The hilltop village of Azenhas do Mar, along with the coast of Colares. Photo credit: Leoboudv.
Portuguese wine was for a long time tantamount to harsh bitterness and long storage potential - perhaps too long for its own good. With a not too distant military dictatorship when wine exports were not at the top of the agenda, several vineyards fell into oblivion, and in many places the vines were uprooted up in favor of cereal cultivation.
Around the turn of the decade between the eighties and nineties something happened when a handful of producers managed to reach out with their products internationally. The game turned to modernized wines, more fruit-driven and easily accessible than before, often with international grape varieties, and at prices that appealed to many consumers. In particular, there were producers in wine areas near Lisbon and the Alentejo region driving the development, but also the Douro valley managed to keep up and deliver tasty, full-bodied table wines.
“Today's Portuguese producers mix style and technology”
In the early 2000s, a new wave of producers in the export market made themselves known to the world, this time with slightly more exclusive wines in more stylish bottles. The international grape varieties were still included in the wines, but a pride in the domestic varieties also emerged. The respect for the old and endangered species has also recently led to an increase in the number of wine lovers once again setting their eyes on old-fashioned style wines, made to last a long time in the cellar.
To get a better understanding of the different styles of Portuguese wine, I went out on a wine tour from “then” to “now”, a journey that proved to be easier said than done. This time, we skip the celebrity-regions Douro, Minho and Alentejo, and make a tour that begins with a more historical tone in Bairrada and ends with the latest in Lisbon wine bars.
Tradition at the Buçaco Palace Hotel
I am joined at the hotel by Zurich's Porsche club. We and another handful of tourists have managed to take the bumpy roads up to Buçaco Palace Hotel in the border between the wine regions of Bairrada and Dão.
The Porsche Club has parked their cars right next to the hotel's outdoor dining area. I put my rented Opel Corsa a bit further away. Apart from the guests' cars, there is not much here that hints that we are in the present day. The hotel, once a royal palace, sits in a formerly monastic area dating back to the 17th century at the top of Serra do Buçaco. The brochure found in the room presents a quite limited but highly focused “must do's”, namely to walk in the hotel park or in the surrounding forests.
The wonderfully ornate lobby and stairwell —with its tiled artwork, suits of armor, and furniture you can't sit in— leads your thoughts far back in history. At the same time, the Buçaco Palace Hotel has proper and stylish service, a couple of lovely common rooms, outdoor cafés and a restaurant.
Some of the guest rooms are quite luxurious, but most are nothing to write home about. You can tell it was a long time since any renovation was done, and although they’re spacious, there is nothing to encourage you to spend too much time in them. Instead, there are two things that attract attention: the food and the wines. It is for the latter I am here - they have the privilege of offering vintages hard to find elsewhere.
“What makes me curious is not a particular selection but the way they store their own house wine, in much the same way as in the early 1900s”
I meet with António Rocha, wine manager for the hotel. He says that the owning family De Almeida always had the ambition to create a substantial wine collection, inspired by luxury hotels in France and Italy. Back in the day, the wines came from their own vineyard, and in the basement, there are vintages dating back to the 1940s.
As mentioned, the range is limited - a red wine of the grape varieties Touriga Nacional, best known in Dão and Douro, and Baga, Bairrada's “own” grape. White wine is also made, a mixture of the lesser-known varieties Maria Gomes, Encruzado and Bical. Nowadays, the wines are made by a number of different producers, and António Rocha, therefore, sees himself only partly as a winemaker, even though he is part of the process.
To make the red wine, the grapes are trodden in lagares - large open vessels, in true Old Portuguese fashion. They are then stored in three hundred-liter barrels of new French oak. The Baga grape makes up the largest share of the blend, which gives the wine its characteristic tenderness. The mixture with the generously fruity Touriga Nacional gives it yet a few more taste points. The white wine also gets to soak in the oak barrels, for about a year, which makes it wonderfully rustic with hints of honey and fresh fruit. In fact, it is the white that is most impressive with its traditional and timeless style.
The fact that the hotel has produced just these two wines simply depends on the fact that they were made to match the hotel's food, something I notice when I settle down in the beautiful royal dining room with its wooden ornate ceiling. The last rays of the sun are coming down between the trees outside, but the dining room is properly lit in the usual southern European way. After a glass of fresh sparkling Bairradine, I am surprised by the quality of the food. Despite the somewhat old-timey charm of the hotel, the flavors here are quite modern.
Among silver cutlery, middle-aged men in colorful chinos, and some Asian tourists, I enjoy a perfectly poached egg on sour artichoke and al dente beans. Later, a duck with a perfect pink hue with traditional creamy gratin is paired with the thirteen-year-old white house wine – the match is made in heaven. It complements the meal perfectly making up for the almost-but-not-quite perfect service.
Dão – the region that missed the train
After a night in the palace, I head a bit further inland. Just over an hour's drive from Serra do Buçaco lies the small sleepy village of Santar in the middle of the Dão wine region. Previously, the region was known as “Portugal's Bordeaux” thanks to all the small wine producers, but in recent decades most of the grapes have gone to cooperatives. This has led to the fact that many wines from here today are sold very cheaply, perhaps too cheaply for all the growers to earn their keep.
“Casa de Santar is one of the few producers established fairly well in the Swedish market”
The wine house has been owned by the same family since the 19th century, and in the spring of this year the Countess of Vasconcellos died, the last of the family to live in the beautiful whitewashed stone house on the main street. Today Casa de Santar is part of Dão Sul, a large company that owns several producers in six different regions in Portugal, as well as in Brazil.
Luis Santos is a winemaker, and he says that the Dão producers generally slumbered through the big wine revolution that took place in other parts of Portugal around the beginning of the 1990s. Something that made it miss the train to international fame, but it is now well on track to catch up. Today, Dão is dominated by a handful of large producers, but also many little ones are doing their best to enter the market.
It is hot and sunny in the vineyards while the high altitude of several hundred meters above sea level, near the Serra da Estrella, makes it somewhat breezy. This gives freshness and elegance to the wines, something that distinguishes Dão's wines from the slightly richer ones of the neighbor Douro. The red wines are dominated by Touriga Nacional while the whites are often made by Encruzado mixed with other grape varieties. Casa de Santar's wines are best tried at the wine house's own restaurant, which serves really good food.
Wine history in Colares
It's time to continue the journey, and I head south. Although I am approaching the capital, I am on my way to Colares, a small wine region, perhaps the country's most traditional and historically interesting, which is also now being rediscovered by young sommeliers around the world.
The wine region of Lisbon was formerly called Estremadura and the new name is slightly misleading. The region covers the entire nine DOPs (recognized wine regions) and stretches from the capital to as far south as Leiria. Little DOP Colares is located on the coast, just outside the tourist magnet Sintra. The journey from Dão takes just under three hours on the motorway, and from Lisbon it takes about an hour including the serpentine roads down to the sea.
Colares is a wine region different from all the others. There are only a few wine producers storing and bottling wine. The reds of the Ramisco-grape and the whites of Malvasia, are often rustic-tasting that can withstand a long time in the cellar. That's why you can find really old vintages here.
That is not the only peculiarity of this small region, you also have the old vineyards – walled lots of sandy soil by the sea where some vines literally stretch along the ground. Traditionally, the stalks aren't bound, and the sandy soil that allows the roots to move far into the ground has made the vines resistant to the pest Phylloxera, which has ravaged virtually the entire wine world. This, in turn, means that grafting from pest-resistant American roots has not been necessary.
Now, it should be said that Colares wines don't necessarily have to come from untied stalks, but the vines must have grown in the special sandy soils. Nowadays, there are also growers who tie up their tendrils to make them easier to handle.
In the square of the small village of Almoçageme I meet José Baeta who owns Adega Viúva Gomes, dating back to the 19th century. His family took over the cellar in 1988 but has made wine in the area for much longer. Baeta says that in the past, the stalks of the red wine were allowed to be present throughout the leaching and fermentation process to provide extra tannins. Today some adjustments have been made, and in his wines now only one-third of the stems must be included.
“I buy a bottle of 1969's red for 55€, and a white from the same year for 15€: cheap money for a bottle of unique wine history”
The storage has also undergone some modernization, nowadays French oak is used for a first six-month barrel storage, after which the wine is traditionally located in larger vessels for four years. The result is a wine that has rustic spice with elements of iodine, tobacco and cherry.
Portugal's winning star
Seeking a contrast to the Colares' region I now head to Alenquer, an hour's drive north from Lisbon. Here Sandra Tavares da Silva's family makes their wine. Sandra is known as Portugal's young hot-shot in the wine world and today also runs the winery in Douro along with her husband. A few days a week she spends time in the family winery Quinta de Chocapalha, which she started with her father Paulo, mother Alice and sister Andrea. One can safely say that Quinta de Chocapalha has helped raise the bar of modern Portuguese winemaking both through its wines and through the personal involvement of its members.
With its stylish labels and easy-to-drink wines, Quinta de Chocapalha is a state-of-the-art facility. But the facility is only a couple of years old. Before that, the wines were made in a rural property consisting of a handful of stone houses that the family bought in 1987. At the time it was an abandoned and mismanaged vineyard, but after a little persuasion from newly trained winemaker Sandra, the family acquired it and was able to produce wine from the early 2000s. The family now has 40 hectares of vineyard here, planting mainly the Touriga Nacional and Aragonez grape varieties, but also international varieties such as Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. The latter yields a wine that has been selling well at Systembolaget for some years. White wines are also made from Arinto, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
Andrea lets me try the first made vintage of the Arintovine, vintage 2003, which has a surprising freshness and acidity despite its age, and developed tones that almost resemble the rippling grape's petroleum character. Cool! The fantastic red wine CH is made exclusively from Touriga Nacional and is a prime example of grape complexity and perfumed fruitiness. As mentioned, the winemaking technique is state-of-the-art, but inevitably the Portuguese tradition creeps in, an example being the mechanical treading in shiny stainless steel lagares.
New meets old at By The Wine
The last stop of the trip is the capital, Lisbon. On the other side of the beautiful modernist bridge is the Setúbal Peninsula and here, in the small town of Azeitão, lies the family property of José Maria da Fonseca which, under present ownership, the brother-duo António and Domingos Soares Franco, has become synonymous with international wine success. Da Fonseca was a very important player in Portugal's wine-boom in the eighties and nineties, but the fact is that the house products, such as the sweet Alambre Moscatel de Setúbal wine, the rediscovered Amphora-made Alentejo wines and great-selling Periquita have a long history. But through a combination of stylish presentation, reasonable pricing and a charismatic owning family, the brothers have succeeded in getting lots of consumers to open their eyes to Portuguese wine. Not least in Sweden.
“Wine by the glass, oysters, small dishes and cheeses”
The latest addition to further strengthening the brand is the wine bar that was recently opened in Lisbon's old quarter. The bar By The Wine is a kind of showroom for the company's various wines, and during my visit, well-dressed but festive Portuguese people are crowded under the old stone arches where the ceilings are covered with bottles.
It is the first wine bar in Portugal of its kind owned by a wine producer. António Soares Franco tells us, while we are testing some different wines and dishes at the bar counter, that the project has turned out very well. And that doesn't surprise me. Thanks to the company's broad selection of wines from several different regions, the wine list does not feel lacking.
By The Wine works just as well as a bar-hop stop, as a venue to spend the entire evening. A place where modern Portugal's wine culture harmonizes with its history and tradition in a relaxed way. It also feels like a distillation of this trip: Portugal is a new wine country with a very old history, where “then” and “now” have fused together to a complete unit.