Even though Douro is the world’s oldest demarcated wine region, it is not know for its table wines. Douro winemakers produced port wine in part because of climatic conditions. The weather can be very hot during the harvest season, raising wine fermentation temperatures and killing the yeast that converts sugar into alcohol. When Fernando Nicolau de Almeida produced the first Barca Velha, in 1952, he famously carted blocks of ice at great expense to control the fermentation temperature.
The combination of modern wine-making technology and the Douro’s unique grapes is heralding a new era for the region. One example of this new beginning is Chryseia, a wonderfully elegant table wine made with grapes traditionally reserved for the great vintage Ports. It is produced by Bruno Prats, the famous wine maker from Bordeaux, and the Symington family, renowned for their port wines.
Chryseia means golden in Greek. The name is a reference to the Douro region (Douro means “made of gold” in Portuguese). But it is also a sign that, when two great wine names get together, they’ll settle for nothing less than brilliant.
According to an old saying, you need three men to drink a bottle of Bairrada wine, one to do the drinking, and the other two to help him stand up.
Bairrada wines do not actually have a high alcoholic content. But they do have a strong taste imparted by a local varietal, the baga. There was a time when Bairada producers started replacing the baga with French varietals to appeal to the international wine market.
This trend would probably have continued if it weren’t for Luís Pato. This maverick wine maker was determined to make exceptional baga wines. Success was not easy. He had to defy tradition and find new methods to produce and age his wines. But his results are magnificent. Which is why star chefs, like the brilliant Jean-Georges Vongerichten, include Pato’s wines on their wine lists.
You need three people to drink a bottle of Luís Pato: a couple to enjoy the wine with their meal and a chef to cook a meal as great as the wine.
Pêra Manca is a cult wine produced near Évora, in Alentejo. It has a long pedigree that is intertwined with the history of Portugal. Pedro Álvares Cabral took bottles of Pêra Manca in the voyage that resulted in the discovery of Brazil, in 1500. The wine continued to gather fame, wining gold medals in Bordeaux in 1879 and 1898, but its production ended with the death of the vineyard’s owner in 1920.
In 1990 the Eugénio de Almeida Foundation resumed the production of Pêra Manca, aging the wine in the cellar of a 1580 Jesuit monastery. Francisco Colaço do Rosário, an enologist who did a groundbreaking study of the Alentejo varietals, selected an old vineyard for this project.
The white Pêra Manca is made with Antão Vaz and Arinto grapes. The red Pêra Manca is made with Trincadeira and Aragonês grapes and it is produced only in exceptional years.
It is a wonderful wine for a special occasion. After all, it was good enough to celebrate the discovery of Brazil.
Click here for the Eugénio de Almeida Foundation Cartuxa winery website.
Barca Velha is a mythical wine, the first Portuguese table wine to acquire an international reputation. Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, Casa Ferreirinha’s enologist, adapted the techniques used to produce vintage ports to make superlative table wine. After years of experimentation, he produced the first Barca Velha in 1952 with grapes from a vineyard planted by Dona Antónia Ferreira.
Since then, Barca Velha has been produced only 12 times, when the sun and the clouds joined forces to create exceptional grapes.
How did Nicolau de Almeida decide whether a vintage merited the Barca Velha name? He relied on his wife. He took an unlabeled bottle home to share with her at dinner. If they finished the bottle by the end of the meal, the vintage was a Barca Velha.
The first story is about the death of Dona Antónia Ferreira’s grandfather. He had a chance encounter with Napoleon’s troops and, eager to show off, addressed the soldiers in impeccable French. The soldiers assumed that he was a deserter from the French army and shot him.
The second story is about Admiral Horatio Nelson. Nelson drank port while he devised his strategy for the battle of Trafalgar. According to legend, he dipped his finger in port wine to draw a map of the fleet positions he later used.
Some might infer from these stories that in times of danger it is a good idea to drink port and a bad idea to speak French. But the lessons from history are always subjective.
Dona Antónia Ferreira lived in turbulent times. She was born in 1811, the year in which Napoleon’s troops finally retreated from Portugal. When she inherited her grandfather’s wine business, another enemy came: the phylloxera epidemic.
Dona Antónia hired thousands of workers to graft her vines into the roots of American vines resistant to the pest. And it worked!
She went on to produce great port wines, plant new vineyards, and make a fortune. She used some of her wealth to endow schools and hospitals, earning the nickname Ferreirinha (little Ferreira) for her generosity.
In 1987, her descendants sold her company to Sogrape, another wine maker. But the brand Casa Ferreirinha endures as a symbol of quality. So, if you see a Ferreirinha bottle in your wine shop, take it home. And make a toast to Dona Antónia who believed that one can plant the seeds of prosperity during hard times.
Do any of these names ring a bell? Touriga nacional, trincadeira, baga, tinta roriz, tinta miúda, ramisco, bastardo? What about alvarinho, arinto, esgana cão, Fernão Pires, sercial? They are all grape varietals unique to Portugal (the first is a list of red grapes and the second a list of white grapes). A few French commodity grapes, such as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, currently dominate the international wine market. Portugal has a treasure trove of native grape varietals, developed over centuries of wine production. These varietals have unique flavors and aromas that are waiting to be discovered. So, if you are tired of the same old wines from the same old French grapes, try the wines of Portugal’s growing number of top producers.
After World War II Mateus Rosé, a sweet rosé wine, brought precious export revenues to a poor country. But it branded Portugal as a producer of cheap, easy-to-drink wine. Virgil famously wrote that “Bacchus amat colles,” (Bacchus loves the hills), implying that grapes cultivated on slopes are especially blessed. Portugal’s rolling hills going down to the sea are ideal for wine production. Large investments in technology and a new generation of enologists are making sure that the blessings of the ancient god of wine do not go to waste.
Cistercians monks started producing wine in the Bombarral region in 1153. The Bombarral wine fair, which takes place in early August, celebrates this ancient wine-making tradition.
You’ll find few tourists there. It is an event designed for the locals, which makes it a lot more fun. You can buy a glass for a nominal amount (about 3 Euros) and use it to try the wines of many producers, including one of our favorites, Quinta do Sanguinhal.
You can meet the famous D. Amélia, maker of an incredible pear cake and many other delicacies. And eat outdoors underneath the foliage of ancient oak trees at the Zélia restaurant stand. They serve an astonishing grilled rabbit and a lot of other great fare. Mark your calendars!
Favaios is an aperitif made from muscatel grapes grown in the Douro region. These grapes trap the sunlight all year round, which is why Favaios looks like liquid sun.
You will not be surprised, dear reader, to know that the best place to enjoy Favaios is by the beach at 6:30 pm, when the sun is tired and all is at peace. Favaios can be enjoyed outside of Portugal. But it will only remind you that you’re not in Portugal.