Food and drink, Vinho Verde: young, crisp wine from the Minho

Vinho Verde: young, crisp wine from the Minho

Vinho Verde is a very young, crisp wine that is produced in the Minho region. Its name translates to mean ‘young wine’, referring to the fact that it should be drunk soon after it has been bottled (and is not related to its colour, despite ‘verde’ meaning ‘green’). The Vinho Verde region, which lies between the Spanish border and the Douro Valley in the north-western corner of Portugal, was demarcated in 1908 and only permitted grapes are allowed to be used in wines that carry the Vinho Verde DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada (Controlled Denomination of Origin)) on the label, along with the seal of guarantee and an official number.

While the majority of Vinho Verde drunk outside of Portugal is white, within Portugal it is also possible to buy rosé and red Vinho Verde. The flavour of wines from the Vinho Verde region embody the cold, damp climate and granitic soil in which the vines grow, often draped over pergola trellises or even trees to keep them off the ground to prevent the grapes from rotting. The white Vinho Verdes have a characteristic light-bodied acidity with fruity and floral notes and, at around only 10% alcohol, it is the perfect drink on a hot day. The main grape varieties used in white Vinho Verdes are Alvarinho, Arinto, Avesso, Azal, Loureiro and Trajadura, usually in blends, but some wine producers are creating single-varietal Vinho Verdes with the more-complex Alvarhino and Loureiro grapes. The rosés have a freshness with flavours of strawberries, raspberries and cherries from the Espadeiro and Padeiro grapes, while the reds, made with Amaral, Borraçal and Vinhão grapes, are an acquired taste with high tannins, a deep-red colour and, let’s not beat around the bush, a sharp taste, but are still widely drunk in northern Portugal. Red Vinho Verde is often served from a cask in a traditional small terracotta or ceramic drinking bowl rather than in a wine glass.

Another characteristic of Vinho Verde is its slight fizziness, although not enough fizz to call it a sparkling wine. In the past the fizziness was a result of malolactic fermentation (in which malic acid converts to lactic acid and during this process releases carbon dioxide), but this fermentation resulted in an unappealing cloudiness which meant the wine had to be sold in an opaque container. Nowadays, producers of Vinho Verde add the carbon dioxide artificially. It is the combination of this slight sparkle combined with the light fresh acidity that makes this a perfect wine to drink on its own on a summer’s day or as an accompaniment to white meat, fish, seafood and salads.

Pictured wines (prices as of 2020):
Casal Garcia, Quinta da Aveleda, Vinho Verde DOC (blend of Trajadura, Loureiro, Arinto and Azal), NV, €4.55
Leira do Canhoto, Quinta de Melgaço, Vinho Verde DOC (blend of Alvarinho, Loureiro and Arinto), 2014, €3.35

Food and drink, In praise of the Touriga Nacional grape: the (not so) secret ingredient in Portuguese red wine

In praise of the Touriga Nacional grape: the (not so) secret ingredient in Portuguese red wine

Until recently it is probably fair to say that Portuguese wines weren’t great. Although they were enjoyed by the Portuguese, they were unpalatable to the rest of the world. Up to the mid-1980s (when Portugal joined the European Union) wines were solely produced by co-operatives (set up during the years of the dictatorship), where traditional mindsets and working methods didn’t allow the excellent varieties of grape that grow throughout the country to be used to their full potential. In recent years small vineyards and wine producing companies have turned this around by embracing new methods and technology, combined with an understanding of blending grape varieties to create wines of a quality that can compete with those of other wine-producing countries. The success of the Portuguese red wine blends is down to one grape variety in particular, the Touriga Nacional. This is the grape used to produce the best ports and can be seen growing along the length of the Douro Valley.

River Douro

Although this variety has been grown in Portugal for centuries (and has even made its way to Brazil, most probably brought over by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century, where it is used in their wine production), its importance was only recognised 30 or so years ago. It had almost died out by the 1970s due to low yields and disease, but a decade later research was done by some of the top port houses to determine which grape varieties make the best port and, of the ones they short-listed, Touriga Nacional was named the best. As a result of this research, a hardy clone was produced and Touriga Nacional is now grown in every wine-making region of Portugal, from the Douro to the Algarve. Portuguese red wines are made up of blends of grape varieties such as Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz/Aragonez (better known as Tempranillo), Touriga Franca, Trincadeira and Jaen, but the addition of Touriga Nacional (a dark-skinned grape rich in tannins, which on its own can be a bit over-powering) gives the wine its structure with intense aromas, flavours of blackcurrant and other dark fruit and spices, with a hint of liquorice and bergamot, and a capacity for ageing well. Even a small percentage of this grape (such as the 10% Touriga Nacional blended with 60% Tinta Roriz and 30% Touriga Franca in Casca Wines’ Bote (Douro)) can turn a mediocre blend into a full-bodied wine of international quality, so it is not surprising that in the wine industry Touriga Nacional is often referred to as Portugal’s answer to Cabernet Sauvignon. Don’t be put off by the low prices (around €4 a bottle in supermarkets) which belie the quality; good wine is, thankfully, still relatively cheap in Portugal.

Pictured wines (prices as of 2020):
Adega de Vila Real (Douro – blend of Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional), 2018, €3.14
Vale do Viso (Douro – blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz), 2016, €3.94
Cartuxa Vinea (Alentejo – blend of Aragonez, Trincadeira, Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Nacional and Syrah), 2017, €3.05
Bote (Douro – blend of Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional), 2016, €3.85
Cabeça d’Velho (Dão – blend of Tinta Roriz, Jaen and Touriga Nacional), 2015, €2.55

Art, Art on the Metro 5: Jardim Zoológico, Lisbon

Art on the Metro 5: Jardim Zoológico

When the Jardim Zoológico Metro station in Lisbon was expanded in 1995, the Portuguese artist Júlio Resende (1917-2011) was invited to decorate the walls of the platforms. He was inspired by the nearby Lisbon Zoo (Jardim Zoológico de Lisboa) to create large-scale hand-painted murals on the glazed tiles, depicting exotic animals and plants in tones of blue, green and yellow, so that the traveller is immersed in a lush Expressionist-style tropical forest.

Food and drink, Understanding the 'couvert': a Portuguese take on the bread and olives course

Understanding the ‘couvert’: a Portuguese take on the bread and olives course

The word Couvert on Portuguese menus can be a bit misleading to foreign tourists, as it isn’t the typical fixed-fee cover charge which is added to the bill in some other countries. The term couvert in Portugal is used to describe the small dishes that are served as appetisers before the meal. Common appetisers include: pão (bread), manteiga (butter), manteiga de ervas (herb butter), manteiga com alho (garlic butter), patê de sardinha (sardine pâté), patê de atum (tuna pâté), azeitonas (olives), queijo (cheese), maionese de delícias do mar (mayonnaise with seafood), cenouras à Algarvia (Algarvian-style carrots), grão de bico or feijão-frade com bacalhau (chickpeas or black-eyed peas with cod), among many others.

In most Portuguese restaurants appetisers are brought to your table as soon as you have sat down, but there is no obligation to eat them. In Portugal you only pay for what you eat, so if you don’t eat anything from the selection you won’t be charged. The couvert should be listed on the menu, so if you are concerned about how much it is going to cost you can ask to see the menu before you decide to accept it, however, they aren’t usually very expensive. Some restaurants charge per person for a selection of appetisers, for example, for €2 per person you may get a variety of bread rolls, herb butter, garlic butter, olives and tuna pâté. Other restaurants charge per item, for example, bread (€1), olives (€1.50), tuna pâté (€2.50), cheese (€3), so you can just try the ones you want. One thing that tourists who haven’t been to Portugal before often complain about is the fact that the food is presented as if it is free and they feel ripped off when they see it included on the bill, but it is not a tourist scam, it is just a cultural difference. The presentation of appetisers is standard practice in restaurants throughout Portugal, with the intention that diners have something to nibble on while looking at the menu and waiting for their food. It is perfectly acceptable to ask the waiter/waitress to take it away if you don’t want it, or just ask him/her to leave certain items, such as the bread and olives. The quality of the appetisers can vary from restaurant to restaurant; in some you may get pre-packaged sardine pâté, whereas in others it may be freshly made in the restaurant. You may also get offered regional dishes that you wouldn’t normally get to try and, as the Portuguese proverb goes, ‘Quem não arrisca, não petisca’ (‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’ or, literally, ‘He who doesn’t take a risk, doesn’t get to have a little snack’!).

Bom apetite!

Art, Art on the Metro 4: Martim Moniz, Lisbon

Art on the Metro 4: Martim Moniz

The Siege of Lisbon (also known as the Conquest of Lisbon), which took place in 1147, is a significant event in Portuguese history. That year the newly crowned King Afonso I of Portugal formed an army made up of Crusaders from Northern Europe to overthrow the Moorish presence in Lisbon, promising them the spoil. Despite the attacks on St George’s castle, which enclosed the Moorish city, the Moors held King Afonso’s army off for four months, but eventually the Christian army gained entry, overpowering the Moors, and then going on to ransack the city and murder anyone who got in their way. There is a legend that a knight called Martim Moniz, who was fighting in King Afonso’s army, lay down in the doorway so that the Moors couldn’t shut it, thus allowing the Christian army to enter. Despite being badly injured, the legend goes on to say that he got up and continued fighting until he finally died of his injuries. He is considered a hero in Lisbon and there is a small bust of him on a wall in the castle and he even has a square and the adjacent Metro station named after him in Lisbon.

In the Metro station the story of the Siege of Lisbon is told on the walls of the platforms through stylised minimalist cartoon-like characters created in marble by the sculptor José João Brito (b.1941) in 1997. Characters include two horses; the two bishops, D. João Peculiar (who successfully negotiated with the King of León and Castile for Portuguese independence in 1143) and D. Pedro Pitões (who persuaded the Crusaders to join King Afonso I in his attack on Lisbon); Crusaders, represented by Hervey de Glanvill (the leader of the Crusaders) and Simon of Dover (the leader of the Anglo-Norman forces); D. Afonso Henriques (King Afonso I of Portugal); and, of course, Martim Moniz, shown throwing himself between the doors.