One of the sincere regrets of my twenty-plus years as a wine writer is that I did not visit Portugal. The country is home to the famed Douro region of northern Portugal, the home of Port. It also is recently known as a country that produces some outstanding still wines, made from a slew of indigenous grapes that are difficult to pronounce, but exciting to experience. If you’re interested in trying some vibrant, food-friendly wines that aren’t made from the ‘usual suspects,’ then you’re ripe for the Douro wine experience.
The region is named for the Douro River, which cuts through the center of its steep, terraced hills. Grown in one of the wildest, most mountainous regions of Portugal, the vineyards almost defy gravity as their roots struggle to find nourishment in its poor, schistous soils.
If rivers were writers, they would give voice to fables, whispered in the hills, that are the stuff of legend. Douro’s narrow, stonewalled vine terraces are historic and have thusly been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Struggling vines mean stupendous wines. Thanks to Folio Fine Wine Partners, the marketing and public relations firm located in Napa, California, the United States can now experience the latest releases from their portfolio, including wines from the esteemed Douro producer Quinta Do Crasto.
Nestled in the storied hills of the Douro, Quinta Do Crasto is one of the oldest winemaking estates in the region. The name ‘Crasto’ is as old as the region itself. In Latin, it roughly translates to ‘Roman fort.’ First mentions of the estate date back to 1615, long before the Douro became the world’s first designated wine region in 1756.
Since its purchase by Constantino de Almeida in the early 20th Century, the winery has remained in the family and is now under the ownership of Leonor Roquette, her husband Jorge, and their three children. They have acquired additional local vineyards and renovated their winemaking facilities to accommodate production of their new line of wines.
Dedicated to creating outstanding Douro DOC wines, the new line of Quinta Do Crasto reflects their commitment to the region’s long tradition of fine winemaking. A welcome addition to the global wine stage, Quinta Do Crasto shows how the special terroir of the Douro, combined with modern techniques. can create flavorful wines that are unlike any other.
Exciting because of the use of modern technology to introduce ancient indigenous wine varieties to a new audience, these are the wines you can expect to see at your local wine shop.
Crasto DOC White 2018-Douro DOC ($20)
This is a white wine that is almost a primer of Portuguese still wines for the uninitiated. A blend of indigenous grape varieties, it is a combination of 40% Viosinho, 30% Gouvelo, and 30% Rabigato, the wine is aged 95% in stainless steel and the remaining 15% is aged in used French oak barrels to add roundness. The dead yeast, or lees, is stirred in over a three month period to give the wine additional body and character. The result is an uncharacteristically complex, full-bodied white wine that can go with a surprising array of food. This is an oddity for a white wine, which tend to be more delicate and fruity and therefore limited in pairing possibilities. Not so with this robust, energetic white.
Aromas of orange blossoms and soft citrus tastes run cleanly through a core of minerality, which causes the wine to linger long on the palette, making it ideal for dishes that are light, but a bit adventurous.
For starters, this is a great wine to have with a varied cheese and fruit platter with some nuts and olives before the meal. It can also take you right through a summer buffet or a seafood dish with a light cream or vinaigrette sauce.
The Portuguese are magicians with seafood. Something as simple as a platter of freshly grilled sardines, called Sardinhas Assadas (Portuguese for grilled), is a typical Portuguese comfort food that is entrancing when made by the right hands. The recipe is actually quite easy and can be served as an appetizer or a main course.
Preparation is insanely simple. Just marinate some fresh sardines in lemon, garlic, paprika and olive oil, stuff you probably already have in your kitchen pantry (Thank you McCormick!), and grill them directly over hot coals for two or three minutes. Toss some fresh Rosemary sprigs directly on the fire at the last minute to add a nice aroma. Grill some sliced green bell peppers brushed with olive oil on the side, and you’re good to go.
Another easy Portuguese dish is Arroz (roasted) de tamboril, a traditional stew made with Monkfish, fresh chopped parsley, sage or oregano and bay leaf, bell peppers, garlic, onions, tomatoes, white wine, fish stock and olive oil served over rice.
You can probably find a good recipe on the internet, but here’s a simpIe version according to Dwight The Wine Guy! Just coat a large skillet with olive oil, and add the ingredients, as my grandmother did, in slow succession, using a pinch of this, and a smidgen of that to taste. Monkfish used to be an exotic delicacy, but these days, you can find it at your local Jewel, Safeway or Kroger with no problem. Perfeito!
A quick ‘Chef’s note’. One of the basic flavor ingredients in Portuguese cooking is a vegetable paste called ‘sofrito.’ (sometimes called recaito).
A combination of culantro (similar to cilantro, but stronger. In a pinch, use cilantro) onions, bell peppers, tomatoes and garlic, cooked slowly in olive oil. It is available premade in a jar, and is the base for many Portuguese dishes, as well as those from Spain, Puerto Rico and Cuba. Just mention that name to an accomplished chef in any of those genres, and you will get a smile and a quick recitation of their own personal recipe.
Goya makes a popular premade version that is available in the Mexican or International aisle of just about any major supermarket.
In my experience, the premade versions of sofrito tend to be a bit salty. You’re better off making your own. It’s really easy to do. Just make sure to cook the ingredients slowly in a heavy (preferably cast iron) skillet over a low to medium flame. You can put the leftovers in a jar or Ziplock bag and keep a batch in the back of the fridge or in the freezer for weeks.
Crasto Superior Red 2016-Douro DOC ($29)
Grapes are sourced from the estate’s Quinta da Cabreira property situated in the Douro Superior sub-region. The blend of Touriga Nacional, the flagship grape of Portugal, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo, a grape which is also widely used in neighboring Spain) and indigenous Souzao.
Aged in French oak for 12 months, the resulting wine is mouth filling with well-integrated tannins that soften its dense flavors of dark red berries and hints of cinnamon stick and sandalwood.
If you can find some Pata Negra Cured Ham, which is a Portuguese delicacy made from black Iberian pigs; you’re in for a treat. Barring that, substitute well-cured Iberian (Spanish) ham or Prosciutto. Serve it with a nice wedge of hard cheese, such as an Aged Parmesan Reggiano or Machengo. Yum!
Grilled sausages are also nice with this wine. Spicy Italian Sausage, Chorizo or garlicky Kielbasa first come to mind. They are all readily available at your local grocer.
Alheira de Mirandela is a special kind of Portuguese sausage made with bread and meat instead of pork. Called the King of Portuguese sausage, it is said to have been invented by the Portuguese Jews during the Inquisition. There’s a whole history concerning the effort to expel Jews from Portugal that goes with this, but that would take another chapter.
Somehow, as in all historic upheavals, the cuisine inexplicably remains and is somehow incorporated into the dominant culture. A fitting example is the existence of Couscous in all its many incarnations on virtually every French table long after the smoke from the Battle of Algiers has settled.
In that vein, you’ll love this add-on to my recipe for Alheira de Mirandela. They are traditionally served with a hefty side of French Fries!
Reserva Old Vines 2016-Douro DOC ($45)
This is a wine that tells you everything you need to know about the Douro. A blend of 25 to 30 grape varieties gathered from parcels of vines that average 70 years old, the wine is aged for 18 months in French and American oak. It is rich, and elegant with complex flavors of jammy ripe dark plums and blackberries. The flavors run the gamut, from delicate crushed flowers, to heavy notes of baker’s chocolate and hints of aged tobacco.
In Portugal, they have their own version of Chateaubriand steak, which is a large cut of beef grilled over hot coals and served with a side of sliced potatoes and sautéed greens.
A similar American version would be the popular Cowboy Steak, which is a thick cut of Prime Ribeye steak with the long rib bone attached. It is also called the ‘Tomahawk’ Steak, but, that’s not very PC, so we’ll pass on that one! You may be planning to grill one for the Fourth of July Weekend. Why wait. You owe it to yourself to enjoy it now.
Touriga Nacional 2016-DOC Douro ($78)
The words Touriga Nacional and Douro are often spoken in the same sentence. The grape is responsible for the region’s legendary Port wines. Grapes for this bottling were taken from the very best plots of the Quinta do Crasto’s estates. After careful fermentation under control temperatures, the wine is aged for 18 months in French oak. Touriga Nacional has a distinctive bright purple hue that belies its intoxicating aroma of fresh-cut violets and its captivating flavors of succulent, ripe berries and hints of freshly ground spices; nutmeg, star anise and cardamom. Firm tannins and a bright acidity make for a satisfying pour worthy of contemplation under an evening sky by the fire pit. Even if you aren’t a frequent cigar smoker, you should avail yourself of a nice Portuguese Bunch or Ramon Allones if you can get your hands on one. If not, a Fuentes or Cohiba will do. The Fourth is right around the corner. Set off your own flavor fireworks show!
For more, visit quintodocrasto.pt.