Think of Portugal and what is the first thing that pops into your mind? Most likely, the answer is Port. The story goes that port was “born” when the English were fighting the French and realized that one of the sacrifices of war was that their French wine supply was cut off. Thirsty, they made a deal to import wine from Portugal. As you might well imagine, by the time that the Portuguese wine reached English shores, the tropical heat and constant rocking from the voyage turned the wine gloppy and sweet. Though it was not what the English expected, they liked the taste and demanded more.
Instead of continuing to "torture" the wine from Portugal to England, enterprising folk found a way to stabilize the still wine so that it would not become fortified en route, as well as a way to replicate the heat and rocking motion of a ship on dry land, thus paving the way for the modern Port industry.
In the last 20 years, Portugal has been revamping their light wine industry (what non-fortified wine is called) with delightful results. Wine is produced in many places in Portugal, but one of the key regions for quality wine is the area called the Douro Valley. Recently a consortium of Douro Valley winemakers visited New York and held a master class in the Astor Center, a facility specifically designed for tasting wine under pristine conditions. The producers included Joao Ferreira of Quinta do Vallado, Dirk van der Niepoort of Niepoort, Miguel Roquette of Quinta do Crasto, Cristiano van Zeller of Quinta Vale D. Maria, and Luisa Olazabal of Quinta do Vale Meao.
The seminar began with a brief description of wine growing in Portugal, and moved onto several tasting flights. I was extremely impressed by the white varietals, especially Branco, a fragrant white grape varietal. The Quinta do Vallado Branco 2008 was pale lemon with a scintillating color, and an aromatic nose of fresh cut flowers and intense, sun-warmed apricot. I also liked the Niepoort Redoma Branco Reserva 2007, also a scintillating lemon color with honeysuckle and citrus on the nose.
As an individual, I would have to admit I am more familiar with Portuguese red varietals than white, since the same red grapes that make light red wine are used to make Port, and I had to memorize all ten major varieties for various wine exams (though up to 80 varieties may be used in the production of Port). I found the reds presented for the tasting quite clean and fresh. The first flight of whites would be perfect for all manner of brunch dishes, and lighter lunch dishes including composed salads, white fish, etc. The reds are hearty enough to hold up to a grilled steak, yet could also pair with pork, grilled tuna, and grilled salmon. All in all, Portugal represents a good value when it comes to choosing wine in a restaurant. And these producers from the Douro Valley represent the new quality that is the face of modern Portuguese wine.