I don’t think of wine as a guilty pleasure but rather, along with such delights as fresh sardines, summer peaches and dark chocolate, as an integral part of my — to use a phrase I hate — healthy lifestyle.
Which is not to say that I don’t have guilty pleasures, foremost among them, detective fiction. When the stack on my bedside table has dwindled to only two or three, I rush to the library to head off the anxiety that I’ll wake up and find myself without a crime-solving companion.
One of my longtime favorite such companions is Mary Russell, a teenager in the first (and, to my mind best) of Laurie King’s 11 Russell mysteries, “The Bee Keeper’s Apprentice.” The beekeeper of the title turns out to be none other than Sherlock Holmes. The latest Russell-Holmes adventure has as its backdrop Britain’s nascent silent film industry.
Russell (now degreed, multilingual, experienced in detection and married to Holmes) goes underground to investigate wrong-doing in a film studio. Its current project is “Pirate King,” a film about a film crew that is making a film, also called “Pirate King,” about, loosely, “The Pirates of Penzance.” And since the novel itself is “Pirate King,” we have “Pirate King” about the making of “Pirate King,” about the making of “Pirate King,” about a pirate opera. All very confusing and self-consciously, mockingly post-modernist.
Instead of filming in nearby Penzance, though, the megalomaniac director insists on real pirate territory, Portugal and Morocco — so much of the novel takes place in Lisbon. Fortunately. Otherwise the novel would have been, for me, too self-consciously clever to finish, especially since it never did produce a corpse, something I do expect and enjoy in my detective fiction.
But the descriptions of Lisboan streets (“ranging from mildly sloping to positively vertiginous”) and the references to this small country’s large empire-building history brought to life for me the country of my current wine obsession.
In previous columns, I’ve recommended a couple of vinho verdes (including the Casa Garcia vinho verde rosé) from the northern part of the country and, most recently, a northern Portuguese red, the Borges Quinta de Soalheira. My latest loves, all of them crafted from native Portuguese grapes, come from a more southern region.
The first, like two other Portuguese wines I’ve written about (Bons-Ventos and Portuga) are made by Casa Santos Lima, a family business for four generations, founded by Joaquim Santos Lima, one of the greatest producers and exporters of Portuguese wines.
In the 1990s, the founder’s great-grandson replanted many of the vines and modernized production. Casa Santos Lima owns large estates in the Alenquer county, the most prestigious DOC appellation within the Lisboa (formerly Estremadura) region, which lies northwest of Lisbon along the Atlantic coast. They are devoted to sustainable agricultural practices and have won numerous awards for their well-made, extremely well-priced wines.
The latest one I’ve tasted is Quinta das Amoras, a blend of castelao, camarate, tinta miuda and touriga nacional. It’s a delicious, intense wine that smells of cherries and tastes of black currant and berries with a hint of leather. Aged briefly in Portuguese oak, it seems to me a very versatile red, fruity but dry, low in alcohol (12.5 percent). It’s really hard to believe that you can buy wine of this quality for only $8 (at Valley Wine Company). You can also get it by the glass at Monticello.
The other two wines I’m excited about both come from Bonifacio Winery. Another large but family-owned operation, it was founded in 1963 by António Francisco Bonifácio and continues to be run by his descendants. Bonifacio’s elegant Patrimonio, a red blend of aragonez, castelao and alicante bouschet, has no oak. It, too, is both fruity and dry, smooth and spicy and, like all these wines, just a bit different from anything else. I like to think it’s the clayey soil in this wind-and-sea-swept Atlantic region. It’s about $14 at Valley Wine and the Davis Food Co-op.
The alicante bouschet grape, cultivated first in France, has the distinction of being one of the very few wine grapes with red flesh, so it’s sometimes added to a blend just for its beautiful color. Its thick skin makes it a good traveler and so, interestingly, it was planted in California during Prohibition for export to the East Coast. (Another advantage during this dark time: it was so intensely red that you could dilute it with sugared water and it still looked good.) There are still plantings of it in California (Francis Ford Coppola makes much use of it), but it’s more well-known as a Portuguese grape.
It’s seldom used on its own, but my second Bonifacio recommendation is actually 100 perecent alicante bouschet, and, like the Patrimonio, stainless-steel fermented and bottle-aged. When the brothers at Valley Wine Company initially described this to me, I worried that I’d find it too fruity, but it’s dry enough to balance the fruit and intense enough to stand up to strong cheeses and all manner of spicy dishes. It would be excellent with a lamb or goat stew.
It’s not at all a complex wine, but it’s beautiful to look at, immediately likable and, at $11 (Valley Wine Company), another bargain. And think of the caché of bringing such an unusual bottle to a dinner of wine-lovers.
Bonifacio wines are produced in accordance with the European Union’s biological production guidelines, pretty much the equivalent of U.S. organic — no herbicides or chemical fertilizers are used. In addition, the wines are made in the traditional way, with minimal manipulation.
Both Mary Russell and these wonderful wines are gradually coaxing me out of my reluctance to fly long distances. A trip to Portugal’s wine country would be a guilty pleasure indeed, though I just might leave the guilt with the books on my bedside table.
— Reach Susan Leonardi at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com