Delightful Dinner Partners from Portugal’s Tejo Wine Region

Wines from Portugal? Yes, please! With more than 200 indigenous grape varieties and a wide variety of growing conditions, Portugal has plenty to offer the adventurous wine drinker. We recently had the opportunity to sample four wines from the Tejo (pronounced te-zhoo) wine region of Portugal. Until 2009 this region was know as Ribatejo.

Tejo Wine Region

The region follows along both banks of the Tejo River (also known as the Tagus River) upriver from Lisboa, nearly to Portugal’s border with Spain. The river originates well into Spain, east of Madrid. As you might imagine, the river acted as an ancient highway bringing commerce and, importantly, winemaking to the region. Since Roman times, winemaking has taken place in the Tejo region.

Map courtesy of Wines of Tejo

The river directly affects the climate and soil of the region, and three distinct zones have been identified. The Campo zone, which runs along the riverbank on both sides of the river, is fertile and has alluvial soil that provides good drainage. Because of the fertile soil, grapevines tend toward overproduction, and both the canopy and crop yield must be controlled to produce quality fruit. The weather here is a bit cooler, thanks to the river. North of the river, in the Barrio zone, the landscape is characterized by rolling hills with limestone and clay soils. In northern portions of the Barrio deposits of schist are present. In the Charneca zone, south of the river, temperatures are warmer and the soil is poor in quality — always a good thing for winemaking.

Indigenous grape varieties are the stars of the Tejo wine region. White varieties include Arinto, Fernão Pires, Alvarinho and Verdelho. Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira, Castelão, Aragonês, make up the red varieties. International varieties are allowed as well, and comprise a blending component of one of the wines we tasted.

We prepared two meals, one to pair with the white wines and the other to pair with the red wines. For the white wines, I reached for a recipe I clipped from Bon Appétit magazine back in 1995. I have prepared the dish several times during the years in between, though not for quite some time. To pair with the red wines, I consulted one of my Portuguese cookbooks and prepared a dish we had not tried before. The results were delicious.

White Wine Pairings

2014 Casal Branco Falconaria Fernão Pires2014 Casal Branco Falcoaria Brancogenerous aromas of stone fruit are delicately floral as well. Flavors of white peaches, citrus zest combine with the predominantly stony minerality. The finish is moderate in length and juicy. This wine is fresh and lively with a clean finish. 13% abv.

The family-owned Casal Branco estate is located in Almeirim, in the Charneca zone of Tejo, and is planted to mostly indigenous Portuguese varieties. Among those varieties is Fernão Pires, which composes 100% of the Falcoaria Branco. Fernão Pires is the most widely planted white grape is Portugal and is known as Maria Gomes in the north of the country.

The winery’s technical notes indicate winemaking techniques are a combination of  modern and traditional. Among the traditional practices is foot-treading the grapes in open tanks. This method is said be more gentle pressing method, and would certainly make a unique talking point of the winery should you serve this wine to your friends or family!

2014 Caves Velhas Cavaleiro Reserva Branco2014 Caves Velhas Casaleiro Reserva Brancodusty, dried oat hay aromas predominate and are followed by delicate floral and interesting baking spice notes. Acidity is more perceivable in this wine, and the finish is juicy but with a bit of roundness as well. 13% abv.

This wine is a 50/50 blend of Fernão Pires and Arinto, another indigenous white variety that thrives in the warm Tejo region. Arinto maintains very good acidity even when ripe and is used to make varietal wines as well as a blending grape.

Caves Velhas was established in 1881, its history in Tejo dates to 1939, and is now part of Group Enoport United Wines. Grapes are harvested from vineyards located in the Barrio and Campo zones of the Tejo.

We chose to pair these wines with halibut wrapped in Swiss chard alongside a ginger cream sauce, oven roasted asparagus and roasted red potatoes. The recipe requires a bit of preparation, but the results were very worth the effort.

Chard wrapped halibut

Steaming the chard-wrapped halibut, which had been pre-seasoned with sautéed ginger and shallots, kept the little packages moist. The ginger cream sauce added complexity and richness to not only the halibut but to the vegetables as well, which we used to sop up the sauce! I often resist preparing sauces because of the fat and butter they contain, but the sauce for this dish is really delicious with the halibut and somehow made the dish seem so elegant.

We found both white wines paired extremely well with our meal. The richness of the halibut and the ginger cream sauce were perfect with the bright acidity of both wines. The difference we noticed is in how the flavors of the wine changed with our meal. The minerality of the Casal Branco Falcoaria Branco developed considerably with the pairing, as did the floral flavors of the Caves Velhas Casaleiro Reserva Branco.

Red Wine Pairings

Quinta-do-Alqueve-Traditional-Tinto2012 Pinhal da Torre Quinta do Alqueive Tradicional Tintoruby in the glass with aromas of red fruit, dried hay and earth. Cherry and red berry flavors combine with dark fruit and leather flavors. Tannins are drying, with a bit of grip, and add nice texture to this medium-bodied wine. 13.5% abv.

With time in the glass this wine develops darker fruit flavors and it becomes more aromatic. The complex combination of fruit flavors, earth and leather makes for a very interesting glass of wine.

This wine is a blend of indigenous varieties Touriga Nacional, Aragonês, Trincadeira and Castelão. Touriga Nacional is best known for Port production in Portugal, but the variety is also used as a blending grape for dry red wines as well as varietal wines. The variety lends tannins and dark fruit flavors to a blend. Aragonês is also known as Tinto Roriz elsewhere in Portugal and Tempranillo in Spain, where it likely originated in Ribera del Duero.

Trincadiera is also known as Tinta Amarela in Portugal – it has other unofficial names as well. The variety is said to be difficult to grow, but is able to fully ripen in the long, warm growing season of the Tejo region. Castelão, another variety with many names, is the most widely-planted variety in Portugal. It thrives in varied conditions and as you might expect, is used to produce wine in many different styles.

Pinhal da Torre winemaking facilities are located in Alpiarça (south of the Tejo River), on Quinta del São João, one of two estates owned by the winery. Pinhal da Torre uses only estate-grown fruit in the production of their wines. The second estate, Quinta do Alqueve is the source of the grapes for this bottling.

The winery building, completed in 1947, is now fully modern, but includes the traditional winemaking technique of foot treading in wine production.

In case you are curious, the cat on the label is a Lince Ibérico — an Iberian lynx. One more detail, the rear label includes information in braille.

Falua-Conde-De-Vimioso-Tinto2013 Falua Conde De Vimioso Tintodark ruby violet in the glass with generous ripe red raspberry aromas. Spicy red fruit and black tea flavors combine with dark fruit, leather and gauzy, drying tannins. The finish is moderately long. 13.5% abv.

Grape varieties in this blend include Aragonês, Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Nacional, Syrah and Cabernet Sauviginon. Alicante Bouschet has the distinction of being one of very few red-fleshed grape varieties known as a teinturier grape (here’s the pronunciation.) This wine was vivacious right out of the bottle and the spicy red fruit flavors are deliciously complex. This wine has more obvious tannins than the prior wine.

João Portugal Ramos built his reputation first as a consulting enologist and now produces wines at his own wineries throughout Portugal. In 2004, Ramos established Falua in Almeirim, south of the Tejo River. Five vineyard sites within the region are listed on the Falua vineyard map and indigenous as well as international varieties are used in winemaking there.

Both red wines are delicious, not too ripe and without heavy-handed oak aging. Both have complex fruit flavors, nice acidity and modest alcohol levels, all of which make them excellent food wines.

We paired these red wines with a Portuguese dish called Bife à Cebolada (onion smothered steak). The cookbook I used, Savoring Spain & Portugal, explains that this dish can be used to prepare a variety of cuts of beef. If a more tender cut is used, the steak can be quickly pan fried and the onion mixture prepared separately. If you use a less tender cut, simmer the meat together with the onion mixture until the steak is tender.

Regardless of the cut of meat that is used, a marinade of vinegar, garlic, paprika, salt and pepper is used prior to cooking. I was able to purchase grass-fed beef tenderloin steaks for this recipe. They were tender and only required quick pan frying, which I read is the preferred method of preparing this dish.

I prepared the refogado (the combination of onions, garlic, tomatoes and vinegar) separately and topped each steak with a portion before serving. Fried potatoes are the usual accompaniment to this dish. I chose to oven-roast quartered Yukon gold potatoes and added steamed broccolini for color.

The result? Lots of flavor – thanks to the refogado and the flavorful marinade used on the steaks before searing them. The steaks were juicy and tender, and the refogado savory and buttery smooth. The roasted potatoes were delicious on their own, but divine when combined with the steak and onions.

Both the Pinhal da Torre Quinta do Alqueive Tradicional Tinto and the Falua Conde De Vimioso Tinto paired beautifully with this dish. Both wines have plenty of flavor and structure to stand up to the caramelized flavors of this dish. Both would be delicious with lamb or pork as well.

I prepared this meal on a recent Monday night, which is the evening we have our friend Dave over for dinner. Dave is an adventurous wine drinker and always willing to try my food experiments. Dave enthusiastically asked that I “keep this in the rotation.” This high praise from Dave referred to both the food and the wine.

Tejo-regional-graphicLook for wines from the Tejo region of Portugal. If you don’t find the region identified on the front label, check the back label. There you will also find the regional seal.  Tejo is home to some 80 wineries, about 19 of which are now exporting to the U.S. All of the wines in this group are delicious food-friendly wines perfect for everyday dining or special occasions — I’m thinking Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year. If you are a curious wine drinker who likes to try new varieties, the Tejo wine region of Portugal has a wine (or two) for you.

Thanks to Joan from The Dilenschneider Group who reached out to us, and to Wines of Tejo for providing the wine samples. I, too, will now keep my eyes peeled for wines from the Tejo region of Portugal.


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