Travel Guide to Portugal

Pairing Portuguese Wines with Roasted Fowl

By Sonia Nolasco

On cold winter evenings there’s nothing more heartwarming for this writer than a chicken roasting in the oven. The scent of herby seasonings enchant my senses and transport me to my mother’s kitchen in New Jersey where she roasts to perfection just as she learned to do back in the Old Country. In America, roasted turkey is considered one of the coziest meals in this country’s culinary repertoire. To meld the flavors of the Old and New worlds in my own kitchen, I need only to turn to my mother, Maria do Ceu, who along with her seven siblings was raised in the sleepy village of Bemposta do Campo in the interior Beira Baixa region of Portugal where roasting in a communal brick oven was the norm during her younger years. Though she and most of her brothers and sisters left the village for greater opportunities in Lisbon, France and America they recreated the roasts in their modern-day ovens, treating new generations of children (yours truly) to the succulent Mediterranean flavors of their countryside home.

In America, my mother’s roasting adeptness is most venerated on Thanksgiving Day, which not traditionally a Portuguese holiday, we adopted as our own and celebrate it as our fellow immigrants do as “the day of the turkey.” For Portuguese families, the downfall to this American holiday is in fact its centerpiece—the turkey—which does make its way onto some Luso tables back in the Old Country but usually takes a back seat to chicken and duck. The complaints about the bird’s “dryness” have generally been unanimous. But when November came around each year in Newark, where I grew up among a vibrant Portuguese community, my mother (dubbed “Ceu” by friends and family) did indeed trade in her chicken for turkey. Unlike our neighbors who dreaded eating their bird (in some cases substituting it entirely with some other fowl), I, my father (Jose Luis) and my younger brother (Luis) had no reason to beg that the gobbler become an afterthought on the holiday dinner table. And as our family has expanded over the years, my mother’s turkey remains a godsend during our annual autumn festivities.

The new challenge has become finding the right Portuguese wine to pair with the turkey, which in American homes a California or Oregon Pinot Noir tends to do the trick, since it’s a light red that doesn’t overpower the white meat on the bird but is fruitful enough to stand up to the dark meat as well. But the bird’s mixed meat isn’t the only factor to take in to consideration when pairing wine with Ceu’s turkey (or her fowl in general), it’s also the thick olive oil gravy infused with herbs and loads of garlic that make the roast so moist and appetizing. The robust Mediterranean flavors beckon for an equal wine. This time around, I left the Pinot Noir on the shelf and decided to bring the New and Old World traditions a little closer by pairing the turkey with a Portuguese red and a white.

Foral 2009 (Alianca): The herby gravy was complemented by the dry finish in the Douro red; however, at times it overpowered the white meat I had allowed on my plate for the sake of our pairing (dark meat is more up my alley). The medium to full-bodied wine appeared to be a too intense, spicy, dry and inconsistent pairing for this mixed meat bird. It would likely pair well with duck, rabbit or lamb. With April on the horizon, it might be a wise choice for gamier Easter meats. But for turkey and chicken, the suggestion is a less tannic Trincadeira red from the Terras do Sado, such as a Casa Ermelinda Freitas, which has been pleasing in such pairings in the past. Or, a rose blend like Eugenio de Almeida from the Alentejo region.

My second choice of the night was a white, Follies 2006 (Aveleda): Containing 60 percent Chardonnay and 40 percent Maria Gomes from the Bairrada region. This medium to full-bodied white was light enough that it paired well with the subtlety of the white meat but just as well with the charred, gravy-covered, crispy skin on the wings that I enjoy so much. The strength and smoothness of the Chardonnay grape blended with the refreshing acidity of the Maria Gomes made this wine an excellent choice for our roast. It also awakened the seasonings in the sauce. I could taste more of everything; the bay leaves, the citrus, oregano, basil and rosemary. Nothing foul about this fowl and wine pairing! Check out our Portuguese Roasted Fowl Recipe and may it warm your hearts this winter season.


Sonia Andresson-Nolasco

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