“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
Needless to say, Setúbal is not in France. The Setúbal peninsula lies south of Lisbon, across the Tagus River estuary. The peninsula has two DOC sub-regions, Palmela DOC, which is responsible for dry wine production, and Setúbal DOC, which produces the region’s famous fortified dessert wine (Moscatel de Setúbal). The port city of Setúbal lies on the south side of the peninsula, about 45 kilometers from Lisbon on the Sado River estuary. Its location naturally makes Setúbal a fishing city. As far as food goes, it is most famous for its sardines – in fact, the Setúbal sardine was recently proclaimed one of Portugal’s 7 Gastronomic Wonders. (photo by Alpha Avlxyz)
Yet part of Setúbal’s delight lies in its surprises: I went in search of grilled sardines and sweet Moscatel. I left inspired by the region’s dry white wines and oysters.
I drove into the city of Setúbal, which took me past flat vineyards planted on sand-based soils and rolling vineyards nestled in clay and limestone soils of the Arrábida Mountains, just south of town of Azeitão. I suggest you do the same! Check out Champanheira on Avenida Luisa Todi for lunch. This 13-year old restaurant’s mission is to celebrate the region’s gastronomy. The prime attraction is none other than Setúbal’s oysters. Try the tasting menu called “Les Portugaises” for a serving of 12 locally-farmed oysters. If you’re feeling decadent, go for the oyster gratin cooked with local espumante. I know, food cooked in wine has a special appeal …
Given what we know about the historical mollusc trade, Hemingway’s oysters, “with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste,” could very well have been Portuguese. Portuguese oysters were particularly popular with the French in the 19th century due to a shortage in the country’s native flat oysters. France became the largest importer of the Portuguese oyster, also known as “Crassostrea Angulate”. In France, is referred to as “Huitre Portugaise”. In the 1860s, a ship carrying Portuguese oysters was forced to throw its cargo overboard into the Gironde estuary by Arcachon during a storm. And so began the colonization of south western French waters by the Portuguese oyster. Whether imported from the Tagus estuary or grown in the Gironde, les Portugaises are precisely what I imagine Hemingway was eating.
Les Portugaises were decimated by disease around 1970. Thirty years later, a Setúbal-based project endeavoured to reclaim the Sado’s oyster production. The result: Setúbal is now seeing the resurgence of the Portuguese oyster. Interested? Check out Setúbal’s Festival da Ostra (Oyster Festival), taking place from September 25 through October 11, 2015. (photo by Bacalhoa Vinhos)
As Hemingway understood, no oyster is complete without a glass of crisp white wine. Wine to Hemingway was a routine celebration of life. In A Moveable Feast, he explains:
“In Europe then we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also as a great giver of happiness and well-being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary.”
And there you have it. Eating oysters? Pour yourself a glass and delight.
While best known for its small production of sweet dessert wine, the Setúbal region boasts excellent, high-value dry whites that make a perfect oyster match.
The white varieties featured in many of Setúbal’s dry wines are particularly well-suited to oyster pairing. Fernão Pires (known as Maria Gomes in Ribatejo and Bairrada) is the most widely-planted white grape in Portugal and the second-most planted in Setúbal (after Moscatel de Setúbal, which is destined for sweet wines). Fernão Pires can be aromatically complex, contributing citrus flavors and aromas such as lemon, lime and orange, or even a floral orange blossom. Outstanding examples might reveal a strong mineral nature and honeyed flavors and aromas. Attentive vinification is key to ensuring Fernão Pires makes wines with sufficient acidity.
For this reason, it is often blended with Arinto, which is highly acidic by nature. Arinto’s robustness makes it well-suited to Setúbal, as it tends to maintain its acidity in hot climate. Arinto, which is the third most planted white variety in Setúbal, will make your mouth water and evoke the sensation of crispness and freshness. You may note citrus flavors and aromas such as lemon and grapefruit; you might sense some apple.
Arinto, which is known as Pederna in the Vinho Verde region, is significantly outnumbered in Setúbal by Fernão Pires. Fernão Pires accounts for around 40% of the region’s white wine plantings, whereas Arinto represents only 6%. If you’re a fan of Viogner or Roussanne, you may like a mono-varietal Fernão Pires. If you’re partial to a dry Chenin Blanc or a crisp Pinot Blanc, a mono-varietal Arinto could interest you. Or be adventurous and pick up a Setúbal white blend featuring both grapes, such as Adega de Pegões Branco, which is made by a local cooperative. For a richer and more complex Setúbal blend, try and get your hands on Brejinho da Costa’s Costa SW Reserva Branco, which is made from Arinto and Antão Vaz. (photo by Bacalhao Vinhos)
We’ve talked local grapes in Fernão Pires and Arinto, but international grape varieties such as Chardonnay feature in many of the region’s blended or even mono-varietal wines. In fact, the majority of Setubal’s dry wine production are not appellation wines. In other words, these are wines that aren’t made according to DOC rules and are simply labelled as “Vinho Regional”. Often, they’ll feature international varieties. For a sense of Setúbal’s take on Chardonnay, pick up a bottle of Bacalhoa Vinhos de Portugal’s Cova da Ursa. It’s one of my favorite Portuguese whites for its full body and layered flavour and aroma profile of butter, vanilla, and tropical fruits. Bonus points for the great value price.
Whether you’re drinking a Vinho Regional or a Palmela DOC blend, make sure to drink white and that the wine you’re drinking is as cold as the oysters you’re eating. And remember Hemingway’s words: before you lies “a great giver of happiness and well-being and delight.”
Wishing you happy and delightful eating and drinking.