Earlier this fall, John Szabo, Bill Zacharkiw and I spent some time tasting and travelling together through northwest Portugal. Though the coastal slip of a country is small in size, its wine tradition is vast in scale, reaching back thousands of years. With just under 11 million people, Portugal ranked 11th in the world for wine production in 2011, and was 10th in wine exports. Small, but mighty! Vines grow everywhere, from residential backyards to prohibitively steep slopes, and winemaking is an intrinsic part of Portuguese culture.
As John deftly explained in his recent article, Portuguese wine diversity is unparalleled. The quality and range of the country’s autochthonous, or native varieties (about 250) coupled with the 200 or so identified microclimates and wide range of soil types results in infinite wines – and that’s before any stylistic winemaker intervention or historic tradition.
Further to his view on Portugal’s biodiversity in a glass, John believes “the evidence points to the southwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula as a hot spot for vine biodiversity, a so-called “refuge” during the last Ice Age. And within the last century, for myriad socio-politico-economic reasons, Portugal essentially sidestepped the erosion of varietal diversity that occurred in many other parts of the old world. The net result, and most importantly for wine lovers, is that Portugal has held on to an astonishing collection of unique indigenous grapes. Considering the strikingly different terroirs harboured in this relatively small country, from the cool and rainy, granite-based vineyards of the Minho in the north to the blazing hot schists of the Upper Douro, or the baked sandy clays of the Alentejo in the south, Portugal ranks as one of the world’s richest sources of original, and often beautiful, wines.”
For such a small country, there’s a lot to learn and experience, and we did our best in our intensive trip to absorb it all. We focused on Vinho Verde, Douro, Bairrada and Dão regions, taking in the culture (generous, authentic and friendly) and food (fresh, sea-centric and seasonal) along with hundreds of wines and a few appreciated aguardente .
Of course, being WineAlign kin, we had some very memorable excellent adventures along the way…
John (JSZ), Bill (BZ) and I (TR) have packaged up some highlights, lessons, takeaways and our best Portuguese language skills here for you (hint – JSZ wins the language trophy. All the language trophies).
Saúde ~ Treve
Section I : THE GRAPES
This is a test. Without looking it up, what are synonym (s) for the following :
Arinto (answer Pedernã)
TR. Herbal white tastes like more
Tinta Roriz (answer Tempranillo, Olha e Lebre, Aragones)
JSZ. Aragonês, Tempranillo
Tinta Bairrada (answer Baga)
BZ. Makes Baga less yahoo
Maria Gomes (Answer Fernão Pires)
JSZ Fernão Pires
TR Fernão Pires
Sousão (answer Vinhão)
JSZ. Vinhão (Vinho Verde)
BZ. raisin bran
Fly Shitted (Borrado das Moscas) (answer Bical)
TR. Hm… it was speckled. Small dots. White grape. How could I forget this one?
JSZ. Esgana Cão, or Sercial (with an “S”, not a “C”)
TR. Ripping acidity!
Answer, TR: This caused us the greatest amount of confusion on the trip, as different winemakers told us different things and the grape takes different spellings and names depending on where it is from. Upon returning home and referencing my grape bible, Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, I have clarified that Cerceal is an acidic Douro variety not to be confused with Madeira’s Sercial.
Cerceal is identical to Cercial in Bairrada but distinct from both Sercial on Madeira and Cercial in Pinhel.
Madeira’s Sercial is known as Esgana Cão on the mainland and it is exceptionally high in acid. The name Esgana Cão translates to dog strangler, hinting to the fierce acidity of the wines.
New grape discoveries from the trip that you want in your glass & why.
JSZ. Alvarelhão: This local red variety was apparently listed as one of Portugal’s most promising grape grapes in Jancis Robinson’s mid-1980s seminal work Vines, Grapes and Wines, But I guess it hasn’t caught on. I have only ever seen alverelhão at Campolargo in Bairrada, though based on my small sampling (one single wine), I wish there were more. It’s marvellously spicy and earthy, reminiscent of Burgundy or refined Loire Valley cabernet franc, light and dusty, the very definition of a modern sommelier’s wine.
Loureiro: one of the classic grapes of Vinho Verde, usually part of a blend, but there appears to be increasing solo bottlings of the variety. Loureiro performs best in the Lima Valley sub-region in the north of Vinho Verde (just south of Monçao e Melgaço), in a cool, highly Atlantic-influenced area. It’s an aromatic grape with lots of terpenes (the molecules that give riesling, muscat, gewürztraminer, pinot gris and others their characteristic floral notes), light, fresh and beautifully transparent. Try the yop notch examples from Aphros or Antonio Lopes Ribeiro.
BZ. Encruzado. We have a few wines available here in Quebec, but as I dig the mineral I want even more. The grape combines texture and freshness and that makes me happy.
TR. Really liked Alfrocheiro – alluring bright acid, wild florals and fine tannins in a lighter red. For whites, I was drawn to the waxy, flinty and herbal qualities of Encruzado, and was impressed by its aging capacity.
Sparkling Baga. Yay / nay?
JSZ. Yay, except for maybe the red versions.
TR. YEA – the blanc baga!
Bill on Baga:
Baga – it’s a grape, and for some, a passion. Spend time tasting with the Luis Pato and the rest of the “Baga friends” and even if you don’t really like the wines, you want an “I love Baga” t-shirt.
I call it a bit of a “yahoo grape.” The aromatics can be boisterous, that tannins can unruly and the acidity can be like a dagger. But in the hands of a winemaker with a more delicate hand, it can do some impressive things. With higher yields it can be downright juicy, like a dark-fruited Beaujolais with a poor disposition. When grown to be a bigger wine, it can age well, gaining more mushroom and spice notes.
I doth protest, however, to the sparkling baga. I found them as confusing as sparkling shiraz in Australia. Simply because it can be done, does not mean that it should be done.
Campolargo Baga Bairrada 2010
Section II : THE MARKET & MOVING FORWARD
Takeaway thoughts on Vinho Verde.
JSZ. Although quality in all Portuguese wine regions has risen significantly in the last generation, Vinho Verde could rightly claim to be the most improved. It has transformed itself from a region dominated by highly rustic, mostly red wines that were the proverbial definition of “local specialty” and cheap, spritzy, off-dry, basic whites, into a reliable source of light, crisply acidic, minerally, keenly priced white wines that neatly fit in to the zeitgeist of modern drinking.
It’s claimed that Vinho Verde was the fist Portuguese wine exported to European markets, mainly to Britain, Flanders and Germany (although Madeira would be a more likely candidate). In any case, today, Vinho Verde ranks second in total sales in the Portuguese market after the Alentejo (which is mostly red), while export are also up from 15% to nearly 40% of the production.
The traditional vine training systems up trees or purpose-built pergolas, designed to maximize land use not quality, have all but disappeared in commercial vineyards (you’ll still see high trellising in home vineyards, where precious land is still reserved for vegetables or other crops while grapes grow above). Factor in reduced yields, a focus on the half-dozen or so most suitable grape varieties, and a critical mass of producers pushing the envelope of potential, and the scene is very exciting indeed.
BZ. I have a soft spot for Vinho Verde, much like I do for Muscadet. They are simple wines, inexpensive, and when made without too much residual sugar, so highly packable. Being oyster season, I will no doubt pick myself up a bottle to enjoy one evening with a dozen.
But not everyone can appreciate the simple. What’s happening up in the northern part of the region with alvarinho needs more press, and more bottles being shipped to Canada. This is Portugal’s Chablis, with wines that show more subtlety than Spanish albariño, but with the minerality and depth.
TR. It’s a shame that the range Vinho Verde available in Portugal is nothing like we see here. I tasted dozens of serious dry wines of terroir from across 10 demarcated sub-regions, and from a diverse array of grapes. In fact, nearly half of production in Vinho Verde is from red grapes, with vinhão proving the most successful, followed by azal tinto and espadeiro.
Whites, fortunately, are marginally easier to find, even with their limited reach. Light and lower in alcohol, the white wines vary considerably from the crisper, focused wines of northern Vinho Verde down through the riper styles of the south. alvarinho rules the white grapes (especially from the northern subregion of Monção and Melgaço) through its fleshy white peach, apricot, floral, stony characteristics and bracing acidity. A versatile grape that reflects its soils soundly, it responds well to malolactic or barrel fermentation and maturation to yield wines of complexity and ability. I also fell in love with the floral, citrus, herbal spiced local white varieties of loureiro, trajadura, arinto and azal, each quite distinct and memorable.
Takeaway thoughts on Dão.
JSZ. Cool, fresh, floral reds with blends dominated by touriga naçional . Touriga here takes on much more perfumed, rose and violet, blue fruit aromatics relative to TN from the more severe Douro Valley. The whites, based on encruzado, are among Portugal’s most compelling. Stylistically they’re the white Burgundies of Portugal, to use a horribly overused but not-inaccurate analogy.
BZ. Portugal’s Bordeaux. When it’s on, it combines finesse with power like no other region in Portugal. This is the native home of touriga naçional and it shows. Unlike in the Douro, when it can veer towards high alcohols and figgy, fried fruits, in the Dao, touriga naçional offers power and finesse. And for the quality of the wine you are getting, they are remarkably inexpensive.
John on Douro Table Wine:
Moving Over To The Table. The Douro Valley is undergoing a massive focus shift from port to table wine (unfortified red and white). A cast of innovative and creative characters are rewriting the history, or in some cases recovering the history of the region. I’m referring for example to the important work of the “Douro Boys”, a loose association of like-minded producers established in the early 1990s (representing Crasto, Neipoort, Vale Dona Maria (Cristano Van Zeller), Vallado and Vale Meão), or Sandra Tavares of Wine & Soul who have significantly raised the image of Douro table wine while still making great port.
Their efforts have not gone unnoticed as other players large and small, well-established or just starting out, have understood the need to raise quality. It’s heartening to see old vineyards being recovered, rehabilitated and maintained, while many new plantings have shifted away from the prevailing monovarietal philosophy of the ’80s and ‘90s and back to the traditional approach of multi-variety field blends that are such an important and increasingly unique part of Portuguese winegrowing heritage.
And the Wines? Which wines to try? There are many. There’s the silken, Burgundian-like Charme, or the more robust, “traditional” Batuta from Niepoort, the forceful new world richness of Crasto’s Vinhas Velhas, the prickly and zesty Souzão from Vallado, the elegantly textured Vinha Francisca or the manifestly richer and denser 85 year-old vineyard blend of Vale Dona Maria, or the Upper Douro savage intensity and thickness of Vale Meão. It would be a shame not to experience the miraculous juxtaposition of power and finesse, florality and fine-grained structure of Wine & Soul’s Quinta da Manoella Vinhas Velhas, or the remarkable poise and polish of Quinta da Romaneira, or again, the density without sacrificing elegance of the Real Companhia Velha Vinhas Velhas de Carvalhas. And I haven’t even mentioned the whites…
To try :
Niepoort Vertente 2009
Crasto Vinho Tinto 2011
Quinta Do Crasto Old Vines Reserva 2009
Meandro Do Vale Meão 2011
Porca De Murça Reserva Tinto 2011
Quinta Do Vallado Reserva Field Blend 2009
Niepoort Dialogo Branco 2011
On Pricing. Although the prices for these and other top wines are certainly high, in the $50-$100+ range (even if I find them more than fairly priced in the relative world of fine wine), the average price for Douro table wine remains artificially low. So, buy while you can. As we learned on this visit, the prices paid for Douro grapes are in many cases below the cost of production. And one look at the savagely steep vineyards of the region, coupled with the Douro’s extreme climate, and it’s obvious that production costs are high and yields low.
Where once grape growers could earn a comfortable living selling a large percentage of their grapes for port wine, and looked upon the “leftover” grapes destined for table wine as a bonus, today, with the shrinking port market and thus demand for grapes, the money paid for the smaller percentage of grapes allocated for port no longer cover production costs of the entire quinta. Table grape prices will have to rise or growers will be out of business. Large companies have no interest in acquiring more vineyards since they can purchase grapes for less that it would cost to grow them, never mind the capital cost of acquiring the vineyards and maintaining them. Eventually something will have to give; vineyards will be abandoned or prices will rise. In any case it’s clear that the days of fine quality $15 Douro wines are numbered.
Section III : THE PEOPLE
We met some interesting, forward-thinking folks moving the needle of Portuguese wine and challenging convention. Here are three people or movements that we want you to know about.
Bill on Wine & Soul:
When I first met Sandra Tavares back in 2010, she changed the way I thought about Douro’s table wines. Hers had an elegance that I had never tasted in the wines of the region. And after this most recent visit, I am even more convinced that great things can be done here.
Along with her husband, Jorge Borges, their winery “Wine & Soul” has much more than simply a modern name and snappy wine labels. The entire line-up is worth drinking. Hell, I even loved their Port. Granted it was a blend of two barrels made in 1880 and 1900, but still, I normally don’t really like it.
Wine and Soul is about single vineyard wines, great grape growing, and made with traditional food stomped grapes. Each wine has its own character. And what you come away with is that the Douro does indeed have great terroir.
John on Vinho Verde producers today:
Some names to watch for:
Aphros Wine. The calm, confident and introspective Vasco Croft took over his mother’s semi-abandoned 17th century family estate in 2003 in the Lima Valley in the north of Vinho Verde. He assembled a team of crack consultants and began conversion to biodynamics in 2006. Starting with the original 6 hectares, Croft has since purchased the neighboring eight-hectare quinta, and rents another six, bringing the current total to 20 hectares in production.
The most suitable variety in the cool, heavily Atlantic-influenced Lima Valley is Loureiro, a very floral (terpenic) white variety, which represents three-quarters of production. Croft makes three different versions, and even the entry-level Aphros Vinho Verde Loureiro is impressive, made in a richer, riper style with plenty of fruit extract as well as herbal-hay notes. A pinch of residual sugar (8 grams in the 2013) is in perfect balance. The Daphnos cuvee, another variation on loureiro made only in suitable vintages and fermented in barrel after a half-day soak on the skins, is a rare success for an aromatic grape aged in wood. It’s a wine of texture and complexity rather than a varietal expression, and all the more interesting for it.
Provam (Varando do Conde). Provam is a hybrid cooperative-negociant, bringing together ten associates each with their own parcels, but who also purchase from 300 producers in the sub-region of Monçao e Melgaço. A long-standing value favorite of mine is the Varando do Conde Vinho Verde made from 70% alvarinho and 30% trajadura. This shows the mineral, decomposing stone character that typifies the region, and offers considerable density and weight for the money.
ALR (Casa da Mouraz). “ALR” refers to António Lopes Ribeiro, who along with his former dance teacher wife Sara Dionísio, produce wine both in Vinho Verde under the ALR label and in the Dão under Casa de Mouraz. The VV project was established in 2006 when, after much searching, the couple found a 4ha parcel of organically grown Loureiro in the Lima Valley sub-region. They wanted to produce a radically different style of white wine from what they were making in the Dão. As in the Dão, biodynamic principals are applied though the wines aren’t certified; they distrust the administrators at Demeter.
Wines are all fermented naturally and only minimal sulphur is used. A mini vertical of the 2013-2012-2011 ALR Vinho Verde, the only wine currently produced, made clear that fine Vinho Verde can improve with age, and in some cases needs time in bottle to fully express itself. These are pure and transparent, crystalline Vinho Verde with quivering acids and pitch-perfect balance, taking on riesling-like petro and mineral notes with bottle age.
Treve on Luis Pato:
Luis Pato’s family has been producing wine since the 18th century, and his father, Joâo was the first to bottle wine in Bairrada DOC after it was officially demarcated as an appellation in 1979. “Bairrada” is from “barros” (clay) and due to the clay-laden soils throughout the area. Though the region is relatively recently recognized by the rule books, it is an ancient area for grape growing. Viticulture in Bairrada has existed since at least the 10th century, when the region gained independence from the Moors. Recognized for its deep, full and tannic reds, the wines of Bairrada were sought after during the 17th century when the Douro’s illustrious Port houses, pressed to satisfy the growing British tastes for Port, would blend in wines from the region to ramp up quantity.
Together with his father, Luis is credited with bringing Bairrada back to life, legitimately. Though the Pato name (Portuguese for duck, and referenced by the bird in flight on the label) is synonymous with Bairrada, Luis has used the name in Beiras (outside) on his labels since 1999, in opposition to the Bairrada head office and politics within. He was also protesting “flying grape varieties” in the region; the proliferation of international grapes planted in Bairrada. In his opinion, Beiras should be the larger, unified region with the term Bairrada reserved for top reds of hometown hero baga.
Luis Pato is also the first and only one in the world to produce sercialinho, a Portuguese cross planted by his father 40 years ago. Luis believes it to be a cross of sercial with alvarinho, true to name. Though his solo sercialinho is not available in Canada, a fantastic blend utilizing the grape is – the chalky, white grapefruit and smoked stone Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas Branco 2012.