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A Lasting Legacy of Global Influence: Portuguese Wine, Food & Madeira

Cities may crumble, countries may be conquered, and entire empires eventually break apart and fade away. Is it any surprise though that if food and drink are the quickest paths towards understanding a culture, then in many cases, they’re also often that culture’s most longstanding and memorable influences, too? Such is the case with Portugal, a country as beautiful as it is fascinating, with food and drinks which tell a tale as circuitous and far-reaching as its former empire’s trade routes.

Portugal’s globe-spanning trade took them down and around Africa, to India, the East Indies, and south and southeastern Asia. They also sailed west across the Atlantic, most prominently to Brazil. At the peak of their powers, Portugal’s vast realm of influence was essentially the entirety of the oceans and waterways connecting these places.

Fusing multiple cultures into one dish

The result was a deliciously cross-cultural mélange of agricultural products, spices, and culinary traditions, all being exchanged and then evolving into new mash-ups. The Portuguese can lay claim to being partly responsible for mainstays such as tempura in Japan and vindaloo in India, they brought fish sauce and peanuts to Macau; rice, coffee, and sugar cane to Brazil; potatoes, tomatoes, and chilies to Goa – the list goes on from there.

“Ingredients from over half of the world’s continents have had an influence on Portuguese cuisine,” states  Pedro Lopes Vieira of Esporão, a family-owned Portuguese wine and olive oil producer. “This can be seen in recipes, and in everyday condiments such as Piri-piri chicken, a spicy dish created in Angola and Mozambique when Portuguese settlers arrived with chili peppers – known as ‘piri-piri’ in Swahili. Not only did various ingredients, such as coconut milk, coffee, and okra, find their way into Portuguese cooking, but Portuguese settlers disseminated these items to other continents, fusing multiple cultures into one dish.”

 

Pedro Lopes Vieira
Pedro Lopes Vieira

With such a diverse culinary tradition, it only makes sense that the country’s wines are diverse as well, and when paired correctly they can work equally well with anything from Brazilian to Malaysian cuisine. “The Portuguese dispersed their ingredients and brought others from different cultures back home,” Lopes Vieira explains. “Wine in Portugal has always revolved around pairing with the local ingredients, so preparations and styles of both dishes and the wines were tweaked to accommodate each other.

 

“We do this by paying attention to the terroir, and seeking the perfect plots for each grape variety to attain the ripeness while still retaining freshness,” Lopes Vieira continues. “From our bright, refreshing Verdelho to our robust Assobio red, our wines are approachable – which is key when it comes to food pairing.”

Here at Old Liquors Magazine, this discussion of Portugal’s global influence on food and drink brings us to another topic near and dear to our hearts: Madeira. The way it’s made today, with a process of heating and oxidation known as estufagem, is actually a direct result of this.

“Madeira’s signature flavor and really its toughness comes from the protective process that was used when shipping the wine,” explains Trevor Frye, proprietor of Five to One in Washington, D.C., and a second forthcoming bar, Marble Alley. “It was fortified with a neutral spirit to avoid any spoilage, and the excessive heat of the voyage and the agitation caused by the rolling of the ship’s hull  provided an environment that could only be replicated if an unending earthquake rattled rickhouses in Kentucky.”

The resting period is really for me what sets apart Madeira from other fortified wines.

While some debate the effect of that motion of the ocean, what is undeniable is the influence of heat on the wine’s character. Being carried along the tropical routes starting from the island of Madeira, the wine took on a quite different, and soon highly favored, flavor. So much so that Madeira wine which made a full global trade route and returned to be sold was labeled distinctly as “vinho da roda,” i.e., wines of the round trip. There are some things you might be willing to travel around the world to experience – there are others which do the traveling and arrive back home to you.

That’s far from an efficient modern process though, which is why estufagem is used today, with several different methodologies. The most common of which heat tanks of Madeira for a minimum of 90 days, with constant temperatures upwards of 115 °F.

“The modern day serpentine technique is used to replicate that constant heat the wine was exposed to,” Frye says. “The resting period is really for me what sets apart Madeira from other fortified wines. It makes the wine durable and able to be exposed to air without oxidation changing the flavor profile.”

Already oxidized and pasteurized, Madeira is built to last. Perhaps that’s why a Madeira from 1834 can hold up so delightfully well, nearly two centuries after it was first produced. In either case, the above system is one of three modern processes used, with a second variation essentially steaming the cask warehouse for six months to a year or longer, and the final involving only natural heat over a period of decades, generally producing what is seen as today’s best and most expensive Madeiras.

As with Portuguese wine, there’s also a great diversity with Madeira. “The dry varieties are amazing on a hot day on the earlier side of the afternoon, and the sweeter versions tend to lend themselves towards the evening and usually paired with dessert flavors, such as chocolate or berries,” Frye says.

To take a sip of Madeira is to understand that the reason it’s made the way it is and tastes the way it does is thanks to those initial global ship voyages, which were borne of  Portugal’s trade system. To take a bite of hearty Brazilian Feijoada and pair it with a wine made to stand up to it, such as an Esporão Reserva Red, is to see how flavors, ingredients, and culinary traditions can circumnavigate the globe and leave a permanent influence. It’s a historical and cultural expedition as much as it is a wine pairing during dinner.

“Wine does have the ability to transcend what’s in the glass to influence what we eat and what we do,” Lopes Vieira says. “Our wines are a way to export Portuguese culture to other areas of the world, and a means to showcase both our heritage and our modern day values, such as creating products in the best way possible from what nature gives us. That is Esporão’s ethos, and though we are proud Portuguese winemakers, our belief is one that transcends nationality.”

Photo Credit: Esporão

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