Although it’s the oldest wine region in Portugal, Dão in central Portugal does not have the high profile of its neighbor to the north, the Douro Valley. And yet, Dão is the birthplace of the touriga nacional, one of the finest grapes in Portugal, a country with more than 300 different grape varieties. Considering this claim to fame, we thought the overlooked Dão region deserved a second glance.
If we had any doubts about making the trek out to Dão, they were put to bed by André Ribeirinho. A Portuguese writer and wine judge, Ribeirinho knows the best small-scale Portuguese wine producers and champions them on his website Adegga, a platform he founded to review wines and host wine markets.
“Wines made in this region are some of the best in the country,” he explained. “The mountains surrounding the region create special climate conditions that allow the grapes to mature slowly, resulting in wines that are ready to age for a long time.”
We were sold.
We were invited to visit the beautiful Quinta de Lemos, located on a plateau close to the old city of Viseu. Although best known for its excellent and award-winning red wines, the winery also produces a very small percentage of white with the local encruzado grape. Named Dona Paulette, this white is fruity and exclusive, with only 3,000 bottles produced each year.
The owners of Quinta de Lemos, Celso de Lemos and his wife Paulette, didn’t start out in the wine business. They were running a high-quality textile company when they met the winemaker Hugo Chaves in 1997. Driven by a desire to create wines that they could drink while celebrating with friends and family, they bought the quinta and vineyard in the Dão region, where the sandy soil has been preserved by the surrounding granite mountains. Chaves and Lemos were determined to use regional grapes – most of their vines are touriga nacional, but they also grow the jaen, tinta roriz, alfrocheiro and encruzado varieties.
At the time of our visit, the vindima (the grape harvest) was almost over due to this year’s extremely hot weather. Chaves was excited, though, for the 2017 yield: “It was a very dry year, and it’s still a bit early to tell, but I think it’s going to be an exuberant crop.”
Workers are happy to swap out their hats for small headlamps.
The vineyard is densely planted, which we noticed right away – there are 6,060 plants per hectare. “The vines were in really bad shape when we bought the place, so we had to replant everything in 2000,” explained Chaves. “And we planted them densely so that we can have homogenous vineyards, even though each vine will produce less.”
This year was unusual, but Chaves said that they always pick the grapes earlier than most to get more uniform wines. Perhaps more unique is their method of harvesting grapes at night.
“Some days here are around 40 degrees Celsius. If we pick and harvest at this high temperature, we will lose the volatile components specific to the grape. A lower temperature preserves the aromas and, most importantly, the yeast for fermentation,” he told us.
When Quinta de Lemos first began harvesting at night in 2000, they were the only ones taking such measures. But now, other wineries in the region are doing the same on very hot days. Picking grapes at cooler temperatures is also a blessing for the workers, who are happy to swap out their hats for small headlamps.
In addition to the winery, Quinta de Lemos has a beautiful new building where guests can stay and the stylish Mesa de Lemos, a restaurant lead by the young chef Diogo Rocha, who was born and bred in the region, like Chaves.
While soaking up a view of the vineyard, we ate some beautiful creations that incorporated Portuguese produce and took inspiration from old family recipes.
Our favorites were the Icelandic salt cod that had been cured for nine months and the porco bísaro (chestnut-fed pigs from nearby Trás-os-Montes) with chickpeas and basil, which was presented cleverly by the talented Rocha.
It goes without saying that this is also the best place to drink Quinta de Lemos wines, including the sparkling wine, which for now is only available at the restaurant.
But better than going solely to drink and dine at the restaurant, we suggest visiting the winery on September 22 and taking part in the night harvest, which begins at 11 p.m. and is open to the public. It’s part of the official harvest festival, which starts on September 21 in Viseu and includes a number of other events, such as concerts and exhibitions. Drinking wine by day and picking grapes by night – we can’t imagine a better way to experience Dão.