[Get something to drink now, this is lengthy]
A friend contacted me last week to say he had an opportunity to attend a tasting of Portuguese wines later this month in Belgium – I replied to say, go, there are generally excellent wines at amazingly modest prices in Portugal, worth investigating, and added that I would be attending the Essência do Vinho tasting 4-7 March and would update him. Sunday morning, after my second night of tastings, I sent an urgent message telling him not to miss it, book that ticket now.
Saturday and Sunday nights I tasted more broadly at Essência do Vinho, mostly names hitherto unknown to me or known-of but not yet tasted, and the fundamental impression remains of excellent, interesting well made wines at good price levels. The majority of the wines I tried were from the Douro and Alentejo (a few exceptions noted), and generalising very very broadly – if you like the sort of powerful, elegant, complex tannic reds that come from Burgundy or the Piedmont, then you really should look at the wines from these areas; the taste sensations are different given different grapes and terroir, of course, but the appeal is broadly similar. The whites from the Douro – which I’d never tasted before – were a really pleasant discovery for me, I am generally not a white wine person, but I could make some exceptions very very happily. Nice minerality in some (look for the Rabigato grape), and some interesting things being done with Viognier in Douro, Lisboa and Alentejo regions for those who like more fruit/floral styles.
I came away with a feeling of having only just been let into this marvellous secret, and I’m hurt and puzzled why no one ever told me before. Portugal has a marketing job to do, like other wine regions before them, to change a circa 70’s and 80’s image of a source of cheap drinks for impoverished students and the down and out, to an image of quality wine making as yet under-appreciated by the world at large. There are a number of professional associations addressing this, and the tide is turning.
Ok, ok, ok, what about the wines, Cynthia?
General prefatory comment: lighting was not always great for colour assessments, sometimes in the rush I missed vintage dates, and as discussed previously I don’t try to play name that fruit, I stick to general taste family notes. All of which is going to have one or two beloved WSET training friends thoroughly disgusted and asking “Did I not teach you a thing!?” You did, honest, but conditions at a very crowded event, in a very enthusiastic crowd, didn’t lend themselves to following The Systematic Approach terribly systematically. Desculpe…
Ok, the wines (FINALLY I hear you say…) Here goes:
In a few instances I was able to taste a range of wines from one maker, so start with those groups:
Quinta dos Carvalhais
Another disclaimer here… Saturday night I attended the tasting with a friend, the most incredibly easy-going and out-going-in-four-or-five-languages Spaniard imaginable, met him at the language school where we both have been taking Portuguese lessons. Like me he has taken a life-changing flying leap and settled here in Gaia. After three or four hours of hard tasting we both were tired and dying to sit down. He charmed and blagged our way into a VIP lounge area, which was set aside for the wines of Quinta dos Carvalhais. I promptly dropped into a comfy chair next to the end of the bar, and quite literally let my hair down – I know I’m tired when it feels too heavy and the hairpins hurt – and let Fernando hand me drinks.
Quinta dos Carvalhais is in the Dão, and owned by Sogrape (who also own Mateus – get over it – and make wines throughout Portugal and in several locations in South America and I think New Zealand). If you look at a map, look south of Porto for a small city called Coimbra, northeastish of that is Viseu and east of Viseu is Guarda. Very very roughly, the Dão is the area between those three points, and pretty well surrounded by mountains on all sides. The Quinta dos Carvalhais website, as best I can determine, is only in Portuguese, but take a look anyway, if you have a bit of French and English, you can probably puzzle out most of it. And it has a rather louche soundtrack which perfectly reflects the mood of the space in which I was tasting (fabulous wood panelling, purple plush chesterfield sofas and chairs, and a mirrored bar). For more technical information in English or Portuguese look at their pages on the Sogrape Vinhos site.
Espumante, don’t know which vintage, but this is made as a vintage wine only when they feel the grapes are right. Made primarily from Touriga Nacional, yes, the port powerhouse grape, and a little bit of the white Encruzado – it actually inspired me to write my notes in Portuguese, so the colour is cor de rosa. I couldn’t catch a nose through the fizz which was quite ebullient (freshly opened bottle), but lovely fresh strawberry on palate. The last wine I had tasted before this was a port I really had not liked, and I found this espumante really refreshing after that wretched port, it cleansed my palate nicely. One more example of how I find I really do like sparkling wines, once I get away from yeasty Champagne.
Colheita Seleccionada Branco 2005 – fabulous nose I am absolutely stumped to describe, but hard to tear yourself away from it, the palate was the same, fabulous and elusive. Very high acidity (in a very good way) – Fernando said it would be ideal to drink with caviar, sadly I cannot comment, I wouldn’t know (sniff!).
Colheita Tardia 2007 I know it means late harvest, but I didn’t really think there would be a late harvest wine in the German sense, so was puzzled by a gentle but unmistakeable botrytis nose, but the palate was in fact sweet, a lovely honey and tropical fruit gentle sauternes like wine. I was surprised and asked our server who confirmed, yes indeed, they do have a river and get the mists and the botrytis; the grape is Semillon. Lovely. A quick web search turns up pricing around €15 – beats Yquem on accessibility, certainly. (I once watched a man buy a bottle of Yquem for £1200 at the old duty-free Berry Bros at Heathrow; after he paid he pondered aloud whether or not his hosts would like it. Shudder.)
Colheita Tinto 2007 We were told this had a favourable write up in Wine Spectator. Touriga Nacional and Alfrocheiro. Nose was tar and fruit, palate follows through, like a young burgundy, tannins, red fruit, leather.
2003 Alfrocheiro (a red grape of the Dão) very tarry nose, deep translucent ruby with a wide rim, palate just elegant, ripe dark red fruit, tannins and truffles.
Unico 2005 Touriga Nacional 50% and balance mix typical of Dão (in Portugal old vineyards were usually planted in a wide variety of grapes, as a way of hedging bets – it is not uncommon, and do not turn your nose up at the idea of drinking unidentified grapes – these can be fabulous wines) Nose: meat and pepper; palate of spices, red fruits, black fruits, stars drawn all over the page, fabulous finish, spectacular, about €70. And I would add, worth every penny. Fernando bought a bottle then and there (offered at half price that night), sadly I was broke. Must keep in touch with Fernando!
João Paulo Roboredo, the marketing member of the family which own the vineyards, tutored me through a tasting of their wines. This family has several quintas in the Douro superior, take a look at their website – full technical notes on the wines and some spectacular photos of their quintas. Also, while many wine companies produce and market olive oils, CARM has developed a broad range of olive and olive oil products which are produced in Italy using their oils and olives; I was told they are just about to introduce a mayonnaise made from pure olive oil. Two of their oils took the second and third awards at an olive oil judging. The CARM website also includes information about the olive oil production, which I found fascinating. In both Portuguese and English.
Note also, I took a quick breeze through the posher local supermercado and the range of Carm wines on display were all under €10 a bottle. A good example of just wonderful value for money, I think; these are wines I will buy for myself (unless you, dear reader, would care to volunteer…).
First up, two white single varietals:
Rabigato 2007 Nose very fresh citrus and mineral, palate mineral. Really really liked this one – if you like minerally meursaults, this is definitely of interest.
Côdega I think this was 2007 as well, but no note, can’t be certain. More floral and gentle than the Rabigato.
Reserva Branco 2008 blend of Rabigato (slightly predominating at 40%), Côdiga and Viosinho. Old vines at lower altitudes, aged in small american oak barrels 4 to 6 months. Nose comes right up to meet you, wood scents first, on the palate wood, mineral, earth and something halfway between herbaceous and vegetal (which was very appealing to me, though that description may not sound it!)
This Reserva is the kind of full-bodied white that could be paired with meats. I was reminded of a tasting I’d done of game dishes with a range of wines, including a 2002 Vougeot Blanc 1er Cru Domaine Bertagna, which went nicely with the roast pheasant breasts but was a really surprisingly good match with a game casserole of hare and venison – the food really brought up the wine. I would love to try this CARM Reserva Branco with a meal like that, and told João about it; he smiled and told me that in a blind tasting this has been mistaken for a white burgundy.
Rosé 2008 Blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, the wine run off as soon as it has been trod, a red summer wine for food. This was interesting – didn’t expect such delicacy from this trio of grapes, and yet I could imagine it standing up and coming alive with food. Must find this one to play with this summer. The 2009 will be bottled shortly, probably later this month. Beautiful intense vibrant rose colour, very refreshing acidity, red fruit.
Tinto 2007 Same blend as Rosé, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca. This one for me, perhaps was too great contrast following on the heels of the Rose, the tannins simply rushed to the fore, though there was black fruit in there. João said he wished he could keep the wine back for a year or more before releasing (2008 will be out in the next week or two). I look forward to trying this one again.
Reserva Tinto 2007 Same trio as above but with about 10% Tinta Francisca. The Touriga Nacional spends 6 months solitary confinement in French oak before blending. Well, I think I finally lost the plot and became speechless – there are stars all over the page, but no rational notes except these technical ones. Clearly, however, I liked it.
Other wines they make, but were unavailable for tasting by the time I reached them Sunday night: Grande Reserva 2007 to be released in 2 months, and CM which has only been made in 2000 and 2007. Will definitely look for them.
This is an association of 18 vineyards in the Douro, and it was the winemaker, Paulo, who was there Sunday night and talking me through the wines. They make no port, only dry wines, and have three core lines of wine (Tres Bagos is the one I tasted, there are also Cheda and Douro lines) and then they make single quinta wines as and when the grapes demand it. I like the opening line on their website – “Table wines from the Douro Valley are blessed by the gods as much as their port counterparts.” And how. Another line of wines I will bear in mind for my own buying. Visit the Lavradores/de/Feitoria website.
Tres Bagos Viosinho 2007, nose was veg and earth, palate took another direction and my first impression was citrus, though the rest followed through. This is fermented in French oak, he feels the grape needs that to give it body. This was my favourite 100% viosinho of the event.
Tres Bagos Sauvignon Blanc 2007 (?? not certain of vintage) very fresh tropical nose, palate citrus and then a very clear elderflower component. I have never liked French Sauvignon Blancs and the southern hemisphere ones always make me think of a revolting children’s fruit drink called Hawaiian Punch – but the Portuguese Sauvignon Blancs are really changing my mind about this grape. The power of terroir!
Meruge 2007 Tinto One of their single quinta wines. Paulo said he set out to make burgundy in the Douro – this is 80% Tinta Roriz, from 60 year old vines at about 400 metres. Grapes and stems went into the stone lagares for treading (not quite like burgundy!) fermentation in barrel. My tasting note begins Yesssssss! Very soft in the mouth, raspberry, then the tannins come in as a sort of backdraft on the finish. Loved this.
Tres Bagos Grande Escolha 2007 (Escolha is a Portuguese word for choice, selection) This has not yet been bottled – he thinks next week, maybe. Nose smoke? Charcoal and burnt wood. Palate more grippy tannins, young tannins, the fruit is there, wants age to balance out. Very long finish. This is made from “the Douro mix” – the product of a vineyard of 70 to 100 year old vines of various grapes – at this point we were speaking in Portuguese and he described pequeninos uvas, muitos ricos – which means really tiny grapes, very rich or intense. This has 100% new wood (always French), 14 to 15 months. My notes comment again on the finish.
Quinta da Costa 2007 this is made occasionally when the grapes demand it (I liked that expression, he said it is nice, as a winemaker, to have the resources of 18 different plots to work with, you can respond in this way to the grapes; so far it has been made 2004, 2005 and 2007). Paulo described this as “very strong, very Douro”. 70% Touriga Nacional the balance Tinta Roriz and Tinta Cão, not yet bottled, maybe next month. Paulo described the vineyard as “atras da Quinta do Crasto, perto de Covelinhas”, so that would put it on the north bank of the Douro, about halfway between Regua and Pinhão, and with Crasto pretty much on the river, I take atras (behind) to mean inland. My notes say this was the fruitiest nose, on the palate wood was vivid, will settle down, tannin backdraft. One I’d like to buy and put away for a few years (ideally, a case, and try a bottle every year or so… sigh…).
And a Variety of Other Wines
Following are some miscellaneous and sketchier notes for a variety of things:
Quinta do Gradil, Estramadura – about 30 miles due north of Lisbon, 25 miles west and just south of Santarém. Tried their Tinto, a blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Roriz (aka Tempranillo over the border to the west…), nose was slightly overripe fruit, the palate was pretty tannic – you have to like tannins, me, I do – and the acidity was good, didn’t get in the way of the fruit. Didn’t catch vintage, but young on the palate, certainly. Would love to follow up on this one in a more mature bottle.
Dona Berta, Douro, Reserva Rabigato – nose and palate mineral, very fresh, a real pleasure
Herdade das Servas, Alentejo, Tinta Reserva 2006 Touriga Nacional, Alicante Bouschet, some Aragonês and Petit Verdot Nose very composty (in a good way – I found it appealing), palate red and black fruit
Encosta Longa Reserva 2004 Douro (Cima Corgo) Nose tar, floral, fruit, palate VERY well knit and smooth, good balance of flavours, tannin, acidity
Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas Reserva Especial 2003, nose of earth, good tannins and acidity, lovely finish, rich mouthful oh I love their wines (yes that’s exactly my note as I wrote it)
Quinta dos Avidagos, Grande Reserva 2007 fruit and floral (underscored) nose, palate follows through on nose, light acidity Cima Corgo One of the Top Ten wines of the show.
Quinta de la Rosa Passagem Reserva 2007 Tinto This is made from their vineyards in the Douro Superior, not at Pinhão where I stayed in October. Blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, French oak 12 – 14 months. Nose tar, red fruits, palate same, very tannic, more tannin than acidity.
I am running out of Portuguese vineyard photos not yet posted, but you need something to refresh your eyes after reading through all that … since the last wine mentioned was a Quinta de la Rosa I will re-print my photo from last October of the quinta at Pinhão, where the ports are made.