Pleasant surprises in Macau's cellars

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 January, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 January, 1999, 12:00am

Until a few years ago, drinking wine in Macau was a comparatively simple matter. You would wander into any Portuguese or Macanese restaurant and call for vinho verde or vinho tinto. A waiter would whip the cork out of a slightly fizzy green wine or a musty red.

The wines would be good swigging material, gratifyingly inexpensive but hardly inspiring.

Things have changed. Portugal has always produced a vast variety of wines, many of which distinguished vintages. Many are now available in the enclave.

Lisbon wine consultant Francisco Esteves Goncalves says it is now easier to buy some of Portugal's finest wines in Macau than in Oporto. And what is more, they are cheaper.

Fine music to my ears which set me off on a hunt through Macau's back streets. You do not have to go far to find out Mr Goncalves is right: in one grocery shop in Taipa, I counted 54 wines on the shelves and bought a $35 bottle of red that was fine drinking.

The amiable Mr Goncalves knows what he is talking about. For three years he was head of the International Sommeliers' Association and for a decade organised the global wine-tasting championship. He is one of Portugal's leading wine gurus and has been the main professional oenological adviser to the Macau Wine Museum.

Mr Goncalves does not mind a glass of wine, so we share a rather nifty chardonnay from the northern region while chatting about changing patterns of drinking in Macau.

The old days of vinho verde and red plonk began to die a decade ago when pioneers such as Mario Vale, owner of the Cacarola restaurant and Fernando Gomes, who runs Fernando's, began to import their own wines. Five-star hotels also helped elevate standards.

But the real impetus for change came three years ago when the Macau Wine Museum opened. Mr Goncalves, who was imported from Portugal to advise on the museum, reckons that in 1995, grocery stores, wine shops and restaurants in Macau stocked about 160 labels.

Today, there are 600 Portuguese wines on sale in Macau.

Mr Goncalves describes the change as revolutionary - and it is apparent on restaurant wine lists. Years ago, it was common to see menus which had printed on the bottom 'vinho verde - 30 patacas, vinho tinto - 35 patacas'. Today, all restaurants, including many Chinese eateries, have respectable wine lists, dominated by Portuguese wines.

The best list in the enclave is found at the Mandarin Oriental hotel. Here, food and beverage manager Jorge Smith is a man as interesting as the 1995 Vinha Barrosa by Luis Pato, which sells in his restaurants for $588.

The Mandarin has 36 Portuguese reds on its regular list. Some of them - the 96 Trincadeira Preta, the 92 Terras Atlas and the 92 Frei Joao from the regions of Ribatejo, Dao and Bairrada - are priced at $136.

I tasted the Quinta do Crasto at $500 - it is soft, carries the slightly earthy taste of Portuguese wines with a fruity flavour and robust character.

Like many Portuguese reds, this needs a long time to breathe, so order the wine when you arrive at a restaurant, have a glass of vinho verde while you order, and when the food arrives, the red will be ready to drink.

Above all, be adventurous. Do not drink the same old Portuguese wines you have been sipping for years. There is a whole new world of wine to explore in today's Macanese cellars; ask the waiter for advice and try something exciting.