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Surprising Portugal
By Michael Apstein
May 31, 2016
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Although my predictions lack the consistency of Nate Silver’s, I will stick my neck out and say that Portuguese wines will be the next “hot” item in the US wine market even though pronunciation issues may be an impediment.  After spending a week in Portugal judging at the 2016 Concurso Vinhos de Portugal (Wines of Portugal Challenge), tasting a vast array of Portuguese wines (including Port, of course, but also a bevy of hearty reds and refreshing whites) and discussing them with Portuguese winemakers and wine judges from around the world, I came away thinking that Portuguese wines are poised to take-off, much as Italian wines did 30-plus years ago.

The popularity of Italian wine has been helped by the enormous number of Italian restaurants in the US that invariably showcase them and the significant percentage of the US population with Italian roots.  Though Portuguese wines lack those inherent marketing advantages, I believe they will still gain enthusiastic support because they are unique and they offer great value.  Their uniqueness stems from Portuguese winemakers relying on autochthonous grape varieties, avoiding the monotony of the so-called international varieties.  Their value stems largely from their being on no one’s radar--yet.  

Let’s start with the obvious, Port.  Though there may be Chardonnay- or Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines from the New World that compete with the best of those from Europe, nothing labeled “port” from the New World comes anywhere close to the real thing.  Of course, vintage Port is the most prestigious category--and the 2011s from the top houses such as Taylor, Fonseca, or Quinta do Noval, to name just three, are stupendous.  Quite frankly, though, when I want a glass of Port, I invariably turn to a 20-year old Tawny.  Aged Tawny Port is very “user-friendly.”  Open the bottle, pour a glass, re-cork, repeat daily as often as necessary--or until the bottle is empty.  No decanting and no worrying about whether the open bottle will “keep.”

Aged Tawny has been aged in wood barrels for a decade or more.  During the prolonged aging, the sediment is deposited in the barrel.  Hence, no need to decant and since the wine has already been exposed to air for decades, keeping the bottle open for another month or two will not harm it significantly.  At the blind tasting during the 2016 Concurso Vinhos de Portugal, Graham’s and Sandeman’s 20-year old Tawnies were my favorites.  Taylor’s 20-year old, which was not entered in the competition, is another consistently great aged Tawny.  I never thought of aged Tawny as a summertime drink until I had dinner once with Adrian Bridge, the CEO of the Fladgate Partnership.  He suggested keeping a bottle in the refrigerator and pouring a glass while sitting on the porch in the evening.  That was great advice, which I’m happy to pass on.

By far, the largest surprise for me was the pure enjoyment and stature of aged white Port.  My previous experience suggested that it was best mixed with soda or tonic, ice and a sprig of mint and served as a refreshing cocktail.  But then I was introduced to well-aged white Ports, from Dalva, a firm dating from the mid-19th century.  They were staggeringly good.  I liked them so much, I actually bought a bottle each of their 10-year and 40-year old white Port, which meant, of course, that I needed to check my bag for the return trip--a hassle, but worth it, which is high praise indeed. 

Aged white Port is made the same way as aged Tawny Port--extended barrel aging--and frankly it’s hard to distinguish between the 40-year olds by color because the 40-year old white Port takes on a caramel-like color while the Tawny’s color after 40 years in the barrel has faded even more.  Dalva’s 10-year, especially chilled, is a refreshing aperitif by itself, whereas their 40-year is marvelous after a meal or in lieu of dessert--a perfectly balanced mixture of nutty, savory and sweet flavors that expands in the glass and has a seemingly never ending and refined finish.

Vinho Verde, an area in the north of Portugal bordering Spain, is well known for its white wines, especially those made from the Alvarinho grape.  They are remarkably similar to the wines from Rías Baixas, made from the same grape (Albariño in Spanish) just across the border in Galicia.  They have an invigorating edginess that makes for easy summertime sipping.  And they are typically very well priced, which turns out to be a recurring theme when speaking about Portuguese wines.

Another surprise for me was the delightful array and exceptional quality of Portuguese white wines in addition to those from Vinho Verde.  Most are made with indigenous Portuguese grapes, unknown to most of the rest of the world and certainly to us Americans.  But no need to fret, for, with the exception of Alvarinho, grape names usually do not appear on the label.  Eugénio Jardim, the Wines of Portugal U.S. ambassador, astutely notes that Portugal is a “vertical” country whose climate and topography vary enormously from the cool northwest (Vinho Verde) to the hot and dry south (Algarve).  Jardim notes that most wines are made from a blend of grapes and the Portuguese themselves are accustomed to ordering wine by region--Dão, Douro, Tejo, Alentejo, just to name a few of the many DOPs--not by grape name.

Take, for example, the 2014 Ramos-Pinto “Duas Quintas” (90, $13), a bargain of a white wine from the Douro that marries subtle tropical fruit flavors, a creamy texture and a riveting precision from a blend of Viosinho, Malvasia Fina, Gouveio, and Rabigato.  Makes sense to me to refer to it as a white Douro.  Or from the Alentejo, the simply named 2013 Pêra-Manca (94, $40), a masterful blend of Antão Vaz and Arinto that translates into a full-bodied wine with stone fruit-like flavors, a touch of spice and superb, bracing acidity that makes it easy to enjoy throughout a meal.

Surprise!  Portuguese sparkling wines, especially those labeled with the new (one-year old), Baga Bairrada designation, are excellent.  Cava, move over.

The Bairrada region, located between Lisbon and Oporto, is known for three things:  Incredibly succulent roast suckling pig (leitão, which is, as far as I’m concerned, the second most important word in the Portuguese language, after obrigado), two-thirds of Portugal’s sparkling wine, which happens to be the perfect match for the above mentioned dish, and the red Baga grape, known for its ability to maintain acidity even as it ripens.  The Bairrada Wine Commission established the Baga Bairrada project with rigorous regulations, which include mandatory protracted lees aging and the exclusive use of the Baga grape for their sparkling wines, to highlight the distinctiveness of the white sparkling wines made from this red grape.  The high-quality local cooperative, Adega Cooperativa de Cantanhede, which has 700 grower members and controls 2,500 acres, makes a fine example labeled Marquês de Marialva Blanc de Noir.  Any of the Baga Bairrada sparking wines will be hard to find since the total annual output from these seven producers is only 200,000 bottles, representing barely five percent of the region’s sparkling wine output.  But they are definitely worth the search.  I predict as the category catches on, the public will demand more of these distinctive wines and other producers will climb aboard the Baga Bairrada train before it leaves the station.

Though the dry red wines from the Douro have received praise, the reds from other parts of Portugal can also be stunning--and again, provide excellent value. 

The 2013 Pedra Cancela Reserva (90, $10) from the Dão is a steal--a wine to buy by the case.  A solid red, it delivers a charming rusticity and a hint of savory elements.  Fresh and lively, it’s perfect for grilled meats or burgers.

Baga is used either by itself, or as part of a blend in many Bairrada still red wines. Luís Lopes, the founder of Revista de Vinhos, the country’s leading wine magazine, describes Baga as one of “the most durable grapes in Portugal.”  He explains that the grape provides richness and power to the wine without sacrificing acidity, a component that is vital in providing structure and balance. João Caldeira, the administrator of the Companhia da Lezírias, a fine producer located in Tejo, describes Baga as “our Nebbiolo.”  Though Baga is prominently displayed on the label of Aliança’s 2009 Bairrada (91, $26), the producer moderates its power beautifully by blending it with Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz to produce an elegant wine.  Its wild herbal “garrigue” character is reminiscent of a well-made Rhone.  An enchanting fruity/savory balance coupled with extraordinary freshness makes is another winner for the summer grilling season. 

The bottom line?  It’s time to start learning a little Portuguese.

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Email me your thoughts about Portuguese wines at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein
June 1, 2016