If you take alcohol out of the equation, wine tasting is like being in class. Today’s lesson brings us to Dão by way of the Wines of Portugal Tasting Room. Inside is nothing like your average school room, despite a giant map of the small country, people taking notes, and occasionally, Paulo Nunes – the winemaker and tonight’s teacher – asking questions followed by a short awkward silence because no one wants to say something ridiculous. “There are no wrong answers”, Paulo Nunes says when asking which fruits we can subtly taste. President of Wines of Portugal, Frederico Falcão, however, often has the right answer but doesn’t want to share his knowledge with the class. Instead, he will occasionally nod his head in agreement with the winemaker. After all, being the current leader of the entire operation, Frederico knows all there is to know about Portuguese wine.
Here in the little hidden shop in Terreiro do Paço, the west part of the famous Praça do Comércio square, people can participate in wine tastings two to three times a week, or even try wine by the glass, “something you can’t actually do in wine shops”, explains Falcão, expertly swirling his floral vintage, sending us into a momentary wine hypnosis. A sobering realisation breaks the trance. The Wines of Portugal Tasting Room reopened days ago on 3rd May after being closed since last January, due to the Covid-19 restrictions. Reopening these tasting rooms has come as a relief to the Mr. Falcão, our host for the evening, because like most businesses, the wine sector was hit hard by the pandemic. Wines of Portugal lost 80% of their revenues in shops and tasting rooms, and wine consumption in restaurants fell by nearly 50%.
“The aim of these tasting rooms is not to make money, but to promote Portuguese wine and stimulate Portuguese consumers”, Falcão insists. With borders only recently opened, Portuguese consumers are the main target for now. During the summer, Wines of Portugal is hoping to attract more tourists like Brazilians and Americans who often come to Lisbon.
The walls of the room are a bold Bordeaux colour, but the wine of the night doesn’t come from France, instead it is from the Dão wine region of Portugal. We had the opportunity to try eight different wines from the House of Passarella in our socially distanced corners while Paulo Nunes, winemaker told us the story and process behind each bottle of wine.
“Portugal is small but has a world of differences”
Our first white wine of the night is from the O Fugitivo collection, made from uva cão, literally meaning “grape dog” in English. Frederico has never tried this one before. He swirls his glass until creating a tornado-like movement of wine, examining the colour and sniffing all the aromas the three-year-old wine has to offer. “It’s a different style”, he says, a bit unconvinced. Whether you like the very acidic taste of the dog grape or not, it represents the best quality Portuguese wine has to offer… variety. Falcão considers it is important Portuguese wine be recognised internationally, simply because “the quality is unmatched elsewhere. We have such a big diversity of grapes. Portugal is small, but it has a world of differences”.
Decidedly, nothing compares to Portugal’s wine, but it is still having difficulties making a name for itself. According to Falcão, there are two reasons: “We are selling our wine too cheap, and we are too focused on internal markets.” Before the last ten to twenty years, Portugal didn’t export too much of its wine and what wasn’t sold in the mainland, “we would send to our colonies like Angola and Mozambique at low prices”, the wine aficionado outlines. But promoting Portuguese wine during a pandemic “has been very difficult”, he admits. During all of last year, viniPortugal organised virtual tastings across the globe and still, “we only managed to have one in-person tasting before, it was in Poland last October. All the others were cancelled or postponed”.
Father-daughter wine enthusiasts Marina, 30, and Jorge, 60, are thrilled the tasting rooms are back in action. The duo used to come to Terreiro do Paço every week or two. “We are very curious about wine and we also get to learn a lot about our country and how it’s produced compared to other places”. Tastings have become a father-daughter tradition over the years. “In Portugal it’s very normal to spend time around the table and when we are not, we are thinking of what we are going to eat next… and what we will drink!” Now easing out of lockdown, going outside to taste and spit wine in a room full of strangers may not sound ideal, but Marina reassures, “we all feel pretty safe”.
As long as no one at the tasting was driving after, The Portugal News feels pretty safe too – and cheerfully buzzed.