Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Viva Vini Portugal!

For my generation, Portuguese table wines are forever linked to Mateus, that off-dry rosé that introduced so many of us to wine drinking (or wine-bingeing), along with such classics as Blue Nun and the faux-German Schloss Laderheim.  Oh yes, they still make it by the way.

But if you’re giving Portuguese wines a pass because you still think that they’re just about cheap rosé, then you’re missing one of the most interesting revolutions in Old World winemaking.

For many years, like other southern European wine regions, Portugal relied on co-operatives for the production of table wines.  Historically, with few exceptions, co-operatives focussed on domestic consumption, promoting quantity over quality to keep growers in business and cheap wine on the table at home.  Making things worse, the government set strict controls on winemaking, stifling innovation and the pursuit of excellence.

We've seen that change in the last 20 years.  The result is gradual shift to:
  • investments in modern winemaking equipment and techniques
  • favouring quality over quantity
  • promoting independent winemakers at the expense of co-operatives

OK, this same story is playing out in many southern European regions.  What’s different about Portugal?

To answer that question, you have to understand the Portuguese:  reserved by nature, fiercely independent and proud of their heritage.  (The Portuguese no more like to regarded as "just like the Spanish" than Canadians like to be confused with Americans).

In winemaking, this national pride manifests itself in the devotion to Portugal’s 300 indigenous grape varieties:  Touriga Nacional, Baga, Alicante Bouschet, Trincadeira among the reds; Alvarinho, Loureiro, Encruzado, and Bical among the whites.  Even Tempranillo is not Tempranillo in Portugal, it’s Tinta Roriz or (in some regions) Aragonês.

Nature has blessed Portugal with a variety of climates:  On the Atlantic coast, there’s a Maritime climate with cool breezes and lots of precipitation.  From the south comes the Mediterranean climate:  hot and dry in the summer, mild in the winter.  Along the Spanish border, there’s the Continental climate with its hot summers and cool winters, and larger temperature swings from day to night.

Add the wide variety of soils and the result is a multitude of terroirs.  This gives Portugal the opportunity to produce a wide variety of wine styles and they take advantage of it.  It might not seem easy to pin down Portugal.  But what’s the fun in that?

If, like me, you like wines that are “off the beaten track”, Portugal offers new and exciting experiences at very reasonable prices.  So when an invitation to a tasting of Portuguese wines dropped into my Inbox recently, I jumped at the chance to go.

Hosted by Wines of Portugal and ably led by Sara d’Amato, we tasted our way through 2 whites and 7 reds, followed by a white and 2 more reds with lunch at the restaurant, Play.  Most of these wines are typically Old World:  made to consume with food but there are a few that are more New World in style, just fine for sipping on their own.  But we tasted a couple of wines blended with Cabernet Sauvignon.  It just goes to show that even Portuguese winemakers can make the mistake of straying from the natural advantage that their indigenous varietals give them.  Does the world really need more Cabernet Sauvignon?

Each of the wines we tasted passed through the LCBO or Vintages in the past year.  Some may still be available if you check, except the last wine, where the 2007 vintage is now available at a much higher price.  (Organizers of tastings should put more focus on upcoming arrivals.)

Next time you’re at your liquor store, check out something different:  the new wines from Portugal.

Quinta da Aveleda 2011, Vinho Verde; $9.95; 11.5% ABV
A blend of Loureiro and Alvarinho.  Fermented and aged (on its lees) in stainless steel.  Filtered.  Citrus, grassy, and floral on the nose with citrus dominating on the plate.  Terrifically fresh acidity with a good finish.  I had a sudden craving for grilled sardines drizzled with olive oil.

Planalto Reserva Vinho Branco Seco 2012, Douro; $14.95; 12.5% ABV
A blend of Malvasia Fina, Viosinho, Gouveio, and Codega, all indigenous to Douro.  Aromas of white peach and flowers with peach and pear in the flavours.  Light-bodied, dry with a slightly oily mouthfeel.  Another great match with seafood.

Alianca Bairrada Reserva Sangalhos 2010, Bairrada; $8.75; 12% ABV
Mostly Baga, a grape variety that typically yields wines with high acidity and tannins.  That’s certainly the case here.  Aromas of red cherry and plums, with the tannins leaving a agreeably bitter aftertaste.  No oak.  As the price indicates, it’s an entry-level wine.  It's made to go with pizza.  

Quinta Dos Roques Vinho Tinto 2009, Dao; $15.95; 13.5% ABV
A blend of Touriga Nacional, Jaen, Alfrocheiro, and Tinta Roriz.  Fermented in stainless steel vats with selected yeasts.  Maceration for 15 days.  Aged in French oak barrels for 9 months.  Filtered.  The aromas were somewhat muted, but red cherry and raspberry, flowers, and tar did come through.  Flavours of red fruits and a bit of spice, with both medium high acidity and tannins.  It’s another wine made to drink with food, such as a meaty stew.

Quinta Da Nespereira Vineaticu 2008, Dao; $18.95; 14% ABV
A blend of Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz.  Aromas of blackberries, spices, and herbs.  Less austere than its predecessors, this will appeal to those with a New World palate (it’s comparatively jammy).  Firm tannins.  Aged for 6 months in French oak.

Alvaro Castro Red 2008; Dao; $16.95; 13% ABV
A blend of Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz.  Aromas and flavours of black cherry and spices.  Rounder and softer mouthfeel than its predecessors; another wine that approaches a New World style.

Esporao Reserva Red 2009; Alentejo; $25.95; 14.5% ABV
A blend of Aragonês, Trincadeira, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Alicante Bouschet.  (I’ll let you guess which grape variety is not indigenous to Portugal.)  This is the wine that Vintages thinks should be the benchmark for Portuguese wine; it’s on the Essentials list.  As I recall from visits to Portugal, it’s also one of the most widely available wines in restaurants there.  Aromas of dark cherry, spice, and vanilla with a whack of alcohol.  Again, it’s a rounder, softer mouthfeel with jammy flavours of plum, black cherry, and vanilla.  It’s an obvious attempt to appeal to a New World palate.  Nothing distinctive from oodles of other jammy wines.  Each grape variety handpicked and vinified separately.  Fermented with cultured yeasts in open tanks, followed by Malolactic conversion in stainless steel tanks.  Aged 12 months in French (30%) and American (70%) oak barrels, than another 12 months in bottle before release.

Contraste Red 2008; Douro; $15.35; 13.7% ABV
A blend of Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, and Sousao.  Aged in French oak (70%) for 18 months.  Aromas of plum, blackberries, and black olive.  Medium acidity and grippy tannins that should soften with more aging.  If you’re patient, then this will go well with braised meat; if not, then grill a steak.

Quinta Do Infantado Red 2009; Douro; $17.85; 14% ABV
Here’s a wine that mimics the nose and flavours of a port.  Aromas of plum, cherry, blueberry, liquorice, and chocolate, which all show up in the flavours.  Soft tannins, good acidity, and a moderately long but somewhat harsh finish.

Quinta Da Garrida Reserva White 2010; Dao; $14.95; 13.5% ABV
Encruzado, an indigenous variety.  40% barrel fermentation in French oak, then aged for 3 months.  Aromas of peach and white flowers, with flavours of peach, golden apples, and minerality.  Medium-high acidity with a slightly bitter aftertaste, which I like.  Served with beets, spinach, quinoa, blackberry, blue cheese, and star anise.

Bacalhoa Tinto Da Anfora 2009, Alentejo; $11.95; 14% ABV
A blend of Aragonês, Trincadeira, Touriga Nacional, and (sigh) Cabernet Sauvignon.  Each grape variety fermented and aged separately, then blended.  Aged 12 months in oak barrels.  Aromas of black cherries, with blackberry joining them on the flavours.  Served with Cassoulet (chorizo, white beans, arugula).  Simple dish, simple wine, both well prepared.

Quinta do Portal Grande Reserva 2006; Douro; $28.95; 14% ABV
A blend of Touriga Nacional (50%), Tinto Roriz (35%), and Touriga Franca (15%).  Handpicked.  Maceration and fermentation in stainless steel tanks, followed by Malolactic fermentation.  Aged 14 months in new French oak.  Aromas and flavours of plum, cherry, liquorice, and chocolate.  Soft tannins.  You can put this one in the cellar for a few more years.  Served with Chocolate Pâté, Pink Peppercorns, Dried Cherry, and Caramel Chantilly.  It’s quite similar to Port (but without the sweetness).  Vintages recently released the 2007 at $49.  Quite the price hike from $29, but I guess that’s what a high score (93) from Parker can do for you.

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