Portugal: A grape way to enjoy hospitable Portugal
A tour of vineyards around Lisbon left Carol Hunt with a taste for local dishes and an understanding of why Portuguese wines are making inroads in Ireland
The brochure states that the Quinta de Chocapalha winery offers a "great combination of family atmosphere, dedication and passion for winemaking in the beautiful landscape of [the] Lisbon wine region". And that's certainly what you get when you visit this family estate set in the sunny hills of the Portuguese Alenquer.
Alice Tavares da Silva, the Swiss matriarch who married Portuguese naval officer Paulo, dominates the proceedings with grace, courtesy and charm as she informs us that her six grandchildren recently spent a month on the estate, swimming, relaxing and enjoying her sumptuous meals, one of which we are lucky enough to savour. Perhaps she would like to adopt a few more (rather older) grandchildren is the general opinion as she pours us another bottle of the family's excellent wines, which include my favourite, an intense white Chocapalha Reserva.
The area has been making wine since the 16th Century when the land was owned by one Diego Duff, a Scottish hero seemingly, who was awarded the "Tower and Sword" by King Joao VI. The Da Silvas bought the land in the Eighties. Today, Alice is awaiting the arrival of her daughter Sandra, their resident winemaker, who also works in the Douro wine region.
Portuguese wines are just beginning to make their way into the Irish wine lover's consciousness, offering taste, depth and extraordinary value for money when one considers their quality.
Before we visited Quinta de Chocapalha, we were treated to lunch at the nearby Quinta da Romeira winery, in the renovated manor house which had been owned by Queen Catherine of Braganza, once Infanta of Portugal and later neglected wife of Charles II of England. This was a suitable setting to try the excellent wines made on the 80 hectare property, which is mainly planted with the fresh, acidic arinto grape from the Bucelas region. A humble but delicious fish pie was served up by Companhia Das Quintas winemaker Nuno do O and export manager Manuel Arrobas, together with the best wines from their vineyard -- the Margado Santa Catherina, the Provo Regia and the Quinta dos Pancas Reserva.
Wine-tasting at 11.30 on a Thursday morning may not be everyone's cup of tea -- or glass of Quinta do Gradil Doc Obidos white wine -- but the group I was with took to it like, well, wine aficionados after a severe grape drought. It's a tough job but ... we all giggled to ourselves as we accepted yet another glass of exquisite grape juice.
The Quinta do Gradil estate is probably the oldest in the Cadaval valley, and has a strong wine tradition, which has continued for centuries. It was purchased in the late Nineties by the grandchildren of Antonio Gomes Vieira, forerunner, so the story goes, of the wine tradition in the family since 1945.
The vineyards we visit seem to be getting bigger, as Quinta do Gradil has 130 hectares of winelands in full production, with grapes such as (red) aragones, cabernet sauvignon, tannat and touriga nacional and (white) arinto, fernao pires, chardonnay, viognier and muscat.
The Reserva reds are aged in 60 per cent French and 40 per cent American oak barrels between nine and 12 months. I'm sure there's a political joke about revolutionary alliances to be found somewhere there, but after a few (quite a few!) glasses of Quinta Do Gradil's finest I fail to think of even one.
Next up is Quinta Do Sanguinhal, near Bombarrel, the home of this region's two most popular wines: Cerejeiras and Quinta de San Francisco. We are greeted by the genial Carlos da Fonseca (he kindly delivered my "lost" phone to the hotel later that evening) and his niece Ana (the great-granddaughter of the vinery founder) who show us around this very beautiful family-owned property. We are beginning to feel hereditarily hard done by.
There are antique manual wine presses, ancient oak barrels which smell of decadent history and, best of all -- a huge lunch where we have ... yes, you guessed it, more wine. Needs must.
At the new Falua SA winery, not only do we get to try their excellent Tagus Creek wines (I'm not usually a rose fan but I'm persuaded by their beautifully rich and sharp offering) but we also see the process of grape to barrel to bottle to packed case in action.
The nearby Fiuza and Bright winery is run by the Fiuza family and the renowned Australian oenologist (no, me neither), Peter Bright. And here was the greatest treat. We were allowed to sample the new 2011 wines straight from the barrels. And let me tell you, there are few greater joys than to be in a sunny Portuguese courtyard (while it's pouring rain at home) where, on one side, thick, juicy, warm grapes are being piled into containers for crushing, and, on the other, you are presented with an empty glass and allowed fill it from each of the newly fermented 2011 crop. Sumptuous -- and just a little bit naughty too as we (OK, I) asked for seconds.
The good news is that their Fiuza chardonnay, sauvignon and premier, among others, are available on the Irish market. And at fantastic prices.
And, of course, it's not all hard work! In between tasting wine we managed to fit in visits to some places of historical interest, including the medieval walled town of Obidos, the extraordinary Templar town of Tomar, with its Convento de Christo and nearby Templar tower, and the beautiful historic village of Santaram.
We also dined in some amazing restaurants. My favourites included Luria, Taberna Do Alfaiate and in particular Chico Elias, where Maria do Ceu not only served up the most deliciously chewy snails with white beans, but also wowed us with her speciality: rabbit stew perfectly cooked inside a roasted pumpkin. Now, that's one I toyed with trying with the colcannon last weekend ...
For information on wine trips or buying some of the wines mentioned, contact: Nancy Rodrigues, Portuguese Trade and Tourism Board, 54 Dawson Street, Dublin 2. Tel: 01 670 9133/4
Aer Lingus operates daily flights from Dublin to Lisbon and flights from Cork to Lisbon on Mondays and Fridays. www.aerlingus.com
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