The Portuguese experience at Lodi’s St. Jorge
St. Jorge Winery matches bacalhau with their extraordinary Portuguese varietal wines
Bacalhau is a universal dish in Portugal and Galicia (the northwest tip of Spain); and seeing that Mr. Vierra is of Portuguese descent, his enthusiasm is understandable. Bacalhau is, in fact, the Portuguese word for codfish, and it refers specifically to the dried and salted codfish usually caught in Norway, Iceland or (more common today) off the coast of Canada’s Newfoundland.
Vierra’s family first arrived in the Lodi region from Portugal in 1954. He grew up eating bacalhau, but ironically, he tells us, “it wasn’t the best part of my childhood… when I was young it was usually dark brown, with the consistency of shoe leather, and we had to soak it for days to get it big and soft. Usually it was baked with tomatoes, eggs, olive oil, onions and potatoes, and it was always served during the holidays or special occasions.”
There is a saying in Portugal that there are 365 ways to cook bacalhau, for every day of the week, but others say it’s more like 1,001. For the Bacalhau Dinner which took place at St. Jorge Winery this past November 4, Vierra served a bacalau dish that look suspiciously like an Italian style ragù – replete with sharp fresh tomatoes, subtle herbs and spices, and dished over pan roasted polenta (sans potatoes or eggs) – which is not surprising, seeing that the other half of the St. Jorge success story can be attributed to Vern’s wife, Jenise Vierra, who is of Italian descent.
Jacquelyn Vierra, their talented daughter, is also active in the family business as their wine club manager, and much more: a prolific artist, she paints in the fashion of old Italian masters. Her dreamy, deep colored oils are displayed all over the winery; and the winery itself is more of a sepia washed envisioning of an Renaissance Italian courtyard rather than that of white, Moorish style Portuguese architecture.
But the vinous inspiration at St. Jorge is indubitably Portuguese. The 2010 St. Jorge Lodi Verdelho ($18), for instance, is grown by Ron Silva – Lodi’s Portuguese grape king – at his Silvaspoons Vineyards in the Alta Mesa AVA, and it’s stunner: bursting with flowery, honeyed, lemon and lime perfumes, caressing the palate like silk sheets, with crisp edges of vibrant acidity. Think of a sharp, limber Kirsten Dunst in I Dream of Jeannie-like packaging.
However, the winery’s current knockdown, as-good-as-anything-made-in-the-New-World wine is the 2009 St. Jorge Silvaspoons Vineyard Lodi Touriga ($25), made from 100% Touriga Nacional, the “king” of Portuguese red wine grapes: dark as night and emanating sweet violet and licorice perfumes with touches of meaty, animal-like nuances; following through on the palate with deep, dense yet round, luscious qualities. Like that old Salt N Pepa line about a body like Arnold with a Denzel face.
The best wine for Vierra’s bacalhau? We thought it was a toss-up between the floral, medium bodied, new leather and black cherry laced 2009 St. Jorge Silvaspoons Vineyard Lodi Tempranillo ($20) and the velvety, liquid wild berry and rosemary tinged 2009 St. Jorge Silvaspoons Vineyard Lodi Vinho Tinto Belo ($20) – the latter, an artful blend of Souzão, Tempranillo and Touriga Nacional grapes.
Both the Tempranillo and the Vinho Tinto Belo retain just enough acidic zest and sweet toned fruit to match the zesty qualities of the bacalhau’s fresh tomato component, with soft enough tannins and earthy flavors to mingle with the saline, earthy taste of the salt cod.
Finally, if you’re looking for a sweeter wine with special attributes, we strongly recommend the 2009 St. Jorge Lodi Sobremesa ($23/half-bottle); made 100% from the Torrontés grape, and also grown by Ron Silva at Silvaspoons: a soft, easy, discreetly sweet essence of pear and apple nectars with twists of lemon peel. This, undoubtedly, is what it would have been like to have Marlene Dietrich whisper sweet nothings in your ear.
At the Vierras’ bacalhau feast, the Sobremesa was served with a dessert concocted by Jacquelyn Vierra: a bread pudding caramelized with brown sugar and crushed pecans, utilizing the classic, mildly sweet, eggy pão doce (Portuguese sweet bread) baked by Colleen Lewis at Lodi’s Dancing Fox bakery… ‘nuff said!
In Portugal they also say, a fome é o melhor tempero (“hunger is the best spice”), and if anything, the rare and remarkable wines of Lodi’s St. Jorge Winery increases your hunger for Portuguese inspired varietal wines all the more!