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Exploring the Dao

Pierre de Lemos

One of the joys of traveling to wine regions is discovering new areas, new people and new wines. Portugal is full of those. Porto...fabulous. The Douro...gorgeous. But neither was exactly a surprise. If you can read--and you look at the books and articles--you have an idea what they're like. They were everthing we hoped--and expected--they'd be. On the other hand, we didn't have any idea what to expect from the Dao. And it was a delightful surprise.

The Dao is a region surrounded by mountains, located perhaps an hour south of the Douro in central Portugal. Those mountains protect it from the Atlantic moisture to the west and the intense heat of the central plain to the east. There is considerable rainfall--but it's largely confined to the winter months. So there's plenty of sunshine and warmth to ripen grapes in growing season--but the relatively high altitude provides cool evenings that preserve freshness and acidity. It is arguably Portugal's oldest wine region--but among its least recognized.

Finding wineries to visit in the Dao isn't all that easy. The wineries are widely dispersed...and not really used to visitors. Most don't respond to inquiries. The general advisory from previous visitors is "get to the area...and then ask a concierge or someone in the business for help in arranging appointments." Fortunately, we didn't have to do that.

One of the wineries in the Dao generating buzz is Quinta de Lemos. I wrote asking if it was possible to visit and got a response from Pierre de Lemos himself. He couldn't have been more gracious. Over time we settled on a date. When that date came, we set out with Garmin and Google Maps to guide us. Unfortunately, they both seemed to think the winery was located more or less in the middle of a river. I finally had to do that very un-guy like thing and stop in the village to ask. With a little English, a little Portuguese--and a lot of gesturing and pointing--we got the idea, and a few minutes later arrived at Quinta de Lemos.

Pierre's father, Celso, grew up in that area (about 15 km south of Viseu). His hope as a youth was to be Portugal's next great soccer player. His parents' hope was for him to prepare for a business career. They won the debate, and sent him to textile school in Brussels. There he learned the textile business...and met--and married--the only girl in school. Together they founded a little company...and grew it...and grew it until it became, according to a trade journal: "a high end international business recognized across the globe." Abyss & Habidecor makes luxury towels, linens, robes, bath and bedding and rugs (think $100+ apiece towels, $500+ bathrobes). With the success of their company came money...quite a lot. And the de Lemos family decided a way to give back would be to use some of that money to establish a winery focused on the grapes of the region. That winery--and Mesa de Lemos, the restaurant they built overlooking it--would help bring recognition to the area and provide jobs for people there. And it's all lovely--crafted with and featuring the rock and materials of the region.

Pierre spent the whole afternoon with us--telling us the family story...taking us on a tour of the winery and vineyards...and barrel tasting. Then he took us up to the restaurant. The chef provided us with a variety of savory bites while the somm opened a bottle of each of their seven wines. They did not intend to produce white wine. One problem. Pierre's mother, Paulette, likes to drink white wine. Soooo...Pierre and the team put together a white centered on the encruzado grape. I liked it. Fresh, with good substance. It gave Paulette something to sip as she was cooking...and it was, of course, named for her: Dona Paulette.

The Dao is best known for reds, expecially red blends--and de Lemos does make several red blends from the four varieties they grow. But they also make single varietal versions of each. Touriga nacional and tinta roriz (tempranillo) are not uncommon as varietals--but jaen and alfrocheiro definitely are. These were all well made and interesting. The Touriga Nacional was as bold and rich as it was supposed to be...but I found the alfrocheiro at least as intriguing. It was perhaps pinot-like in weight and texture, with complex aromas and flavors--including red fruits and spiciness. We later each selected a bottle to pair with our dinner. I took the alfrocheiro.

The two red blends are named for Pierre's grandmothers: Dona Santana and Dona Georgina. Dona Santana is an everyday blend...easy to like. Dona Georgina is the top of the line--a blend of the best barrels of touringa nacional and tinta roriz. It's rich, deep and complex.

We had a great time. We tasted some unique wines...and saw some unique things. For example, have you ever seen olive trees scattered throughout a vineyard? Not adjoining or around the edge. We've seen that lots of places. Scattered through the middle of the vineyard? In the Dao, the traditional belief is that olive trees help them handle/manage the moisture when they get heavy rains. Interesting. Not sure I buy it--and Pierre feels the same...but it is their tradition.

Pierre's generosity was amazing. And Quinta de Lemos was a wonderful place to visit.

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