Under my byline

Smells like a port, tastes like a ship

Posted in Living by Rrishi on 29 April 2009

Port wine, by Jon SullivanPortugal sent galleons and colonists to India centuries ago, but is only now sending us its wine

Between the dry uplands of Spain and the salty depths of the Atlantic is a country which thirstily drinks up most of its own wine. It’s very unfair of the Portuguese to be doing that, because they make some fantastic, and fantastically cheap, wines which — by logic of civilisation and globalisation — they should be sharing with the rest of the world.

After all, they’ve been sending their wines abroad for millennia. The ancient Greeks drank wine from Portugal. The Romans ramped up the industry so that they could supply themselves. (Lusitania, the name of the Roman province of Portugal, comes from Luso, a companion of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine.) And centuries later, stout upper-class Britons sipped port after dinner. Now, Portuguese wine exports (the little they they don’t drink themselves) go to the USA, other parts of Europe, Brazil and China — but not India.

Portuguese wine hasn’t washed up on Indian shores for a long time, not even during the ongoing tidal surge in wine consumption. That’s why a handful of Portuguese wine cooperatives were in Goa and Delhi recently: to offer us Indians a taste of what they had been holding back. A taste is all it was, because hardly anybody sells Portuguese wines in India — yet.

There were dozens of wines to try but it wasn’t difficult to keep a clear head. Any lightheadedness came from pleasure, not from the scant alcohol in the two sips it took to introduce oneself.

At the table of UDACA, a cooperative from Dão in north-central Portugal, the amusingly named Irreverente 2005 red was tasty — “cherry, cacao, strawberries” — while the 2004 reserve, Adro da Sé, was a soft red, nice but not quite mouthpuckering enough.

Nuno Santos of the Soadegas cooperative of central Portugal (just north of Lisbon), was happy to pick a favourite: Fes Festivo, a 2007 red, “because it’s a very good wine on many occasions”, whether it’s just friends dropping in or something special. His top-of-the-line wine was a 2005 Torres Vedras, sold for all of €4 in the home market. That one is aged 10 months in a barrel and then three years in a bottle — inside a cave, to keep temperature and humidity steady.

Porto Reccua port wineCaves Vale do Rodo had a small portfolio of port, the sweet and strong wines that travel well and were thus taken around the world in the age of sail. The 10-year-old Porto Reccua was the most expensive wine on show, at €27 a bottle. At first whiff I thought: “It smells like a port!” Shorthand, I suppose, for a rich, shifting aroma and a hint of depth, like the murky waters of a harbour. I just had to get to the bottom of that glass.

“I don’t have any port, but I have better than that,” said Filipe Pereira of Favaios, a cooperative from the Douro valley in northern Portugal. To my astonishment, he poured tonic water into a sweet muscatel. “Why? You explain me,” he said, handing it over. Well, it was light, slightly sweet and fizzy, but with the cool, dry tang of white wine. A very sociable sort of drink. “After a meal, or with a cigarette,” is how Pereira takes it, mixed with “a little beer, or soda, 7-Up, ginger ale…” I reeled, thrilled at this sacrilege. They even sell it in tiny bottles, calling them Favaítos, for the after-work bar crowd.

The Valdarante 2008 white from northern Portugal’s Caves Santa Marta had an aroma and taste so faint that I was forced to pay attention. As a result, I found it delicious.

At the Arruda dos Vinhos (Road to the Wines, a place name) table I found my favourite red, an earthy, unfussy Moinhos do Céu (Windmills of the Sky) from 2007. “Our philosophy is to make the difference with the grapes,” said the twinkly-eyed Rodrigo Pinheiro de Lacerda. This one is made using only the Syrah grape, from 35-year-old (i.e., middle-aged) vines. I feel smug that it bolsters my pet theory: that the big, blended wines make less interesting company than the small, local ones. This was so good I wanted to sit down with it.

There were other moments of transport, like the Pegões 2005 red from south-central Portugal, one sip of which and I thought: “It tastes like a ship!” That is, woody and tarry. It won an award as the best Bordeaux red in Portugal.

And one wine gave me a vision (not coincidentally, perhaps, it was the last I tried): a white vinho verde Via Latina 2007 by Vercoope from north-western Portugal. The verde makes it green in age, not colour, so it is crisp and young. A sip, slight bubbles breaking on the tongue, a tingle at the back of the throat, and I wasn’t in Delhi any more. It was afternoon on a cool, sunny hillside with rocks, grass and Portugal all around. Fabulous. This is one to be had with people you really like.

Many of these wines offer a good experience at a pitiful price: from less than €1 to about €5, bar the aged ports. As imports the price may triple, but they should still be affordable — that is, if importers look beyond the standard hotel and restaurant market. If your only choice is an absurdly marked-up and ill-stored bottle at a hotel restaurant: forget it. Invest in a trip to Portugal instead, and take your time about it.


4 Responses

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  1. Anonymous said, on 10 May 2009 at 6:42 pm

    I’m all ready to talk to my travel agent, then.

  2. icsouza said, on 31 May 2009 at 6:11 pm

    I like portuguese wine. When I went to Portugal, I drank Porto wine. Also when I was in Germany with portuguese communities, I could taste portuguese wine. It is delicious together with fish (peixe bacalhau). People are also lovely. I would like to go again to Portugal…

  3. Rrishi said, on 31 May 2009 at 9:59 pm

    That name alone sounds delicious — peixe bacalhau. I didn’t know there were Portuguese communities in Germany — do you mean historical ones or just modern-day expat workers?

  4. icsouza said, on 14 June 2009 at 11:11 pm

    Yes, really, not the name alone but the fish is delicious. There are Portuguese communities in Germany. There are those who work or study there. Some of them will remain there only, others will go back… It is pleasant to go there to Portuguese restaurants.

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