Alongside Chianti fiasco, Franken bocksbeutel and Rioja wire netting, Dão’s jute wrapping must be one of the most distinctive and instantly recognisable wine bottle designs in the world. Dão is a name associated with traditions and, in the eyes of oenophiles of the baby boomer generation, nostalgia. Wine lovers from younger generations, however, probably have much less fond memories of it – this author being one of them – recalling the days when Dão wines were harsh and unapproachable, not unlike the stern head teacher back in school days, whom one still loves to hate.
At two private tastings of Dão wines recently hosted by Mr. Tomás Pimenta of Vino Veritas, possibly the leading importer of Portuguese wine in Macao, old biases and perceptions were all but shattered. Judging from the wide range of samples tasted, one could only conclude that Dão is no longer what it used to be, as it has drastically and unrecognisably changed for the better. Indeed, five years would appear to be a complete evolution cycle for Dão in the 21st century.
“Dão has improved so much across the board that, if you randomly grab a bottle of Grão Vasco or even Mateus, you would no longer pull a face while drinking it.”
Tomás Pimenta, with more than 30 years of experience in the wine trade in the Chinese-speaking area, explained that the Dão renaissance is largely due to three factors. First, well until the 1980s, in the eve of Portugal’s accession to the European Economic Community (predecessor of the European Union), growers from the Dão region were required to supply to only cooperatives, which face no competition under state monopoly, hence invariably focused on quantity rather than quality. Second, with the influx of investment, Portuguese estates finally had the means to substantially improve both software (management and practice) and hardware (equipment and facilities). Third, thanks to the modernisation of wine legislation, more grape varieties were allowed, providing winemakers with more colours with which to paint.
Named after the eponymous river, Dão is home to Touriga Nacional, arguably the most venerated of all Portuguese grape varieties. Dão’s circa 20,000ha of vineyards are largely located along the river, at 200-500m above sea level, which maximises sunshine and diurnal temperature variations. Dominated by well-drained crystalline granite, the terroir is austere yet richly mineral, and the verdant region is shielded from inclement weather by surrounding mountains. It is no wonder that, prior to the rise of dry reds from Douro, Dão used to be the heartland of reds from northern Portugal.
Dão may not be the brightest star in northern Portugal, but it keeps reaching new heights, producing refreshingly fragrant whites and intensely flavoured reds at tantalising prices. Gone are the days of unnecessarily extended maceration and accidentally oxidised maturation, in came bright fruit, aromatic spice and rounded tannins. Located in the heart of the Dão valley near Viseu, the regional capital, the 25ha Quinta de Lemons sits some 340m above sea level. Quinta de Lemons is a leading example of what Dão in the 21st century means, having garnered numerous prizes and highly ratings over the years.
A single-varietal Tinta Roriz (i.e. Tempranillo, which goes by a number of aliases), matured in French oak for 15 months. Reddish black with carmine-oxblood rim, the generously spiced nose presents black cherry, cassis, star anise, tobacco leaf and leather. Anchored by generous acidity and tasty tannins, the charmingly masculine palate supplies blackberry, damson, caffè ristretto, cigar and game. Full-bodied at 14 percent, the dense entry evolves into a variegated mid-palate, leading to a moreish finish. In a blind tasting, one may well mistake it for a fine Ribero del Duero.
A single-varietal Touriga Nacional, matured in French oak barrels for 18 months. Reddish black with maroon-rosewood rim, the broodingly scented nose reveals blackberry, cassis, clove, dark chocolate and incense. Buttressed by abundant acidity and muscular tannins, the fathomlessly complex palate unveils mulberry, black olive, black pepper, pu-erh and graphite. Full-bodied at 14.5 percent, the emphatic entry persists through a saline mid-palate, leading to a savoury finish. A decade since vintage, this gem has yet to drop its guard, which speaks of remarkable longevity.
Jacky I.F. Cheong is a legal professional by day and columnist by night. Having spent his formative years in Britain,
France, and Germany, he regularly writes about wine, fine arts, classical music, and politics in several languages