Portugal

A Top Wine Value: Tejo

3 October 2015
Wines of Tejo lunch in a private dining room of Chicago's Sepia restaurant

Wines of Tejo lunch in a private dining room of Chicago’s Sepia restaurant

I love having leisurely wanders through wine shops, taking time to ferret out one or two unusual treasures. But then there are the times I just can’t be bothered, because I’ve got people coming over soon, and I don’t want to spend a lot of money on them because they’re friends but not good friends, yet I have to pour something delicious because they know I’m a wine blogger, so I need something unusual but at the same time normal enough to please a varied group of people about whose wine preferences I know very little. That’s when I reach for Portugal.

Portugal’s blessing and curse is its array of unique indigenous grape varieties. Grapes like Touriga Nacional and Encruzado make distinctive, potent and exciting wines, but they lack name recognition outside the country. Who wants to risk a lot of money on an unknown? The fact that many Portuguese wines blend several semi-pronounceable grape varieties into a complete mystery bottle only confuses matters further for foreign buyers. That keeps prices, even for high-quality wines, much lower than they might otherwise be.

Casal do Conde

Casal do Conde Alvarinho and two fellow tasters

My impression of Portugal — as a country which produces crowd-pleasingly fruity and balanced wines for excellent price — was only reinforced at a recent lunch I attended showcasing the wines from the Tejo region (formerly Ribatejo), just northeast of Lisbon. The Duoro Valley farther to the north, home of Portugal’s most famous wine, Port, gets all the press, but as this lunch demonstrated, vineyards along the Tejo River (also known as the Tagus) are also producing wines that offer impressive flavor for the money.

In fact, as The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, Tejo “was for many years the anonymous source of some of Portugal’s best red wines, the Garrafeiras… sold under the name of a merchant rather than that of the region.” And since the end of the last millennium, the quality has only improved, according to The World Atlas of Wine, because “EU subsidies persuaded hundreds of growers [in less favorable areas] to uproot their vines.” The remaining vineyards occupy better locations, and just as important, “There has been a move towards the nobler indigenous grapes,” as the Atlas goes on to describe. At the lunch, I also learned that foot-treading grapes is still in use at many wineries!

Even in a large wine shop won’t likely offer too many choices from the Tejo; you’ll be lucky to see two or three. But if this recent lunch and tasting was any indication, you can pick up just about any bottle you find and trust that you’ll get some good bang for your buck. Here is an idea of what to expect:

THE WHITES

The foundation of the zucchini-basil gazpacho

The foundation of the zucchini-basil gazpacho

2014 Quinta da Alorna Arinto: According to both the Wine Atlas and the Oxford Companion, Arinto is a grape prized for its high acidity, a good indication that an Arinto varietal wine will pair well with food. This example had an aroma of dried herbs and fresh, cool white fruit, and it tasted clean, spicy and bright. The lemony acids mellowed with some zucchini-basil gazpacho enriched with creamy burrata cheese. Not too shabby for a $10 wine!

2014 Casaleiro Branco Reserva: I liked this blend of 50% Arinto and 50% Fernão Pires even better, with its fresh swimming-pool aroma and round, spicy character. Its zesty limey acids stood up very well to the soup. Fellow wine blogger Thaddeus Buggs of the Minority Wine Report remarked, “It reminds me of a Sancerre; it’s mineral-driven and has lots of acids.” High praise, especially considering the $11 price tag.

2014 Quinta da Ribeirinha Vale de Lobos Branco: The World Atlas of Wine describes Fernão Pires as “adaptable” and notes that it produces “large volumes of simple, honeyed, and sometimes slightly spicy, dry white wine.” That doesn’t sound especially encouraging for this 100% Fernão Pires from the Valley of the Wolves, but I quite enjoyed its rich fruit, tart orangey acids, ample spice and slightly bitter undertone. It had weight and focus, and I found it quite classy. Of the three whites, it stood up best to the soup. A superlative value for $11.

Ricotta cannelloni

Ricotta cannelloni

2013 Casal do Conde Alvarinho: You might be familiar with this thick-skinned grape variety by its Spanish synonym, Albariño. Casal do Conde, which focuses on varietal wines expressive of their terroir, did a masterful job with this aromatic white. It took me on a real journey, moving from white fruit to wood to focused spice. Another sensational value for $14 a bottle. Casal do Conde is a winery to watch.

2014 Quinta do Casal Monteiro “Margaride’s”: This blend of 50% Chardonnay and 50% Arinto paired beautifully with some ricotta-stuffed cannelloni, or more specifically, with the savory Parmesan crisps atop them. I enjoyed its rich, dusky aroma marked by a touch of creaminess, and its focused peachy fruit and orange-peel acids. Thaddeus also detected “almost a lychee note.” Unique and delicious, and — it can’t be a surprise at this point — it’s a great deal at $12.

THE REDS

2012 Pinhal da Torre Quinta do Alqueve Tradicional Tinto: This winery employs traditional foot treading, which theoretically treats the grapes more gently than a mechanical press. Master Sommelier Eric Entrikin, who presented all the wines at the lunch, met the winemaker on recent trip to Portugal. “Every tenth word out of his mouth was, ‘I suffer,'” Eric related. Perhaps, like grape vines, it’s beneficial for winemakers to suffer as well; this blend of Touriga Nacional, Aragónez, Trincadeira and Castelão had ripe-but-taut fruit, ample acids and a focused, spicy finish. I loved its combination of ripeness and tightness, and it’s a ridiculous value for $12.

Red-wine braised pork cheeks with smoked mushroom escabeche and polenta

Red-wine braised pork cheeks with smoked mushroom escabeche and polenta

2012 Adega Cooperativa do Cartaxo Bridão Classico Tinto: While tasting this wine, Entrikin remarked, “Portuguese wine has a very fruity character in the nose, but when it hits my palate, it dries right out.” A blend similar to the one above, this wine paired especially well with a dish of red wine-braised pork cheeks, becoming even bigger and spicier. It smelled of rich red fruit and vanilla, and though it tasted ripe and a bit sweet, plenty of white-pepper spice kept it balanced. Apparently its standard retail price is $9, which is just insane.

2013 Quinta do Casal Branco Tinto: If you like softer reds, such as Merlot or Grenache, this blend of Castelão, Cabernet Sauvignon, Touriga Nacional and Alicante Bouschet is for you. Made with grapes pressed by foot, this wine had a fresh and clean aroma of ripe red fruit, plenty of fruit on the palate mixed with some vanilla and a touch of white pepper. It had a much more velvety finish than the two reds above, and again, it’s a fine value for $12.

2011 Quinta da Lapa Tinto Reserva: You won’t find foot-treading at this thoroughly modern winery, and I can’t say I missed it. This blend of Touriga Nacional, Aragónez, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah was an absolute delight. It had a wonderfully dark plummy aroma and it tasted big and full. I loved the journey from rich fruit to big spice to some mocha on the finish. This was a wine with some depth, and it paired perfectly with the pork cheeks. The price of $25 may come as a shock, but considering the very high quality, it’s still an excellent value. I would spend my own money on this wine.

2011 Falua Conde de Vimioso Tinto Reserva: At $35, the most expensive wine of the bunch lived up to its relatively lofty price tag. Its rich, raisiny aroma sucked me right in, and again, it had that delightful rich-but-taut character I really enjoy. There was no shortage of fruit in this blend of Touriga Nacional, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Aragónez, but it had an elegant austerity emphasized by focused acids and refined tannins.

After this tasting, I won’t hesitate to snap up a wine from the Tejo when I see one. If I have a choice, I’ll look for a Fernão Pires varietal or a blend of Arinto and Fernão Pires, and red blends based on Touriga Nacional. They’re almost sure to be superlative values for the money.

Note: This lunch and the accompanying wines were provided free of charge.

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.

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