Wines of Portugal brings top-notch Portuguese wines to Chicago's sommeliers--- also giving a peephole to the diversity of Portuguese travel experiences
We may be looking out the 80th floor windows of the lounge atop the AON building, but really it only takes a few sips before we are transported to Portugal.
Dozens of Portuguese vintners stand at tables with many of the labels they sell in the United States. Meanwhile, Chicago-based sommeliers and wine merchants systematically walk from booth to booth—sipping their way across the room. Waiters weave in and out of the crowd, with trays overflowing with appetizers. Buffet tables bookend this front room.
Every other hour or so the host of this event, Brazilian born Eugenio Jardim, the official Wines of Portugal Ambassador, kicks off a guided tasting in the conference room, with none other than Chicago’s own Master Sommelier Alpana Singh. As Jordan talks about Portugal in general, Singh is sipping each of the wines we are about to sample, earnestly scribbling her notes of which wine to pair with which food. Then they drill down into the details of comparing select wines from various regions—Lisbon, the Douro Valley, wines from the Dao region and more.
Here are some of the things we learned from Jardin—
About 10% of Portuguese wines get exported to the US, which is the first in per capita consumption of the country’s exported wines. Wine industry outsiders like this writer might find it somewhat amazing that even factors like sommeliers getting past the challenge of learning correct pronunciations of wine region and vintner names, seems to be an obstacle yet to be overcome in some quarters.
Portuguese winemaking dates back to 2000 BC. The country’s former authoritarian leader Salazar also probably has a lot to do with Portuguese wines being underrepresented in the global market, as his policies were geared to keep wines for local and Portuguese colonial consumption only. This began to dramatically reverse when Portugal joined the EU in 1986, bringing an influx of cash, better roads, electricity and more needed to help Portuguese winemakers enter the European and global market.
It’s a good thing they keep feeding us in the next room because to listen to Alpana Singh break down the ideal pairing so would otherwise be an exercise in fighting ravenous hunger. “..the Vinho Verde would pair best with barnacles with lemon garlic butter, clams, octopus or calamari—anything you would serve with a lemon on it..” “…Dao wines are considered the burgundy of Portugal.. it’s perfect with international spices like Indian zataar or similar dry herbs you might use with Moroccan lamb- smoky and with such lift, it’s begging for fatty food like lamb or osso bucco..”
There are pictures on the screen not unlike the ones you see in this story, that help illustrate how and why Portugal has such a wide array of wines, including 250 native grape varieties and also endemic varieties that migrated from the Middle East and the Caucuses hundreds of years ago. Portugal, we learn, has the largest number of microclimates per square kilometer in the world!
Douro, where the world’s first demarcated and regulated region for wine is located, has vines that fracture the schist landscape to draw water and the nutrients they need.
Anyone who has visited Cabo da Roca, the European continent’s most western point, immediately gets the explanation of how the Atlantic’s winds are a significant cooling factor in many areas. You look at the map anew as you consider how the storms traveling up from Spain in the more continental parts of the country affect cultivation there.
The scenic castle town of Obidos-- famous for its cherry wine
It’s a new variant perhaps on the age-old question—Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?? It’s tourism to Portugal—now THE hot spot for European travelers-- that is helping to put Portugal’s many wines on high end restaurant menus. More than a few travel writers sipping wines at this event, like this writer-photographer team, were no doubt moving Portugal coverage up in their plans. The wines drive the tourists too perhaps.
And was that Fado music playing in the restrooms? Or was it just that sips of Portuguese wine can transport you in the same way Proust’s famous cookie did him???