Triumphant Portugal

Some wine regions or countries seem to breed complexity.  Italy for non-specialists is somewhat forbidding once you get beyond Prosecco, Soave, Chianti and Barolo; modern Spain is getting more complicated as ever more new areas come to the international attention.  Most of us don’t try very hard with Eastern Europe or Greece.  But of the major wine producing nations, Portugal is among the most demanding – a language most Europeans don’t read never mind speak, not many really famous appellations for table wines, myriad indigenous grape varieties that we are theoretically in favour of but are not familiar with and a sort of snobbery which means that we don’t really look between great Port and Madeira on the one hand and cheap holiday wine on the other.  November’s Bring a Bottle Club on the theme of Portugal was therefore something of a journey in the dark.  Most people brought a bottle and immediately declared that they had not tasted it before.  And as this was a blind tasting the chances of success in that department were, shall we say, slim.  But in fact it turned out to be one of the most rewarding evenings we have had. 

end of a long evening

The evening started with an aperitif, copper in colour with a green tinge at the edge, a whiff of old wood and intense dried fruit, sweet on the palate but with the unmistakeable high acidity of Madeira.  But was it Sercial, Verdelho … and how old?  At least we were on the right lines at a decade – Henriques & Henriques, Ten Year Old Sercial.


The first course was three whites, very different in colour, weight and even texture.  First up was what turned out to be Quinta de la Rosa Branco, Douro DOC, 2010, Pale in colour, some creamy and sweet spice oak notes on the nose and then lemon, lime and green apple fruit, some savoury spice (cumin?) and medium acidity. Tasted blind we did not think it had much potential for ageing but I am sure the Quinta would argue otherwise. Itthree Portuguese whites turned out to be complex blend with 60% Viosinho, supported by Rabigato, Gouveio and Codega … you see what I mean about the varieties but that takes nothing away from the quality of the wine.      Wine number two was the snazzily-labelled Monte da Peceguina Branco, Alentejo 2006. An attractive mid-gold colour was an obvious clue to some oak ageing (five months in American oak barrels) and its age.  It had certainly developed some Riesling-like petrol notes (apparently a characteristic of the Arinto variety) and the palate was full, dry and marked by dried apples and some wood tannins. Definitely a food wine but complex and characterful.  At the other end of the scale was Vinho Verde, Quinta de Azevedo, 2011 with some slight fizziness (rather more before I decanted it from its give-away tall, slender bottle shape), and then that characteristic sour, lime, herb and zippy acidity and light body which does make this a great accompaniment to lunch in hot places.  And the grape varieties? – mostly Louveio with some Pedernã. 

The main course was six reds with apparently three sets of pairs though the order had been randomized in order not to make it too easy!  The wines here are commented on in their pairs, not the random order in which we tasted them. 

and six reds

And it came to pass that one pair was a rarity from the tiny, sandy area near Lisbon, the Colares DOC.  This coastal area is buffeted by winds on the one hand and under constant threat of urban development on the other. The further challenge is to get new vines to root in the deep sand; the bonus is that there are pre-phylloxera vines still in production tended by the committed.  What was really remarkable was the age-worthiness of the wine as demonstrated by the youthfulness of the old example. The wines were medium bodied, with taut red fruit and lowish in alcohol – none of which we normally associate with Portuguese reds.  The variety is Ramisco – no I hadn’t heard of it before either.  Example one was a 2005 from Fundação Oriente (a cultural foundation which in effect rescued the appellation and the Ramisco variety by buying an eight hectare vineyard in 1999 (see the excellent article on this on the wine-searcher website). The second wine was a bottle from the local cooperative (Adega Regional) which nobody got close to guessing was in fact twenty years old: 1992, just 11% alcohol.  A remarkably fresh survivor. 

double vision from tiny ColaresTwo douro reds
The second pair turned out to be from the large area of south east Portugal, Alentejo, scene of much contemporary experimentation with wine styles and varieties – and the home of the huge Portuguese cork industry.  Pedra Basta, VR Alentejano, 2009 is an excellent modern example.  It is made from Trincadeira, Arragonez (the local name for Tempranillo), Alicante Bouschet, of which more shortly, with a dash of Cabernet Sauvignon, all aged in new and second year barrels for 18 months.  Very good concentration of mostly black berried fruit and something almost meaty on the nose and with ripe, black fruit on the palate, good balancing acidity and a long finish – very good quality and value for money.  The second of the pair was Mouchão, VR Alentajano 2005, a quality example of the Alicante Bouschet variety, a red-pulped grape which can be rustic (eg in coastal Tuscany), but here turns out a glass of wine with marked mocha and black fruit notes, black cherry under spirit and young, grippy if fine tannins – excellent ageing potential. 

And finally a pair that represents perhaps the best known ‘red wine’ story of modern Portugal, the emergence of powerful Douro reds which now sit along side their fortified cousins with near equal esteem.  First up was a superb, mature, Quinto do Crasto, Douro reserva, 2000, full of old balsamic and iodine aromas, mysterious and brooding, a real juiciness on the palate, black fruit again, and interestingly only appearing to be medium bodied.  I don’t know what the grape varieties are – and in the best, authentic ‘old vine’ experience, neither, it appears, do they, declaring only ‘old vines – several grape varieties’.  Probably the classic Port names – Tinto Roriz double cooked pork(Tempranillo again), Tinta Barocca, Touriga Franca and, no doubt from the intensity, Touriga Nacional.  Finally we had a red from Quinta de la Rosa, Douro reserva, 2006, again a blend of Port varieties: quite a restrained nose, just  a touch stalky; then youthful, succulent black berried fruit, fine oak notes and a medium plus length. 

The final reds above were suitably accompanied by a sophisticated plate of double-cooked pork belly, excellently executed and presented by the Red Lion, Overton.  Concentration tends to lag at this point … but it can be recovered.  

The finale of the evening was two contrasting fortified wines which were indeed Port. I am happy to admit that I thought the first was Madeira on account of its high acidity (and the very poor light) but in fact it was a splendid twenty year old tawny port. Technically a Colheita, ie from a single vintage, but unlike a vintage port one that has two great Portsspent a good few years in wood before it was bottled and hence has gone tawny.  Beautiful orange rind, furniture polish (in a good way!), spice and oxidised fruit character, smooth and silky from the tannins having dropped out, fine sweetness, a delight if an alcoholic one: Colheita, Calem, 1990.  And the final taste was indeed the wine of the evening by some margin with the glory that is vintage port – if you have the 40+ years to wait for it to get to mid-life as this had done.  True vintage ports only spent a short time, two years, in oak and then years, or rather decades, in the bottle. As a result they retain the hugely dense fruit texture, high acidity, tannins and sweetness for a very long time and develop very, very slowly. So this wine was much ‘younger’ in character than the Colheita half its age.  It started with a big nose of intense black fruit and alcohol (22%!).  In fact this wine was wrongly poured at first in the line up of six dry table wines and I sniffed it and wrote ‘porty’! But the palate is something to marvel at for its quite extraordinary intensity, packed black fruit, developing character and sheer exuberant youthfulness.  This bottle was a nice illustration of why it pays to buy the best in one part of your life and drink it – in this case share the bottle with appreciative and lucky friends – in another: this wine cost £3.75 when it was bought just after decimalisation (younger readers will have to look that one up!).  It is still available from the Wine Society at a very reasonable price of £135.  That is £3 a year to give it house room for that majestically slow development! 

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