Wonderfully erudite and supremely gifted food writer, Elizabeth David, wrote that a fine wine grasped you by the hand and called you by your first name. That can happen perhaps once in a lifetime either through a lucky buy or if you've got the money and know enough about the vineyards. Supremely good wines are not inexpensive neither are they numerous enough to find without effort. The long hard journey from tilling the ground, to planting the vine, to cask and bottle being what it is as well as the increasing number of wine aficionados willing to pay for better wines than they have been drinking in the past makes wine other than the staple you absolutely must have in your pantry. Most vineyards produce simple table wines, some very good, some little more than just the vehicle to wet the food you're eating.
A buoyant economy world-wide except, of course, for the other side of the Pacific Rim, good vintages in '95 and '96 particularly in France, as well as a veritable explosion of interest in better than average wines has sent prices for good wines to an all-time high.
Portuguese wines, always very reasonable in the past, have felt the nudge to raise prices but for the most part have stayed well within sensible limits. Portugal's best known wine, Port, represents less than seven percent of the country's total wine production of approximately one million acres under cultivation in soil that is not really soil at all but a slaty, schistoid rock that becomes workable only through many years of digging and tilling. The product of grapes grown high among the mauve-gray limestone rocks of the Douro River valley region near Oporto, Port wine, until fairly recently, was consumed almost in toto by the Portuguese and the English who knew a good thing right from the start. They drank it, and realizing its particular virtues, kept most of it for themselves.
Port is a sweet red, very alcoholic, fortified wine which can be called Port only if shipped from the warehouses at Vila Nova de Gaia (in Oporto) and where it must stay for at least three years before being sold. Superior Ports are Churchill Graham Lda., Cockburn Smithes, Croft, Delaforce, Dow's, Fonseca, Ferreira, Graham, Martinez Gassiot, Montez-Champalimaud, Niepoort, Offley Forrester, Quinta da Romaneira, Quinta do Noval, Ramos-Pinto, Sandeman, Smith Woodhouse, Taylor, Fladgate and Yeatman and Warre. More than half of thePort region wines are not made into Port wines but into simple but very good table wines. An example of this Port table product is Ferreira's Barca Velha, hard to find but quite excellent.
Other demarcated wine regions, notably Dao, made from grapes grown on the banks of the Dao River amidst pale yellow broom and pink flowering shrubs in north central Portugal, have received an enthusiastic welcome throughout the wine drinking world. Hilly country set within a ring of mountains, planted in coarse sand on the sunny side of the hills, Dao produces both red and white wines from pressings which must contain 20 percent Encruzado grapes for whites and 20 percent Touriga Nacional for reds.
The whites have a marked lemon and honey taste when young which with age seasons into a piney, honey taste. Whites do not require much aging or blending but the reds require two to three years before being really acceptable. Good choices in Daos are the Caves Alianca, Caves Sa Jao, Conde de Santar and Vinacolas do Vale do Dao, all big companies which handle both sales and exports.
Light and easy-drinking white and red wines from the west of Portugal around Torres Vedras, Arruda and Alenquer are mostly made from Vital, Fernao Fires, Seminario, Joao de Santarem, Tinta Miuda, Trinadeiria, Camarate and Preto Martinho, Rabo d'Ovelha, Fernao Fires and Joao Paulo grapes. Good choices are those from the houses of Quinta de Abrigada. Da Folgorosa, Adega Cooperativa de Arruda, Torres Vedras and de Labrugeira.
Ribatejo (the banks of the Tagus River) wines are grown from grapes grown in districts that are table flat, have fertile alluvial and sandy soil, much rainfall and cool winds from the Atlantic and Tagus River to temper the grapes. Both red and white grapes produce wonderful table wines with Adega Cooperativa de Almerim, Casa Agricola Herdeiros de Dom Lois de Margaride arid Caves Velhas producing superior products
Colares wines, the only vineyard to survive the dreaded phylloxera insect that decimated most of Europe's vineyards, because of its location above the sea and in the sand dunes, is a highly unlikely place to grow grapes. But grow they do, through the hardy Ramisco and Malvasia grape vine stock's ability to pierce the sand to a depth of 15 feet to the clay underneath to find their nourishment. Colares reds as a result are remarkable for their astringency and length of time to reach maturity. The wines eventually end up having a rich raspberry and cherry aroma but only after they have been pressed and laid in casks for ten years. Colares favorites are Antonio Bernardino Paulo da Silva and Tavares and Rodrigues
Less than 20 miles from Lisbon in the Bucelas area, vineyards have always been reputed for their white wines As a matter of fact Bucelas wines are always white which improve wonderfully with age. Made from the Arinto grape it does develop interesting flavors in its maturation. In adequate supply most of the time are Caves Velhas and Quinta do Avelar, both wines having a strong lemony taste with touches of mint, pine and nut.
Setubal, to the south of Lisbon in the hill country around, Arrabida, Azeitao and Palmela and now easy to get to with the building of the suspension bridge over the Tagus has always been noted for its sweet, fortified wines called Muscatel. Most of the wine grapes in the district are processed by the old line firm of Jose Maria da Fonseca Lda. , the grower and exporter of Lancer's Rose and White wines to the States. Across the dusty road from the winery in Azeitao is one of the best restaurants in Portugal, Quinta da Torres, which is followed closely by the magnificent parador at Palmela a few miles back towards Lisbon. Wines to look for, of course, are those from Jose Maria da Fonseca and Quinta de Sao Francisco,
Alentejo (beyond the Tagus) is hot and dry and they say that is why the inhabitants of this region have a reputation for lying around in the sun. The story goes on that when the '74 Revolution came the people in the South felt that heaven was here and they didn't have to work any longer. But the grapes kept growing and the vines kept producing despite the philosophy of the people. Not much rainfall and great heat produce good white and red wines from old proven methods of wine production. Look for Adega Cooperativa de Borba, Reguengos, da Vidigueira, de Redondo, Herdade do Esperao, Rosado Fernandes and Joao Pires.