Sometimes I feel like Toffee McIntosh, the vacuous Seattle news reporter in the Zoo Story episode of Frasier who proclaimed: “If it happens in Seattle, it’s news to me!” How else to explain my total lack of knowledge about the burgeoning wine industry in Portugal? I mean, it was right there in front of me. USA Today wrote about it. Wine Spectator’s July 31, 2015 cover story is about “The Future of Portugal.” And if that is not compelling enough, three of the four top wines on Wine Spectator’s 2014 Top 100 Ranking are from the Douro Valley wine region of Portugal.
I blame Sous Chef for my ignorance—about Portuguese wines, not my general ignorance for which I take full responsibility. When Portuguese wines came up in the past, he recited as if by rote that they were rustic, dirty tasting, crude, and unpleasant. Of course, he was talking from eons ago when he was into collecting wines and had a rather vast wine knowledge about them—courtesy of Robert Parker for the most part. So except for Port, Sous Chef has avoided Portuguese wines like a bad idea. But times change, even if Sous Chef’s opinions transform more slowly. So when wine pundits such as Matt Kramer now think Portugal is the most exciting wine place on the planet and offers some of the greatest wine values on the market, you don’t need to hit me over the head with a wine thief to get my attention.
This week’s Wine Pairing Weekend headed for Portugal. Geographically and climatically, Portugal has a lot going for it. Abundant sunshine and over 500 miles of beaches characterize this country. But summers can be very hot there, even along the coast, so a refreshing soup is obligatory. For my money, a chilled bowl of Gazpacho is the ideal soup for the Dog Days of August (a term Sous Chef just explained to me as we sweltered in 100+ degrees and high humidity). There are as many Gazpachos as there are warm climates, but my favorite version is from Jose Andrés. I love the smooth, sophisticated flavors and textures of his recipe, but preparation can be very time consuming. Fortunately, David Leite has a similar version in his cookbook, The New Portuguese Table, called Gazpacho with Garnishes that has all the characteristics I love: bright acidity, balance of hot/cool flavors, and fresh from the garden ingredients. David’s version can be made in your Vita-Mix, Ninja IQ Blender or food processor in just minutes, and then it is chilled for at least three hours and served with a garnish of fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, prosciutto, and croutons. If you are consuming the soup outdoors or in a warm chamber, just put a frozen tomato and/or cucumber ice cube on the base of the bowl to keep the soup chilled.
When the soup is red and the weather is hot, my inclination is to pair with a chilled rosé. But I happened to be at K&L Wine Merchants in West Hollywood last week and asked for some suggestions for Portuguese wines. One was the Adega de Borba Red 2012 DOC Alentejo. The Alentejo wine region covers about a third of Portugal and is known for the rich fruity red wines it produces from vines grown in a variety of soils like schist, pink marble, limestone, and clay. My first impression of the Adega de Borba was a clean, slightly soapy/plastic nose with a bit of pucker in the mouth. As the wine opened up and paired with the food it took on characteristics of ripe, rich fruit thereby avoiding the oxymoron of clean and soapy. The tannins were balanced, and the wine had a jeweled ruby color. It is still a young wine, so it benefits from being decanted or allowed time in the glass to open up before consuming. This wine retails for just $9.99 a bottle at K & L Wine Merchants and is a great value.
For the entrée I prepared Sea Bass with Fennel and Orange, another recipe from The New Portuguese Cooking. This recipe is an adaption of a recipe from Miguel Castro e Silva, chef at the esteemed Bull & Bear Restaurant in Porto. Bull & Bear makes numerous top restaurant lists and is known for its interpretation of traditional Portuguese dishes and extensive wine list. I am not sure how David Leite’s recipe varies from the original, but his dish is packed with full, bright, fresh flavors. I was forced to use Chilean Sea Bass, which is not actually a bass, because Whole Foods was out of Branzino, the Mediterranean sea bass which is appropriate for the recipe. The result was very good, but I am eager to try Branzino to see the difference. Best of all, this dish can be made in less than 30 minutes and is sure to impress guests with its flavors and presentation.
The wine I paired with the Sea Bass was a definite jaw-dropper. Our guy at K & L Wine Merchants in West Hollywood quickly recognized that Sous Chef and I are rather catholic when it comes to food and wine and suggested a 1995 Caves São João Quinta do Poco do Lobo which he described as a really unique wine from Portugal. The wine is 100% Arinto grapes, one of Portugal’s oldest indigenous grape varietals, and one I was not familiar with. To say this wine is unique is something of an understatement. Caves São João is a three generation family company that started as a wine trader in 1920 and expanded to winemaking in the 1940s. As if being in business for nearly a century is not achievement enough, it is also known for its library of over 1,000,000 wines that are stored in tunnels beneath its property. Obviously the Costa family knows something about the proper storage of wine and their knowledge is perfectly demonstrated by the 20 year old white wine we tried. For starters, the wine was fresh, complex, and definitely not over-the-hill. The color was a deep golden, almost amber honey color. Golden fruit notes – pear, apple and lemon– graced the palate with hints of nuts and maybe even truffles and mushrooms. It had an almost Sherry like quality to it, except for its minerality and acidity. This wine may just be the Fountain of Youth when it comes to white wines and is a bargain at $34.99 from K & L Wine Merchants. But please don’t rush out and buy it until I have figured out how to convince Sous Chef to buy a case or more.
After a month of exploring Portuguese food and wine at home, Portugal is now on my bucket travel list and the food and wine will be appearing frequently on my table and in my glass.
Make sure you check out the all the pairings this month from the Wine Pairing Weekend Group:
Jade of Tasting Pour is pairing “ Portugal’s Green Wine with Stew Fresh from the Sea.”
Jennifer from Vino Travels shares “Agro Batoreu Terre Silvestre Portugese Blend with Asian Pork”
Martin of Enofylz Wine Blog tempts us with “Taste of Portugal:Grilled Fish Setubal Style and 2008 Torre de Tavares Encruzado”
Join us for a live Twitter Chatter Chat using the hashtag #winePW on Saturday, August 8th at 8am PST/11EST and share your thoughts and experiences on this emerging wine region. September the Wine Pairing Weekend Group with be featuring “Wines from Volcanic Regions” on Saturday, September 12th. Interested in participating? Contact our September host Culinary Adventures with Camilla.