We were set in a palace, on top of a thickly wooded hill

in the middle of Portugal, and told to talk and taste

Portuguese wine. It's tough in the wine game. There

were American importers, retailers and writers on

one side and Portuguese producers, exporters and officials on the other.

We talked and we tasted, and of the many regions covered, there was one that was new to me and that caught my attention: Bairrada. Was the production of this wine a secret known only to the Portuguese? And could I find those of one certain producer in Washington?

As it turned out, we were right next door to Bairrada. The Palace of Bussaco, once a royal hunting lodge and now a hotel, is a short drive from the vineyards and villages of Bairrada and its major city of Coimbra. To the east is the better-known area of D?ao, to the south the nondemarcated area of Ribatejo.

Bairrada, we were told, was an important wine region in the 19th century, but it was slow to recover from the turn-of the- century vine diseases and was not as strong politically as other regions. It became a demarcated region (the Portuguese appellation system) only in the '70s; hence its relative obscurity.

As to the certain producer, the name was Caves S?ao Jo?ao. A couple of days later, we were retasting the wines on their home ground, in the cellars where the winery ages both bairradas and d?aos of good quality. But it was all academic. The wines were not available in the Washington area.

Until last month, that is, when I saw them at A & A Liquors. I opened a selection at dinner that same evening--with, I confess, some qualms. Had my earlier appreciation been colored by the charm of that tasting cellar in S?ao Jo?ao de Anadia, with its mold-covered ceiling, cushion- covered wine barrels as stools and heavy table supporting a single rose?

No, they had traveled well. With the exception of a lean and maderizing white '78 D?ao, Porta dos Cavaleiros, they were the same pleasant wines and good values.

Both Bairrada and D?ao are better known for their reds than whites, with justification. However, I do like the '74 D?ao Branco (white) Reserva, Porta dos Cavaleiros, $5.30. A smooth, nutty-tasting wine, it has character, which is more than you can say for many of the new-style, cold fermented whites.

In the d?ao reds, the '78 Porta dos Cavaleiros, $4, is a sound, medium-bodied wine for everyday meals. The '75 Reserva, $5.30, is deeper-colored, aromatic and firm.

As in Portugal, I found the reds of Bairrada to be more stimulating and more complex than those of D?ao, perhaps because they have a high proportion of the baga grape, one which is rich in color and tannin. The '73 Reserva Particular, $6.50, is a good example. It's not a big wine, but has a strong streak and needs time to open out. A '66 Frei Jo?ao (S. Jo?ao's brand name), tasted in Portugal, was still young and tannic.

A Wine for Sichuan?--Judging by the number of new restaurants, greater Washington has an insatiable appetite for Asian food. What to drink with spicy dishes? A fruity style chenin blanc is one idea. The '81 Vouvray, Ch.ateau Moncontour, $7.50, made from the chenin blanc, has just the right balance of fruitiness and acidity. It's rather tasty on its own, too.