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Portugal: Small country with big, age-worthy wines

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Portugal is a small country, but it is the 10th largest wine producer in the world. There are 14 wine regions and 30 or so indigenous grape varietals that are used to make table wines. In spite of its diversity, the one region that has consistently made high-quality wines — at least since I’ve been in the biz — is Dão.

Dão received its DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada) in 1990, four years after the system, which is similar to France’s AOC, was put in place. However, wine has been made here for centuries, and it was recognized during an earlier attempt at classification in the beginning of the 20th century. Today, there are seven subzones.

The region is in the center of the country on a high plateau sheltered by three mountain ranges, one being Serra da Estrela — home of the pungent but delicious Portuguese cheese of the same name. These granitic geological structures protect Dão from continental influences, but the nights are cool and the growing season short.

Some of the better-aging Portuguese wines I’ve had over the years have been from the Dão, no doubt a result of the acidity made possible by the climate.  

Encruzado is the star white wine grape, and it makes wines in a range of styles from light and crisp to rich and oxidized. The reds are made from several grapes, but touriga nacional, a major player in the Douro, and alfrocheiro are most common. Jaen (mencia) and tinta roriz (tempranillo) also lurk in the vineyards.

Stylistically, the wines are usually fragrant and have a lot of structure, from both acid and tannin. Cola, balsamic, spice and red fruit flavors are pretty typical.

You would be hard-pressed to find a red from Dão that sells for more than $25, at least west of Portugal, but these wines are an even greater value because of their ability to age well. Here are three that stand out:

Sociedade Agricola Boas Quintas, Boas Vinhas, 2009: Boas Quintas means “good farms” in Portuguese. Owned by Nuno Cancela de Abreu, a fourth-generation Dão winemaker, Boas Quintas has property in Dão, Alentejo and on the Setúbal Peninsula. An unoaked wine made from tinta roriz, alfrocheiro and touriga nacional, it’s light and vibrant with blackberries and spice. This may not be destined for much more aging, but it sure is delightful now. Suggested retail: $13

Dão Sul Quinta de Cabriz, “Cabriz” Colheita Seleccionada, 2009: Founded in 1989, Dão Sul has a number of properties in Dão. Carlos Lucas, one of the partners, is the winemaker at Cabriz, and he treats his wines as if he were presiding over a mere acre as opposed to 38. The three grapes are vinified separately in stainless steel and then blended and aged in French oak for six months. Ripe and spicy with dense black, cola-tinged fruit and some weight, this is a pretty substantial wine that is in its glory now, but may very well eke out another couple of years. Suggested retail: $13

Quinta da Pellada, Quinta de Saes, 2009:
Winemaking on this property goes back to the 16th century. Inherited in 1980 by Alvaro Castro, a trained civil engineer, Quinta de Saes debuted in 1989. Quinta de Saes is composed of touriga nacional, tinta roriz and alfrocheiro, fermented in stainless steel and aged in French oak for one year. Suggested retail: $15

These wines can be found through Paul Marcus and SF Wine Trading Co.

Pamela S. Busch is a wine writer and educator who has owned several wine bars in San Francisco, including Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen.