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Green Wine Country (October 27, 2011)

If you've never tasted Vinho Verde, flying to the region gives you your first clue as to the character of the wine. My morning flight from Frankfurt was delayed forty minutes because Oporto, the nearest international airport to the Vinho Verde region, was fog-bound. And fog in mid-summer suggests a maritime climate that impedes the grape's ripening process. So you can anticipate wines that will be low in alcohol and refreshingly dry. And the preponderance of granite will mean lots of minerality in the flavours.

Although Portugal is a long, north-south country, its wine geography is west to east: the further you get from the Atlantic Ocean the hotter it gets. Heat creates grape sugar and the higher the sugar at harvest the more alcoholic the wines will be.

So wine's nature is all about geography. Portugal's wine-growing regions that hug the coast are influenced by the cold winds that blow off the ocean bringing fog and rain. But travel inland up the Douro Valley or into the eastern Alentejo and temperatures can climb as high as 47° Celsius.

Mercifully, my itinerary kept me to the coastal region, beginning in Vinho Verde in the north of the country, just below the Spanish region of Galicia where Spanish vintners produce the crisp white Albariño. The Portuguese have the same variety across the border, which they call Alvarinho, one of the constituent grapes in the pale, crisp, light-bodied, minerally wines of Vinho Verde (which, incidentally, also come in rosé and red).

Aveleda is the world's largest producer of Vinho Verde. The company's brand, Casal Garcia, produces 8 million bottles a year. Their winemakers keep juice so that they can make four fermentations a year to ensure the freshness of their product. The jewel of the enterprise is Quinta da Aveleda, where they produce white and red wines under the Follies label, so named for five of the follies that are set in the spectacular grounds of their 200-hectare estate – one of which is a goat tower complete with goats. You might be familiar with a South African wine called Goats Do Roam, which is made at a winery that has a goat tower (I took a picture of it on my trip there in 2007). Charles Back at Fairview saw it here at Aveleda and copied the concept.

The Bairrada region in central Portugal is the home of Caves Messias, whose vintners also make wines from the Dão, the Douro (port and table wine) and Setúbal; but the Messias family's heart is in the wines from its flagship 70-hectare, walled vineyard in the village of Mealhada: Quinta do Valdoeiro. Messias's red blend of Baga, Touriga Nacional, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon made here in Bairrada was one of the best wines I had on the trip.

For the wine tourist in Portugal there are two wineries not to miss, both owned by Bacalhôa Vinhos de Portugal. The president of the company is José Berardo, who is also co-owner of Colio Wines in Ontario. Berardo is an art lover and he has amassed a magnificent collection of African art, ceramics, tiles and fossils displayed in the wine cellars of Caves Aliança. (Aliança's Quinta dos Quatro Ventos Reserva 2006 from the Douro is a wine worth searching out.) Even more mind-blowing is the Buddha Gardens at Bacalhôa's Quinta dos Loridos in Bombarral, about 45 minutes north of Lisbon. Here José Berardo has created the Buddha Eden Garden "in response to the destruction in 2001 of the great Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan by the Taliban... Over 6000 tons of marble and granite buddhas, lanterns, terracotta soldiers and various oriental sculptures of all descriptions have been carefully placed among the natural vegetation." Apart from the huge reclining Buddha, the most impressive sight is the double line of painted terracotta Chinese soldiers standing on a hill overlooking an ornamental lake. (You will find pictures of them in my Wine Lover's Diary.)

At the Palácio da Bacalhôa in Azeitão I tasted two wines from Setúbal that set me back on my heels – Quinta da Bacalhôa 2009 (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) and Palácio da Bacalhôa 2007 (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot).

My trip ended in Setúbal, which is famous for its fortified sweet wine, Moscatel. In the cellars of José Maria de Fonseca I saw casks of Moscatel slumbering to the sound of Gregorian chant. The cellar's inner sanctum houses the family reserves that date back to 1880. The only years not available are 1901, 1936, 1937, 1939, and 1940. Fonseca's senior winemaker, Domingos Soares Franco, is a master blender; he created a red wine called Hexigon, originally a blend of eight grapes, now six: Touriga Nacional, Syrah, Touriga Franca, Trincadeira, Tinta Cão and Tannat.

For the wine lover, Portugal offers an intriguing variety of wines, white, red, rosé and sparkling. The grape varieties may be unfamiliar but the price is certainly wallet-friendly.




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