For those of us that live on the east coast of the U.S., realize it or not, (and many don’t) Portugal is just a short hop over the Atlantic, and aside from maybe Iceland or Montreal, it’s about as far from “here” as one can get in the shortest amount of time. Having spent a fair amount of time there, I’d strongly suggest adding Portugal to your list of places to visit – maybe now’s not the best time, with the cost of fuel and the Dollar/Euro exchange being what it is, but try to squeeze it in there somewhere. Portugal has its own peculiar latin song to sing, it boasts a very varied climate and terrrain, but it’s still very manageable in terms of size, and though it’s not the screaming bargain it used to be, it’s still a notably cheaper destination than most of France or Italy or Spain…give it some thought…
And all that is true about Portugal the country, is true about Portuguese wines as well: They’re unique (over 400 native grape varieties), eclectic (whites and reds, dry, sweet, and sparkling – you name it) and for the most part, they ARE still the screaming bargain that they’ve always been. It is fairly easy to pick up a GOOD (if not overly “ambitious”) bottle of Portuguese wine for a fiver – and this is not just some bottle of alcohol-doused cut-rate grape juice either, but simple but undeniably characterful wine…
Unfortunately, Portuguese wines remain largely unknown off of the east coast (Newark, NJ is host to the biggest Portuguese community outside Portugal – called “The Ironbound” [its borders are strongly marked by railroad tracks], or if you’re an old-timer, “Down Neck”), but if there were one region in Portugal that might have a bit of name recognition in Dallas or Denver or Dubuque, it would surely be The Douro (DOH-roo). The Douro, named after the eponymous river that meanders through it, is located a bit inland in northern Portugal. Despite its disposition in the north of the country, the Douro gets hotter than a motorbike’s muffler in the summer – 100+ degrees fahrenheit is quite normal. The land is very hilly to downright mountainous, so many if not most vineyards in the region are terraced, and must be worked exclusively by hand.
I’d venture to say that many folks who enjoy the Douro’s most famous product have no idea that the Douro is indeed where it is made, and that product is none other than the Christmas feast favorite, PORT. The story of Port is a long and fascinating one, and that’s the subject for another post, but simply knowing that Port wine has been this region’s mainstay for centuries is a very important factor in understanding the region’s relatively recent entry into the DRY wine market. Now this is not to say that Douro producers haven’t always been making dry wines, but until about 20 years ago, precious little of it left the region’s confines. But because Port houses are among the most prosperous wine producers in the country, they were able to mount a fairly formidable assult on the dry red wine market by leaveraging this financial edge, further bolstered by their reputations as the producers of one of the world’s finest sweet wines.
And indeed, most dry Douro wines are “dry Ports”, that is that they use the same grapes to produce Port (Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Cao, Tinta Roriz (a.k.a. Tempranillo), Tina Barroca, etc., etc.). to make the dry reds as well. Perhaps a bit surprisingly, the Douro also produces fine whites, as well as the somewhat scarce white Port, but I digress…
I think that potential “problems” with dry Douro reds, (if we can call them that) are already becoming quite clear, and would be most concisely represented by the question “How well do fortified dessert wine-makers make “modern” red table wines”? Predictably, the actual results are unpredictable. Some do a very nice job. Others still make coarse “farmers’ wines”, and perhaps the lion’s share unfortunately have taken a decidedly “international” (that is thick, fruity, and woody) approach to the task.
I’m happy to report that the Alves de Souza Douro “Estacao” 2005 falls nicely in to the first set of results, with a few caveats…I served this wine with a first course of shrimps, mushrooms, peas, etc. (a beast of my own creation), followed by my own take on Portuguese steak – two top sirloin steaks dredged in pimentao (Portuguese paprika), a pinch each of cumin and coriander, and breadcrumbs, then wrapped with ham, pan-fried, and served with a fried egg on top. – and those mandolin-cut Portuguese fried potatoes. All in all, the wine went well with both dishes, but perhaps was a bit better with the shrimps…This is not a light wine, but that steak dish is a veritable nail bomb of strong flavors, and this particular bottle just didn’t have the brawn to really diffuse it…Nevertheless, it was a felicitous pairing. The notes:
Alves de Souza Douro “Estacao” 2005
Slightly cloudy medium purple/ruby color. Intriguing and complex nose of dry earth, gingerbread spices, plum , bacon fat, and roasted walnuts. The palate is moderately “deep” with chewy prune and dark berry fruit. Overall the wine is very well balanced and fairly intense, but comes up short in the mid-palate. The finish recovers a bit with some nice echoes of the wine’s flavors, but is also a bit short…is this fading permanently or just going into (or coming out of?) a “dumb” phase? In the end, a wine with a VERY fine nose, that only slightly disappoints due to the expectations that its intoxicating aromas promise to deliver in the mouth.