Portuguese Wine and Canadian Cuisine: Where Worlds of Diversity Meet

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By: John Szabo MS

One thing Canadian food and Portuguese wines have in common is diversity. The Canadian culinary scene is, like the country’s citizens, is a rococo mosaic. People of literally hundreds of ethnicities rub shoulders on the busy streets of Canadian cities, yet proudly maintain their cultural identities. Chinatown or J (Japan)-Town, Little India or Italy, Portugal or Poland, South Asian enclaves, Jamaican, Eritrean or Latino districts are just some of the ethnically unique neighborhoods scattered across metropolitan areas, where communities of the recently arrived live, work and celebrate their heritage alongside second or third generation Canadians. 

Many who came for a new start turned to a livelihood that’s based on the knowledge that almost everybody shares: home cooking. A restaurant offering authentic regional cooking from pretty much every corner of the globe can be found somewhere in Canada. Access to such diversity has in turn informed the emerging genre of “Canadian cuisine”, a fluid, ever-evolving cuisine that by its very nature defies simple definitions. And creative chefs, inspired by the amazing diversity of international ingredients and techniques, as well aswith the impressive array of homegrown foods, have begun adopting and molding dishes to shape a new landscape of flavor, a rich fusion that makes Canada one of the most fascinating culinary destinations on the planet.

Portuguese wines are likewise anchored on a virtually unparalleled diversity of raw material. The country is home to hundreds of grape varieties, many of which are unique to this sliver of the Iberian Peninsula. It has been speculated that Southern Portugal was one of only two or three “refuges” during the last ice age, regions that escaped the worst of the endless night where native flora and fauna survived. There are still a staggering number of vitis vinifera vines growing wild along riverbanks and up trees in the regions south of Lisbon, the source of indigenous grapes that were domesticated for quality wine production.

Then factor in Portugal’s diverse topography and climate – particularly striking for a country less than one-tenth the size of Ontario – ranging from the Mediterranean-influenced plain of the Alentejo in the south, to the Atlantic wind-swept coastal regions like Tejo, Bairrada and Vinho Verde, and the “mountain” wines of the spectacular Douro Valley or the granite hills of the Dão, and you’ll quickly understand why Portuguese wine, like Canadian cuisine, rebels against easy categorization.

So now imagine the possibilities when these worlds of difference meet: for a sommelier or curious gourmand, it’s an endless chessboard of possible food and wine combinations. For me it’s all about an open mind and experimentation. I like to play with traditional white vinho verdes - low alcohol and zesty with the merest pinch of sweetness and a floral lift from alvarinho and loureiro - with dishes inspired by Southeast Asia: mildly spicy green or yellow curries, lemongrass-infused broths, or variations on the classic spring roll with a sweet-sour twang. The rich flavours of west coast Halibut or sable fish call for weightier aromatic whites like the pure alvarinhos of the sub-region of Monçao-Melgaço on the Spanish border, especially when given a Japanese twist with umami-rich miso and soy sauce.

Canada, like Portugal, is rich is fish and shellfish, and a classic east coast lobster boil with drawn butter or grilled Digby scallops is a natural for rich, wood aged whites like the marvelous encruzado-based whites of the Dão. But a modern twist with, say, a Latino-inspired mango salsa or a coconut-infused sauce plays to the sweet tropical fruit flavours and generous proportions of anton vaz blends from the Alentejo. Stately and structured white Douro whites, based on exotic grapes like gouveio and malvasia, rabigato and viosinho, combine complexity and harmony that suits a classic grilled Ontario pickerel, crown roast of Canadian pork dusted with rosemary and garlic, or oven-roasted heritage chicken like the Chantecler. The Quebecois-inspired variations of pork with yellow peas (habitant pea soup) or pork glazed with apple cider and maple syrup call for the more fruit-forward, riper whites of the Douro superior or the Alentejo.

Canada is extraordinarily rich in game meats and birds, from bison to venison, duck to squab, and even richer in methods to prepare them, and again Portugal is up to the challenge of pairing perfectly. The more delicate and floral, blue fruit-flavoured touriga nacional-based blends from the Dão are tailor-made for Brome Lake duck with wild blueberry sauce, while well-aged Bairrada, based on the firm and dusty baga variety, finds its umami match in roast Ontario squab with a fricassee of wild BC mushrooms. Big game like Elk or Caribou grilled on the BBQ - a staple Canadian cooking method – finds harmony with the bold and powerful reds of the Douro, especially the amazingly complex field blends of ancient vines from the vertiginously steep slopes of the Cima Corgo, or the sturdy aragonês-trincadeira-alicante blends from the sunny plains of the south.

And I’ve barely scratched the surface, but you get the point. For any classic or nouveau, or yet-to-be-invented Canadian dish, Portugal has got it covered at the table. Give it a try.

About the author

Master Sommelier John was the first Canadian to add the “MS” after his name in 2004. He’s done it all from cooking and washing dishes to serving and sommellerie, importing, teaching, writing, speaking, consulting and judging internationally. Today he’s a principal critic for WineAlign.com, Canada’s largest wine publication, wine editor for CityBites Magazine and regular columnist for Ricardo Magazine. He writes freelance for many other publications and authored Pairing Food and Wine For Dummies. But volcanoes are John’s current fatal attraction; he’s writing a book about the wines grown on them (spring 2016). Meanwhile he consults on multiple wine programs across Canada, and is a partner in the small J&J Eger vineyard in Hungary.