Portugal

A Remarkable Port Hiding In Telluride

12 October 2013

Barros 1988 Colheita PortMost of the time, people ignore the “Dessert Wine” section of a wine list, either because they aren’t ordering dessert or they think they don’t care for sweet wines. But if you pass over that list every time, you’re denying yourself some of the world’s greatest wines, and sometimes some of the greatest wine values.

Port, for instance, usually ends up at the tail end of a wine list or on the dessert menu itself. That ensures that very few people will order it, which is a shame. I can think of few better ways to cap a meal than with a glass of port. It never fails to settle my stomach and engender a feeling of relaxed well-being.

I found myself in need of a good digestif after overdoing it at the Cosmopolitan restaurant in Telluride, and I was delighted to discover a real gem of a port on the menu — a 1988 Barros Colheita, priced at $16 a glass.

$16 may seem expensive for a glass of wine, and certainly that’s more than what I’m used to paying. But it seemed like a bargain for the opportunity to try a 25-year-old vintage port, which would easily cost more than $50 a bottle retail if you could even find it.

Good port tends to age quite well because of its relatively high alcohol content and ample tannins. In fact, many discourage drinking vintage ports until they’re at least 10 years old, because the tannins will otherwise be too tough. I don’t like to wait that long (or pay the high price of vintage port), so I typically purchase “late bottle vintage” port, which, like vintage port, is also from a single year, but ready to drink upon release. It’s also usually a heck of a lot less expensive, because vintage port is made only in “declared” vintage years, and only from the very best fruit of those years.

Colheita port is an even more complicated animal. Although it is a port with a vintage, it tastes very different from vintage port, which is typically concentrated, ripe and raisiny. Colheita is more akin to a tawny port, which can be anything from brown-tinged inexpensive port made from lighter grapes aged in wood, to port aged 10, 20, 30 or more years in fine oak made from high-quality fruit in undeclared vintage years. I think of tawnys as brownish in color, with caramel, oak and sometimes some oxidative sherry-like notes.

But Colheita port is a more clearly defined and restricted category than tawny port. The Oxford Companion to Wine offers this concise explanation of colheita:

Colheitas are best understood as tawny ports from a single year, bottled with the date of harvest on the label. The law states that colheita ports must be aged in wood for at least seven years, although most are aged considerably longer.

There are yet more styles of port besides colheita, tawny, vintage and late bottle vintage port. It’s a ridiculously complicated beverage. And yet so irresistible. The 1988 Barros Colheita Port had a reddish caramel color and a bouquet that expanded far beyond the rim of the glass. It smelled very enticingly of wood, dark-red fruit, caramel and vanilla. Though my eyes were wide with anticipation at this point, the flavor did not let me down. Kapow! The forceful, driving flavors of wood, apricot, dried fruit and zesty spice seemed remarkably young, especially considering that the port was a quarter-century old.

Lively, gorgeous and exciting — well worth the $16 price tag. More evidence that the wines on the dessert menu can be some of the best in a restaurant’s collection.

Top 10 Wines Of 2012

22 December 2012

It's raining wine (glasses)!As when I wrote the previous Top 10 post about spirits and cocktails, compiling this list filled me with a sense of gratitude. What fortune, to have tasted so many fascinating and unusual wines this past year!

The title of this post is a bit misleading, however. I certainly won’t pretend to claim to know what the “best” wines of the year were. Instead, this rather idiosyncratic list highlights the wines I thought were the most exciting, whether it was because of superlative quality, unusual grape variety or off-the-beaten-track vineyard sites.

If this list demonstrates one thing, it’s that there’s a whole world of delicious unusual wine out there, and it’s bigger than even I imagined. There’s never been a better time to take a risk on something off the wall.

Links lead to the original posts about the wines:

10. MEXICAN WINE — Perhaps the most surprising discovery of the year, the Mexican wines I tasted proved to be refined and satisfying. There wasn’t a stinker in the bunch! One representative wine is the 2011 Monte Xanic Chenin Colombard, a blend of 98% Chenin Blanc and 2% Colombard. This wine from Baja started with lush, white, almost tropical fruit. It had a spicy midsection with some grapefruity acids and a slightly chalky finish. Quite delicious, and excellent with some duck carnitas tacos.

9. 2010 PAGE SPRINGS CELLARS “LA SERRANA” — Wine from Arizona surprised me as much as that from Mexico. But the Mediterranean terroir there seems to work quite well for certain varieties, especially those usually associated with the Rhône. This blend of 50% Viognier and 50% Rousanne had a nutty, almost buttery aroma, and it certainly tasted rich and creamy. But it was fruity as well, and ample acids kept the wine light on its feet.

8. AUSTRIAN ST. LAURENT — It can be hard to find, but this sexy, earthy red will reward the hunt. The single-vineyard 2007 Johanneshof Reinisch “Holzspur” Grand Reserve St. Laurent is a fine example. A brick red, the Holzspur sucked me in with a dusky nose of very dark fruit. It had a medium body, powerful spice, big fruit and a long finish. It’s Eartha Kitt in a bottle.

7. PESSAC-LÉOGNAN — A mere 650 acres are devoted to white grapes in this highly regarded but little-known corner of Bordeaux, producing some positively sumptuous wines. My favorite was the 2005 Château Malartic-Lagravière “Le Sillage de Malartic”, a 100% Sauvignon Blanc. On the nose were voluptuously ripe peaches, and tropical fruit worked its way into the palate. Some minerals kept things grounded, as did a rather woody finish. A joy to drink.

6. NV MICHEL TURGY RÉSERVE-SÉLECTION BLANC-DE-BLANC BRUT CHAMPAGNE — Champagne can hardly be classified as an obscure beverage, but it is all too unusual in my household. I had been saving this bottle of grower Champagne (made by the same person/company which owns the vineyards, in contrast to the vast majority of Champagnes on the market) for a special occasion, and it rose to the moment. The elegantly tiny bubbles felt delicate on the tongue, and the lively acids hinted at by the appley nose balanced the rich flavors of caramel corn and a bit of toast. And the finish! Nearly endless.

Brian at Keswick Vineyards5. 2010 KESWICK VINEYARDS MERLOT — Virginia boasts an array of fine wineries these days, and Keswick Vineyards is one of the very best. Most of Keswick’s production gets sucked up by its wine club, meaning that you either have to join the club or visit the winery. It’s worth the effort. The Merlot had a beautiful nose that reminded me of when I used to spread raspberry jam and Nutella on toasted rolls. On the palate, it was voluptuous but well-structured — like a 40-something Sophia Loren.

4. 2004 CHÂTEAU FLUTEAU CUVÉE PRESTIGE BLANC DE BLANCS — The only thing more unusual than a grower Champagne is a vintage grower Champagne. This example, made in part by a Chicago native, had nose-catching aromas of lime, peach and yeast . On the palate, it moved from popcorn to tart apple to a whisper of limestone on the finish. The ample bubbles felt very fine, delicate and elegant, and there was some real depth there as well. As it breathed, the Fluteau mellowed, becoming even richer.

3. RARE WINE COMPANY “MALMSEY” SPECIAL RESERVE MADEIRA — Madeira, a fortified wine produced on the tiny Atlantic island of the same name, tends to appear with dessert, if at all. But at Stella! in New Orleans, the creative sommelier paired it with some crispy veal sweetbreads with andouille sausage, turnips and egg yolk. Good heavens, what a marvelous pairing! The Madeira smelled rich and woodsy, with some wheat toast in there as well. It tasted predictably sweet and caramelly, but startlingly bright acids kicked in on the finish, ensuring that it would be food friendly. It complemented the delicate sweetbreads but stood up to the andouille and turnips as well. Quite the balancing act! I don’t often write “Wow!” in my notebook, but write it I did.

2. 2006 CHÂTEAU CHEVAL BLANC — You could be forgiven for wondering why something from one of the most celebrated wineries on the planet makes an appearance on a blog “dedicated to drinking the unusual and obscure.” Well I don’t know about you, but it’s pretty unusual for me to sample a $1,035 bottle of wine. I tried it in a wine bar in the city of Bordeaux, near where it’s made, and though it’s still very young, it tasted dazzling. It had a chocolatey nose, and a more open character than the other Bordeaux First Growths I sampled. It felt racier — sexier — with voluptuous fruit corseted by strong tannins.

1. 2010 SATTLERHOF TROCKENBEERENAUSLESE — Crafted from Sauvignon Blanc fruit affected by Noble Rot, which concentrates the flavors and sugars, this Austrian beauty blew me away. If you don’t like sweet wines, this one might just change your mind. A deeply golden hue, it had rich fruit and a lush, luxurious sweetness balanced — perfectly, beautifully, improbably — by a veritable kick line of acids. Sheer, unadulterated delight.

Drink the Brown – Part 2

26 September 2012

Madeira, a fortified wine produced on the tiny Atlantic island of the same name, ages in an equally odd fashion as sherry (see the previous post). The best madeiras end up ageing for years, usually decades, in the attics of lodges in Funchal, cooked by the warm Madeira sun. This method is called canteiro, as opposed to the less-time consuming estufagem process which involves artificially heating the wine.

Exposing wine to high heat and wide temperature swings for decades at a time is exactly the opposite of how I was taught to treat fine wine, but it seems to work quite well for madeira. In fact, after suffering through summer after summer in a semi-tropical attic, Madeira becomes quite resilient. After all, what else can you do to the stuff? It can last in the bottle for decades or even centuries.

You’ll see standard madeira blends classified by flavor profile (dry, medium sweet, etc.), but if you’re going to buy some madeira, spend a bit more and go for one with a more specific classification, such as Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey, which indicate the predominant grape variety as well as the level of sweetness. Sercial is the driest, and Malmsey the sweetest (you can read more information about these styles here and here.) These categories are then further subdivided by age.

At Stella! in New Orleans, I had a Rare Wine Company “New York” Malmsey Special Reserve, produced by Vinhos Barbeito. “Malmsey” on a madeira label indicates that it’s made from Malvasia grapes, and the words “Special Reserve” guarantee that the youngest wine in the blend is at least 10 years old. Although this is among the sweetest styles of madeira, I didn’t have it with dessert. The creative sommelier, Marc J. Doiron, paired it with some crispy veal sweetbreads with andouille sausage, turnips and egg yolk.

Good heavens, what a marvelous pairing! The madeira smelled rich and woodsy, with some wheat toast in there as well. It tasted predictably sweet and caramelly, but amazing bright acids kicked in on the finish, ensuring that it would be food friendly. It complemented the delicate sweetbreads but stood up to the andouille and turnips as well. Quite the balancing act! I don’t often write “Wow!” in my notebook, but write it I did.

I don’t currently have any madeira at home, but you can bet it will be on my Christmas list. I could imagine it pairing well with some roast pork with sweet potatoes, or perhaps turkey with stuffing. Indeed, madeira was quite popular in colonial America, making it a thoroughly appropriate choice for Thanksgiving. Get a bottle now, give it a try, and if you can manage to avoid drinking the whole thing, you can serve the rest to the more adventurous palates at your Thanksgiving table, assuming you have a few.

If you don’t, then I say forget hosting dinner and head to Stella! instead. It’s not inexpensive, but my goodness, the food and wine is sheer delight.

Stella! on Urbanspoon

Red Green Wine

29 August 2012

I’m not usually a fan of Vinho Verde, which translates as “green wine,” so-called because it’s typically consumed very young. Portugal’s famous low-alcohol, semi-sparkling wine usually tastes too tart for me. It’s been years since I’ve bought a bottle of the stuff. But my dry spell finally came to an end when I came across a bottle of 2011 Vera Vinho Verde at Binny’s. It’s not white (or green) at all — it’s rosé.

A semi-sparkling Portuguese rosé might bring back memories of Mateus, but this wine from the northerly Minho region looks nothing like that mass-market precursor to White Zinfandel. Though called “rosé,” the Vera’s cherry-red color could barely qualify as pink. A red Vinho Verde? And with 11.5% alcohol, no less? I was most intrigued, and I snapped it up.

There’s a reason I had never seen a red Vinho Verde on the shelves before. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “Foreign palates struggle with these deep-coloured, rasping reds, and although it is still prized locally, little red Vinho Verde leaves the north of Portugal.” I suspect foreign marketers also struggle with varieties such as Vinhão and Rabo de Anho, which make up 60% and 40% of the Vera, respectively.

Vinhão, at least, is in the Companion. Also known as Sousão, this variety is “widely planted in northern Portugal, where the wine is notably high in acidity as well as colour…” The label on the bottle translates Vinhão as “big wine.”

But the Vera label declares that Rabo de Anho “does not translate at all,” and it may be right. I can find precious little about this variety, the first variety I’ve encountered which doesn’t have an entry in the Companion. According to Wikipedia, it shouldn’t be confused with the white-skinned Rabo de Ovelha, a variety the Companion also notes as white. But the website vinhoverde.pt regards Rabo de Anho and Rabo de Ovelha as synonyms. So I don’t know what the heck is going on.

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A Hotbed Of Innovation

25 August 2012

I needed something to pair with the game of Bionic Woman we were sitting down to play. For such an obscure board game, only an especially oddball wine would do; I uncorked a 2009 Espirito Lagoalva, a blend of 50% Touriga Nacional and 50% Castelão from Portugal’s Tejo region. It proved to be delightful, fortifying us as we saved joggers from angry mountain lions and brought runaway hot air balloons under control.

Jaime, had she been a wine connoisseur as well as a superhero, would have been very surprised to find us drinking a dry Portuguese wine. Until relatively recently, Portugal was known only for Port and Madeira, both of which are sweet, fortified wines. But nowadays, “Portuguese winemakers have…woken up to the tremendous potential of the terroirs and native grape varieties that their country offers, making it a hotbed of innovation,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia.

The Douro Valley (where most grapes for Port are grown) and the Dão region just to the south produce many of Portugal’s best vintages, and I’ve rarely been disappointed by a dry red wine from either of these regions. They tend to be fantastic values for the money, probably because the grape varieties are unfamiliar to non-Portuguese. They are actually not all that hard to find anymore. Keep an eye out for them.

But this wine comes from Tejo, a region just northeast of Lisbon that I had a devil of a time finding anything about. The problem, I discovered thanks to Wikipedia, is that Tejo was called Ribatejo (translated as River Tagus) until 2009, when the name was changed to hopefully appeal more to the international market. I haven’t seen much of an international rush to Tejo wines, but I suppose Mendoza used to be just as unknown.

Unfortunately for Tejo, the most of the grape varieties grown there don’t come as trippingly off the tongue as Malbec. I mean, what the heck are Touriga Nacional and Castelão?

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The Tasting Room – Part 2

7 March 2012

The Slovenian Furmint may have left me a little flat at The Tasting Room (see the previous post), but a Portuguese red blend certainly got my attention. The fun 2009 Quinta de la Rosa “douROSA” from the Douro Valley enticed me with its aroma of dark fruits, and sealed the deal with flavors of bright, ripe red fruits and a spicy finish. ($5.50 for a three-ounce pour, $11 for six.)

Quinta de la Rosa occupies what looks to be a spectacular piece of the Douro River’s bank in northern Portugal. This family-owned vineyard and winery seems to be known more for its port than its unfortified wines, but certainly the douROSA can hold its own. A blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesca, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Roriz (varieties also used in port), the douROSA is aged in stainless steel, which perhaps accounts for the delightful brightness of its flavors.

I’ve long thought Portuguese wines represent some of the best values out there, and this wine certainly did nothing to change my mind.

We moved a little further east with a 2009 Finca Tobella “Negre” from Spain’s Priorat region. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “One of Spain’s most inspiring red wines”comes from this “isolated DO zone in Cataluña inland from Tarragona.” And who am I to argue? This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignane and Grenache (Garnacha) smelled of blackberries and oak, and tasted simply delicious. Powerful but restrained, this Priorat presented an elegant balance of tannins and acid. ($6.75 for a three-ounce pour, $13.50 for six.)

The sparkling 2010 Villa M Brachetto from Piedmont, Italy, disappointed, with pleasant but simple and too-sweet flavors of tart strawberries. ($5.00 for a three-ounce pour, $10 for six.)

I had eyed Stratton Lummis’s “The Riddler,” a red Napa blend of undisclosed varieties, but avoided it as not unusual enough. Let that be a lesson to me: I tasted my dining companion’s glass, and it was delicious. A big and tasty wine, with rich flavors of cherries, tobacco and cocoa. $6.25 for a three-ounce pour, $12.50 for six.

This probably isn’t news to you, dear reader, but sometimes I have to remind myself that unusual does not necessarily mean better.

O Licor De Portugal

21 January 2012

I’m amazed I can even remember the first time I tried Licor Beirão, which is like a Portuguese Jägermeister except it’s lighter and not thoroughly revolting. About 12 years ago, my parents and I were in a bar in Lisbon one afternoon, taking a break from the sightseeing, when I got a bee in my bonnet and decided to try all the unfamiliar Portuguese liquors listed in my invaluable Berlitz European Menu Reader. Even back then, I was already hooked on drinking the unusual and the obscure.

So I finished my glass of Tawny Port and ordered up a shot of Ginja (also spelled Ginjinha), a very sweet but tasty cherry liqueur. Next was the Licor Beirão, and then I ordered a Bagaceira. The bartender’s eyes widened, and he repeated my order back to me to make sure he heard correctly. Apparently foreigners don’t order it very frequently. Or if they do, it’s not immediately after downing the ill-advised mix of booze listed above. (Actually, a Google Image search of “Bagaceira” illuminates what the bartender was likely imagining.)

Bagaceira turned out to be like Portuguese Grappa, a very powerful clear liquor with distinct raisiny notes. And I, perhaps as the bartender foresaw, turned out to be quite drunk. I don’t exactly remember what happened next, but one way or another I ended up with a bottle of each liquor and a pair of shiny black Capri cargo pants.

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Never Waste A Good Wine Bar

12 August 2011

Every once in a while, I’ll be in a wine bar perusing a carefully edited wine list laden with exciting selections, and then I’ll overhear someone say something like, “Well, I’ll just have what I always have: Pinot Grigio.” Now, when faced with a range of potentially delicious but unknown wines, this person chickened out and failed to venture forth from their comfort zone.

Wine bars are the perfect places to experiment. You don’t have to commit to a whole bottle, the staff will likely be able to offer knowledgeable and friendly guidance, and the selection will hopefully include a few types of wines you’ve never tried before. Then later, you can confidently order that Washington State Blaufränkisch, knowing it will impress your date. (Ordering Pinot Grigio, incidentally, almost certainly will not impress your date.)

I recently met my cousin at Avec for some dinner and drinks, and we had a great time trying new things from their ever-fascinating wine list. (more…)

(Purple) Porcine Pleasures

19 May 2011

I almost never dine near North Michigan Avenue, that famed Chicago strip so favored by deep dish-seeking tourists and overpriced restaurants. It was therefore with some skepticism that I approached The Purple Pig, a relatively new Spanish/Mediterranean hot spot set right in the heart of the beast: 500 North. But I wanted something a little fancy for my birthday, and I’d heard from a very trusted palate that it was “terrific.” And, well, it was.

Always thinking of my readers, I took copious notes about the experience (though it must be said their legibility and coherence deteriorated with distressing rapidity).

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