My first day was spent in Lisbon rediscovering this architecturally beautiful city, enjoying its delicious restaurants, and searching for the best spots to hear Fado, Portugal’s hauntingly dramatic music that dates back to the Middle Ages. Comparable to American blues, this music is usually performed live in cavernous restaurants and bars throughout Lisbon’s old neighborhoods of Alfama and Bairro Alto. Beautiful young ladies perform with two guitarists (one acoustic and the other a Portuguese instrument that is similar to a mandolin in sound and shape).
Portugal is the 10th biggest producer of wine in the world, but it remains largely undiscovered. Boasting more than 250 native grape varieties, it seems unbelievable that it hasn’t made a bigger impact in wine and culinary circles. Especially since the Portuguese wine culture dates back to 200 B.C.
Photo credit: NJ.com
In Lisbon I paid a visit to one of my favorite local classics, a restaurant named Gambrinus, which has the most incredible cellar of old Madeiras. After a delicious lunch of bacalhau, the national dish of baked salt cod, I moved to the bar where the bartender, who has worked there for 33 years, took me through a tasting of Madeira wines, all of which dated back to the middle 1800s. I tasted an 1856 bual, 1885 verdelho, 1850 verdelho, very old malvasia, very old bastardo, very old sercial, and 1980 Borges vintage port.
Our second and third days were spent exploring the vast region of Alentejo. Alentejo covers almost one-third of the country, which is not bigger than Indiana, but is the largest wine-producing area of Portugal. The landscape is a beautiful quilt of vines, olive trees, and oaks, used for the production of corks. This is an area where rolling hills give way to occasional ancient hilltop villages that often surround an even older castle. Driving from one winery to another, one cannot help to get lost in the vastness of the land and its sheer rough beauty. Today we saw several wild pigs grazing on the verdant fields among the olive trees.
The wineries in this area are primarily large cooperatives that work with a lot of the native Portuguese grape varieties, such as trincadeira and touriga nacional, along with such international superstar grapes like syrah, petit verdot, and the now obscure alicante bouschet. Even though the area is known for its scorching hot summers, we experienced some beautifully cool autumn days.
Alentejo has some the best cooperatives that I’ve ever visited and they make some great value, everyday drinking wines. Family-owned wineries are also located here, including Cortes de Cima, which is owned by a husband-and-wife team from Denmark and Marin County respectively. It is pretty impressive that under such harsh conditions these wines can retain such delicate varietal qualities and natural acidity.
The food has been extraordinary and we have enjoyed typical Aletejano fare, which include many preparations of rabbit and lamb. These, of course, are always preceded by pata negra ham, Queijo da Serra, and delicious Portuguese olives.
We have now checked in at Herdade da Malhadinha Nova, an exquisite eco-friendly resort that also makes some very interesting wines.
Contributed by Brazil native Eugenio Jardim who has been the wine director at Jardiniere in San Francisco since 2001.
Marcia Gagliardi is a freelance food writer in San Francisco. She writes a weekly column, Foodie 411 for the SFCVB on their “Taste” site; a monthly gossip column, “The Tablehopper” for The Northside; and regular features for Edible San Francisco. Her first book came out in March 2010: The Tablehopper’s Guide to Dining and Drinking in San Francisco: Find the Right Spot for Every Occasion.