Wines and Food in the Dão

Was slightly astonished but very pleased to be invited to a wine tasting and tasting lunch in Viseu, in the heart of the Dão region, organised by João Tavares de Pina on the 24th July.  During and after the event I was even more astonished and pleased – I found myself in rather august company, and the wines and food were wonderful.  Really wonderful.

Note that I have split this into two postings – this one general about the lunch and discussing the white wines.  Part Two will cover the reds at lunch and the wines tasted in the morning, before lunch.

A little geographical context:  From Porto to Viseu is about 50 miles (80 odd km).  If you divided Portugal horizontally in quarters, the second quarter from the top is more or less the Beiras region (region in the sense of Vinho Regional – the official regions for wine purposes).  The Dão is absolutely the heart of Beiras and is a DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada).  Note that you can click on that map to see the image in a larger format (use your browser back button < to return to the blog).

This area is very mountainous –  that southeast line of the Dão basically follows the Serra da Estrela mountain range, the highest in Portugal (almost 2,000 metres, over 6,500 feet), and is at the heart of the largest nature preserve in Portugal, roughly 1,000 km square.  Lots of rivers, lots of granite, lots of forest, lots of fabulous vineyards and wines.

I travelled down by bus, and the landscape changed very suddenly, it seemed as if we came round a bend and the landscape magically opened up and dropped away, and I could see across a plain to the north, to mountains in folds, one range beyond the other, and to the south and ahead the heights and valleys were more immediate and steep, and the land heavily wooded – reminded me very much of northern New Hampshire in that regard, for my readers familiar with the White Mountains.

Viseu has its share of centuries old charm and more modern architectural misfortunes, though I also saw some flats that were very imaginatively designed in blocks set into the hillside so you had fantastic vistas when walking between flats, up and down stairways.

And yes, I should be strangled for having forgotten my camera that day…

But what you really want to know about are the wines and this lunch.

The day began with a tasting of several wines from each of a dozen producers, at the Solar do Vinho.  There I picked up a brochure produced by the regional wine commission – a very well designed marketing piece.   The tag line on the cover is Wines from the Dão – Elegant Maturity.  The wines served at lunch certainly showed that.

The lunch was a 9 course, 14 wine and nearly 5 hour odyssey through the wines of the Dão and food of Portugal.  Very charmingly, each course was accompanied by music as well, provided by the students of a conservatory of music in Viseu.

First, the entire menu, then I will discuss some of the wines and foods in more detail.

Sheep’s milk ricotta, sweet-sour sauce, tomato and watercress
Requeijão de Ovelha, Agridoce de Tomate e Agrião
Primus 2007
Verdelho Quinta das Maias 2009

Sardine ceviche with confit of peppers
Sardinha Alimada com Pimento Confitado
Casa de Darei Grande Escolha 2007
Encruzado Quinta dos Carvalhais 1998

Millefeuille of Queijo da Serra, honey and rosemary
Folhadinho de Queijo da Serra, Mel e Alecrim
Brancos CEV Dão 1971, 1980, 1992

Crispy-fried Beiras black pudding, pineapple purée and balsamic reduction
Crocante de Morcela da Beira, Emulsão de Abacaxi e Redução de Balsâmico
Touriga Nacional Quinta Fonte do Ouro 1998
Quinta da Bica Reserva 2005

Quail consommé with ginger croutons and herbs
Consommé de Codorniz, Croûtons de Gengibre e Ervas Aromáticas

Wild hare meatballs, crushed potatoes and wilted spinach
Almôndegas de Lebre, esmagado de Batata e Espinafres Frescos
Quinta da Falorca Garrafeira 2003
Terras de Tavares Reserva 2003

Octopus rice, poached quail egg and coriander emulsion
Arroz de Polvo, Ovo de Codorniz Escalfado e Emulsão de Coentros
Tintos CEV Dão 1970 e 1971

Loin of salt cod simmered in wine lees with migas (greens, beans, olive oil and cornbread)
Lombinho de Bacalhau suado em Borras de Vinho e Migas
Tintos CEV Dão Touriga Nacional 1963

Sweet egg pudding in a phyllo twist
Crocante de Pudim Abade de Priscos

The courses were sensibly very small, and the pace was relaxed, to allow service, digestion and discussion.  Between each course a waitress came round with a pitcher of water and a spittoon so we could empty and rinse our wine glasses ready for the next course.

The chef is brilliant – Rodion Birca.  To me, the dishes were all could-only-be-Portuguese, in that they showcased some of the unique regional specialties, as well as making imaginative use of some of the staples of Portuguese cuisine.  I keep looking at this menu and remembering each course, and thinking, there was nothing there that could not be made at home, really.  I’m sure we are all familiar with restaurant cuisine, and the books written by chefs, which really depend on having staff and all the resources of a huge restaurant kitchen to produce – I can remember recipes for which other recipes for component ingredients had to be made first (which in turn were found to have component ingredients that needed to be made first-er), and calculating that to eat this recipe on a Friday I’d have to start cooking on Tuesday.  None of that here.  Needless to say, this chef has a gift I don’t, and the presentation was beautiful though not contrived – again, nothing that could not be done by a competent and caring home cook.

Now, you may look at that menu and think, Octopus?  Hare?  Quail?  But these are things that I see and can buy from the fishmonger’s van which stops near my house five days a week, or the neighbourhood butcher five minutes’ walk away.

The wines.  As I have said in several prior postings, I am not a professional critic, and I admit I haven’t the gift to keep clear in my memory every wine tasted over the course of a day like this (let alone a lifetime, as some critics seem able to do), so I will just make some general comments and mention some particular highlights for me, that do stand out clearly.  But believe me, there were no bad wines this day.

With the second course of sardines, we had the Encruzado Quinta dos Carvalhais 1998.  Encruzado is a white grape which is universally described as a star grape for the Dão region (and I’ve been reading a lot of sources, both Portuguese and English).  Every writer emphasises this variety’s balance between sweetness, alcohol and acidity, and most use the word “elegant”.  When the grape and the wine were discussed at lunch, it was mentioned that this variety can produce very different wines each year, it seems to be very responsive to the climactic variations of the year.  My impression was that this quality was a mixed blessing from the wine-maker’s point of view!  Notice the date – this is a 12 year old wine, aged in bottle, which is a bit unusual for a white, and probably unimaginable to those whose ideas of Portuguese wine are limited to vinho verde and the odd rosé.  It was very full bodied, my notes say it was very savoury, rich, indescribable to parse out individual flavour notes, but the wine had gone beyond fruit in its taste scale.  The other wine with this course was Casa de Darei Grande Escolha 2007 which was a blend of Encruzado, Bical and Malvasia Fina, and as you can see, much younger.

Both wines cut the fattiness of the sardines, and both worked from a flavour standpoint, though in very different ways – the Encruzado was if you will a matching flavour – savoury – and the Casa de Darei was a contrasting flavour – fruity.  When people talk about matching food and wine, they often say you have to match the weight of the food and the wine – which can be a hard concept to grasp – till you experience it, as I did here.  The Encruzado had a body, or weight, or a mouth-filling quality (call it what you will), that worked better for me with those sardines – the Grande Escolha was wonderful, but was a little lighter in the mouth, so the sardines … I can’t say overwhelmed the wine, but the balance wasn’t right for me.  By the way, this course was matched with Albeniz’ Astúrias, played on the accordion, which was a really delightful combination (harmonização in Portuguese) with the food and wine.

The next course was paired with a trio of old white wines produced by the Dão’s regional training school for oenologists, the Centro de Estudo Vitivinicolas (CEV), almost 40 years old, 30 years old and 18 years old respectively.  These provoked considerable discussion both generally at table after the course, and later amongst  knots of people after the dinner.  Charles Metcalfe, an English authority on Portuguese wines for some 20 years, said these wines showed what Dão wines could be, he emphasised the acidity in the oldest wine which was still making a fantastic showing – and acidity is one of the key factors in a wine’s ability to age.  He thought wines like this could be tough to drink young in some cases, and there is a need to educate the consumer to understand the ability, even desirability, of holding and aging these wines, rather than consuming them young.

This provoked further discussion about the marketability of the wines on that basis, with one winemaker rather sadly commenting that he has to make wines to sell, and to some extent has had to adapt the style of his wines to the market demand.  However much he as a winemaker believes in these more robust, long-lived and traditional wines, if they won’t sell, he cannot keep making them, or at least not exclusively, or he will quickly be in the position of no longer being able to make any wine at all.  Paul White, another well-established wine writer based in New Zealand, joined Charles in asking, almost pleading, with the winemakers present to try to keep making these wines at least in some quantity, to not let these be lost forever.

Whilst most at table in the general discussion were impressed with the wines and praised them, there were dissenters – one person with whom I spoke privately afterwards disliked them altogether.  I can see how they might not appeal – all the fruit flavours were stripped away, and you were left with an almost purely mineral flavour – definitely reflecting the granite of the region, to me! – and the high acidity.  These are qualities that may not be universally appealing, especially in near isolation.  I would not serve one of these as a quaffing wine to wash down an entire meal by itself, let alone as an aperitif.  But as a wine for discussion and meditation, to compare and contrast with others, and to share with a fellow wine buff, I would drink these again (if only they were available!).

As a tasting experience, to teach me what the wines of the Dão can do… these wines were excellent.  Certainly I am more interested in this region than I had been based on a very few prior tastings of single wines, and am thinking more about the ability to age Portuguese wines, white as well as red, which is certainly a new concept given the general image of Portuguese wine as all about cheap and cheerful and drink it now.

Part Two will cover the red wines at lunch, and the wines tasted in the morning, when a dozen producers were showing their wines at the Solar do Vinho.

Some links for more about this event and about the Dão and its wines:

Coverage of this same meal in Portuguese, on Garficopo a blog site written by Amândio Cupido e Nuno Pereira Monteiro – and the writer remembered his camera.  Do look at it even if you don’t know Portuguese – there are photos of the dishes served as well as the room, people and wines.  Garficopo – Dão The Next Big Thing – Almoço

Paul White, a wine writer based in NZ and fellow guest, has substantial content about the Dão generally as well as discussions of specific producers.  Take a look at the index on the Dão page of Wine Disclosures.

Producer’s sites:

Casa de Darei (Portuguese and English)  Information on wines and tourism at a number of properties.

Quinta dos Carvalhais is part of the Sogrape group, so you have to go to this site, and find them on the list of brands… bit of a palaver, but the information when you unearth it, is good.  English and Portuguese.