All that's Portuguese isn't port. It isn't madeira, either. It certainly isn't Mateus or Lancers, those slightly sticky, spritzy Portuguese wines that launched many an American on the upwardly inclined path to better wines.
No, Portugal has other, more characterful table wines to offer, in huge quantities. Portugal is the sixth-largest producer of wine in the world and third in per capita consumption -- a considerable achievement for a small nation. It provides Americans with the opportunity to drink properly aged red wine without having to file for Chapter 11 protection. In fact, Portugal has the best prices anywhere for older vintages.
Consider, for instance, the smooth old reds of Carvalho, Ribiero & Ferreira, not an Iberian law firm but a single producer of good reputation. The '74 Carvalho "garrafeira" -- meaning the best wine from a single producer, and a cut above "reserva" -- has good body and depth and is available in some shops for a big $11. That is about a quarter of what you would pay for a middling bordeaux of the same vintage, and one-twelfth the cost of a '75 Haut-Brion.
The most recent vintage Carvalho is the '78, which costs about $6. There are older ones around, but because the bottles are sealed with hard wax -- as are many Portuguese reds -- and the prices are so low, many people won't buy them.
"I have '61 garrafeiras in my fine wine room," says Tom Hanna, of A&A Wines and Spirits in Washington. People sometimes ask him why a $20 wine is alongside those costing hundreds.
Labels on the garrafeiras of CR&F do not identify the origin of the grapes. Portugal was the first country to pass laws establishing grape regions and blending and wine-making practices, 25 years before France's appellation contro~le'e went into effect. But the rigidity of the system led many producers in Portugal to forgo the government's seal of approval in the interest of making more interesting wine from grapes grown in different regions.
Probably the best known reds come from the Daåo district, in north central Portugal and named for the Daåo River. The district is dominated by cooperatives, and its red wines are known for their "cut" -- the ability to slice through rich foods -- and good body. A fine representative of the Daåo reds is the '80 Porta Dos Cavaleiros, from Caves Saåo Joaåo, selling for about $7.
For the same price, Saåo Joaåo also makes what it calls a reserva particular, a blend of grapes from different regions that has the weight of a bordeaux, and some finesse.
From just south of Lisbon comes one of the best bargains in everyday wine -- Periquita, made by the big firm of Jose'- Maria da Fonseca of Azeitaåo. Periquita sells for about $5 a bottle, varies little among vintages and suits most anything from roast chicken to pizza.
The same region, which is close to the Atlantic Ocean, produces one of the loveliest surprises of Portugal -- Quinta da Bacalho~a. It is a unique wine since it is made of foreign -- to Portugal -- cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The grapes are grown on terraced slopes above a 500-year-old palace of the same name, built in 1480 by the mother of King Manuel I and now a national monument.
Today, Quinta da Bacalho~a is owned by Thomas and Cathryn Scoville, of Washington, D.C. Tom Scoville inherited it in 1969 from his grandmother, who bought the palace as a ruin half a century ago and had it restored. Scoville was interested in wine and wanted to make a cha~teau-type wine different from the old Portuguese reds. He loved pinot noir but didn't think the grape would flourish there, so he chose the bordeaux blend.
The bordeaux varieties were planted in 1975 and came into full production four years later. They produce a fine, full-bodied claret that sells for only $7 a bottle. The '84 is widely available, and the '83 less so; both were abundant vintages. A few bottles of the more concentrated and subtle '82 can still be found for about $8 -- an incredible bargain.
"It's really a sort of international cabernet," Scoville says of his wine, meaning that it can compete with those of Bordeaux and California. His winemaker persuaded some neighbors to also plant cabernet and merlot, so now the production of Quinta da Bacalho~a reaches 12,000 cases in a good year.
Scoville works -- as a lobbyist for the maritime industry -- so he gets to spend only two or three weeks a year at Quinta da Bacalho~a. "I couldn't afford to keep it if I didn't rent it out," he says. "It has become so popular that we keep it reserved five years in advance."
The rent is about $5,500 a month. That is a lot of money, but then the tenants get a couple of free bottles of Quinta da Bacalho~a to ease the pain. ::