Pining for a drop of Portuguese

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 July, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 July, 1996, 12:00am

Go into any reputable restaurant in Hong Kong and flick through the wine list. I am prepared to bet a bottle of '45 Chateau Lafite to a flask of the most diabolical house wine served in Macau, that you will not find Portuguese wines listed in any more than a tenth of restaurants.

Nobody knows why, because when the Union Flag was raised at Possession Point in 1841, a hefty contingent of Portuguese from Macau, which was the clerical backbone of the early trading houses, were there.

There is no doubt that nibbles at the birth of the new colony were washed down with vinho tinto. Hong Kong has had a sizeable Portuguese community ever since, though it has dwindled in recent years.

But the country's wines are sadly absent from Hong Kong, despite being available in huge quantities in Macau, with its sane tax policies.

Adrian Sank plans to remedy Hong Kong's drought. His firm, Omtis (fax 2363-6014), is importing Quinta do Carmo, one of Portugal's premier drops.

The territory's residents miss out on quality Portuguese wines by concentrating too much on cheap fizz and red plonk to wash down those Macanese chilli-prawns.

Quality wines do exist and if we were to ask for them at places like Cacarola restaurant on Coloane, we would be stunned at the quality-to-cost ratio. A superb wine museum has also opened. Drop in before heading for lunch, to get some ideas about what to drink with the African chicken.

But back to Quinta do Carmo, which retails at $182 a bottle in Hong Kong. The price, for a start, makes you aware that not all Portuguese wine is cheap, but this is top quality.

Down in the arid, hot interior of southern Portugal, the natives of Alentejo have been making wine for centuries. Because there were never many roads, most of it was drunk locally.

The region was at the spearhead of Portugal's wine renaissance, which has seen modern grapes and new technology wedded to ancient skills to produce fine vintages at reasonable prices.

The Quinta do Carmo winery used to belong to the Portuguese royal family several revolutions ago, but for generations has been in the hands of the Bastos family. Four years ago, Domaines Barons de Rothschild, which owns the legendary Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux, bought half the winery.

French talent is now being focused on these 50 stony, baking hectares.

Some of the vines are more than a century old, yielding tiny, sugar-packed grapes that give an intense wine, high in alcohol.

The parched climate and poor soil are, ironically, ideal for olive trees and vines. Forced to work hard to survive, both plants yield superlative produce. The grape varieties are traditional Portuguese vines, alicante bouchet trincadeira, perequita and aragonez.

Until the 1994 harvest, the fruit was hand-picked in autumn, crushed and fermented in stone tubs, just as it had been for centuries. The infusion of Rothschild investment means hydraulic presses, stainless steel vats and temperature-controlled fermentation. But matured for three years in cement vats and oak casks, and with an inherent rich and distinctive fruit flavour, later vintages retain the traditional flavour.

The wine would still be recognisable to King Don Joao IV, who once owned the estate, but it is a lot better quality.