Rui Cunha, Winemaker of the Year 2022
Rui Cunha, Winemaker of the Year 2022

Wine – An epicurean extravaganza

I’ve always imagined that the word ‘epicurean’ was shorthand for loving the good things in life, especially food and wine, a ‘lifestyle choice’ clearly well catered for here in Portugal.

For those who imagined that partaking in fleeting carnal pleasures and a tendency for decadence was also part of the plan, it seems that is NOT exactly what the ancient Greek philosopher and sage Epicurus had in mind; generally it turns out preferring prudence and moderation.

That said, he was ultimately no stranger to moderation when it came to moderation, as it were. History has it that he liked the occasional blast of luxury, feasting once in a while on the best produce he and his followers could lay their hands on. This is a modus operandi I can get behind, and DID just recently, at my local five-star hostelry, The Storytellers Palace.

You may recall, if you partake of my musings on a regular basis, that this venue is aiming to deliver the very best in Portuguese splendour, here on the Silver Coast. I have to say that Epicurus would be very proud of them, and me, if he’d chanced upon us recently setting about a multi-course meal, exquisitely interwoven with fine wine, and enocultural education.

Carl's wine extravaganza
Carl’s wine extravaganza

Truly epicurean then, I have not been to many wine tastings or wineries. I am a lifelong part-timer when it comes to being a bon-viveur, albeit a keen and committed amateur. Those that I have been to were predominantly here in Portugal, where it seems my love and appreciation for aged grape juice, in all its colours and flavours, has come on in leaps and bounds.

I like the down-to-earth approach of the Portuguese when it comes to the cultivation and consumption of wine, and I am sure my new Greek best mate and thinker would also approve of this country’s functional excellence over the pretentious, self-indulgence, of some not-too-distant lands I could mention.

True to this form, I found myself in the company and under the direction of Rui Cunha, coincidentally Winemaker of The Year 2022 in Portugal, who helped take my appreciation of Portuguese wine-making culture in general, and the products of two wineries in particular, to another level. Stories of wines told expertly and intimately then at the Palace of Storytellers.

Bacalhau (codfish) with orchard flavours
Bacalhau (codfish) with orchard flavours

Previous and notable vinho-related outings and events for me include a visit to the utterly brilliant and incredibly unassuming Aliança Underground Museum in the vastly underrated Bairrada region of the country. And not far from that Sangalhos spectacle, Luis Pato’s delightful quinta, where the maverick rebel of Portuguese wine innovation dreams up and delivers his bold plans and fermentations for domestic and global appreciation.

Back to São Martinho, however, on a cool and damp Wednesday evening, and I find myself once more in my beloved Gatsby Bar, about to embark on a journey of a lifetime to add to my growing collection of marvellous wine-related adventures here, more, I should say, as a matter of luck than judgement.

Looks like Lady Luck is blessing me again as the first Covela selection – a Gewurztraminer 2022 – is thrust into my hand to accompany some amuse-bouches in the shape of lychee ceviches, stunningly-fresh sushi and traditional vol-au-vents reimagined for 21st century taste-bud tantalising delight.

Rock samples from the vineyard
Rock samples from the vineyard

Soon summoned upstairs to the main dining room after subterranean introductions to Rui, colleagues and the familiar-to-me face of Storytellers’ executive chef Marco Areias, I am struck on entry by the magnificent and elaborate place settings that will respectfully facilitate further samplings of fine food and well-made wine.

As I savour my starter of fresh salmon resplendent in an apple velouté, with a delicious crisp Avesso (a lesser-known grape variety) Reserva Branco of last year, I notice the thoughtful detail of rock samples from the vineyard, brought by Rui to give us a sensual grasp of the terrain and terroir in which the grapes we now drink are originally grown.

After palate cleansing, appropriately with Covela’s Avesso 2017 Natur offering, a chemical-light delight, it’s onto the Avesso Reserva Branco 2017. This is a year forever dear to me and my family, being our Portuguese year zero. Perhaps my favourite of the evening, this is the perfect accompaniment to bacalhau (codfish) “with orchard flavours”; upon further investigation, an out-of-this-world apricot chutney crown.

Covela Escolha Branco 2012
Covela Escolha Branco 2012

It’s now perhaps that Epicurus would raise an eyebrow of restraint as the meat course arrives – not just black pork cheeks on a forest cream puree, but also a tenderloin steak with butternut swirls – with our second vineyard’s red wine pairings.

It’s here that Tecedeiras showcase their skilful work with Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca grapes, and the diners also get to blend these beautiful single vintage varietals for themselves with this year’s grape juice fresh in stainless steel from the fields, only weeks old. A unique and wonderful opportunity.

Tecedeiras Port, an LBV of 2018, their Tawny Reserve 2020 and Covela’s ‘Firestorm’ Aguardente culminate culinary proceedings, accompanying the kumquat and pomegranate cheesecake and espresso caramel dessert duo, and coffee conclusion to this excellent experience. This, a meal marvel that I can only compare in integrity and thoughtfulness to a night I once, long-ago savoured at Ramsay’s Maze eaterie in London.

Tenderloin steak with butternut swirls
Tenderloin steak with butternut swirls

I’ll not say much about the ‘best palate’ competition, in which I was too distracted to offer my best attention, which was drawn more towards the pleasure of pairing than the flagging of flavours. But congratulations nonetheless to Larry and his finely attuned senses and their part in his prize of a Covela collectable bottle, adding further joy to his first time on the Silver Coast.

What a night. What an experience. Along with the superb food, paired with beautifully crafted wines from the blessed vineyards of Covela and Tecedeiras, I learned as well as ate and drank so much.

I was, for example, intrigued by Senhor Cunha’s perspective on organic or ‘bio’ wine. Clearly not one to follow a fashion for the sake of it, he offered a very sound debunking of prevalent sulfite-bashing and shared how he chanced upon natural and local preservatives (in the English sense) that tip a nod to pragmatic functionality, over faddish virtue-signalling.

Kumquat and pomegranate cheesecake and espresso caramel dessert duo
Kumquat and pomegranate cheesecake and espresso caramel dessert duo

I also learned what vinhos da piscina are. Again, a characteristically Portuguese point of view that seeks not to judge, but rather find the right context for a wine – in this instance, to quench pool-side appetites if not rise to a linen-clothed, silver-service occasion like tonight’s. It’s always horses for courses in Portugal, never senseless or wasteful snobbery.

In his A Treatise On Wines: Their Origin, Nature and Varieties With Practical Directions for Viticulture and Vinification, J. L. W. Thudichum said in 1893, Portugal “is capable of producing a variety of the most beautiful grapes, and a variety of wines, which, if properly made, would not be surpassed by those of any other country. The people are good-natured, industrious, and hard-working, and they have what is very agreeable to a person who comes from this country, a great regard for an Englishman.”

This Englishman, me, had the most beautiful time 130 years later, seeing Thudichum’s prophecy come true in front of his very eyes, among these ‘good-natured’ and ‘hard-working’ creators of an unforgettable evening. Thank you, Rui, thank you, Marco. And thank you, Lima and Smith, the men behind the “properly made” Covela and Tecedeiras wines that I urge you to try for yourself.

Tony Smith (another Englishman) of the dynamic Douro duo Lima & Smith reckons: “Finally, it looks like Portugal is coming into its own, as a recognised producer not only of high-quality Port and Madeira wines but also of a vast range of non-fortified wines with loads of individual character.”

“Obviously, the recent boom in tourism here has helped,” he continues, “but there’s also a growing interest and recognition worldwide of the veritable treasure trove of native grape varieties that we have – and still use. Our Avesso at Covela is a case in point – it’s a grape that’s not even particularly well-known in some parts of Portugal, as it thrives only in and around Covela, in the southeasternmost corner of the Vinho Verde region on the banks of the Douro river, but it is winning a lot of fans both at home and abroad for its zingy, mineral freshness, food-friendliness and capacity for ageing.”

That zingy freshness certainly travelled well to São Martinho, having me raise my glass so many times that winter evening, I risked a repetitive strain injury.

Just one more toast, however, as I charge my metaphorical glass here with you, and ‘cheers’ to Tony Smith’s concluding words: “The country has changed seismically since I first arrived here in 1988 and many things have changed – mostly for the better. But it’s always good to feel that the essence of the country has been left largely untouched – the general friendliness, tolerance and politeness of the people, the excellent gastronomy and pride regarding local produce, and, of course, the unbeatable sunny weather.”

Saúde, tchin-tchin and bottoms-up, till we meet (and drink) again.

By Carl Munson

Carl Munson is host of the Good Morning Portugal! show every weekday on YouTube and creator of www.learnaboutportugal.com, where you can learn something new about Portugal every day!

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