We kissed the North goodbye, heading south from Oporto with the taste of old Port wine, Vinho Verde and braised goat in our mouths and the pungent salty aroma of the Douro in our hair. The road was long. But it was straight, and it was fast ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ “we spent too much money on roads, that’s why the country is financially tortured”, a businessman had told me in a wine bar down Gaia way.
The landscape changed as we cruised on. Green vineyards and hills were replaced with scenes of intensive agriculture: maize, wheat, melons, onion. If I had time, I would have stopped-off right there to open a caf+¬.
The South is drier. There were marshes. And olive groves. Big cows and nervous-looking goats. Magnificent cork oaks were being given their bark-stripping, a painless process each tree is subjected to every nine years.
And then the wine-region of Alentejo beckoned, south of Lisbon and the car rolled into another one of these gorgeous sleeping Portuguese villages, an aqua-duct in the distance, leathery old guys drinking coffee in the mid-day sun, a few waving kids. The town was Azeitao and the stop-over was to be the Jos+¬ da Fonseca winery.
The winery was founded in 1834 and claims to be the oldest table-wine producing winery in Portugal, but nobody had time to take this in as a hearty welcome came bellowing from a Volkswagen Tourag disgorging a man onto the driveway.
Domingos Soares Franco is a bit of a celebrity on the Portuguese wine scene. Besides his colourful personality, love of laughter and a philosophic approach to wine and wine business he is a renowned winemaker ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ the first Portuguese winemaker to graduate from the famed UCLA Davis.
As head vino-honcho at Jos+¬ da Fonseca, Domingos understands the importance of marketing. His cool, Godfather-like face adorns some of the winery’s entry-level brands. He talks a mean English with a gravelly American-accented undertone. And he is the perfect ambassador for his product: loves to talk, is passionate about Portugal and its wines and knowledgeable in a typically nonplussed, easygoing Mediterranean kind-of-way.
“We just gotta make wines we like. And if we make wines we like to drink, with our food, with people?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-+?-+guests?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-+?-+.like you like these wines, they are honest wines and we can be proud of them?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-+?-+.Portugal can be proud,” Domingos said during an al fesco lunch of a couple of hours.
“Of course, here in Alentejo we have the climate for a number of very interesting grape varieties giving, I think, unique wines. But obviously we gotta use technology and science as you never make a perfect wine, you just try and get as close, which is an eternal quest and you have to go for it. But we’re there: I’m not saying better than other regions in the world, but good wines tasting of Portugal than we as a country can present with pride.”
With a line-up of Jos+¬ da Fonseca wines longer than a list of Brazilian supermodels, there was not much time for getting all philosophical. There were whites and reds and ros+¬ and a couple of Muscats and a brandy.
But seeing as the wine world tends to judge countries on their ability to make classic red wines, I’ll pause on these.
The highlight was the Jos+¬ Maria da Fonseca Periquita Superyor 2008. This blend is made-up of over 90% Periquita (also known as Castelao), Cabernet Sauvignon and Tinta Francisca, and after numerous trips to the country ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ including a three-month stay ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ I can truly say this is pure Portugal in a bottle.
There is hot, Latin-blooded bucking, romping character coursing through the veins of this wine, a soul enchanted by drama and romance. But also a beautiful perfume, a breath of sage, a weeping widow’s touch that straightens the wine out, gives it direction. Not absolute direction, for that we are talking of something too individual. But the integration of an untamed heartbeat and romantic refinement makes for something quite startling and haunting and memorable.
It blew me, over.
Number two in my book was the Jos+¬ da Fonseca Jos+¬ de Sousa Mayor 2007, described as the top-end of the cava. The grapes are Aragones and Trincadeira, as well as Grand Noir, a cross of Petit Boucet and Aramon introduced into Portugal by Napoleon Bonaparte. The stuff is fermented and aged in huge clay pots and is more streamlined, more organised, more ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ dare I say it ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ European than the rampant surge of the Periquita. Firm tannins, a silky finish and gushing mulberries, blackberry, dried-fig and a hint of cured wild boar rounds of another wine that can take its rightful place on any world stage.
The third wine was a Domini Plus Douro, made from Jos+¬ da Fonseca’s Douro property. The mix contains usual Douro suspects – 45% Touriga Franca, 30% Tinta Roriz, 15% Touriga Nacional, 10% Tinta Barroca ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ and the paradigm shift between Douro and Alentejo is noticeable as the wine hits the glass.
Big colour, as dark and red as an Oporto barmaid’s lipstick during kissing season. Liquorice and spice in the glass, with fresh whiffs of violet, dried flower and a hint of ground pimento powder. What a fantastic wine.
What fantastic wines. Go Portugal. Go Domingos. You are ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ from north to south ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ in my heart forever.