting the night.

  Dinner saw me well out of harm’s way, enjoying the company of Reguengo’s genial owner, Vitor Cardadeiro. In Canada, we are still adjusting to the concept that the white wines of Vinho Verde can be “serious.” Light, spritzy fun, we are told. Try again. The wines of Reguengo de Melagaço are nothing but. Made from 100 percent Alvarinho, these are white wines to rival the world’s best. Spritzy and light? No way. If you’re more familiar with Spain’s Albariño wines, you’re sort of getting the profile. Sort of. Reguengo de Melagaço’s 100 percent Alvarinho 2017, with its mineral/tropical, fruit/floral notes, wrapped itself seductively around a traditional seafood meal, its mineral-tinged profile bringing out the briny best of the fresh, local catch.

  On the drive south down the A-52 the following day, I saw more of the devastation caused by the previous year’s wildfires – similar to those ravaging Spain the night before. Huge tracts of the charred forest looked alien and surreal and spoke of the natural tragedy that took lives and decimated the countryside.

  Winding my way into the visually stunning and oenologically legendary Douro Valley, I mused on the incredible variety of everything in Portugal, all within a short(ish) drive. Spectacular and varied scenery, sophisticated, historic cities and towns (many with vibrant nightlife scenes if that’s what you’re into), top-notch food, wine and hospitality. You’ll get the last three of these in spades if you’re traveling through the Douro, especially if you visit estates like Quinta da Foz and Quinta do Silval, which is where I was ultimately headed.

  That night I bivouacked at the cool Casa de Santa Cruz Hotel. I was the only guest of this recently upgraded and modernized boutique lodging. Heading out in search of sustenance, one of the friendly staff handed me the front door key, noting that she was locking up soon and instructing me to re-lock the door on my return and that she would see me in the morning for breakfast. I thought I must have come off as extremely trustworthy. It turns out that this is pretty common practice in smaller European towns. This is not generally something you experience in Toronto, probably a good thing.

  I pulled into Quinta da Foz the next day. If the Douro is famous for one thing, it’s port – perhaps the world’s most recognized fortified wine. And if there was a better way to get a sense of the valley, the river and the surrounding vineyards and wineries than by boat, I couldn’t imagine it. Relaxing with a glass of wine in the back seat of the “Syrah Régua,” with the afternoon sun glowing in a cloudless sky, I almost drifted off as we languorously drifted along the Douro river.

  Dinner and accommodations that night were provided courtesy of Alexandre Magalhãs at Quinta do Silval. Surrounded by the Douro’s famous terraced vineyards and sporting a very welcome pool, the quaint hotel/winery crafts outstanding wines and serves some pretty mean chow. Over a minor feast that night (featuring possibly the best octopus I’ve ever eaten), I asked Magalhãs (who seriously reminded me of Javier Bardem) about the rise in importance of Douro table wines and if this was an indication that the region’s historic fortified wines were falling out of favor.

  “Some new categories of port wine were introduced into the market, like Ruby Reserve and Ruby LBV,” he said. “Port wines in these special categories are increasing their market share, but interest in entry-level categories is decreasing.” He noted that Douro table wines continue to perform well, in no small part to the region’s historical reputation. We tasted a few exceptional wines with dinner (including the Dorna Velha Grande Reserva 2014, a particular highlight). Still, the Magalhãs 2004 Vintage Port, tinged with aromas and flavors of sultana, graphite and dense blackberry, served as a potent reminder that the Douro’s traditional wine star should not be overlooked.

  Admittedly, I was a bit on edge. This is probably a natural condition for anyone facing a potentially life-altering experience. Or a life-ending one.

  Lest anyone imagine that a “drive through a vineyard” is a scenic and tranquil affair, I offer you a drive through the vineyards of the Quinta do Covão winery in the Dão region with owner Filipe Ferreia. Without the consultation of a compass, I ascertained that we were traveling due south – as in south on about a 75-degree angle – and due for what I worried might be my last vineyard visit. Ever.

  It turns out Ferreia could (though I prayed it wouldn’t) do this tour with his eyes closed and, returning me in one un-mangled piece back to his digs, plied me with food and examples of what his region could conjure from local grapes. These included a crisp Cohleita Selecionado Dão 2016, its mineral/melon/citrus aromas and clean, balanced elegant taste profile calming my still-edgy nerves. I also knocked back a few reds, including the Quinta do Covão Tinto 2014 and Quinta do Covão 2015 Tinto Reserva Touriga Nacional. The former offered elegance, vanilla, smoke and bing cherry nuances. The latter, from 25-year-old vines, was complex, concentrated and rich, yet with the elegance typically associated with Dão reds. Consummate “food wines,” maybe a bit angular on their own, but with the wonderful home-cooked Portuguese lunch I was indulging in, perfect.

  With my ultimate destination, Lisbon, edging near with each kilometer driven, I decided I was still thirsty enough to hit a couple of the regions in and around the city first.

  I stopped in to say hello to Márcio Ferriera, export director at Casa Ermelinda Freitas-Vinhos. Most of the wineries I visited on my excursion were small to mid-sized. CEF-V is, well, big, with extensive vineyard plantings, state-of-the-art facilities and a wide range of wines covering all styles, from sparkling to sweet.

  I tasted about ten of them, and rather than reprint all my tasting notes (which would be as boring to read as they would be to rewrite), I’ll offer this observation: if it’s a quality-driven winery, its wines will (in theory) also be high quality. In the case of CEF-V, the theory was born out in the tasting. Keep an eye out for the flinty, crisp Alvariñho 2016, the bold, succulent Dona Ermalinda Reserva 2015 and the intense, menthol and lead pencil/gunflint-driven Dona Ermalinda Grande Reserve 2011. The tasting was also proof that quality and quantity can actually co-exist.

  Swinging south of Lisbon for a final visit and lunch, I was given a crash course in the wines of the Alentejo region by Morais Rocha, proprietor of the eponymously named winery. We dined that day at País das Uvas, and it was like sitting down to a meal with most of the local population. To say it was served “family style” would be something of an understatement.

  As we share food, wine, laughter and song, I sipped Rocha’s crisp, floral peach-scented JJ Verdejlho 2017 before hunkering down (about six wines later) with a topped-up glass of the Cabernet/Syrah-based Morias Rocha Reserva 2013. Packed with ripe, concentrated, smoky dark plum and tobacco notes laced with cedar, mocha and vanilla, it was a 15 percent ABV blockbuster. Given the superb quality of his wines, I was surprised when, back at the estate, Rocha admitted: “I make more money off olive oil than wine,” a statement that’s the complete opposite of what you typically hear from those who make and sell both liquids.

  The streets of Lisbon are alive. I’m taking in the revelry after an astounding seafood feast at the wildly popular and world-renown Cervejariia Ramiro (check out Anthony Bourdain’s filmed visit on the usual internet sites).

  When you have dinner around midnight, the night tends to run late, like into the next morning late. But in keeping with what I found everywhere that I visited on my tour of Portugal, the people of Lisbon, it seemed to me, to live life in high gear, a state that was vivacious yet relaxed, intense and passionate, and, ultimately, completely civilized. Those living in the more raucous neighborhoods of Lisbon are actually paid “overtime” if street noise carries on later than warranted. Party hard. Sleep well. As it is with Portugal’s wines, the key to pleasure is all in the balance.

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