Celebrating Portugal: Amêijoas na Cataplana paired with Soalheiro Alvarinho for #winePW

Our August Wine Pairing Weekend took us to Portugal, thanks to this month’s host, Christy Majors, who chose the topic. The theme instantly reminded me of the trips we have taken to the Açores and Madeira Islands along with memories of the delicious food and wine we enjoyed while there.

Then there is my family heritage. Both of my father’s parents were born on the Açorean Island of São Jorge. In spite of the island’s small size, just over 33 miles long and only 4 miles wide, the two didn’t meet until immigrating to California. As you might imagine, this family connection is what prompted our visits to the Islands.

The Açores Islands are a string of volcanic islands that comprise an autonomous region of Portugal. The beautiful archipelago is located in the Atlantic Ocean about 900 miles west of Lisbon and 3600 miles off the East Coast of the US.

It was during our first trip to the Açores that we tasted Vinho Verde for the first time. We drank very little wine at the time (can you imagine?), but we enjoyed Vinho Verde very much and ordered it often. It was a light white wine, low in alcohol with just a bit of spritz and we found paired well with the many seafood dishes we ordered. It seemed to be on every restaurant menu.

The only time we had red wine during that first visit was at a street festival in the town of Angra do Heroísmo (which everyone calls Angra) on the island of Terceira. One afternoon we noticed some of the streets had been blocked off and lined with barbecues and tables for serving food. By evening the barbecues were lit and sardines were being grilled. Homemade beans and bread were served. Among the tables were barrels of red wine, made is home cellars.

That evening we ate sardines, beans and bread. We sampled the red wine. The combination is not one that I would probably have enjoyed anywhere else, but on that evening, in that lovely Açorean town the combination was delightful – except for those sardines, I didn’t enjoy them very much. But, the beans, the bread and the wine were delicious and the evening was magical.

So, as you might expect, I was happy to dust off my Portuguese cookbooks to find a recipe for this month’s Wine Pairing Weekend. I found several dishes that included clams, prepared either with pork or sausage. We have prepared pork and clams on at least one occasion, and it was delicious, so we decided this time to choose a dish with clams and sausage. The dish we chose to prepare is Amêijoas na Cataplana, a recipe from mainland Portugal.

Next we moved on to the wine. Given our affinity for Vinho Verde and the fun memories we associate with it we decided to look for one to pair with this dish. After a bit of research we decided on 2014 Soalheiro Alvarinho. I discovered that Soalheiro is a producer who specializes in Alvarinho and the first to plant the variety in the Vinho Verde region.

Amêijoas na Cataplana and 2014 Soalheiro Alvarinho

The Food

After consulting both of our Portuguese cook books, we decided on a recipe from the William-Sonoma cookbook Savoring Spain & Portugal. The dish, Amêijoas na Cataplana — clams with sausage and tomatoes, is from the Algarve which is located in the southernmost region of mainland Portugal. The coastal region is known for sunny, sandy beaches, and of course for its seafood.

The dish is traditionally cooked in a cataplana, a hinged cooking vessel made of copper on the outside. They are quite beautiful, and make a spectacular presentation at the table. We enjoyed fish stew several times in the Açores cooked in a cataplana.

Lacking a cataplana of my own, I simple used my trusty Dutch oven which has a tight-fitting lid. The presentation wasn’t as spectacular, but the results certainly were.

Clams and sausage ingredients with Alvarinho
The ingredients included sliced onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, bay leaf, proscuitto, linguiça, dry white wine, diced tomatoes, clams and chopped Italian parsley for garnish.

The preparation was simple. I sliced the onions and sautéed them is olive oil, adding the chopped garlic and red pepper flakes at the end. After removing the mixture from the pan I browned the linguiça and proscuitto. Next I added a bay leaf along with the sautéed onion, garlic and red pepper mixture to the sautéed sausage and ham.

I diced three large tomatoes, garden fresh thanks to our friend Yolanda, and added them to the mixture along with 1 cup of dry white wine. The mixture simmered for about 10 minutes. I tasted the mixture for seasoning, which thanks to the linguiça and proscuitto had plenty of salt, and made no adjustment.

Next, all the clams, which had been thoroughly scrubbed, were added hinge down to the mixture. I continued cooking on medium heat, covered, just until all of the clams had fully opened.

Ameijoas na Cataplana
Serving suggestions for the clams with sausage and tomatoes included coarse country bread and boiled potatoes. Because it reminded me of the meals served in the Açores, I chose to serve the dish over wedges of boiled potatoes.

The tomatoey broth was full of flavor and texture thanks to the proscuitto, linguiça and the clams. It was salty from the clams and the proscuitto. The linguiça, which is garlicky, smoky and seasoned with paprika added layers of flavor. The tomatoes tasted fresh and savory. In the background the crushed red peppers added bit of heat making the dish very warming. The clams were salty and tender, and the potatoes soaked in all of these wonderful flavors.

The Wine

2014 Soalheiro Alvarinho2014 Soalheiro Alvarinhopale yellow in the glass with complex dried hay and melon aromas. Flavors are delicately floral with minerals, citrus and melons. The wine has a bit of weight in the mouth, the finish is clean with nice acidity and the finish is medium to long. 12.5% ABV.

This wine is not at all the very light wine with a bit of effervescence that I remember drinking, it is a much better structured wine with very complex flavors.

This Soalheiro Alvarinho is produced from 100% Alvarinho harvested from several of the small vineyards of Quinta de Soalheiro. As is usual, the grapes were harvested in early September to preserve the fresh flavors of the variety. This was particularly important for the 2014 vintage as rains came in late September and October.

Quinta de Soalheiro is located in the district of Melgaço. In 1974, owner João Antonio Cerdeira was the first to plant Alvarinho in the region. It wasn’t until 1982 that the first vintage was released and the Soalheiro brand created. Soalheiro specializes in varietal Alvarinho and produces a range of wines in varying styles. Soalheiro translates to a sunny place, which describes the sunny weather of the district.

A bit about the region and its wines.

Vinho Verde, pronounced veeng-yo vaird describes both the wine region and the wine produced there. The region, Vinho Verde DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada), is located in the northwestern corner of Portugal along its border with Spain. The region is bound by the Minho River to the north and the Douro River to the south. The Atlantic Ocean is the western boundary and the mountains of Peneda, Gerês, Cabreira and Marão form the eastern boundary. The Vinho Verde DOC is the largest in Portugal and was designated in 1908.

Vinho Verde translates to green wine, which describes the green countryside as well as the young, fresh flavors of the wine. The region rises from the ocean toward the inland mountains with many east-west oriented valleys allowing the Atlantic influence to reach inland. The climate is generally mild with significant rainfall and mostly granitic soils.

The variable terrain and proximity to the ocean, along with varied soil types creates unique microclimates. This variation has led to the delineation of nine subregions within the Vinho Verde DOC: Amarante, Ave, Baião, Basto, Basto, Lima, Monção and Melgaço, Paiva, Sousa,

Subregions of Vinho Verde DOC
Vinho Verde subregion map from
vinhoverde.ca

The main white grape varieties grown in the Vinho Verde DOC are: Alvarinho, Arinto, Avesso, Azal, Loureiro, Trajadura. Red grape varieties include: Espadeiro, Padeiro and Vinhão. Many of these varieties are indigenous to the region and as you might expect, thrive in various subregions of the DOC depending growing requirements of the variety.

Vinho Verde white wines, Vinho Verde rosé, Vinho Verde red and Vinho Verde sparkling wine in addition to Bagaceira Brandy are produced in the region. Quite a variety of wines from this large area.

Vinho Verde sealThe 2014 Soalheiro Alvarinho is produced in the subregion of Monção e Melgaço. This subregion, located on the hillsides along the south bank of the Minho River, receives limited Atlantic influence and is therefore warm. Winters are cold with intermediate rainfall and summers are hot and dry. Granite soils prevail with bands of gravel.

The main varieties of the Monção e Melgaço subregion are Alvarinho, Pedral and Alvarelhão. All three ripen early and thrive in the region. If you step across the Minho River into the Rías Baixas region of Spain, Alvarinho will be called Albariño.

The Pairing

2014 Soalheiro Alvarinho with clams and sausageIn a word, stellar. The 2014 Soalheiro Alvarinho made the perfect partner for the spicy, salty dish bringing a cooling contrast to the spicy flavors of the dish. The flavors of the Alvarinho complimented the flavors of the clams and sausage without being lost itself. The mineral flavors of the wine were accentuated when paired with the complex flavors of the dish.  It was a delicious pairing with the garlicky flavors of the food combining with the lingering flavors of the wine.

We quickly polished off the clams and a good deal of the meaty broth, but did have some leftovers. The meaty broth and potatoes made a delicious warm lunch the next day. I love to cook once and eat twice!

Thanks to Christy for choosing Portuguese food and wine as this month’s Wine Pairing theme. We had loads of fun preparing the dish, researching the wine and reminiscing about our trips to the Açores Islands. Really, it amounted to a staycation for us.

To see what the rest of the Wine Pairing Weekend crowd cooked up this month, check their blog posts listed below.

If you have time, join us on Saturday morning at 8am PDT to talk Portuguese food and wine on Twitter. Follow #winePW and join in the conversation.

Cheers!