Portugal


I have been inundated by press releases suggesting that Port would make an appropriate gift for Father’s Day, despite the fact that a great deal of the country is sweltering under unprecedented high temperatures. (“Hey, honey, the paint’s melting off the walls. Let’s open that bottle of Port!”) I do understand the impulse, though. Fathers are men and men are manly, and manly men sit enthroned in their studies or libraries, comforted by the ease of their leather wingback chairs, surrounded by ancient leather-bound books, dim portraits of famous racing horses and beloved hunting dogs, admiring their collections of antique canes, dueling pistols, hand-colored maps and shaving brushes and sipping on a fine old vintage Port, while a Cuban cigar importantly smolders in an ash-tray nearby. I mean, that’s how I live and I assume that’s how the rest of you fathers and manly men live; Port is just a natural part of being a man, n’est-ce pas?

So I will recommend a Port that you can run out today and buy for Dad and that can be drunk now, rather than waiting five or 10 years for a Vintage Port. This is the Fonseca Bin No. 27 “Finest Reserve” Porto, and it’s the finest, to borrow that word, reserve-type port I have tasted in years. A “reserve” Port is basically a Premium Ruby Port that offers more character and depth than a typical pedestrian Ruby Port, the latter having earned a reputation over the years as a catch-all for the lowest-common denominator of blended and pasteurized products suited for a cheap and easy binge. After all, didn’t Pope pen a couplet something like this:

By the lamp-post a tilting sot holds down the fort,
awash in the sickly reek of ruby port.


Well, actually, I wrote that, but you see what I mean, right? No wonder we don’t encounter the term “ruby port” much on labels nowadays; “reserve” conveys a far better tone, and most Port firms now offer a brand of Reserve Port that exemplifies their house style.

Anyway, the color of the Fonseca Bin No. 27 “Finest Reserve” Porto is dark ruby-purple, opaque at the center, with a tinge of plum/magenta at the rim. The aromas begin with a high grapy note that expands into blackberries, black currants and plums infused with spice cake and plum pudding — there’s a plum motif — licorice and lavender, a touch of bacon fat and stewed rhubarb; a few minutes in the glass bring in a touch of dusty graphite. This Reserve Porto is powerfully sweet initially but quickly goes dry, from mid-palate back, under the influence of sleek dust-laden tannins and rollicking acidity; luscious black and blue fruit flavors fill the mouth and arrow brightly over the tongue, bringing hints of cloves and citron, slate and potpourri. The finish is long, rich and deep. A Reserve Port of uncommon intensity which, once opened, will drink nicely for three or four days. 20 percent alcohol. Excellent and A True Bargain at about $19.

Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y. A sample for review.


Dow’s Vale do Bomfim 2008, from Portugal’s Douro Valley, is a great little wine to drink with pizza and red-sauce pasta dishes, burgers, braised meats, barbecue ribs and such. Dow is, of course, one of the distinguished Port houses owned by the Symington family; this wine is made from the same kinds of grapes that go into vintage and reserve Ports, in this case 55 percent tinta barroca, 22 percent tinta roriz (the Spanish tempranillo), 3 percent each tourga nacional and touriga franca and 17 percent “mixed old vines,” which I assume means a field blend of several “old vine” varieties. The wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks and then aged nine months in American oak barrels. Winemakers are Charles Symington and Pedro Correia. The wine is as dark as night, exuberantly smoky and spicy, plummy and peppery, with whole baskets, it seems, of black plums, blueberries and mulberries woven with notes of lavender, violets, potpourri and graphite and just a hint of dried thyme and black olive. If that description makes the wine sound irresistible, it is, though along the parameters of basic, direct appeal. Still, Vale do Bomfim 2008 gradually delves into depths of spice and granite-like minerals, dusty tannins and meaty black and blue fruit flavors supported by vibrant acidity. 13.9 percent alcohol. Now through 2012. Very Good+. About $12, representing Great Value.

Imported by Premier Port Wines, Inc., San Francisco.

Weary of winter’s woe? In my neck o’ the woods, we’re heading into balmier weather — though at this moment some attempt in the sky is being made to fling down a few rain-drops — but I see from my Facebook friends in other parts of the country that cold temperatures and even snow continue to prevail. Perhaps one or several of these fresh, spring-like wines — eight white and one rosé — will lift your spirits and set your minds on a more pleasant path.

These wines were samples for review.
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The Broadbent Vinho Verde, nv, is made from the traditional grapes of Portugal’s Vinho Verde region, loureiro (50%, in this case), trajadura (40%) and pedernã (10%). The wines are typically bottled with a fritz of carbon dioxide to give them a sprightly hint of spritz, and this lively example is no different. The Broadbent VV, made all in stainless steel, is fresh, crisp and exhilarating, with touches of roasted lemon and lemon balm, thyme and bay and a bit of hay-like grassiness; it’s quite dry and snappy with vigorous acidity and a background of chalk, but all very light, delicate and free. Delightful for immediate drinking and an attractive aperitif. 9 percent alcohol. Very good. About $11.
The Vinho Verde region lies mainly to the north but also to the east and southeast of the city of Oporto in northern Portugal; in fact, one drives through Vinho Verde to reach the Port country of the Douro Valley, passing from the light-hearted to the sublime.
Imported by Broadbent Selections, San Francisco.
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“Lucky Edition” #9 is actually the 13th release of Sokol Blosser’s cleverly conceived, made, marketed and, one assumes, profitable Evolution series of blended white wines, though since the premise is partly based on the notion of luck, well, they couldn’t put the bad luck number 13 on the label, could they? So the “#9″ pays homage to the array of grapes of which the wine is composed: these are: pinot gris, muller-thurgau, “white” riesling (the great majority of producers just use “riesling” now on labels), semillon, muscat canelli, gewürztraminer, pinot blanc, chardonnay and sylvaner. The wine carries an “American” designation because the grapes derive from several states; in that case, also, no vintage date is allowed by the TTB, that is, the federal Trade ‘n’ Tax Bureau that oversees label terminology. Anyway, Evolution “Lucky Edition” #9 — which I wrote about before yet this is the bottle that was sent to me recently (O.K., several months ago) — is about as beguiling as they come, brothers and sisters, wafting in the direction of your nose a winsome weaving of jasmine and honeysuckle, ripe peaches and pears, lychee and guava imbued with loads of spice; the wine is gently sweet on the entry but by mid-palate it turns quite dry and crisp, with a taut, rather spare texture running through juicy roasted lemon, pear and lime peel flavors devolving to a limestone-and-chalk-laced finish awash with bracing grapefruit acidity. Drink up. A pretty damned lovely aperitif and, at the risk of triteness, great with moderately spicy Asian food. 12 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
(Evolution 14th Edition is now on the market.)
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“Sauvignon blanc” says the label of The Climber Sauvignon Blanc 2009, California, but the rule is that for a non-estate-produced wine, the proportion of the grape stated on the label need only be 75 percent, so this is 80 percent sauvignon blanc. What’s the balance? Thirteen percent pinot gris, 5 percent riesling and 1 percent each pinot meunier (seldom seen outside of Champagne) and muscat. These grapes derive from Lake and Mendocino counties and from Lodi. The color is pale straw; first one perceives leafy, grassy aromas permeated by dried thyme and tarragon, and then pungent earthy notes followed by a flagrantly appealing parade of roasted lemon and lemon balm, pear and melon and tangerine. In the mouth, we get pear and melon jazzed with lemon drop, lime peel and grapefruit; the wine is quite dry, quite crisp and lively, though crackling acidity cannot quell a lovely, soft, encompassing texture. The wine is made all in stainless steel, with no malolactic fermentation, to retain freshness and vitality. 13.7 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $12.
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Most producers in California label their sauvignon blanc wines either sauvignon blanc, implying a Bordeaux-style white wine, or fumé blanc, a term invented by Robert Mondavi in the mid 1960s to indicate, theoretically, a Loire Valley-style sauvignon blanc in the fashion of Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé. Murphy-Goode has it both ways with “The Fumé” Sauvignon Blanc 2009, confirming what many people assumed long ago, and that there is no differentiation between whatever was once meant by the two designations. Anyway, the Murphy-Goode “The Fumé” Sauvignon Blanc 2009, North Coast, bursts with florid notes of caraway and tarragon and thyme, lemongrass, lime peel and grapefruit with a hint of dusty shale and grassy leafiness; quite a performance, nose-wise. (There’s a dollop of semillon in the wine.) Then, the wine is crisp, dry, snappy, sprightly, scintillating with vivacious acidity and limestone elements that support lemon and lime flavors with a high peal of leafy black currant at the center. Through the 2007 vintage, this wine carried an Alexander Valley appellation but now displays the much broader North Coast designation. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $12.50.
Founded in 1985 in Alexander Valley by Dale Goode, Tim Murphy and Dave Ready, Murphy-Goode has been owned since 2006 by Jackson Family Wines of Kendall-Jackson.
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The Crios de Susana Balbo Rosé of Malbec 2010, Mendoza, Argentina — produced by Dominio del Plata — sports an entrancing watermelon/cerise color that practically shimmers in the glass. This smells like pure strawberry for a moment or two, until subtle hints of raspberry, melon and red currant sneak in, pulling in, shyly, notes of damp stones and slightly dusty dried herbs. This pack surprising heft for a rosé, though it remains a model of delicacy as far as its juicy red fruit flavors are concerned. It’s quite dry, a rose of stones and bones, with a finish drawn out in Provencal herbs, shale and cloves. Drink up. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very good+. Prices around the country range from about $10 to $14.
Imported by Vine Connections, Sausalito, Cal.
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The Hugel et Fils “Cuvée Les Amours” Pinot Blanc 2008, Alsace, represents stunning value. The bouquet is ripe and exotic, even a little fleshy for a white wine, with notes of spiced and macerated peaches and pears, a hint of lemon and camellia and touches of ginger and quince. The wine — and this is Hugel’s basic “Hugel” line made from grapes purchased on long-term contract — offers a supple, silken, almost talc-like texture shot through with exciting acidity and a vibrant limestone element that burgeons from mid-palate back through a crisp, spicy, herb-infused finish. There’s something wild here, a high note of fennel and tangerine, a clean spank of earthiness that contributes to the wine’s depth and confident aplomb. “Cuvée Les Amours” 2008 should age and mellow nicely, well-stored, through 2015 or ’16. Alcohol content is 12 percent. Excellent. About — ready? — $15.
Imported by Frederick Wildman and Sons, New York.
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Here’s another wine that’s a combination of multiple grapes. The Peter Lehmann Layers White Wine 2010, from Australia’s Adelaide region, is blended from semillon (37%), muscat (20.5%), gewürztraminer (19.5%), pinot gris (19%) and chardonnay (4%). Made all in stainless steel, the wine offers a shimmering pale straw color; aromas of jasmine and honeysuckle, lemon balm and lemon curd, greengage and yellow plums and peaches entice the nose, opening to slightly leafy and grassy elements and a hint of bee’s-wax. The wine is delicate, clean and crisp and to the citrus and yellow fruit adds traces of tangerine and pear, with, in the spicy, stony finish, a boost of grapefruit bitterness. Completely charming, a harbinger of spring’s easy-sipping aperitif wines or sip with asparagus risotto, chicken salad, and white gazpacho, made with bread, grapes,cucumbers, almonds, olive oil and garlic. 11.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $18.
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The Tesch Riesling-Unplugged 2008, a trocken or dry wine from Germany’s Nahe region, embodies what we mean by the term “pure minerality.” (The estate, by the way, dates back to 1723, which is venerable but not as old as Hugel, which was founded in 1639.) Every molecule of this wine feels permeated by limestone and shale, even its hints of peach and pear and touches of yellow plum and lychee; every molecule of this wine feels permeated by nervy, electrifying acidity, as if you could take its staggeringly crisp, pert nature in your hands and break it into sharp-edged shards. It might as well have the words “fresh oysters” etched into its transparently crystalline presence. The restrictive term Gutsabfüllung on the back label means that the wine was bottled by the producer; the more common usage is Erzaugerabfüllung. Drink now through 2012 or ’13. Alcohol content is 11.5 percent. Very Good+. About $20.
Sorry, I can’t find the name of the U.S. importer for wines from Tesch, but the Riesling-Unplugged 2008 is available in this country.
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I was a fan of the 2007 version of Swanson’s Pinot Gris — I didn’t taste the 2008 — and I was equally pleased with the Swanson Pinot Grigio 2009, Napa Valley. Made completely in stainless steel, this is smooth and suave, freighted with spice and touches of roasted lemon and lemon balm, lemongrass, lychee and, in the background, a hint of softly macerated peach and the grape’s characteristic notes of almond and almond blossom. Bright, vibrant acidity keeps the wine, well, bright and vibrant, suitable support for cleanly-defined pear and melon flavors ensconced in a slightly weighty body that deftly combines lean, transparent muscularity with a silken blur of spice and dried herbs. Terrific character for a sort of northeastern Italian-styled pinot grigio, though not many from that area are nearly this good. 13.6 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $21.
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We were introduced to sorrel soup by Justin Young, who was chef at the now closed La Tourelle (in Memphis) in the early 2000s. Not having had such a thing in years, we bought a pound of sorrel at the Memphis Farmers Market last Saturday — the market will not open again until April — and looked for a recipe, which we found in the essential Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters (HarperCollins, 1996).

Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is a green leafy vegetable, accounted more as an herb that vegetable in some national cuisines, whose chief characteristic is a sour grassy character that derives from oxalic acid, which is fatally poisonous in large quantities. How large? Sources aren’t very specific about that point. More than a pound certainly. Perhaps a bale.

Anyway the issue that intrigued me was what wine to drink with sorrel soup. That notable sour quality, which possesses a hint of sweetness — LL likened it to pulling up a grass stem and sucking on the root, a memory from childhood — might be a challenge to any number of wines. (The sourness is leavened somewhat by the gentle stewing in chicken stock of diced potatoes, carrots and onions.) In the interest of research, I lined up five white wines, several of which seemed probable matches and at least one of which seemed doomed to failure by its very nature. These were the wines we tried: Domaine Ferret Pouilly-Fuissé 2008; Grinalda Vinho Verde 2009; Albert Mann Pinot Blanc 2008; Mendel Semillon 2009; Unus Old Vine Macabeo 2009. These wines were samples for review.
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Among this experiment’s surprises was how well, even how profoundly so, the Domaine Ferret Pouilly-Fuissé 2008 went with the sorrel soup. The domaine was founded in 1840; the Burgundian negociant Louis Jadot acquired the property in 2008. The wine is, of course, made completely from chardonnay grapes; it ages half-and-half in stainless steel tanks and oak barrels and sees no new oak. I had doubts about chardonnay pairing with the earthy sourness of the sorrel, but the wine’s purity and intensity, its crystalline acidity and minerality created a risky synergy that practically vibrated in our beings. The wine is a medium gold color; aromas of roasted lemon are permeated by ripe peach and pear, with traces of quince and ginger and a hint of camellia. Befitting its pedigree and reputation — “the Montrachet of Pouilly-Fuissé” — the wine delivers wonderful presence and body yet remains delicate, fleet and racy. Citrus flavors dominated by lemon with a touch of lime peel are deeply imbued with baking spices but even more with depths of limestone-like minerality and scintillating acidity. Drink now through 2014 or ’15 (well-stored). Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Excellent. About $30.

Imported by Kobrand, New York.
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Let’s turn to the simplest of these wines, simplest yet definitely lively, tasty and appealing. This is Aveleda’s Grinalda Vinho Verde 2009, from the vast Vinho Verde region that stretches north from the seacoast town of Oporto to the river Minho and also east and southeast of Oporto. (You drive east through this area to reach the Port estates of the Douro Valley.) The wine is a blend of loureiro grapes (55%), trajaduras (32%) and alvarinho (13%). These “green wines” are fresh and vigorous and intended for early drinking. Made all in stainless steel, the clean, fresh Grinalda Vinho Verde 2009 bursts with scents and flavors of apples, pears and spiced lemons bolstered by heaps of earthy limestone and vivid acidity. There you have it, and you could not ask for anything more from such a fresh, delightful wine. Drink over the next six months. Alcohol content is 11.5 percent. Very Good+. About $14.

How did this match with the sorrel soup? It didn’t. The sourness of the sorrel washed right over it, tromped on it, obliterated it, left it for dead.

Imported by Winbow, New York.
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Let’s go back to France for the Albert Mann Pinot Blanc 2008, from Alsace. The estate is the result of the joining of two venerable grower families in Alsace, the Manns and the Barthelmes, each of which has been cultivating grapes since the first half of the 17th Century. The Albert Mann Pinot Blanc 2008 is absolutely lovely in every aspect. The color is bright, shimmering medium gold; aromas of apple and spiced pear, with a touch of leafy fig and orange rind, all founded on the dominent presence of limestone, balloon from the glass. The paradox of a texture that’s both suave and elegant, on the one hand, and nervy and crisp, on the other hand, contributes considerably to the wine’s charm and fascination. It’s quite lively and dry, vibrant with limestone- and shale-like minerality, and its spicy, slightly earthy citrus qualities increase through the finish. The estate is organically managed and certified by Ecocert. 12.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Closed with a screw-cap. Excellent. About $20.

This was lovely with the sorrel soup, having the interesting effect of bringing out the herb’s hint of sweetness.

Imported by Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, Penn.
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Another very attractive match with the sorrel soup was the Mendel Semillon 2009, from the Altamira-Uco Valley area of Argentina’s Mendoza region. The vines, which stand at 3,600-feet elevation, are more than 60 years old, lending the wine irresistible depth and character. Fifteen percent of the wine aged eight months in new American oak barrels. Hay, honey and waxy white flowers, roasted lemon and lemon balm are woven in the seductive bouquet. If you can tear yourself away from these heady aromas, you’re treated to a wine that in texture and structure is as refined and ingratiating as you could ask for, though I don’t mean to imply that the wine is wimpy or over-delicate; in fact, it feels rather as if it had been honed from limestone and slate and burnished to a sheen with a little of that oak (and plowed by keen acidity). It’s sunny, leafy, with touches of fig and fresh-mown grass, hints of cloves and ginger, greengage and pear. Quite an experience, round, complete, balanced, complex. 900 six-packs were imported. 13.6 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. About $25 and Worth a Search.

Imported by Vine Connections, Sausalito, Cal.
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Last, we come to a wine that was fine, you know just fine, with the sorrel soup but opened to more astonishment than the other wines because of its amazing quality and price ration. I wrote previously about the great bargain called Agustin Cubero Unus Old Vine Garnacha 2007. Today it the turn of that wine’s stablemate, the Unus Old Vine Macabeo 2009, likewise from Spain’s Calatayud region, situated about halfway between Barcelona and Madrid (but closer to Zaragoza). The macabeo grape is also known, perhaps better-known, as viura, though clearly we’re not taking sauvignon blanc here. Made all in stainless steel, the wine is beguiling, intriguing and really pretty. Grass and hay, dried wild flowers, cloves and allspice, apple and pear, quince and ginger — all combine to charm and enchant. Now in truth these sensual qualities so seductive in the bouquet also characterize what goes on in the mouth; there’s no sense that flavors develop beyond the aspects of the bouquet (though the texture — the “mouthfeel” — is graceful and delightful), but who cares when the price is — ready? — a wallet-busting $9. Buy this by the case for drinking over the next year. The rating is Very Good+. A Bargain of the Century and Worth a Search.

Scoperta Imports, Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
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Except for vintage port, the wines of Portugal have languished in relative obscurity. That has not been a bad situation, because it has kept international trends and the pressures of the marketplace from the doors of small producers. Circumstances have changed in Portugal, as indeed everywhere, since the middle of the 1990s, bringing more Portuguese wines to our shores as well as opening producers to global marketing and ideas. This process is certainly occurring in an off-the-beaten-track region like Alentejo, nestled against the Spanish border southeast of Lisbon. Here the kings of the vineyards are tempranillo, which goes by the local name aragonês, and the alicante bouschet grape, which doesn’t get a whole hell of a lot of respect elsewhere in the world.

The unusual wine I’m urging on you today — as a great gift for a wine person or for yourself because you were so good this year — is Malhadinha Tinto 2004, made in the Alentejo region by the small producer, Herdade da Malhadinha Nova. The simple winery and the vineyards occupy an abandoned farm purchased by the Soares family in 1996. Winemaker is Luis Duarte. This is the first vintage of the wine brought into the U.S.

Composed of 45 percent aragonês grapes, 40 percent alicante bouschet and 15 percent cabernet sauvignon, Malhadinha Tinto 2004 is drop-dead gorgeous. Yes, I actually wrote those words, and I’m not sorry. You could stop at the Penelope Cruz-like bouquet of cassis, hot stones, smoke, coffee, mocha and tar, but then you would miss the wine’s lovely shape and tone, its robust and vigorous nature, its ripe black currant and plum flavors infused with baking spices and sweet oak, all tempered by supple, chewy tannins and a background of crushed gravel. Malhadinha 2004 aged 14 months in new French oak barrels, but the wood influence is beautifully integrated into the texture and dimension of the wine, so there’s no taint of new oak toastiness or creaminess; instead, vibrant acidity gets the last word. Production was 1,433 cases. Excellent. About $90.

More accessible, at one-third the price, is this wine’s cousin, the Monte da Peceguina Tinto 2007, composed of 50 percent aragonês grapes, 25 percent alicante bouschet, 9 percent touriga nacional and 8 percent each cabernet sauvignon and tinta caiada, a grape that apparently grows only in Alentejo. The wine is solid and resonant, stalwart but with a sense of light-boned delicacy, a prime example of the marriage of power and elegance. The color is dark ruby-purple, the flavors are dark, too, in the black currant, blackberry and black plum range, and the spicy character carries a tinge of dark exoticism. Aged seven months in new French oak, the wine is sleek and polished but not superficially sophisticated; the finish is an amalgam of finely ground wood, dried flowers, granite-like tannins and slate. When it comes to a rib-eye smack-down, this wine would be all over a piece of rare beef. 7,083 cases. Excellent. About $30.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Cal., which provided these samples for review.

Readers may have been thinking, “So, F.K. went to the Douro Valley, and so far he has written about red table wines and white wines and eating cod innards, but what about Port, which is of course what the Douro is all about?”

Today we get to that, but first some history.

How Port Got Fortified

Trade between England and Portugal, which had been carried out profitably and peacefully since the 1400s, received a boost in 1689, when war between France and England cut off access to French wine. The hearty red wines of the Douro Valley represented an alternative; these were often shipped with a dollop of brandy added to the barrels to ensure their survival during storage and the sea voyage. In the early 18th Century, merchants discovered a monastery in the Douro where monks added brandy to the wine during fermentation, resulting in a wine that was powerful (“fortified”) and sweet, because the alcohol killed the yeast cells and left residual sugar in the wine. Thus was Port born and a whole area of manufacture and trade, long dominated by the English, established.

Nothing Is That Simple

It would take more space than we have to describe the intricacies of the history of Port and its making, and so let’s encapsulate.

>By the early 18th Century, Port was so popular in England that its manufacture had become corrupted though over-production and adulteration, leading to:

>The demarkation of the Douro and its best growing areas by the Marquis of Pombal in 1756.

>Ports were made upriver and than taken to Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from the city of Porto (Oporto) for storage in the manufacturers’ warehouses or lodges. The barrels were brought to the lodges on flat-bottomed barges. This practice was eventually codified into law, and shipping of Port from individual quintas upstream was forbidden, until Portugal’s entrance into the EU in 1986. Thereafter, quintas were allowed to by-pass Vila Nova de Gaia, and some quintas nowadays have no presence in that traditional site. In addition, in the 1950s and ’60s, the Douro was dammed in several places, making the boats obsolete.

>The styles and nomenclature of Port have changed considerably over the years. The most famous product of the Douro, Vintage Porto, represents at most two percent of port production, the rest being Ruby Port (now usually called “Reserve”), Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV), Tawny Port of various ages, so-called “crusted” Port, white Port and different proprietary branded Ports. Vintage Porto from a “declared” year, however, remains one of the world’s great wines and, compared to Burgundy and Bordeaux and the cult wines of California and Australia, a relative bargain. Remember that Vintage Port, aged in barrels two years, is intended to mature in the bottle, most not being considered ready to drink until 20 or 30 years after harvest. In youth, they are powerful, potent and monumentally tannic. Which leads to:

A Tasting of Ports from 2007.

Thursday, Sept. 3, our team of six regrouped at the Niepoort winery at Quinta do Napoles to taste 15 Ports from 2007. The trick was that we were tasting three examples of each Port, one bottle that had been opened two days previously, decanted and poured back into the bottle; one that had been opened one day previously, decanted and poured back into the bottle; and one that had been opened the morning of the tasting but not decanted. The idea was to give us some hint as to the wine’s potential for development and to counter-balance the immense difficulty involved in tasting very young, tannic Ports. So we didn’t taste 15 Ports; we tasted 45 Ports, AND we tasted them blind AND we did this between about 7:30 and 9 p.m. And that’s why we’re called Professionals!

My notes will try to trace the evolution of the Ports we tasted; remember that as we were doing this, we didn’t know which bottles of a particular house or brand were the ones that had been opened two days ago or the ones opened 12 hours ago, but believe me, when you take in a sip of wine and the tannins would strip the wallpaper from your mouth (if your mouth were, say, a living room), then you know you have the most recently opened example. As the tasting proceeded, and I realized that my notes on the Ports tended to run: 1. Opened two days ago; 2. Opened one day ago; 3. opened this morning, I sensed that there was a pattern, and indeed the pouring of the examples did not vary from that scheme.

These Vintage Ports from 2007, a year described as “classic” and “exceptional,” are just coming into retail markets in the United States. Prices will range from about $75 and $85 to $115 and $125.

These notes are in the order of tasting.
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Churchill’s Vintage Port 2007. Massive tannins, searing tannins, followed by a clearing of the air, so to speak, broadly intense and concentrated and smoky; then, aromas of grapes, orange rind, spice cake and plum pudding; clean earth and minerals, deep, intense and concentrated, spicy black fruit, dense and chewy; walloping tannins; great presence and weight. Excellent potential.
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Croft Vintage Port 2007. Very tannic but rich and succulent; coffee, mocha, cocoa bean, fruit cake, toasted walnuts and orange rind; cool, clean minerals; dark chocolate, smoke and tobacco leaf; plummy and jammy, mint and minerals; leather, briers and brambles, packed with tannins. Exceptional potential.
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Dow’s Vintage Port 2007. Punishing tannins; then … big, jammy, minerally, slatey; bright, clean, black fruit infused with smoke and dark chocolate, dense yet almost buoyant tannins, tough and rooty, branches and briers. Very Good+ to Excellent potential.
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Fonesca Vintage Port 2007. Powerful tannic structure, huge presence and substance; then rich, warm and spicy, fruit cake and cookie dough, currants and plums, toasted almonds; intense and concentrated, platonic plums; black pepper, bitter chocolate-covered raspberries; crushed gravel and slate; immense. Excellent to Exceptional potential.
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Graham’s Vintage Port 2007. Fathomless tannins; then — fairly closed-in but hints of toast with orange marmalade or plum jam; grapey, alcoholic; clean, pure, intense, concentrated; tannins continue to build in scope and power. Needs 25 to 30 years. Maybe Excellent potential.
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Niepoort Vintage Port 2007. Deep, clean, pure and intense, smoky and toasty, tightly focused on sleek and stalwart tannins but opens to bitter chocolate, tobacco leaf, lavender and potpourri, plum jam and black currants; very dense and chewy; a finish of briers and brambles and forest floor, and a burgeoning mineral element. 25 to 40 years. Excellent, possibly Exceptional potential.
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Niepoort Pisca Vintage Porto 2007. From a single vineyard. Difficult to assess because of the massive tannins, though in the example that had been opened two days previously, decanted and re-bottled, the tannins felt smoother and more integrated. Clearly a Port that exudes self-containment, confidence and power, purity and intensity and concentration. 25 to 40 years. Excellent potential.
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The word Douro conjures one color: Red. As in Port. As in the table wines that Port companies and quintas have been producing for the past 10 or 15 years.

Yet in tasting the wines of the Douro Boys, I found the few whites wines that they make thrilling for their freshness and vibrancy, their spicy piquancy and beguiling floral character and frequently scintillating minerality. The grapes are little-known outside of the Douro Valley, and if you’re one of those steely-eyed devotees of the vine determined to make your entrance to The Century Club — you must have tasted wines from 100 different grapes — you’ll be gratified to know these the Douro whites are produced from such varieties as rabigato, codega, donzelinho, viosinho, arinto, gouveio and cercial. In other words, we don’t need no stinkin’ chardonnay and sauvignon blanc!

Unfortunately, these Douro whites are little found in the U.S., and I write about them today to provide a fuller picture of what’s happening in the Douro at present and perhaps to encourage enough interest that importers already bringing in the red wines and Ports of the Douro will latch onto the whites. (“White” in Portugeuse, by the way, is “branco.”) The one Douro white of this group that I know for certain is imported is the Quinta do Crasto Branco, by Broadbent Selections.

A number of these brancos were encountered at a tasting event for about 100 Portuguese winery people and wine sellers held in the new ultra-modern winery at Quinta do Vallado. This “Masterclass Tasting 2009″ went through all the 2007 red wines, including Ports, and the 2008 whites being released by the Douro Boys estates. Some of the wines I tried not only at this mammoth tasting but at the wineries too; I’ll include an amalgam of impressions in these brief notes.

>I tried the VZ Douro Branco 2008 at lunch at Quinta Vale D. Maria and later that afternoon at the “Masterclass Tasting.” At the second encounter, I wrote, “I could drink this forever.” Well, chalk that passionate response up to enthusiasm, but, still, it’s a reflection of how utterly engaging this wine is, with its beguiling touches of lime peel, tangerine and spiced lemon, its penetrating minerality, its zinging acidity and stony austere finish. The grapes are viosinho, rabigato and gouveio. VZ stands for van Zeller, as in Christiano van Zeller, of Quinta Vale D. Maria.

>The fresh and appealing Quinto do Crasto Branco 2008, which I also tried several times on this trip, offers lime and pink grapefruit flavors set into a package of tingling limestone and mouth-puckering acidity.

>Niepoort produces an intriguing range of white wines. The Tiara 2008 is earthy and minerally, with lime, grapefruit and roasted lemon scents and flavors display equal amounts of ripeness and funkiness wrapped around each other; a profound mineral elements, like wet gravel and dusty, damp roof tiles, exerts a broad influence, while after a few moments in the glass touches of celery, dried thyme and tarragon emerge. Loads of personality.
Niepoort’s Redoma Branco 2008 is made primarily from rabigato grapes with some codega and small amounts of other grapes; these are mainly 60-year-old vines, with three small parcels more than 100 years old. The wine is insanely floral and amazingly minerally, with the kind of substance, heft and depth one expects from old vine grapes, and with an authority of dry austerity, yet there’s a winsome attractiveness here too. A rather astonishing performance.
Finally, the Redoma Reserva Branco 2008 is even deeper, broader in scale, more demanding than its non-reserve cousin, with not only impressive but imposing minerality. It’s a white wine that deserves, nay, demands three to fives years’ aging.

>Quinta do Vallado also presented three branco wines.
The basic level Vallado Branco 2008 is made from rabigato, viosinho, arinto and verdelho grapes. The wine is aged 90 percent in stainless steel for five months, the remainder in new French oak barriques. The bouquet is a cornucopia of fresh and dried flowers with a cocktail of yellow fruit and berries; the wine is dry, crisp and spicy and delivers lovely body and substance. An irresistible aperitif.
Made completely in stainless steel, the Quinta do Vallado Moscatel Galego 2008 offers lime, nectarine and peach scents and flavors woven with honeysuckle, jasmine and crushed gravel for the mineral element. A hint of mint and white pepper on the finish alleviates a touch of bracing bitterness. Just lovely. (275 cases)
Finally, the Quinta do Vallado Reserva 2008 is fermented in French oak and aged in barriques for 10 months. Not surprisingly, the regimen lends considerable body and depth of spice to the wine, yet does not interfere with its enticing touches of dusty lime, almond blossom and roasted almond, vibrant acidity and resonant limestone-damp slate qualities. As the song says, “Lovely to look at, delightful to hold and heaven to kiss.” Well, you get the idea. (375 cases)
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At a long late leisurely dinner at Niepoort’s Quinta do Napoles facility, a sleek modern building that blends into its hillside, we drank magnums of Tiara 2008 with a variety of courses, including what I thought was not only the best dish I had in the Douro but one of the greatest dishes I have eaten in my life. No kidding! This was no nuanced feat of fine cuisine, but a peasant dish of cod tripe with white beans, a variation of the tripe with white beans that’s a specialty of the city of Oporto. Tripa de bacalao is actually the cod’s swimming bladder or maw; yes, it’s a tad rubbery and chewy, but marinated and simmered in a stew it comes out deeply flavorful, almost plush. The dish is question consisted of slices of the cod “tripe” with tender white beans and a small portion of a mild, very finely-chopped sort of sauerkraut. The rich broth that enveloped these ingredients was enlivened with minced carrots, red peppers and parsley; something, perhaps the red peppers, lent spicy heat to the dish. Long after my compatriots had moved onto the next course and the next wines, I refused to let my plate be taken; no, I sat there with a piece of crusty bread, soaking up all the juice that I could, sipping from my glass of crisp, refreshing Tiara 2008 that was the perfect accompaniment.
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The next night, that would be a week ago today — and isn’t it a wonder how quickly foreign travel recedes into the past? — our group, along with some of the Douro Boys and winemakers and their families, had dinner at the old Niepoort lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Oporto, not far from where the Douro debouches into the Atlantic. It used to be the case that shippers of Port were required to age the wine in casks in their lodges (large warehouses) in Vila Nova de Gaia rather than upriver at the quintas. Anyway, on the one essential occasion when I should have had my camera, Mr. Professional Journalist left it in his hotel room, thinking, “Gee, I’ve been carrying that camera for days. Maybe tonight I can relax.” The 150-year-old lodge, however, dim and dusty and cobweb-festooned, its vaulted ceilings blanketed with the mold of the ages, was a tremendously evocative and picturesque scene. Dinner was not memorable, but the wines were astounding, as Dirk Niepoort, a towering combination of generosity and chutzpah, opened bottle after bottle of rarities, ending with a pair of the company’s Ports from 1966.

But what I want to mention in particular is a couple of white wines, since that is that topic of today’s post. Dirk began by opening a magnum of a white wine from 1996, I’m not sure if it was Tiara or Redoma Branco, but the point is that this 13-year-old white wine — not chardonnay! not sauvignon blanc and semillon! — was remarkably fresh and clean and appealing, with pear and roasted lemon scents and flavors, bright acidity, a keen edge of damp slate; traces of honeyed orange rind and melon came into play, along with hints of almond and almond blossom over a reservoir of deeply spicy citrus. Amazing.

Before moving to the Ports, Dirk Niepoort said, “Do you want to try the first wine I ever made?” Dumbfounded, we all went, “Well, like, duh, yeah.” This turned out to be a dessert wine from 1987. One of my fellow wine writers, Sarah Ahmed from London, took a few sniffs and sips, made a note or two, and said, “Loureiro grapes?” Dirk replied, “Yes, mostly,” and I thought, “Holy shit, she is good!” Loureiro contributes the fresh, drinkable, brisk immediacy of Vinho Verde, but this 22-year-old sweet wine indicated that under some circumstances the grape definitely has a higher calling. First it was delicate, finely-knit, a delightful combination of mildly sweet pear and roasted lemon permeated by orange zest and cloves. While retaining that breezy freshness and cleanness and its flashing blade of acidity, the wine deepened in the glass, calling up toasted almonds, quince, a hint of green plum. The finish turned dry, a little smoky, yet still amazingly clean and vibrant. Lord have mercy!

It was one of those nights when you get back to the hotel at midnight, happy and sated, put in a wake-up call for 5 because a car is coming for you at 6:15, and then pack the bags.

Last Friday morning, our small group rode in the back of an open truck, driven by winery co-manager Francisco “Chico” Ferreira, up and up and up, through switch-back turns so extreme that the truck had to pass the turn, back around to the edge of the terrifying overhand — this is scary! — and then steer back into the angle, to the top of the vineyards of Quinta do Vallado, where the tinta roriz vines (the Spanish tempranillo) are 90 years old; a few vines of white grapes are scattered through the rows. At this altitude, about 400 meters (1,312 feet), the roots of the vines burrow 25 to 30 feet deep seeking water. The stalks are twisted and gnarly, like caricatures of grapevines, and hardly seem as if they could support life, not to mention grapes of extremely high intensity and character. The view from this height is spectacular, as I mention with each post about the Douro region, but the sublime landscape is inescapable.

After a bone-crunching ride back to the winery — Quinta do Vallado, by the way, was the home of Dona Antonia Ferreira (1811-1896), the godmother of the Douro — we assemble with Chico in the tasting room, attended by a young woman wearing a white laboratory coat, to try Quinta do Vallado Reserva 2000, 2003, ’04, ’05, ’06 and ’07. I’ll get to that portion of the tasting later in this post, but first I want to describe the event that will compel me to add the term Wine Consultant to my business card.

Chico set up a blind tasting of five cask samples of wine from the 2008 vintage: 1. Touriga nacional from nine-year-old vineyards; 2. touriga nacional from 20 year-old vineyards; 3. sousão grapes; 4. a blend of red wines from old vineyards; 5. another blend of red wines from a different old vineyard. Chico gave us three hints: The touriga nacional should be elegant with touches of violets; the sousão should have an intense color and fresh acidity; the old vine samples should show lots of complexity and structure.

So, we spent several minutes swirling, sniffing and sipping the wines, taking notes and so forth, and when Chico revealed which wines were which, I had only gotten two right. Hey, give me some cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir! I’ll show you how to taste blind!

Then, Chico said that we would assemble a theoretical blend for the Reserva 2008 from four of the wines left in our glasses, omitting the young touriga nacional, and he would judge which was best. Ah, now the competition heated up. I mean, here were six experienced wine tasters and writers vying to assemble a potentially great wine, each thinking that he or she, of course, knew more than any of the others about the balance of elegance and power. Like scientists, we used the graduated beaker to measure the proportions of the four samples, trying for the ideal of a young reserve wine.

My formula turned out to be 50 percent of the touriga nacional from 20-year-old vines; 10 percent sousão; and 20 percent each of the wines from the two old vineyards.

Chico went around the table, peering intently at each glass of the finished blend, swirling, sniffing, sipping. He performed this process twice, and then he stopped by my chair and again picked up the glass holding my creation. “This it is,” he said. “Fredric got the right aromas, the right intensity and flavor. He wins the prize.” And there actually was a prize, a magnum of Quinta do Vallado Reserva 2006 in a wooden box, which I brought back to the U.S., through three flights, wrapped in two plastic bags and then rolled up in two shirts, in my checked luggage. Sadly, I abandoned the wooden box — sorry, Chico! — as too big, heavy and awkward.

I wasn’t the only winner. Rebecca Leung, a writer from Hong Kong (Wine Is Beautiful, but she writes in Chinese), also won a magnum of Quinta do Vallado Reserva 2006 for guessing — or, I should say, professionally ascertaining with cool acumen — the correct components in the first blind tasting of cask samples.

Of the Quinto do Vallado Reserva wines that we tasted from 2000 and 2003 through 2007, Chico said, “These are made in my style of wine, tannic, with lots of structure.” He wasn’t wrong, yet the wines exhibited, in addition to bastions and buttresses of tannin and oak and minerals, lovely touches of fruit and flowers and herbs that wheedle their way into your heart. Well, some of them, anyway. The wines usually age 18 months in 70 percent new French barriques, 30 percent one-year old barrels. Occasionally one wants to ask: Is it only small French oak barrels that can make great wine? Are there not alternatives? Think of the glorious authenticity of Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino before the winemakers turned slavishly to the barrique. Oh, well, never mind.

Here are brief notes:

>2000. Dried spice and flowers, v. dark purple, deep solid structure, muscular, a little angular; intense, concentrated, shimmering black fruit flavors. Needs a steak. Drink through 2014 or ’15. Very Good+

>2003. Immensely aromatic, cedar, tobacco, black olive, granite and slate; blazing acidity for vibrancy and resonance; picks up fleshier fruit and exotic spice; dusty tannins lead to an austere finish. bring out another steak. Drink through 2014 or ’15. Excellent.
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The train ride from Pêso da Régua to Pocinho takes about an hour and a half. It’s a wildly picturesque route, with the tracks laid just at the edge of the Douro River and at the base of steep hillsides where terraced vineyards that seem impossible to cultivate alternate with massive granite outcroppings. Whoever conceived that grapes could be grown here? Yet the Douro is the earliest delimited wine region in Europe, its system of control and classification codified in 1756.

Pêso da Régua is the central town of Baixo Corgo, the lower part of the Douro growing region. The train lumbers east through Cima Corgo, the middle region, to Douro Superior, the driest, hottest and most sparsely populated area of the Douro. Rainfall is about 19.7 inches annually in Douro Superior, compared to 35.4 inches downriver in Baixo Corgo; the average annual temperature is 70 (degrees fahrenheit) compared to 64 further west.

Pocinho, about 20 kilometers from the Spanish border, is the end of the rail line. It’s about 10:40 a.m. when we jump off the steps of the railroad car, but the station clock unchangingly asserts that the time is 4:25. The heat is lavish, penetrating. The village is dusty, shuttered, ramshackle, like a set for the kind of Western movie that ends with everyone being sadder but no one being wiser.

High above, in the scrub-covered hills, however, lies an oasis, the Quinta do Vale Meão, founded in 1877 by Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira, who, in the period of her greatest power, owned 30 properties in the Douro, making her the most important proprietor in the region. When Dona Antonia bought the property, the local saying was that she would better have bought land in Angola, because that African country was more accessible than Pocinho. “But then the railroad was built through, as she knew it would be,” says Quinta do Vale Meão’s present owner, Francisco Javier de Olazabal, the great-great-grandson of Dona Antonia. “That cut the travel from Porto to Pocinho from 12 days to five hours. Now it takes only four hours by train, so, you see, we improve by one hour each century.”

Francisco Javier de Olazabal is known as Vito, to distinguish him from his son, Francisco, the winemaker at Meão, who is called Xito; Xito’s cousin, Francisco Ferreira, also a descendant of Dona Antonia and the winemaker at Quinta do Vallado, is known as Chico. The close relationship between Vito, Xito and Chico merely touches the surface of the root structure of relatedness by family, marriage and quinta ownership that permeates the Douro and goes back generations. It is not uncommon in the Douro to be talking to a gentleman who happens to own this quinta and that quinta and used to own this other quinta — meaning an estate — but he sold it to his cousin, and then to talk to this gentleman’s wife and discover that she and her family own another quinta. A chart of the history of the families and quintas of the Douro would resembles a game of Chutes and Ladders.

Quinta do Vallado and Quinta do Vale Meão, along with Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Vale D. Maria and Niepoort Vinhos, form the group rather exuberantly named Douro Boys, dedicated to advancing the quality and the image of the region, not only through port but through the increasingly important table wine segment, which, for these estates, dominates their production.

A bone-crunching ride in a battered pick-up truck takes us to a high point on the Vale Meão estate, 350 meters about the river, from which the view is stupendous. The hills recede from the Douro in its upper reaches (in Portugal) and the landscape broadens. “There are over 130 grape varieties in the Douro,” Vito tells us, “so there is always the potential for finding new things in what is already here. There is need to put much investigation into these grapes.” In other words, we don’t need cabernet and merlot, though, oddly, that night we taste fermenting pinot noir from the tank at Niepoort. The vineyards here, stretching down and around the hillsides, are planted to touriga nacional (50%), tinta roriz, known as tempranillo in Spain (30%), touriga francesa (15%), tinta amarela (5%), tinta barraca (5%) and tinta cao (5%). The vineyards are not planted as field blends, as used to be common in the Douro. “Everything is block planted,” says Vito, “because grapes are different and have different needs and act differently.” Eighty-one hectares, about 208 acres, are under vine at Meão, with 65 hectares in full production.

A few parcels are being picked in the noonday sun. Workers go through the rows, bending to their task, clippers in one hand, finding the cluster of grapes with the other and needing a third hand to push away the leaves and other stalks. They carry a pail for the bunches, and when the pail is filled, it is emptied into a plastic bin. Other workers collect the bins and load them onto the truck for transport to the winery and the sorting table. Pickers are paid 33 euros (about $52) for an eight-hour day, that is, two four-hour segments, beginning at 8 a.m., with a lunch break. The producer pays for the workers’ social security and insurance. Some work full-time at the estate, but most are seasonal workers who move from one region to another through a contractor.

For many years, Vito was president of the family company, Ferreira, but he resigned in 1998 to restore Quinta do Vale Meão. That task included a careful restoration of the 140-year-old winery, with its walls of double granite and its beautiful roof and ceiling of fine old chestnut beams. Though the winery is filled with modern steel tanks and a new office and laboratory, it retains the original rugged concrete legares, though somewhat smaller, and a sense of history compounded of the smell of oak and fermenting grapes and the record of a century and a half of vintages.

In the winery’s tasting room, we go through nine vintages of Quinta do Vale Meão Douro Red, 1999 to 2007. Here are brief notes on each wine:

>1999. “An experiment” — only 10 percent of the winery’s production in its first year — that turned out beautifully. Radiant, spicy, beguiling at first, then dense and chewy, a marriage of power and elegance; vibrant and resonant; black currant, plum and lilac, elements of moss and minerals slowly build, feels deeply attached to the earth; an ache of tannin at the back of the throat. Could age another five to seven years. Exceptional.
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