Portugal has been on my wine radar from the very start. Having roots in two of Portugal’s former African colonies, I consider it to be my Fatherland.
When I became a wine buyer, I made it a point to stock a diverse Portuguese selection to express the breadth of their national product. Sea Grape has also been very active in ViniPortugal tastings to further spread the gospel. One morning, I received an invitation to the Tejo wine region; I was overcome with immediate joy. There is nothing more unique than visiting a country as a wine professional and this trip was truly unforgettable.
Along with a large group of writers, bloggers, sommeliers, importers, restaurateurs, and retailers, I traversed the Atlantic on a six-hour booze-free flight. Upon arrival we quickly drove through the saturated green landscape of Lisboa towards the historic city of Santarem. Rife with colorful tile facades, gothic churches, artful geometric stone roads, and cute, old ladies, this place was gushing with charm.
Santarem is located in the heart of the Ribatejo wine region which in recent years, was shortened to Tejo, to better position itself on the global market. The Tejo has a generally mild climate with regular rainfall and is situated at the end of the Tagus River where the land is fertile and rich in winemaking history. Following the tour, we ended up in the municipal garden atop a fortification built in the Middle Ages. As the sun set in front of us, we had the most stunning view of the river winding through the landscape below. These are the details that help bridge the space between the wine in the glass and its place of origin. With our senses suitably primed, we were more than ready for an evening of wining and dining.
We tasted through about 20 wines and as with any large group, our preferences varied. We were most impressed by a single vineyard, Fernao Pires by Monte Cascas. A pricey white wine vinified from the most complex local varietal, meant to rival the whites of Burgundy. My favorite red was a blend to indigenous Portuguese grapes, Trincadeira and Castelao, produced by Enoport. The Vinhas Altas paired best with the meat plates, because of its lengthy acidity, balance, and youthful vigor. I also found the wine very approachable. At 7 Euro, it effortlessly outperformed the rest at its price point.
The next day, we visited the largest vineyard in the region. The expansive estate of Quinta da Alorna, founded in 1723, is located in the Charneca terroir of Tejo. Charneca is a sub-region made up mostly of sandy and stony soils, which prove to be the least fertile of the three sub-regions but perfect for wine growing. Vines always produce the best fruit when they suffer and are forced to reach deep down for precious water stores. Alongside the wines from Alorna, we tasted wines from Quinta Casal Montiero and Fiuza. The whites from Charneca from all three wineries were fantastic, the Arinto and Fernao Pires blends were great values and can rival any Sauvignon Blanc at $10-15. The reds, from the unoaked to the Reserve lines, were very international in style; albeit well-made and worthy, they didn’t really communicate the essence of the land. What did drive the group crazy in love was Quinta da Alorna’s dessert wine. The Abafado five years is made with 100% Fernao Pires and aged in old barrels. Striking a perfect balance of acidity and sugar with aromas of honey, figs, and nuts, this wine was made for the holiday season. Sea Grape will have it on the shelf for $15, so don’t miss out on this new discovery.
The last day was by far the most decadent. We spent it with the Countess of Casa Cadaval who, on top of making excellent wines, are the oldest breeders of Lusitano horses in the world. Casa Cadaval was where I finally encountered the most exceptional red of the trip. The Trincadeira Preta 2009 elegantly expressed the terroir of the Leziria sub-region and the Tejo as a whole. Showing bright red fruit up front, followed by spicy herbaceous notes, it exemplified restraint, while being balanced and well structured. I can’t wait to put this one on the shelf for the West Villagers to share in our delight. After the tasting, we sipped on rose wine and nibbled on local sheep’s cheese while watching a gallant display of their world-class beasts. The night ended in Lisboa where Vinhos do Tejo Wines chartered a yacht for their grand tasting dinner. A breathless waterfront tour that capped off a very memorable week; I’m still catching my breath.