Portuguese Wine with Food
Portugal has so many wine styles and flavours, indeed some fascinating flavours that you can find nowhere else in the world. Whatever the occasion, whatever the dish, you need look no further for a fitting wine.
Of course, you can enjoy a good wine that does not relate to the food on your plate, and appreciate both in their own right, without considering the combined effect. But some food and wine matches are better than the sum of their parts, and some foods, occasionally, do clash with certain wines. Generalisations are of limited use. Foods and recipes vary, and Portuguese wines are so individual, even within their regions, especially the ever-growing number of ‘Regional Wines’ – Vinhos Regionais. Growers and winemakers imprint their character, and even for DOC wines there is great scope for variation of grape variety, and blends of two varieties or more. Grape variety is one of the major things (along with acidity level, fruitiness, oak, tannin, sweetness level and intensity) that influences a food-wine match.
So there you are, in front of the shelves, or perusing the wine list: how do you go about selecting the best wine for the job? The wine waiter might help… But here are a few basic DIY pointers. We invite you to experiment, and see if you agree!
Dishes high in acidity
Choose a tangy, high-acid white wine if the dish is high in acidity (perhaps owing to salad dressing, vinegar, a lemony sauce, capers or tomatoes). Softer wines will taste less lively than usual alongside sharp-tasting food. Try a northern white, maybe Vinho Verde, Dão, Bairrada, Beira Interior, Lafões, Terras da Beira, Beira Atlántico, Terras de Cister, Terras do Dão or Minho; or, from the cool, breezy Lisboa wine region, Bucelas or Óbidos. Sparkling wines also have high acidity: you might choose one from Óbidos, Bairrada, Távora-Varosa, Douro, Dão, the Beira Interior.
Seafood and Asian spicing
Aromatic dry whites can star with seafood and with Asian spicing, especially Indian or Thai (but not sweet-savoury Asian dishes). Ginger, lemon grass, citrus zest, onions and sweet peppers as ingredients in a dish are all possible partners for aromatic grapes. Look out for wines containing the fragrant Fernão Pires grape – there’s lots in the Vinho Regional Lisboa area, and, alias Maria Gomes, in Bairrada); other aromatic choices could be Alvarinho and Loureiro (Vinho Verde), and Moscatel, which is sometimes made dry, seco (Península de Setúbal).
Yes, it’s true that white wines are usually the top choice with fish and seafood. But some sauces on white fish can broker a marriage with red wine; cooking fish in red wine also does the trick. Red wine is a local favourite with the Portuguese national fish bacalhau (salt cod), and with octopus or squid in red wine sauce; red, especially Baga/Bairrada is surprisingly good with fresh tuna. And red vinho verde can be a seriously wonderful match with grilled sardines. But Portuguese whites are best for salmon and sea trout. And you might try a dry rosé with swordfish.
Savoury dishes with some sweetness
A savoury dish that contains some gentle sweetness (maybe from vegetables, fruit, or a touch of honey) will harmonise better with a wine that itself has a touch of sweetness – or fruitiness so vibrant that it almost tastes a little sweet. Try a branded Vinho Verde (rather than a dry estate wine) or a branded rosé. A super-soft, super-fruity Alentejo red might also do the job, even though dry.
Dry wine tastes flat and fruitless with desserts. This is the moment for a glass of vinho doce or licoroso: sweet Moscatel from Setúbal, or even Port or Madeira. Moscatel goes brilliantly with many flavours in desserts, especially almonds, chocolate, coffee or citrus zest. Try LBV Port with coffee cake, or chocolate mousse. Malvasia or Malmsey Madeira goes with the local honey cake, bolo de mel, tropical fruits, and desserts made with nuts or milk chocolate.
Red Meat and Game
Red wines with lots of tannin are difficult to match with food. Tannin is that bitter, mouth-furring taste when, for instance, you crunch a grape pip. Some food ingredients make tannin taste more bitter: egg yolks, cream, melted cheese, spinach, celery, dill, and many spices. So it’s best with those to choose a white or rosé wine. Fine, expensive reds may be very tannic when young, and all reds taste softer, less tannic, as they age. Most tannic may be the classic reds of Bairrada, and big Douro reds. These may be best with game, offal, meaty stews and other richly sauced meats.
White meats (if you want to drink red) and most plainly cooked red meats may be best with softer or lighter-bodied reds. Big and/or tannic reds may overpower them. Try a smooth red Alentejo, a light, easy-going Ribatejo red, an elegant Palmela, Algarve or Alenquer, a light red from Óbidos, or a good, mature red from almost any of the regions. The brisk acidity of a red Dão can pleasantly offset the fattiness of some meats.
Big, gutsy reds can overpower delicate food flavours. Powerful food flavours can obliterate gentle white wines. In the big and gutsy category are serious reds from the Douro, Dão, Bairrada and Alentejo. Very oaky wines, red or white, can also dominate a subtle dish.
Cheeses come in many guises, their flavours hugely different. Many individual cheeses clash with individual wines. But some wine and cheese matches are divine. And the best cheese wines are just as likely to be dry or sweet white as red, Port or Madeira.
White Vinho Verde with Thai roast duck curry, smoked mackerel, salads, hummus
Red Vinho Verde with grilled sardines
Bairrada/Baga with fresh tuna, roast partridge, chilli con carne, soft goat’s cheese
Aragonez with feijoada (bean stew) or cassoulet, Gorgonzola, thyme-flavoured dishes, lamb, liver, bacalhau
Red Dão with pork, roast suckling pig, kidneys, presunto (cured ham)
Unoaked or subtly oaked Touriga Nacional with beef
Setúbal with tiramisu, Christmas pudding, banoffee pie, lemon tart.
Bual Madeira with Roquefort, Stilton, Gjetöst
Douro red with fresh goat’s cheese, old Gouda, Stilton
10-year-old Tawny Port with Queijo da Serra, Stilton, walnuts
Ruby or Vintage Port with Queijo da Serra