Vast tapestries adorning the walls of grand buildings around London are not a rare sight. However, the one that greeted us as we arrived for a wine dinner with the Wines of Portugal was quite exceptional. Protruding from the top of the hanging carpet, in the same pattern of thick wool, was a massive moose head – unusual to say the least!
This prepared us for the equally odd venue for the dinner – instead of an intimate private area adjacent to the main dining room at Nuno Mendes’ casual restaurant The Corner Room, we were led into what can best be described as a mini-parliament! It was in fact a council chamber, complete with dark wood paneling and tiered green leather seating leading down to the main floor where a large square wood table, adorned with candles and table settings awaited us.
While we wandered and wondered about this room, we sipped our first wine of the evening, the Quinta das Bageiras, Grande Reserve Bruto Natural 2003 from Bairrada. All the wines for the evening were chosen from Julia Harding MW’s list of 50 Great Portuguese Wines of 2012, and were presented to us by the fabulous Charles Metcalfe. This first wine was the only sparkling one to make the list.
Sparkling wine may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of wine from Portugal (or the 2nd or 3rd either!) but if there is a region to look to for interesting, elegant sparkling wines, then it is Bairrada.
This wine is a great example of the quality the region is producing. It’s a blend of Maria Gomez (known as Fernão Pires in the rest of Portugal) and Bical made in the same method as Champagne and is only produced in the best vintages. This one was aged for seven years and is still fresh and vibrant with lovely toasty, leesy character, with stewed apple, biscuit notes and a bright finish. It was a most fitting welcome to such impressive surroundings!
We took our seats around the wide square table, with Charles presiding over the regional tour of Portugal we were taking vicariously through our wine glasses, as the second wine was poured – the Quinta de Soalheiro, Primeiras Vinhas Alvarinho, 2010 from Vinho Verde.
You may know Vinho Verde from the very tall thin bottles you see featured in your wine shop during warm summer months, and while this wine comes from the same region, it’s different to what you might expect.
Many Vinho Verdes are fabulously refreshing with a light spritz and are often quite low in alcohol, making them ideal for lunchtime imbibing! These are usually a blend of Loureiro and Trajadura, but the Primeiras Vinhas from Soalheiro is 100% Alvarinho (Albariño in Spain).
In the north of the Vinho Verde region is the town of Moncão which is known for producing exquisite single varietal Alvarinhos and is where these grapes are organically farmed and hand harvested. It’s a stunner of a wine! An elegant softness yet brimming with freshness (but without the spritz), with delicate fruit that lingers for ages on the palate. We had it with several tapas of which I felt it worked best with the mackerel with ponzu, ginger and carrots, but it would pair just as well with any white fish or sautéed scallops.
For our third wine, Charles took us south of Vinho Verde to the incomparable Douro Valley, but no, it wasn’t fortified, nor red! The Wine & Soul ‘Guru’, 2008 is in fact a blend of white grape varieties – which ones, we really don’t know – but a good guess would be Viosinho, Rabigato and Gouveio. However, since most vineyards in the area are ‘field blends’ meaning there are many varieties growing side by side, it’s feasible that there are as many as 30 different ones in this wine!
This is a wonderfully lush, plump mouthfilling wine, accented with a touch smokiness and stony minerality with an abundance of zesty citrus notes in the background. The beef tartare with sorrel and smoked yolk was the perfect complement for the Guru, matching the texture and smokiness of the wine.
From the Douro, we moved south to the region of Dão and onto a red. The Julia Kemper Tinto, 2009 is a blend of 4 grapes – 50% Touriga Nacional, 25% Tinta Roriz (also known as Aragónez and Tempranillo), 15% Alfrocheiro and 10% Jaen (or Mencía in Spain). Julia Kemper, when not making wine, is actually a lawyer so it seemed fitting that this wine was right at home in our court-room-like surroundings!
Even with 12 months ageing in French oak, the woody influence was unobtrusive and the wine remarkably fresh and vibrant. This may be due to a combination of the youth of the vines and the moderate Dão climate. The lovely gentle fruit and floral notes alongside the good levels of acidity made it a wine I really enjoyed, and one I’d imagine quite similar to Julia herself, earnest and feminine.
Our final stop on our Portuguese tour was the southern winemaking region of Alentejo, one of the country’s largest. The Esporão, Touriga Nacional 2008 or TN as it says on the label, was the powerhouse wine of evening – rich and full with dark, brambly fruits, understated tannins and was wonderfully easy drinking.
I found it had a decidedly ‘New World’ feel to it as it was ripe and lush without the grippy tannins many Tourigas often have – could this be because head winemaker David Baverstock is an Aussie?! I met David on a visit to Esporão several years ago, he’s a wonderfully laid back guy whose wealth of knowledge about Portugal, his land, his grapes and his wines is not only vast, but inspiring – and it’s evident in all the wines he produces.
This same cavernous wisdom can also be attributed to our esteemed host, Charles, whose perfect Portuguese pronunciation is as pleasing to listen to as his wonderful baritone inflection and stage-worthy singing voice – although not nearly enough singing occurred that night!
As wonderful a guide as Charles was for the wines over dinner, so too can he be your chaperone to exploring Portugal further, with his book – ‘The Wine & Food Lover’s Guide to Portugal”.
To your wine adventures!