Goodbye to All That

At the end of our three-month stay, some thoughts about Portugal
Jun 3, 2014

PORTO, Portugal—The Portugal jaunt has now come to an end. As many of you know, I’ve done this sort of extended-stay thing before—in Buenos Aires, in Melbourne, in Venice—and the phenomenon is always the same. You arrive with seemingly infinite time stretching out luxuriously before you. Then, all of a sudden, it’s time to leave.

“So what was it like?” I can hear you asking. “Should I do it? Is Portugal worth my time, my money, my interest? What did you learn about Portuguese wines?”

There’s no seamless, cohesive way to answer such questions, but allow me to offer some random observations.

It’s a (Wine) Revolution. Really, that’s the only word for it. Revolution may seem a provocative word, and is surely overused. Yet it’s the right word for what’s occurring in Portuguese wine today. It’s hard to overstate the degree of change in the past decade alone. Anyone (and everyone) in Portugal will tell you this.

Simply put, for a variety of reasons—economic, political, cultural—Portuguese wine in the early 1990s was still moribund. There was little ambition, and even less investment. After all, Portugal had only joined the European Union in 1986. There was no freeway system. Cities such as Porto, a gloriously old place with magnificent buildings, was literally falling down.

Too many wines were oxidized, dirty-tasting and dilute. Portugal is the last Western European nation to experience the wine quality transformation that has already swept through France, Italy and Spain.

But now it’s happening—with a vengeance. The past decade has seen such sweeping changes in tastes, ambition, winery facilities and sheer worldliness as to make the “old Portugal” seem like a distant memory. Whereas, for example, the Douro Valley was confined solely to making Port wine well into the early 1990s, today at least half of its vast production is table wine—some of it truly great, most of it at least tasty.

Regions such as the Alentejo, the country’s largest, have become vitalized to the degree that the wines are now easily the most popular in Portugal. Other regions, such as Dão and Bairrada, are seeing renewed popularity. Portugal and its wines have come brilliantly alive, with new producers and new wines arriving in the market seemingly every day.

Touriga Nacional Is Not the Savior. If you’ve heard anything at all about Portuguese wines, then you’ve doubtless heard about Portugal’s most famous red grape variety, Touriga Nacional. It’s invariably proclaimed as Portugal’s greatest red grape type, the country’s indigenous rival to Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon. You now see varietally labeled Touriga Nacional, as well as Touriga Nacional rosé. It’s the local hero.

There’s only one problem: Good as it is, Touriga Nacional is not that good. Here’s the backstory, as they say in Hollywood. When Portugal’s wine producers were starting to pull themselves away from the old ways, they were looking for a vehicle that would help them jump-start a new sort of wine goodness.

University researchers had already initiated a clonal selection program starting with you-know-what. The “best” clones of Touriga Nacional were identified and declared ideal. These recommended clones of Touriga Nacional (from among hundreds of strains that were identified) offered much higher yields than the traditional “old” strains, more disease resistance and deep color. (Does this story sound familiar?)

So of course these “best” clones were planted seemingly everywhere in Portugal. “We have Touriga Nacional!” proclaimed newly ambitious producers. It was a signifier of Portuguese wine modernity.

You know what happened next: Too many Touriga Nacional wines proved to be dull, one-dimensional wines of deep color with a vague, if pleasing, blackberry fruitiness. The savior proved to be nothing of the sort.

Not long ago, I was the guest at a private lunch with several very prominent Portuguese winemakers and technicians. I said to them that I had reached a conclusion about Touriga Nacional and wanted to run it past them, a sort of “stop me before I kill again” reality check.

I said that I had come to the conclusion that good as Touriga Nacional can be, it is not a standalone grape. Simply put, the variety is not sufficiently complex to be presented on its own. Was I wrong about this?

Their answer was unanimous: Touriga Nacional is indeed lacking in completeness. It should not be presented except as the backbone of a blend of grapes, and although it is indisputably one of Portugal’s best red grape varieties, Touriga Nacional is no savior in itself. Not least, they noted that the newly isolated “best” clones so recently popularized are anything but “best.”

And What About Portuguese Food? To be honest, it’s a very mixed thing. Too much Portuguese food is overly heavy and, to be blunt, not well-prepared. This is a pity because it’s not as if Portuguese cooks are defrosting frozen ingredients and microwaving them; they really do put in the time and labor. But a certain rigor is lacking. The Portuguese are not especially fond of vegetables and too often when they do appear, they’re woefully overcooked.

That said, the fish can be great. It’s always very fresh and, if simply grilled, a guaranteed winner. And yes, they really do love their bacalhau (salt cod). You see it everywhere.

Allow me to say that if you go to Porto (and you absolutely should), you will eat some of the best food of your life in three restaurants that are not to be missed:

O Gaveto. This is a classic, old-fashioned fish restaurant in the town of Matosinhos, which is a former fishing village on the ocean near Porto. Here you’ll find Portuguese seafood in its pristine glory—impeccably fresh, perfectly cooked and more than fairly priced. Not least, O Gaveto has a superb wine list with many of Portugal’s best white wines at modest prices.

O Paparico. Here, traditional Portuguese cuisine is elevated to a level of refinement that shows just how good the food can be. Everything at O Paparico, which is located in a residential district well away from the usual tourist venues, is presented with almost exquisite care: fish, meat, Portuguese cheeses and, not least, wines. There’s no place else in Porto that even remotely celebrates and elevates traditional Portuguese cuisine like O Paparico. It’s a truly great restaurant.

Restaurante Pedro Lemos. It has to be said: Chef/owner Pedro Lemos is, without question, the finest chef in Porto and, more than that, a great European chef full stop. Only 35 years old and extremely modest, even shy, Mr. Lemos is one of those fanatics who lives for his ingredients and his guests. He goes to the fish market every day at 5 a.m. His cooking is ultrarefined yet simple—the fish tastes exactly like what it is, yet better than you’ve ever had that same fish before.

I took an Italian friend with a very demanding palate to Restaurante Pedro Lemos and he was so bowled over that he demanded that we return a second time. He was as satisfied the second time as he was the first. Restaurante Pedro Lemos is a very small restaurant with huge ambition and accomplishment. The wine list, accordingly, is a refined presentation of everything you could hope for in a selection of Portuguese wines.

And One Final Conclusion. If you miss Portuguese wines, you will be missing out on what is arguably the most exciting new wine chapter in 21st-century wine modernity. Are all the wines great? Of course not. But most Portuguese wines are at minimum pretty good. And not least, they’re usually terrific deals, even downright cheap.

The best Portuguese wines are glorious. A disproportionate number of these wines is currently emerging from the Douro, thanks to the remarkable schist soil and centuries of cultivation. And they’re not all red, either. Douro whites, because of the schist soil—it’s really more rock than soil—can be unusually characterful as well as long-lived.

Wine lovers everywhere love a deal. (Me too.) And we love being on the inside. After three months of exploring the place, I have to say that Portugal is, at least to me, the “insider” wine deal of the moment. After spending some real time on the ground, I’m more sure of that now than ever.

Portugal Douro Opinion

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