THE TROUBLE WITH PORTUGUESE WINES
It may come as a surprise, but Mary and I enjoy a glass of wine now and then. (Cue the laughing hysterically soundtrack). In our household, wine time has been an important ritual for more than 33 years. It always begins at 5 p.m. sharp, unless we’re traveling, but I won’t get into those weeds.
Wine time is more than just sipping a glass of wine before dinner. It’s our together time, when initially we’d vent about our workdays and now hash out challenges of the day and days to come. No subject is off the table, though we try to avoid politics, because I get agitated and start F-bombing the “orange man.” After wine time we feel relaxed and cleansed. I guess it’s like going to confession although I’ve never had that experience.
This leads us to the subject of this posting — Portuguese wines. We’ve grown fond of this country’s wines – they are good and cheap. Oh, there are expensive ones to be sure, but the majority offered at mini markets are less than $5. Double that in average at cafes.
The problem is selection. In America, we pick wines by varietals. Here, the region is first, followed by the varietal or blend and finally the vintage year. Scanning wines in a supermarket or wine shop here make your head spin. Every once in a while, you’ll spot a familiar wine friend – Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, or Chardonnay.
But mostly you’ll be a stranger in a strange land of grapes – Touriga Nacional, Aragonez, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Trincadeira, Tinta Amarela, Castelão, Alvarinho, Arinto, Fernão Pires/Maria Gomes, are the top varietals in Portugal. Plus there are some 250 others you’ve never heard of. If I were taking a Master Sommelier Examination and learned that the blind tastings included Portuguese wines, I’d ask the examiners to “just shoot me!”
So that begs the question. “Ron, how do I learn about Portuguese wines?”
I’m glad you asked. Most of us just want to find a wine to enjoy at wine time or with a meal. It’s not that hard at restaurants, where inexpensive house wines are a good bet by the glass or pitcher. Most of the time, they are very easy to drink table wines. Sometimes you’ll get a stinker, but that’s life and you’re probably in tourist trap. We’ve also found servers and sommeliers to be very helpful if you can explain the characteristics you like in a wine. Often, especially if they sell it by the glass, they will pour you a taste.
Finding wines you love on supermarket shelves can be a crap shoot. Sometimes I focus on regions – there are 14 – if had a wine from, say, Dou or Aletajo, or Douro I’ve liked. Or, I look for bottles with a tag touting high marks from Wine Spectator and the like. But mostly it’s trial and error – a wine enthusiast Russian roulette. If you lose, pour out the offending bottle and try again until you find a wine that hits your sweet spot.
You can also do wine tastings in shops and wineries all over Portugal, but that can be expensive and time-consuming. In Lisbon, Wines of Portugal Tasting Room on Plaza Comercial offers a fun easy shortcut, drawing on their large, everchanging selection of wines from around the country. The main tasting room is large and comfortable, with automatic machines lining the walls that dispense tastes. You can do flights of, say, bubby or reds, and you can book personal and group tastings. These are a kind of Portuguese wine 101 where guests learn the wine regions and grape varieties. We enjoyed a private tasting from expert Luis Mota that was informative and gratifying.
Still after a month here…and a number of previous visits to Portugal, learning about Portuguese wines is a lifelong undertaking. It’s an education I’m happy to continue. Cheers my friends or, as they say in Portugal—Saude!