When brainstorming about Portugal wine is definitely one of the first words that pops to mind. And when we think of wine, we think of cheese.
These two products are part of our heritage and always play an important role at the table. Having them is a given, so pairing them should always be a joy!
In this post we write about some of the best vinhos and queijos in the country, and which ones are the perfect match!
Basic rules to pair cheese and wine
Pairing cheese and wine seems logical, but it can pose quite a challenge due to the wide variety available.
Despite being a small country, Portugal has the fourth biggest winemaking area in Europe. The interesting mix of terroirs is divided in 14 demarcated wine regions, occupying an area of almost 200.000 hectares. This generates an interesting variety of wines, both in continental Portugal and the islands of Açores and Madeira.
The same happens when it comes to cheese. There are many typical ones in Portugal, with all shapes, sizes and flavours.
The main goal when pairing the two is enhancing each others specific characteristics, almost creating a third flavour. There are a few matchmaker rules so that this marriage works on the long haul:
When in Serra da Estrela
Serra da Estrela cheese is the oldest and most famous one in the whole country. It's made with raw milk from the Bordaleira sheep, a breed from Serra da Estrela. The production of a Serra da Estrela cheese is artisanal and takes a minimum of 120 days. The final product is dense, buttery and semi-creamy inside and has a thick crust on the outside. The strong flavour pairs beautifully with the full bodied red wines from the Dão demarcated wine region, for instance with the Touriga Nacional (the most noble grape variety). If you're more of a white wine fan, then pair a glass of chilled wine with requeijão, a light and airy cheese made with the curd of the milk. Encruzado is an excellent variety.
The Dão demarcated region can be found in the centre of Portugal, more accurately in Beira Alta, it was the second demarcated wine region in the country and it's commonly addressed as "the Portuguese Burgundy". The vineyards grow between 400 and 700 m of altitude and are protected from the harsh weather by the hilly terrain. The wines have a great acidity, ageing potential, complexity and are also quite delicate and balanced.
Apart from the delicious cheese and wine, Serra da Estrela Natural Park offers other reasons to visit. Find which are the highlights here.
When in Trás-os-Montes
The goat cheese produced in Trás-os-Montes, the north-easternmost region in the country, is another DOP product and a staple in the northern part of the country. It is obtained from the raw milk of the Serrana goats and the final product is a white cured cheese with a hard consistency and a pleasant aroma. The flavour is intense and slightly spicy, which goes extremely well with the wine produced in the region.
Trás-os-Montes wine demarcated region is marked by tall mountains, rough soils and a harsh climate, with a hot and dry summer and very cold and long winters. These conditions generate great quality wines, many of which obtained from centenary wine varieties. The red wines have fruit notes and a full body, whereas the whites are soft and floral.
When in Setúbal Peninsula
The Peninsula of Setúbal is located just south of Lisboa and is another well known wine making region. It comprises two distinct landscapes: vineyards planted in soils of clay and limestone and protected by Serra da Arrábida hills and vineyards that grow in sandy plains. In the area around Palmela are produced great quality reds, whites and also sparkling wines. The latter go quite well with the famous Azeitão cheese.
This cheese is made with raw sheep's milk and has a slightly gooey and buttery texture. It was originally produced to replicate the Serra da Estrela cheese, but the specific characteristics of the region gave origin to a unique product that quickly became a favourite. The acid and salty tang of the cheese can also be paired with the sweetness of the moscatel wine from Setúbal.
To burn some calories head to Serra da Arrábida, where you can hike through the lush green and then go for a swim in the turquoise waters.
When in Alentejo
Being the biggest region in the country, Alentejo comprises very distinct landscapes and microclimates. The countryside of Alentejo is the region's pantry and where the best cheeses and wines are produced.
There are three DOP cheeses, all made with raw sheep's milk. The cheese from Nisa is produced in the northern part of Alentejo inland and is cured, and semi-hard. The one made around Évora can be both semi-hard or hard and is slightly denser. Also cured, the cheese from Serpa has a semi-soft buttery paste and takes about a month to produce. It's original from the southeastern part of the region and is probably the most famous amongst the three.
Back in the days the wine production had little expression, against cereals, olive groves, cork oak trees and cattle farming. It was only during the 80s that the wine production sky rocketed and the Alentejo wine demarcated region was established in 1988. Despite the great differences in terms of scenery, soil and grape varieties, the wines produced in this region have some common features. The whites are generally soft, slightly acidic and have tropical aromas, whereas the reds are robust, rich in tannins and with notes of berries.
The three cheeses mentioned can be paired with both reds or whites, and the ones made in the Alentejo wine demarcated region are naturally the best choice. Because "what grows together, goes together" pair the cheese from Nisa with a wine that comes from the hills of Portalegre (near Serra de São Mamede Natural Park), the one from Évora with wines that come from the central part of the region (Borba, Reguengos, Redondo and Évora) and the cheese from Serpa with the bold wines from the southern plains (Moura, Vidigueira and Granja-Amareleja) .
To discover more about this incredible region check this article.
When in Açores
The two most famous cheeses produced in the azorian archipelago are from São Jorge and Pico, both obtained from raw cow's milk. When it comes to wine there are small productions in some islands, mainly in the central group, but the most famous is the one produced in the island of Pico.
Wine making has always been one of the most important industries in Pico. There are many private wineries throughout the island and in the western part of the island the landscape is covered in vineyards. These were declared UNESCO heritage in 2004 because of the currais, the walls made with volcanic rocks that protect them.
In São Jorge the cheese production is responsible for about 80% of the local economy revenue. The cheeses are massive round-shaped balls with 10-12 kilos known worldwide, with a firm consistency and a semi-hard and crumbly paste. The cheese made in Pico is also cured and has a soft and slightly creamy texture. Because of the islands exposure to the sea breeze, the cheese has an intense salty taste, meaning it should always be paired with a glass of local wine.
Read more about the archipelago of Açores here.
Insider Tip: To end a meal with a sweet note, order a chalice of Port tawny, muscat wine or other typical liqueur and pair it with a slice of hard cheese with a dollop of local jam. For many this is the ultimate dessert, and we couldn't agree more.
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