Traveling to Foreign Countries

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and the largest province of Italy. Its proximity to the toe of the Italian boot and map of sicilyto the coast of North Africa, and its geographical convergence in ancient sea-lanes means not only that the island was settled early by seafaring peoples from eastward — first the Phoenicians, then the Greeks — but that it served as a flash-point for contention, conquest and subjugation, all the way through the 19th Century. It strikes the heart of the history-lover with awe to think that cities like Syracuse and Palermo are among the oldest continuously inhabited population centers in Europe. The former was established by Greeks on the island’s southeastern coast in 734 B.C. The older Palermo, on the northwest coast, was settled by the Phoenicians, who explored the island’s western regions, in the 10th Century B.C. In fact, as you stroll down the long, straight, narrow main street in Palermo’s oldest quarter, still battered by the Allied bombing of World War II, guides will tell you that it was laid out by the Phoenicians, so you are walking where feet have trod for three millennia.

When you travel through western Sicily, you could readily believe that the island was dredged from the sea by Neptune’s trident and hammered out on Vulcan’s forge. The rugged hills stand precipitous, seemingly random in configuration in great blocks of granite and sandstone. Among those green-swaddled hills and valleys, near the commune of Sambuco di Sicilia, lies Stemmari, a wine estate dedicated to producing enjoyable and authentic varietal wines at affordable prices, aimed primarily at the American market. Stemmari is owned by Gruppo Mezzacorona, the well-known producer in Trentino, in the foothills of the Italian Dolomites. Mezzacorona’s other brands include Castel Firmian; Rotari, which makes traditional method sparkling wines; Tolloy; and Feudo Arancio, also in Sicily.

The winery of Stemmari, spread along a gently sloping hillside, looks out to a succession of crests and valleys that march to the sea. The stemmari 1architecture — clean and elegant — echoes the traditional style of the region, and when visitors stand in the palm-shaded courtyard, they have no idea that behind several of those chaste white walls are arrayed the tanks and barrels and other equipment of winemaking. Winemaker for Stemmari is Lucio Matricardi, a man who defines the notions of affability, volubility and good humor. A tour of Stemmari’s estate vineyards — I and several other winewriters on a sponsored trip — is an exercise in education, information, folktale and local lore, all embellished and enhanced by comedic asides that somehow contribute to the overall learning experience.

The winery is completely solar-powered, recycles water and employs sustainable practices in the vineyards. Stemmari was the first winery in Italy to receive EMAS 2 certification on the entire production and is certified according to UNI-ENISO 14011 environmental guidelines. The estate continuously experiments with grape varieties planted in different plots, and if that variety doesn’t perform as anticipated in that particular climat, the vineyard is torn out and replanted. I mentioned to Matricardi that such a procedure must be expensive. “That’s true,” he said, “but we want to get things right. And the money is there. Mezzacorona sells grapes to producers in Trentino that would surprise you, such as –,” but here his importer representative cut him off. The importer is Prestige Wine Imports, based in New York and a subsidiary of Gruppo Mezzacorona.) The implication was clear; Mezzacorona possesses deep pockets since the company controls one-third of the production in Trento and sells surplus grapes to other producers.

And what about the wines?
1432227244Stemmari Dalila NV Bottle
Of the 11 products in the Stemmari roster, nine are 100 percent varietal and two are blends. The indigenous grapes grillo and moscato, for white, and nero d’avola, for red, are made as varietal wines and also blended into the proprietary Dalila (80 percent grillo, 20 percent viognier) and Cantodoro (80 percent nero d’avola, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon). The “international” grape varieties pinot grigio, chardonnay, pinot noir — which Matricardi called “the mother-in-law” grape for its difficulty — and cabernet sauvignon are also made into 100 percent varietal wines. Nero d’avola, in addition, is made into a rose. The use of oak barrels, for the chardonnay and the red wines, is discreet.

As I mentioned, the Stemmari products are designed to sell inexpensively, that is, for about $10 and can be found throughout the country priced from about $9 to $12. Within that range, these are bargains. In fact, I’ll go farther and say that the Stemmari Pinot Noir, stamped with varietal and geographic clarity, ranks among the best moderately priced pinot noirs available in America, followed, in my estimation, by the robust, earthy Nero d’Avola and the charming, fruit-filled Dalila. Stemmari fashions grillo grapes into the delicate, slightly effervescent, wildly floral Baci Vivaci, a delightful quaff our group must have consumed gallons of with our meals. These are not wines intended for the ages or to compete with the world’s prestigious labels. They are, instead, wines made thoughtfully and seriously and offered at a more than decent price.

The dominant force in Sicilian cuisine, not surprisingly, is the sea. Every meal consists of a procession of crustaceans and fish prepared by different methods, though often served raw and lightly dressed. The famous deep-water red shrimp — Aristaeomorpha foliacea— make a regular appearance at the beginning of lunch and dinner, the tiny fire-engine-hued crustaceans bathed in olive oil and lemon juice and eaten au natural. Grilled octopus is a requirement, sometimes accompanied by white beans. Grilled or seared fish are presented simply, straight from the fire or the saute pan, keeping them as fresh as possible. Pasta dishes tend to have a seafood component, sea urchin being a favorite ingredient.

Our introduction to Sicilian fare was dinner at Restaurant Porto San Paolo, located in a 400-year-old fortified tower that looms over ristorante_da_vittorio_porto_palo_1E3-600x300 the harbor of the town of Sciacca, on the island’s southwest coast. Our table on a second-floor balcony gave us a wonderful view of the fishing boats tied up at twilight and the vista of clouds at dusk. Lunch the next day was at the beautiful Da Vittorio Restaurant in Porto Palo di Menfi. It’s a beach-front establishment that allows a breathtaking panorama of the aquamarine Mediterranean, just beyond the windows. (That’s their red shrimp in the image above.) The food here seemed incredibly fresh and briny, deeply flavorful and handled with minimum interference in the kitchen. Our final dinner was in Palermo, at the chic and sleek one Michelin Star Restaurant Bye Bye Blues, where the chef, Patrizia Di Benedetto, a native of Palermo, prepares elevated and imaginative versions of the island’s traditional cuisine.

Here are the websites of these restaurants, all of which I would return to in a heartbeat:

The Dorgogne region is one of the oldest inhabited areas of France, as testified by numerous caves filled with wall paintings and etchings that date back 30,000 and 40,000 years. It’s also one of the country’s wildest and most beautiful areas, marked by rugged and towering cliffs, many topped by ancient castles; deep river valleys; rolling hills and forests; and a network of villages and towns that retain much of their medieval appearance. Recently, we spent a week in France’s Dordogne region, with LL’s son and his children, Julien, 14, and Lucia, 10, eating local food — dominated by foie gras, magret and confit of duck — and drinking local wines. We rented a centuries-old stone cottage outside the village of Beynac et Cazenac — pop. 560 — an almost mythically quaint hamlet perched right on a bank of the Dordogne River and winding up the cliff dominated by an immense castle, Chateau de Beynac, seen in this image from

Our locale was at the southeastern corner of the Dordogne department, not wine-country itself but not too far from the appellations of Bergerac, Côtes de Bergerac, Montravel and Pécharmant, all cultivating the Bordeaux grape varieties and producing country cousin versions of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot for red, sauvignon blanc and semillon for white. About a two-hour drive to the east in the Lot department is Cahors, a traditional region for hearty wines made from the malbec grape, known as cot in that area. Though I had been offered visits to chateaus and wineries by some of my contacts in importing and marketing in the US, my determination was that this sojourn would be strictly vacation and that any wine we drank would come either from grocery stores, open-air markets or restaurant wine lists.

Our first dinner, at a hotel restaurant in Beynac, was mediocre, but we enjoyed the wines. These were a 2011 rouge, in a 500-milliliter bottle, and a 2013 blanc, in a 375 ml bottle, from Chateau Court-Les-Mûts, Côtes de Bergerac. The rouge offered a bright, seductive floral and spicy bouquet but was fairly rude and rustic on the palate; the more palatable blanc was fresh, young and zesty, with yellow fruit and dried herbs. Each cost 14 euros, about $15.66 at today’s rate. Far more successful, in both food and wine, was our dinner the following night, a Sunday, at La Petite Tonnelle, just a few yards up the street from the restaurant of the previous night. Built right into the cliff that dominates this strategic site overlooking the Dordogne river, the restaurant was pleasing in every aspect. Our waiter, a young woman, was friendly and accommodating; the restaurant served the silkiest foie gras, smoked magret and confit of duck I have ever tasted; and the wine list emphasized regional products highlighting sustainable, organic and biodynamic methods. With the hearty fare, we drank a bottle of the Chateau Masburel 2010, Montravel, a predominantly merlot wine with dollops of cabernet sauvignon. The restaurant owner came over and nodded his approval, telling us that it was a powerful wine. Powerful indeed and robust, but sleek too, packed with dusty tannins, graphite-tinged minerality, black fruit flavors and vibrant acidity. It cost 42 euros, about $46 at today’s rate.

Both in cafes and at our rented house, we consumed a great deal of rosé wine, not just because we love rosé but because the weather was unseasonably hot, with temperatures going to 100 and higher every afternoon. Rosés in the Dordogne are made from cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec and typically are more robust than their cousins in Provence. For example, in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, generally just called Tayac, home to the National Museum of Prehistory and the center of a cluster of caves with prehistoric art, we ate lunch at Cafe de Mairie and downed a 500 cl bottle of the delightful Clos des Verdots 2014, Bergerac Rosé, at 14 euros. Other rosés we tried during our sojourn included La Fleur de Mondesir 2014, Domaine de Mayat 2014 and Domaine de Montlong 2013, all Bergerac, and the simple but tasty Mayaret 2014, Vin du Pays Perigord. Tayac is absolutely worth a visit. We were too late to get admittance to the cave called Font de Gaume, which features wall paintings, so we drove to the cave of Les Combarelles, a few minutes away, and saw the exquisite series of rock engravings executed 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. The town itself, with many of its houses and buildings carved directly into the cliffs, is a UNESCO Heritage Site.

Other red wines we tried, back at the house with various dinners, included Chateau des Hautes Fargues 2010 and Domaine La Closerie 2011, both from Pécharmant, and, from Bergerac, the excellent Domaine Maye de Bouye 2010, and the best red wine of our time in the Dordogne, Clos de Gamot 2008, a superb, deeply characterful Cahors that cost all of 12.5 euros, about $13.70. Clos de Gamot is owned by the Jouffreau family and has been in operation since 1610. The grapes derive from two vineyards, one over 120 years old and the other with vines 40 to 70 years old. The wines age 18 months to two years in large old oak casts.

The way to explore this ancient region is to drive to as many of the towns and villages as possible, preferably one each day, park the car (hopefully in the shade) and then wander through the plazas and narrow streets, stopping to walk through churches, alleys and courtyards. If there’s a chance, for a few euros, to tour a castle or old mansion, do that; the rewards in history, esthetics and emotional satisfaction are immense. We particularly enjoyed Sarlot, Domme and the medieval section of Soulliac, and we visited two castles that were traditional enemies during the Hundred Years’ War, Chateau Beynac, “our” castle, and just up-river, Castelnaud-la-Chapelle.

The heart of Bordeaux may be its legendary grand chateaux and the great, long-lived and very expensive wines they produce, but the region’s soul lies in the thousands of small estates where families, some of many generations’ duration, turn out well-made, accessible, little-known wines that labor in the shadows of their illustrious brethren. These are not the wines for which those who possess fiduciary prowess fork over inconceivable amounts of money and store them away in their cellars (increasingly in China); these are, however, the wines that more modestly endowed folk enjoy with lunch and dinner, wines that are solid, dependable and enjoyable.

On the other hand, let’s not eliminate any aspects of ambition. Winemaker Laetitia Mauriac, for example — the writer Francois Mauriac was her great-uncle — is justly proud that her Chateau la Levrette 2007, Bordeaux Blanc, is served at a Michelin-starred restaurant. The small group of writers I’m traveling with this week tasted Mauriac’s wines and those of Chateau Sainte Barbe, made by Antoine Touton, last night at Chateau Sainte Barbe, a charming edifice built between 1760 and 1780 by Jean-Baptiste Lynch, the Irish emigre whose name appears on such well-known classified properties as Lynch-Bages and Lynch-Moussas and who served as mayor of the city of Bordeaux. Touton, a former coffee, vanilla bean and cocoa broker, and his wife Lucy bought the decrepit chateau and estate in 2000 and restored the house and replanted the vineyards.

On the chateau’s terrace, looking right onto the Garonne river, we tried Mauriac’s Bordeaux Blanc and Bordeaux Clairet with bowls of green olives and tiny river shrimp boiled with star anise. (The shrimp were whole; one holds them by their teeny heads and eats the rest, shell and all.) La Levrette 2007 — “levrette” means greyhound — made completely from sauvignon blanc grapes, sports a brilliant golden color and a remarkable bouquet of almond blossom and almond skin, roasted lemons, pears and cloves. The wine aged eight months in new oak, with regular stirring of the lees (b?tonnage), resulting in lovely suppleness in texture and a deeply spicy quality in the ripe, round stonefruit flavors (with hints of ginger and quince), all abetted by crystalline acidity. This is a wine that it would be instructive to revisit in three or four years. Mauriac said, “When I make my white wine, I don’t think of it as Bordeaux. I think of it as a wine that I like.”

I had not encountered Clairet, which has its own Bordeaux A.O.C.. It’s darker and possesses more character than rosé but not as much body and flavor as a straight Bordeaux rouge. Chateau La Levrette 2009, Bordeaux Clairet, embodies pure raspberry and mulberry scents and flavors with heady aromas of mulling spices and soft, moderate tannins for a bit of firmness and structure in the mouth. This was absolutely delightful as an aperitif wine and would be terrific, served slightly chilled, on picnics or around the pool or patio.

Dinner was promoted as “light,” but consisted of two preparations of salmon, roast beef with foie gras and scalloped potatoes, a green salad, a cheese course and two cakes. We ate informally in the chateau’s kitchen and tasted a range of wines that included Sainte Barbe 2009, 2007 and ’05, Mauriac’s La Combe des Dames 2008, Bordeaux Supérieur, and La Levrette 2007, Bordeaux Supérieur, which aged for 14 months in oak barrels. The reds are predominantly merlot blended with cabernet sauvignon. Sainte Barbe is a blend of 70 percent merlot with the rest being cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc; these robust and earthy wines age 9 to 12 months in oak, 30 percent new barrels. It’s interesting that Mauriac and Touton made very attractive wines in 2007, generally a difficult year in Bordeaux.

I’m writing this Monday morning after breakfast. It’s warmer in Bordeaux than I anticipated; I brought sweaters and jackets, but today will be a t-shirt day. I’ll shut down here in a moment, pack my gear, and head out for a day of visits and tastings and, inevitably, eating.

Part of the success of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay in Chile has been a decades-long process of finding the right place to grow the grapes. As happened in California through much of the 20th Century, the importance of finding the suitable micro-climate or terroir for particular grapes in Chile was relegated to the scientific principle of: “How ’bout plantin’ grapes over there?” “Uh, o.k., looks good to me.” The slow and meticulous process of searching for appropriate vineyard areas began in the 1980s and continues today, bringing a focus for sauvignon blanc and chardonnay to cooler-climate regions like Casablanca and Leyda valleys, from which you could drop-kick a corkscrew to the Pacific Ocean. With one exception, all of these sauvignon blancs or chardonnay are from those two areas.

Viña Leyda was founded in 1997 in the Fernandez Valley (about 80 kilometers — 50 miles — southwest of Santiago), which the winery successfully had changed to the Leyda Valley and named an official D.O. in 2002. The Pacific Ocean lies just over a series of low hills, and when you walk up Viña Leyda’s sloping westward-facing vineyards to an elevation of about 180 meters (540 feet), you feel the freshening of the breeze and a bracing salty bite. The valley is increasingly a home for wineries or vineyard owners looking for prime sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir acreage, though syrah is beginning to be planted too. From no properties some 12 or 13 years ago, the Leyda Valley now holds about 2,000 hectares of vineyards planted by 20 producers. Viña Leyda owns 249 hectares, about 615 acres. The winery was acquired by Viña Tabali in 2007; the overarching entity is now Viñas Valles de Chile. Chief winemaker for Viña Leyda is Viviana Navarrete.

The Leyda Classic Sauvignon Blanc 2010 delivers a heady bouquet of lime, lemon and grapefruit in a pungent welter of gooseberry, dusty limestone, fennel and dried tarragon. The wine is terrifically bright and lively, keenly crisp and endowed with heaps of lime and tangerine flavors highlighted by sunny- leafy elements amid a tidy balance between lushness and spareness. It keeps you on edge for another sip and cries out for fresh oysters. Very Good+. About $9 to $11, a Great Bargain. How different is the Leyda Garuma Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2010? It’s spicier than its cousin, rounder, a little lusher and clearly more high-toned and elegant yet vibrant with limestone, oyster-shell and penetrating gunflint qualities. Fruit tends toward gooseberry and yellow plums. This is an extremely attractive and beautifully balanced sauvignon blanc. Excellent. About $14 to $16, representing Good Value.

The fresh, clean Leyda Classic Chardonnay 2010 offers simple, direct appeal in a well-made package. Scents of green apple, pineapple, grapefruit and jasmine are bolstered by prominent limestone-like minerality, while spicy pineapple and grapefruit flavors are couched in a smooth, moderately lush, chewy texture. Very Good. About $9 to $11. A wholly other creature is the light gold Leyda Lot 5 Chardonnay 2009, a bright, bold chardonnay that features notes of pineapple and grapefruit, spice cake, toasted hazelnuts, camellias and (after a few moments) almond brittle but no whit of anything tropical or buttery. It’s almost opulent in the mouth, rich and dense, yet finely balanced by crisp acidity and traceries of limestone and shale; 25 percent new oak lends a sheen of blond spice and subtle wood. Thoughtful winemaking. Excellent. About $25. Production was 500 cases, so mark this one Worth a Search.

The wines of Viña Leyda are imported to the U.S.A. by Winebow Inc. New York. Image of Viviana Navarrete from

Veramonte has a complicated history into which I will delve more thoroughly when we touch upon red wines, particularly its “icon” pinot noir called Ritual. Suffice to say that Veramonte came early to Casablanca Valley, which lies northwest of Santiago close to the ocean. When I was in Chile in April 1999, the winery’s impressive Palladian facility was just a couple of years old; I was surprised when we pulled up on the afternoon of October 4 — two weeks ago! — to see the place looking rather shabby and badly in need of a coat of paint.

As at many wineries in Chile and Argentina (and the United States of America), a “Reserva” or “reserve” label indicates the least expensive line of wines, another indication that outside of the European Union the term, which should imply some prestigious limitation, is meaningless. On the other hand, it’s the quality of wine in the bottle that counts, right, and in their price range, the Veramonte Reserva wines are real stand-outs, though to be honest, I found the Veramonte Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Colchagua Valley, too dense, woody and tannic and generally too big for its britches. (See, however, last week’s Wine of the Week.) Veramonte’s winemaker is Cristian Aliaga.

The Veramonte Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Casablanca, is pale straw-gold in color; lively aromas of grapefruit, damp limestone, tarragon and dried thyme, Key lime and tangerine burst from the glass, and whoa! wait a sec! is that a tinge of mango? The wine is tremendously vibrant, crisp with tingling acidity and a scintillating limestone-like mineral element, all of this balancing a texture that’s almost powdery in seductive softness. The bright finish brings in more spicy lime and grapefruit and a hint of shale. I challenge you not to slurp this up. Very Good+. About $10 to $12, a Great Value.

Veramonte wines are imported by Huneeus Vintners, Rutherfordm Cal. Image of Cristian Aliaga from

My group visited Viñedos Terranoble’s El Algarrobo (the carob tree) estate in Casablanca on Tuesday, Oct. 5, an occasion notable not only for the wines we tasted but for our initiation into the traditional Chilean barbeque. During this al fresco lunch I discovered that in Chile (and Argentina, I later found out), a bit of salad and vegetables on the plate serves merely as an excuse for piling on the meat. The winery was founded in 1993; owner is general manager Juan Carlos Castro. Terranoble owns 4,750 acres of vineyards in Casablanca, Colchagua and, farther south, Maule Valley, where the wines are made. Unlike at many other wineries, the “Reserva” label is Terranoble’s second tier; the “Classic” label forms the base of the production pyramid. Chief winemaker is Ignacio Conca. I’ll discuss Terranoble’s red wines later, but here’s a mention of the very attractive Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2009, whose grapes derived from El Algarrobo. The vineyard was planted in 1998.

Made all in stainless steel, the Terranoble Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Casablanca, is a pale straw color; the aromas seem typical for the grape and the region: lime and lime peel, tangerine, grapefruit and its zest, dried thyme and tarragon, but there are touches of acacia, almond blossom and even a hint of toasted almond for added intrigue. The wine displays lovely weight and balance, feeling not just crisp and vibrant but rather welcoming in the mouth, with deft poise between soft roundness and taut acidity. Flavors are dominated by lemon and lime, but include shades of melon and mango. The finish is dry, herbal and chalky. The alcohol content is 13 percent. Absolutely delightful. Very Good+. About $13, another Great Value.

Imported by Winebow Inc., New York


Viña Cousiño-Macul was founded in 1856 and is the only 19th Century winery in Chile still owned solely by the founding family. Once distant from Santiago, the estate today is surrounded by the city, though buffered by a 150-acre private park of magical dimensions, especially when toured at twilight. Though grapes are still grown at the family domain, most of the productive vineyards for Cousiño-Macul are in other provinces. Technical director for the winery is Pascal Marty.

The Antiguas Reservas Chardonnay 2009, Maipo Valley, is fermented 90 percent in stainless steel and 10 percent in new French oak barrels. While the color is pale — that is, a pale but intense gold — there’s nothing pale about the effects that follow. Fashioned rather in the out-going Californian mode, this is a bright, bold and ripe chardonnay that bursts with notes of baked pineapple and grapefruit and hints of lightly buttered cinnamon toast. Quite tasty and appealing, the wine stays on the sensible side of flamboyance to set a classic tone of a lush, almost creamy texture balanced by chiming acidity and a strain of limestone-like minerality. Alcohol level is 13.7 percent. Very Good+. About $14, a Nice Bargain.

Imported by Winebow Inc., New York.

It was a tough day at Valdivieso, despite the distraction of a superb view and a plethora of passed appetizers — including chopped bull’s testicles for the Anthony Bourdain types — and a nice lunch; loved the truly comforting quinoa pudding for dessert! But we tried 30 wines, and that was after a very long bus ride through Colchagua along little twisty dirt roads and over rickety plank “bridges” until the point that, within sight of the tasting pavilion, high on a hillside, the driver gave up and we walked the rest of the way. The whole enterprise gives new meaning to the word “remote.”

The winery traces its origin to Alberto Valdivieso, who founded a sparkling wine company in the Curico Valley in 1879; that’s where the wines and sparkling wines of Valdivieso are still made, though the winery has vineyards in Casablanca, Leyda, Colchagua (where we were), Maipo Valley, Rapel Valley, Maule and Curico. Director of enology and winemaking for Valdivieso is New Zealander Brett Powell.

We’ll work our way through the multitude of Valdivieso’s red wines in the future, but for now, I’ll stick to sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, the subject of this post.

The Valdivieso Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Leyda Valley, is attractive yet typical of its grape and region. That is, it features bright, cleansing acidity; pert and pungent elements of lime, grapefruit and limestone; some leafy touches of dried thyme and tarragon; and a crisp, tart texture balanced with a bit of soft lushness. Not compelling but quite nice to drink. Very Good+. About $15. The Valdivieso Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Leyda, on the other hand — aged six months in 500-liter barrels, 30 percent new — delivers a powerfully earthy, flint-laced wine that’s lovely enough that it stops short of being dramatic. This is deeply spicy and herbal, with tangerine-and-clove-tinged citrus flavors that feel packed into a texture of great presence and personality. A superior sauvignon blanc. Excellent. About $20, and well worth the price.

The Valdivieso Wild-Fermented Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2009, also from Leyda Valley, rests one year in mixed oak barrels, that is, of various sizes and ages. I’ll say that while this bright, bold, exuberantly spicy, ripe, slightly tropical and creamy chardonnay is not my favorite style, there’s no denying the thought and craft that went into its making. At least you don’t feel the wood too much; that’s a blessing. Very Good+. About $20.

Imported by Laird & Co., Scobyville, N.J.
It turns out that Viña Ventisquero is even more remote than Valdivieso, and the landscape, in the high Apalta region of Rapel Valley, is even more spectacular, especially as the setting sun gilded the steep, vineyard-fledged hillsides. The winery is a project of Gonzalo Vial, who owns Agrosuper, a leading purveyor of fresh food in Chile. The winemaking facility is in Maipo, though like most producers in Chile, Ventisquero owns vineyards in many regions. Chief winemaker is Felipe Tosso, who left Concha y Toro in 2000. He works (on the top wines) with Australian consulting enologist John Duval, who made his last Penfolds Grange in 2002. Ventisquero means “glacier.”

These white wines are from Casablanca, far north of where we were tasting them.

The Ventisquero Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2010 is a shimmering pale straw color. The bouquet offers penetrating scents of lime and grapefruit, dried tarragon and a scintillating strain of clean earthiness and bright limestone. The wine is very dry, crisp, lively, chalky, with that pert, fresh, taut, damp grassy, bracing salt marsh thing, yet it lies blithely, smoothly on the tongue with its notes of lemon balm and lemon drop, pear and melon. A truly compelling sauvignon blanc, one of the best. The alcohol content is 13 percent. Excellent. About $13, a Phenomenal Value.

Equally enticing is the Ventisquero Reserva Chardonnay 2009, a wine that displays Chablis-like minerality in the limestone/shale range, with a hint of pungent flint, and lovely tones of pineapple and grapefruit with a slight tropical bent. Thirty percent of the wine is fermented in stainless steel with the rest in French oak, approximately 10 percent new barrels; some of the wine — Tosso said, casually, “maybe 15 or 20 percent” — goes through malolactic fermentation. The result is impeccable balance between richness (almost creamy) without ostentation and spareness without aridity; in other words, this chardonnay is earthy and elegant, juicy yet crisply taut, and it just feels damned terrific in the mouth. Excellent, and another Great Value at about $13

The “Grey” label is next to the top-line for Ventisquero. The Single Block “Grey” Chardonnay 2009 is a fine example of the grape from a cool climate, making a wine that exudes confidence and elan and displays great presence and personality. This sees French oak, 50 percent new, and goes through 40 percent malolactic. Again, the limestone-infused Chablis style is indicated, though in the case of “Grey” the manner is hyper-intense and concentrated and fraught with electrifying acidity, though the wine is balanced by lovely ripe and spiced citrus and pear flavors and a modicum of slightly creamy lushness. Another Excellent rating. About $20. How can they sell it so cheaply?

Imported by Austral Wines, Atlanta, Georgia.

Yes, everyone knows that Catena Zapata, in Argentina’s Mendoza region, is best-known for its red wines, particularly made from malbec and cabernet sauvignon grapes, but at the risk of seeming perverse, I want in this post to concentrate on the winery’s chardonnays. I promise that in a few days I will get back to Catena and its history and its red wines. This is, of course, the first in a series of posts that I’ll be working on in the next month or so about the wineries I visited, the wines I encountered and the people I met in Chile and Argentina between Oct. 3 and 12, early Spring south of the Equator.

Bodega Catena Zapata traces its origin to 1902, when Italian immigrant Nicola Catera, gifted with a vision the result of which even he could not have comprehended, planted malbec grapes in Mendoza. The winery is now run by Nicola’s grandson Nicolás and great-grand-daughter, Laura. Chief winemaker since July 2007 has been Alejandro Vigil, though a good word must be put in for young assistant winemaker Pablo Sánchez, who oversees white wine production.

The philosophy at Catena Zapata is to grow grapes in vineyards that push the limits of altitude (if not attitude). Grapes for the Catena label ($16-$22), Catena Alta ($35-$50) and Catena Zapata and Nicolas Catena Zapata ($120) derive from these Andean-foothills vineyards: Angelica, 2,850 feet; La Piramide, 3,100 feet; Domingo, 3,700 feet; Altamira, 3,870 feet; and Adrianna, 5,000 feet; these vineyards, especially Adrianna, are very high for chardonnay. Alcohol levels are kept relatively moderate, with 14.2 percent being the highest. The vineyards — referring to all the grapes here, not just chardonnay — go through the expensive process of four harvests, not to balance the same level of ripeness but to use different levels of ripeness to achieve complexity in the wines.

Catena Zapata’s American importer is Winebow. Images of Nicolás Catena and daughter Laura from

Grapes for the Catena Chardonnay 2009, Mendoza, are from La Piramide, Domingo and Adrianna vineyards. The wine is 100 percent barrel-fermented and aged nine months in French oak barrels, 40 percent of which were new. The color is radiant medium straw-gold; the bouquet is bright, fresh, bold, spicy, moderately tropical in nature and a little sassy for a chardonnay. Flavors of pineapple and mango are borne up by notes of roasted and slightly caramelized pears and peaches, and if you take from that description that the wine is rich and concentrated, you would be correct, but that richness is leavened by a strain of profound limestone-like minerality and tongue-tingling acidity. The Catena Chardonnay 2009 is sleek and smooth, suave, sophisticated, obviously very well-made, yet I cannot go as high as an Excellent rating because my palate feels a bit too much oak on the finish, marring what would otherwise be an impeccable package. Drink now through 2012. The alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Very Good+. About $16, and whatever my caveats may be a Great Value.
The Adrianna Vineyard provides 80 percent of the grapes for the Catena Alta Chardonnay 2008, with the rest derived from the Domingo Vineyard. The wine is barrel-fermented and aged 12 to 16 months in French oak, of which 50 percent were new barrels. No caveats whatever attend my appreciation of this chardonnay; it’s spectacular, by which I don’t mean flamboyant or obtrusive, rather utterly confident, wealthy in dimension, generous in detail and nuance. The color is very pale straw with barely a shade of gold. Penetrating scents of limestone and shale-like minerality lend this chardonnay true Chablisesque purity and intensity; there are touches of roasted lemon and lemon balm (both in nose and mouth), a hint of tangerine and, after a few moments of swirling and sniffing, notes of green grapes, green plums, quince and ginger, the latter two elements also present in the flavor profile. The edgeless balance among scintillating acidity, the wine’s natural lively minerality and the subtlety and suppleness of the oak regimen create a wine that’s racy, stimulating and exciting, certainly among the four or five greatest chardonnay wines I have tasted this year. Drink now through 2015 or ’16, well-stored. 13.9 percent alcohol. Production was 3,000 cases. Exceptional. About $35, and worth every damned penny.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________ For lunch at the winery, chef Lucas Bustos-Garcia prepared a first course of Brie Crostini with quinoa, raisins and sweet corn salad, a tasty and very pretty way to start the meal. Served with this appetizer was the Catena Zapata Adrianna Chardonnay 2006, a limited-production wine, about 300 cases, that would be worth every effort to beg, borrow or steal, if any exists out there in the world. (The wine does not appear on the Catena website, and the only reference I find on the Internet is Tom Cannavan’s, see here.) At a bit more than four years after harvest, this chardonnay is superbly ripe and succulent but quite dry, even a little austere. The oak seems a tad obvious at first, but food and a few minutes in the glass smooth out that influence, leaving flavors of lemon balm, green plums and quince permeated by cloves and sandalwood and an intriguing dusty, leafy quality layered over limestone and salt marsh. (What do I mean? — something clean, bracing, organic, earthy, invigorating, yet smooth and sapid.) So savory was this chardonnay that I saved a few swallows to have with the next course, miniature sweet potato and butternut squash pies, in white ramekins, that concealed diced beef in a juicy broth (see accompanying image). As with the chardonnays from Catena mentioned above, the Catena Zapata Adrianna Chardonnay 2006 is suave, elegant and almost seamless. It could go another four or five years, if stored properly. Excellent, to be sure. Price? I dunno if it was even released. The wine certainly proves, if we needed more evidence, that high-altitude chardonnay can be both classic and individual, and that Adrianna is one of the world’s great vineyards. ________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Beginning Sunday, readers, I’ll be posting to this blog from South America, where Springtime started about three weeks ago. Specifically, I’ll be visiting wineries in Chile and Argentina for about 10 days. I’ll be back home on October 14. I was in Chile before, in 1999, but I have not been to Argentina, so I’m looking forward to tasting good wine, meeting interesting people and learning about the culture. Hasta la vista!

Image of South America from

Dear Readers, beginning Monday — or Sunday if I can manage — I’ll be posting from Asti, a central city in Piedmont, where I will
be attending the Barbera Meeting 2010 with a group of American wine bloggers. In addition to the festival or conference, we’ll be visiting prominent estates that produce the three “B” wines of Piedmont — Barbera, Barolo and Barbaresco — and eating some fine meals. There’s an official blog, of course.

I’ve traveled and tasted and dined in Tuscany, Umbria and the Veneto, but not Piedmont, so I’m looking forward to this trip a great deal, for the landscape, history and culture, for the wine and food, and for the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas, as well as japes, jests and jabs to the arm, with some fellow bloggers.

Until Monday, then, or Sunday, after a long flight to Amsterdam and then to Milan.

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.
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.
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.

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)
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.
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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