Do You Know Your Dão?
Before boarding a flight for a recent trip to central Portugal, I took stock of what I knew about the country’s food and wine. Port wine, a passing familiarity with the dry reds, salt cod (en masse), linguiça, caldo verde, pork and clams and pastel de nata (fabulous custard tarts) were the items that came readily to mind.
In regard to Portugal’s local wines, a high percentage are made from indigenous grapes. Its location on the western tip of the Iberian Peninsula, an anemic economy in the early 1900s and a military dictatorship which lasted for almost 40 years left Portugal in self-imposed isolation for most of the 20th century. Without outside intervention, vineyards were left to their own devices at a time when other European countries scrambled to plant as many international varietals as possible.This is not to say that Portuguese wines were completely forgotten. Port and Madeira continued to thrive on the world market during this time. Also, one of the greatest wine marketing successes of the 20th century, the semi sparkling/pink wines known as Mateus and Casal Mendes flourished throughout these turbulent times.
Even today, fully part of the EU and with complete access to everything that is wine and grape fashionable, Portugal still embraces its heritage and concentrates on its native grapes. At last count there were some 300.
So with this in mind, and a 3500-mile flight ahead, I grabbed a glass of Portuguese red before takeoff in preparation for my visit to the lesser-known, yet important red wine regions of Bairrada, Dão and Beiras.
Two hours north of Lisbon is the Atlantic region of Bairrada, an ancient grape-growing area that has been producing wine since the expulsion of the Moors in the 10th century. Located some 20 kilometres from the coast, it is one of Portugal’s wettest regions. The terrain is replete with rolling hills and barros (clay) soils, for which the region is named.
By far, the dominant grape is Baga, a thin-skinned late-ripening red varietal. It produces dark-coloured wines, which tend be very tannic, and in some cases astringent, if not picked when completely ripe. Early autumn rains that cause rot are the culprit, forcing some growers to harvest before complete maturity. Hence, there is a green, hard edge to some of the wines. Compounding this problem, historically, has also been the use of stems during vinification. According to producers, the recipe for success for this varietal is destemming, low yields and green harvesting.
When treated with respect, these are truly impressive, powerful wines. They have great aging potential, with a personality of dark berry fruits and an herbal edge. What to serve with them? The local specialty is roast suckling pig, an ethereal match if there ever was one.
In terms of white, the dominant grape is Maria Gomes, a honey and spice-tinged varietal that accounts for 80 per cent of plantings. Bical, which accounts for another 15 per cent, is known for its acidity. Although there are dry versions, their primary use is in sparkling wine. Documentation in the ultra chic Bairrada wine museum confirms that the region has been producing traditional method bubblies since 1890. Today, 1.3 million bottles are produced annually in white, rose and red versions.
Located to the east of Bairrada is Dão. Portugal’s oldest demarcated region for dry wines, its status was confirmed in 1908. Sheltered on three sides by granitic mountain ranges, it is protected against the Atlantic influence which affects Bairrada, making for a warmer and drier growing season, and resulting in little or no rot.
Named after the river that runs through it, the region’s soil of sand and granite gives life to numerous grapes, 80 per cent of which are red. Four have been recognized as the leaders. The most important is Touriga Nacional, which is indigenous to Dão (much to the chagrin of Port producers). By law, it must be a minimum 20 per cent of any blend. By practice it is much more. Its persona is one of depth, longevity and black fruits. Touriga’s yang is Tinta Roriz (Spain’s Tempranillo), giving fruit and weight. In French terms, think of them as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, respectively.
The rising star is Alfrocheiro, and even though there are limited plantings, it shows great promise. An early ripening red casta (grape), its keystones are colour and acid. Jaen, another minor player, is known for colour and substance.
As for the whites, the king is Encruzado, which is only planted in Dão, and nowhere else in the world. It produces full-bodied, well-balanced whites that respond well to oak, if desired. Others include Bical and Malvasia, but they are generally considered to be inferior.
beiras vinho region
Beiras is a large region covering most of central Portugal, stretching from the Atlantic to the Spanish border, encompassing both the DOCs of Bairrada and Dão. Wines that do not meet the strict rules imposed by the DOC, or that use French grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, usually default to this designation. Experimentation is the mantra here. Production ranges from easy drinking fruity wines to superbly concentrated high-end wines that combine both Portuguese individuality and French flavours.
As for the current state of vinous affairs, Portugal is standing on the precipice between Old World and New World styles. The younger generation is now taking over. Having learned their trade abroad, they are asserting their influence over a new generation of modern wine production, which the old guard, rooted in tradition, is unsurprisingly reluctant to embrace. Nonetheless, as we have seen in other countries, progressive styles will continue to expand, and eventually became the standard of the future. The following are a selection of my favourite wines that I discovered on this trip.
91 Paco dos Cunhas de Santar Vinha do Contador 2008, Dão
This was the finest white wine of the entire Portuguese visit. Made from a majority of Encruzado, it was given the Burgundian treatment: new oak aging and batonnage. It could pass for an excellent Meursault Premier Cru. Pale in colour, the nose sings with pineapple, peach, spice, flowers, anise, honey and minerals. In the mouth, there is a freshness as well as cream, spice, and earthy minerals. The palate is concentrated and the finale, long.
93 Cabriz Four C 2007, Dão
Sultry, sexy and succulent, this blend combines 4 different grapes from the 4 regions where they excel. The Touriga Nacional is sourced from Dão, Baga from Bairrada, Tinta Cão from the Douro and the Tinta Roriz from southern region of Alentejo. Opaque black, the waves of super concentrated violets, raspberry liqueur, crème de cassis, cinnamon and tobacco smoke inundate the senses. Behind the flesh, there are considerable tannins, so this seductress will age well for the next 15 years.
90 Caves Sao João Quinta do Poço do Lobo Reserva 2007, Bairrada
Medium cherry colour, this blend is 40% Baga, 40% Touriga and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and offers up a medicinal, plum, raspberry, earth and spice nose. Full bodied and ripe, the finale is long, echoing with plum, vanilla and pencil shavings. Drink it over the next 12 to 15 years.
90 Campolargo Termeão 2007, Bairrada
This blend of 80% Touriga Nacional and the remainder Castelão serves up sweet plums, dark cherries, vanilla, cocoa and spice. The wine is elegant and stylish, with a sweet mid palate and tannins that will allow the wine to age gracefully for 10 years.
90 Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas 1990, Bairrada
The epiphany of the trip! Looks and tastes exactly like and aged Barbaresco. Light garnet, the tar, plums, dried cherries, violets and mint are supported by Baga’s tannins, which are still present, even at 20 years of age. With excellent length, it is well suited for pan-seared duck breast served on a mushroom risotto.
89 Quinta da Garrida Reserva Touriga Nacional 2005, Dão
Made entirely from Touriga Nacional, this midnight black wine shows purple highlights. Full bodied, the plums, violets, rubina, maple and spice are layered on a chewy texture.
88 Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas 2007, Vinho Regional Beiras
Luis Pato is undeniably the leading producer of Bairrada. An intellectual, he is progressive in his thinking and extremely passionate in the defense of the local wines. So much so that when he had a falling out with the local Comissão Vitivinicola about their obtuse rules, he removed the Bairrada appellation and replaced it with the liberal Vinho Regional designation. Made from 40-year-old Baga vines, the cocoa, cherries, plums, earth and spice unfurl over the grippy tannins. Drink it over the next decade.
88 Adega de Penalva Garrafeira 2004, Dão
Garrafeira denotes a producer’s special reserve. By law, it must spend 3 years aging before release, of which 2 must be in barrel. Even at 6 years of age, this wine comes across extremely youthful. There is a black/purple colour and a bouquet of violets, blueberries, cassis liqueur, oranges and spice. It finishes on a cocoa note and is nicely balanced in all aspects.
88 Caves Sao João Frei João Reserva 2005, Bairrada
Predominately Baga, the bouquet of raspberries, plums, cinnamon, vanilla and herbs is layered upon dry tannins. Pair it with some of that infamous suckling pig or a slab of cow, and all will be good.
88 Primavera Special Selection 2006, Dão
This elegant wine spent 6 months in new American barrels. Smokey bacon, spice, violets, toast and cocoa are all present. The lengthy finale shows fresh acid and supple tannins.
87 Luis Pato Casto Baga Bruto NV, Bairrada
This bubbly red Baga smells and tastes of strawberry, cream and cherries. It is dry with some tannins on the palate, with medium length. It is made for food.
87 FTP Picos de Couto Blanc de Noirs Bruto NV, Dão
This Blanc de Noirs is made from Touriga Nacional and Alfrocheiro. The white colour has a peach tone to it and serves up aromas of strawberries, peaches, earth and yeast. Bubbles are creamy and the palate echoes in the nose. There is very good length.
Visit your local liquor board web site for current prices of these and other vintages.