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Tasting Notes|Portuguese wines

Portuguese wines gaining popularity

PINELLAS PARK

To make the haunting music known as fado requires only guitar and voice. But both must be Portuguese and played with passion.

This month, the Portuguese American Suncoast Association brought them to the small stage of its social hall. Together two acoustic guitars and a single voice plucked and flung their laments across the room in an annual toast to the treasures of their homeland.

The music was accompanied by Portuguese wine, equally deep and rich, mysterious and sensual. Club president Luis Carvalho and waiters in white shirts and red aprons moved constantly among 150 guests, pouring wine and pausing as each fado came to an end.

"Fado is always about love. It can be between a man and a woman, a couple, a mother and child, a home or country. It's desperate, it breaks your heart, it happens and you can do nothing. That's the end of it,'' emcee Henry Chipelo said later.

As Chipelo told the crowd, wine and fado are distinctly rooted in their small homeland on the Atlantic edge of Europe and yet famous around the world.

The country's grand, rich port wines may have obscured the much wider spectrum of Portugal's other wines, especially the red table wines. They are often made from the same black grapes, without added brandy and sugar, producing instead good dry reds for everyday drinking.

Changing options

Most American wine drinkers have missed the red wines and know only the big, pricey ports; on the cheap end, the light whites called vinho verde; and the successful spritzy roses of Mateus and Lancers.

Portuguese-Americans like Rosemary Picanso know better. "Red wine. Red, red is what we drink,'' she said scoffing at the limited selection in local stores.

That should change. Modern drinkers have palates wide open to new flavors, especially if they can keep a grip on their budget. And with a shrinking market for fortified port, smart shippers like Ferreira, Ramos Pinto, Niepoort and others make and sell more table wine.

One explorer is Eric Solomon, a young importer at European Cellars who focuses on undiscovered Spanish wines and now sees Portugal as the next frontier. "It's very Mediterranean, for casual drinking, and they use traditional varieties."

Portugal is among the oldest of Old World wine countries, typified by small vineyards, rough and tannic reds, obscure grapes and primitive techniques.

A variety of grapes

Winemakers there have had to modernize. They wisely chose to make cleaner, softer wines with better equipment for de-stemming and fermenting, but to stick with its traditional grapes. It is not the place to look for another source of cheap cabernet or chardonnay.

Nor do its wines compare to France's Burgundy or Bordeaux and certainly not neighboring Spain, although Portuguese vineyards have tempranillo, which they call tinta roriz.

They are better compared perhaps to Italy with its chaotic array of native grapes and microclimates, and reds that can be as big as amarone or as easy as sweet dolcetto.

They come from a remarkable variety of grapes and a country less than 400 miles long and 150 miles wide. "We have 300 varieties of grapes,'' said Jose Silva, a Miami importer who poured some of his company's 200 Portuguese labels.

Portuguese wines are a good value but not necessarily a bargain. Some lesser reds do sell for under $10 but most are more and some command top ratings and prices from $30 up.

Portugal's dry table wines have been quiet players in the wine world and in keeping with national character, proud but reticent.

You will hear more, and if you appreciate them they will be as beautiful as a fado song. And last longer.

Chris Sherman can be reached at csherman@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8585.

Tasting Notes

The selection of Portuguese wines is growing in better wine and liquor stores as well as ethnic stores such as Ideal Food Market in Kenneth City. • Portugal's newest imports are dry red wines of good value, using indigenous grapes for rich wines that taste of plums, berries and cherries but also have savory tastes of chocolate, coffee, bacon and leather. • They are not as tannic or bitingly dry as they used to be because many wineries now carefully sort and de-stem the grapes so the wine is no longer woody. • The labels and wine terms can be unfamiliar. The best regions are the Dao, the Port vineyards of the Douro and Alentejo. • The best grapes are touriga nacional and tinta roriz; in a few cases they are blended with merlot, cabernet sauvignon or syrah. • There are a few bargains under $10, but expect to pay a few dollars more for better wines. If you find a red you like, buy more and cellar for later. -- Chris Sherman, Times staff writer

Aveleda Vinho Verde, 2006

In the signature long green bottle and tiled label, it remains the most cleanly made of the "green'' whites. It has more soft stone fruit flavors than citrus, like a frizzy viognier with some of the mineral crispness of German white. Distinctive but best in the heat of summer. $8.

Red wine, Quinta de Ventozelo, Cister da Ribeira Douro, 2005

The big-deal grapes of port are made into an affordable red, light and citified like a modest Burgundy but still a little bit country. Deep red in color and plummy; herbal in nose and mouth. $9.

Douro Lavradores de Feitoria, 2005

Mavericks give port grapes classier handling and oak aging to make a juicy wine that's black, dry and surprisingly soft. Nose and taste are fruity and earthy. Rich drinking for the price. $10.

Tres Bagos/Douro, Lavradores de Feitoria, 2004

More select grapes and more touriga nacional show off the promise of these guys — and Portugal — in turning port dry. Full bodied yet svelte, jammed with flavors of berries and cherries, and a background of wood and spice. Taste that doesn't quit. $13.

Vinho tinto, Dao, Alvaro de Castro, Niepoort, 2004

The starter wine from a bright, modern winemaker in grand old territory with traditional grapes. Dark ruby colors around raspberries and blackberries and smoky layers of chocolate and licorice. Meaty enough for anything on the grill. Who needs Australia? $16.

Portuguese wines gaining popularity 03/25/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 27, 2008 8:52am]

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