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May 2010

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Calling Antonio
By Baroness Sheri de Borchgrave


I sat in the tasting room at Aveleda, a splendid property dating back five centuries, and watched as Antonio poured me eight glasses of Alvarinho. Antonio (Guedes) is the patriach and owner of the Quinta da Aveleda—the second Antonio of perhaps 17 Antonios I would eventually meet at the wineries I toured as guest of the G7, a group of five powerhouse wineries sourcing their grapes from seven regions. Their message is that Portugal is more than just Port—that it has exciting and extremely low-priced dry whites and reds worth savoring.

(click photo for larger view)

Alvarinho, but one of the fabulous whites that come from the Vinho Verde district, is one of the few white wines that ages; after years, it can take on nuances similar to Riesling's. It's young, with exciting tropical flavors, marvelous minerality and a lively acidity.

Quinta da Aveleda's most coveted Vinho Verde is named Casal Garcia, a soft, elegant wine with floral aromas and vivid grapefruit flavors. It's the ideal summer wine, with its delightful crispness, mineral nuance and equally palatable price ($8). I also tried a ripe, fruity Fonte ($8), which works well with Thai food.

Below, some more Portuguese gems:
1. With 800 vineyard acres in the prime regions of Bairrada and Dao, Alianca, founded in 1927, produces red blends that mix French and Portuguese varieties (Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Baga). The principle grape, Baga, has high acidity and often features eucalyptus and forest-floor flavors. I tasted Quinta Das Beceladas ($20), a blend of Baga, Merlot and Cab. Considered one of the best reds of Portugal, it had a brightness and finesse that paired brilliantly with the suckling pig we had for dinner. Comically, at Alianca, suckling pig—and sheep's cheese—was cited as the partner for all the reds.

2. I continued to discover truly stand-out reds at Messias, a fourth-generation family winery that makes 2.5 million bottles of dry wine along with 3 million bottles of Port. Winemaker Joao Soares showed me the Bairrada vineyards (considered the "Bordeaux" of Portugal), perched on rolling hills 50 kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean, where he grows Baga and Touriga Nacional (which resemble Cabernet Sauvignon). Soares blends these grapes into earthy, nuanced wines. His Quinta Do Valdoeiro ($8), with 40 percent Syrah, is spicy and layered—a perfect match for black pig or fatty dishes like duck. From Douro-region grapes, Soares makes Grande Escolha 07 ($9), which incorporates Touriga Franca (like Cabernet Franc). With its concentrated fruit and a touch of pepper, this is an elegant Douro wine that pairs with goat.

3. From the north, near Oporto, I headed to a region near Lisbon, where I visited Quinta da Bacalhôa, a winery with one of its vineyards flanking a private palace dating from the 1490s. With its longtime female winemaker, Filipa Tomaz Da Costa, the winery elaborates excellent reds, whites and rosés, as well as a fabulous brandy from rare Muscat Roxo (purple Muscat, $15). I sipped Loridos Alvarinho ($11), a "WOW" wine with hints of yellow plums and lemon, and JP Azeitao Tinto ($8), a red blend and an ideal party wine. Tinta Da Anfora ($13), with its gripping rounded tannins, resembled what the British call a "claret." The reserve wine Quinta Da Bacalhoa ($30), from grapes grown in the palace's walled vineyard, had leafy cassis notes and velvety tannins.

4. At nearby José Maria da Fonseca, the wine behemoth dating back six generations with numerous top-dog Antonios, winery president Antonio Soares Franco, and his winemaker brother, Domingos, staged a tasting of Periquita Reserva, Domingos 07 and Domini Douro. All three are priced at $16 and, indeed, surefire matches for suckling pig and other spicy cuisines. I have to admit, though, that the G7 Antonios were so good-looking with that smoldering, soulful-eyed Portuguese look, that it was difficult to concentrate on the pairing.