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Portugal: wines from the edge of Europe

Aveleda estate Having just spent a week popping around some of the wine regions of Portugal, I’m struck again at what good value modern Portuguese wines offer and, with the exception of port, how little known they are in the U.S. As noted in my last post (see below) even the port world is trying to catch up with contemporary drinkers, emphasizing cocktails with white port and (I think) somewhat less successful rosé port.

Vinho verde is another category of Portuguese wine that a few Americans know. Certainly the low-alcohol, often bracingly acidic wines of the north coastal region are a perfect fit with summer dining. I stopped at historic Quinta da Aveleda (above), where the venerable low-end Casal Garcia brand with its blue and white lace label has financed more sophisticated wines. Aveleda replantingThe quinta has stunning gardens full of aristocratic follies, but the recent turn toward planting many more vineyards with the Alvarinho grape is no folly at all. The adjacent area in Spain, the Rias Baixas in Galicia, has proven that this noble white grape can stand with any of the cold climate whites in Europe. Aveleda and a few others are bent on proving that the Portuguese-inflected version can be every bit as robust and sophisticated as the Spanish.

With a few exceptions, Portuguese winemakers seem very conflicted about their grape varieties. On one hand, they work with at least a dozen major grapes and several dozen lesser varieties. Traditionally, most wines were labeled by region (Dão, Douro, Alentejo, etc.) or by the house name (Lancer’s, Mateus). But Portuguese winemakers are convinced that modern wine buyers want to know the grapes in the bottle. Personally, I’m not so sure. A concern for putting unfamiliar grape names on the bottles has led to some interesting but not always integrated blends that include Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, both international varieties that grow well in Portugal but often lack regional character.

Quinto do Crasto

Quinto do Crasto vineyards But then I visited Quinta do Crasto (above), a Douro producer in one of the hardest-to-reach spots on the north bank of the Douro between Pinhão and Régua. It pays to make the trip because the wines are terrific and they now offer a few rooms where travelers can stay in style (www.quintadocrasto.com, +351 254-920-020), as you can see here. Quinto do Crasto room We tasted our way through the whole portfolio, and it was an eye-opening experience. Hands down the greatest of the reds (Vinha da Ponte) came from vineyards more than 95 years old that were planted in a field blend of at least 30 different grapes.

V_Ponte_2004 Quinto do Crasto is involved in a project to identify each grape by its DNA and plant “ark” vineyards to preserve these varieties—many of which are obscure even to the Portuguese. At the same time, the quinta is also replanting vast areas of vineyards in single varietals. Winemaker Manuel Lobo has produced a series of single varietals, including the noblest of the Portuguese grapes, Touriga Nacional, and the quintessential grape of the whole length of the Douro River, Tinto Roriz (called Tempranillo in Spain where the river is the Rio Duero).

Both wines are pressed by foot treading in open stone vats (lagars) before continuing fermentation in open stainless steel vats. Interestingly enough, the same process was followed for the old vines field blend Vinha da Ponte. All three were aged in 225-liter new French oak barrels—the single varietals for 16 months, the Vinha da Ponte for 20 months.

Bottles_02All three were 2010 vintage wines, and all three are superb. At this stage, they all benefit from decanting (or at least opening) a few hours before consumption, and their firm structures promise a long life in the bottle. Yet I find them ready to drink and true to type. The Vinha da Ponte balances a lot of fresh red fruit character nicely with finely structured tannins that should give it good longevity. The Touriga Nacional is a natural winner, from the violets on the nose to the hints of dark chocolate in the aftertaste. The Tinta Roriz appeals to me because Tempranillo is an old friend dressed in new clothes here. Lobo coaxes out the piney high notes to complement the dark fruit and doesn’t back away from the mineral finish. It’s a great food wine.

But to be truthful, I would base my decision to buy these wines on the quality I expect from Quinto do Crasto, not the name of the grape. I’m delighted to drink the single varietals, but I’m just as happy to drink the Quinto do Crasto name.

08

07 2013

Fado in a Douro vineyard


The hotel at Quinta do Vallado (see last post) sits at an elevation of about 450 meters above sea level – a long way up a steep hillside from the Douro River in Portugal. But the highest vineyards, which are planted with a magical, almost mystical mix of heritage grapes (perhaps as many as 30 varieties) on vines that are close to 100 years old, are way up the hill at around 600 meters. Before we left Vallado to make our way to Quinta do Crasto, one of the staff drove us up to the top to survey the vineyards. On the way back down, around 550 meters, we saw a work crew topping the Touriga Nacional vines and tying them on wires. As we approached, I thought we heard a radio playing fado, the mournful popular music that you could call the Portuguese blues. (It almost always involves some reason why lovers are fated to be kept forever apart.) But there was no radio – just Maria Julia singing as she worked. The songs were sad, but Maria Julia worked fast and with heart. The lovers in the song suffer, and the grapes suffer on this sharp incline with rocky schist. But the wine is as sweet as the song.

28

06 2013

The sweet taste of the Douro

vallado Francisco Ferreira waxed rhapsodic – and contrary to expectation. One of the original “Douro Boys,” the semi-revolutionary gang who have made Douro table wine almost better known than port in some quarters, Ferreira got a faraway look in his eyes.

Francisco Ferreira “I still make port because it is a fantastic product, and because, well…” He swept his arms out to gesture at the dramatic hillside, “well, we are in the Douro.” In fact, he makes vintage port (the just-declared 2011 is already spectacular) and a 20-year-old tawny.

orangesWe were having dinner at Quinta do Vallado (Vilarinho dos Freires, Peso da Regua, +351 254 324326, www.quintadovallado.com), the family estate that has also been a wine tourism destination in Portugal since 2005 – all the more so since the addition of eight more rooms and a full-fledged dining room in a new section last year. So for dessert, he not only brought out the 2011 vintage cask sample, but had the kitchen deliver a stupendous dessert. It consisted of paper-thin slices of oranges from trees that border the hotel with a reduction of white port (his, of course) with dark chocolate sprinkles.

The Douro Boys may have brought some tart ferment to the Douro Valley, but even they love that sweet spot it can deliver.

27

06 2013

The Wine List

05

12 2016

Symington shows how port can relax

vindimando pinhao 2The fourth generation of the Symington clan that came to Portugal in 1882, Dominic Symington is one of a passel of cousins who run the wide-ranging port empire that includes Cockburn’s, Warre’s, Dow’s, and Graham’s, along with Quinto do Vesúvio and Altano table wines. When a group of us touring wine estates in the Douro Valley stopped in Pinhao to see the amazing tile murals at the train station (like the one above), Symington offered to pick us up for lunch – by boat. Dominic

We met him at the town dock, where one of his daughters and a friend were helping him dock his small speedboat. “It’s much faster than driving on the road,” he shrugged, as we sped a half hour upriver to the Quinta dos Malvedos of the Graham’s port company. He was particularly keen to show us the technology – first the traditional concrete lagars in which port grapes are pressed by foot. “This is wine as it was made in Biblical times,” he said. “If Caesar’s legion came marching in at harvest time, they would know just what to do – to climb in the lagar and start marching back and forth.”

There are tremendous advantages to this type of grape treading. The human foot crushes the skins just about perfectly to extract the deep color and the phenolic tannins that a wine like port needs to be full bodied and age well. The system has disadvantages, too, particularly when it comes to temperature control. Over the three weeks of harvest and crushing for port, the concrete warms up a lot from the combination of human body temperature and chemical reactions during the fermentation.

lagarEnter the Symington clan’s robotic treader: The lagars (troughs about knee deep) are replaced with stainless steel trays only slightly larger. Heating and cooling elements in the sides keep the fermentation temperature under control. And a robotic treader – with foot-sized pistons coated with silicon rubber – replaces the grape stompers by providing exactly the same pressure are the human foot (for geek readers, that’s 20 kg per square centimeter).

Symington also noted that almost everyone in the port wine business understands their vineyards much better than 20 years ago. That has meant better port year to year – and a lot more vintage port, which is the fruity version of port that ages in the bottle rather than in the cask. But for all the improvements in high-end vintage port and the older, more complex tawny ports (he poured a 20-year-old tawny port and a 1991 vintage port to illustrate the differences), The Symington brands are “seeking to deformalize port,” as he put it. tawny

It was a blisteringly hot day (not uncommon in the Douro Valley), so he offered an aperitif. Clink-clink-clink went three ice cubes into a lowball glass. Symington filled it half full with white port, topped up with tonic water, and slid a thin slice of lemon into each drink, apologizing that he was out of lime for the moment. The reinvention of the white wine spritzer was the perfect antidote to the heat. With its touch of sweetness and crisp, mouthfilling acids, it was about as far as I could imagine from a ruminative post-dinner glass of tawny port.

“Stick the port in the freezer for an hour,” Dominic said, “and you can skip the ice cubes.”

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06 2013