Calgary Wine Life: Wines of Portugal Tasting @ Market

7 11 2013

It appears to be Underappreciated Wine Region Month here at Pop & Pour.  Last week I was exposed to the new wave of bottlings coming out of the southern Italian island of Sicily; this week it was Portugal, another unheralded European wine area, that was aiming to bring its remarkable wines to the attention of international export markets.  I got the opportunity to sit in on a guided tasting put on by the Wines of Portugal and led by energetic and well-versed sommelier extraordinaire DJ Kearney, who brought us up to speed on everything from the number of indigenous grape varieties found in Portugal (250+) to the proper pronunciation of key Portuguese wine terms (hint:  if it ends in an E, don’t pronounce the E, no matter how much you want to).  The tasting was held at Market Restaurant on 17th Avenue, which I had never been to before but which proceeded to serve us an absolutely stellar three-course lunch that will be reason enough to bring me back very soon.

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It was sort of fitting that I got to experience Portugal’s wine story after sitting in on Sicily’s, because the two regions have much in common.  Both are home to large numbers of local grape varietals that are barely found anywhere else, and both have made the conscious choice to embrace these lesser-known grapes and focus their quality production around them.  As a result of a lack of name recognition and a dearth of critical attention on these under-the-radar wines, both can offer tremendous value for money for those consumers brave enough to take the plunge (I think Portugal might win the worldwide gold medal for these kinds of bargains).  And both tend to focus more on wines that are blends of multiple different grapes as opposed to single varietal offerings, with Portuguese wine in particular almost always a group vinous effort as opposed to a solo act.  Kearney channeled her inner Wino Karl Marx when talking blending, urging us through these wines to shed the shackles of varietal typicity and embrace the communal symphony of these intrepid groups of local grapes (featuring reds Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz [aka Tempranillo] and Baga, and whites Alvarinho [aka Albarino], Arinto, Encruzado and many more) all working together to make something greater than themselves.

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The tasting was a bit of a lightning round, given that we had 10 wines to get through before lunch, so as a result my notes were somewhat scattered and incomplete.  What was clear throughout is that all of these wines were of consistently high quality and all of them absolutely crushed their price points.  This was good news for me, because unlike the Sicilian wines last week, these Portuguese offerings are nearly all available in the local Alberta market.  I strongly suggest that you try to find them.  The focus of the event was largely on the country’s table wines, which are receiving much more of an export push at the moment with worldwide sales of fortified wines like Port currently on a general decline; if the wines on display at Market are any indication, this increased attention is very well deserved.  Here are some (hopefully brief) thoughts on each:

Wine #1:  Mateus Rose (Welcome Wine!)

Yes, we started the tasting off with a Mateus toast…and with instructions that we weren’t allowed to spit.  This is actually the second time I have formally reviewed and written up the all-powerful and cosmically popular Mateus, the first being when the rose was wine of the night at the PnP April Fools’ Day Tasting, beating out such luminaries as Baby Duck and Black Tower in the process.  First created in 1942, Mateus is one of the most popular wines of all time, and at the height of its popularity in the 1980s, it represented a whopping 40% of Portugal’s total wine exports.  In recent years, in response to changing tastes, the wine’s once-prominent sweetness has been toned down, and the current rendition is actually quite drinkable.  Spritzy, with a bright salmon colour, the Mateus went down pretty easily with its pink lemonade and raspberry flavours and — dare I say — even a hint of minerality?  Much like I remembered…tasted twice, with consistent notes?

84-85- points

image-8Wine #2:  2011 Quinta do Ameal Branco Seco (Vinho Verde)

Grapes:  100% Loureiro

I haven’t previously been a Vinho Verde fan and have been generally pretty bored with the water-white, clean and eminently neutral examples of the wines I’ve tried from the northwest coastal region.  But I’ve never tried a VV like this before.  A pale lemon green in the glass, it was powerfully aromatic, with sharp, green, citrus notes almost assaulting the senses.  It smelled like acidity, which it then delivered in cheek-puckering style along with piercing minerality and every kind of green flavour you can think of:  parsley, grass, lime, even honeydew melon.  Looking back at these notes now, I realize that they read as a fairly standard Vinho Verde description (VV literally translates to “green wine”, although this term is meant in the sense of “young wine”), but this was a much more serious effort than I had ever seen from the region.  It wasn’t a patio wine; it had structure and power and a vivid arctic identity.  Eye-opening for sure, especially because you can grab it in town for $12.

86-88 points

Wine #3:  2009 Coreto Branco (Lisboa)

Grapes:  Fernao Pires, Arinto, Chardonnay, Moscatel

This was one of the few wines we tried that featured international varietals in the blend, albeit in a supporting role to local stars Fernao Pires and Arinto.  It was also the wine that caught me the most off guard, as it strikingly reminded me of an old and dear friend:  Riesling.  With rubber/elastic bands, petrol/diesel and tire tread aromas pulsating around a core of lemon curd fruit, it instantly brought to mind visions of younger Clare Valley Riesling from Australia or a more mature version of its vinous counterpart from Austria.  Fuller in body but with a powerful streak of acid, the Coreto added liniment, iodine and stony notes to the secondary flavour set on the palate, all of which stay with you for a long time on an incredibly extended finish.  I could drink this every day and never get tired of it.

88-89+ points

Wine #4:  2010 Niepoort Dialogo (Douro)

Grapes:  Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz

This wine and its producer are both already in high rotation in the Alberta wine scene.  The Dialogo is Niepoort’s entry-level table red ($15ish), features an absolutely stunning label and is the epitome of cheap and cheerful easy-drinking red wine. From the Douro region in northern Portugal, the famed zone which also is the home of Port, this is a blend of the main red grapes that find their way into Niepoort’s more famous fortified wines.  Translucent purple in colour, this one is almost all about fruit, an explosion of pure jammy cherry accented slightly by vanilla and toasty oak, baking spice and bay leaf.  It keeps itself in check thanks to dusty tannins that hit their peak as you swallow and makes it easy to pour yourself another glass.

86-87 points

Wine #5:  2007 & 2000 Caves Sao Joao Reserva (Bieras)

Grapes:  50% Baga, 50% Touriga Nacional

Beiras is a larger region just south of the Douro in northern Portugal that contains two fairly well-known subregions, Dao and Bairrada.  The star grape of the area is the gloriously fun-to-say Baga (Baga!), which Kearney aptly likened to Italy’s Nebbiolo due to its frightening structure and remarkable complexity and ageability.  Traditional-style wines made with 100% Baga often have to be laid down for at least 20 (!!) years before being approachable enough to drink, and one modern way to tame the Baga beast has been to blend it with the much softer, fruitier, more open Touriga Nacional.  I can advise that while this dilution approach might reduce Baga’s impenetrability a bit, it by no means domesticates this powerful grape:  even after 6 years, the 2007 Caves Sao Joao was huge, tannic and structured.  At the same time, however, it was deep and intriguing, a gorgeous ruby-purple with a glorious array of flavours:  tobacco leaf, cedar, pavement, black fruit, chocolate, raisin, chlorine.  I had no problem imagining coming back to the bottle in 2027 to see where it was at.

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Luckily, there was a bonus pre-aged bottle produced for the tasting, the 2000 vintage of the Caves Sao Joao, which allowed us to hit fast forward on the wine’s maturation clock.  The elder wine had a much more delicate garnet colour and potent animal/gamey/charcuterie aromas, which mixed with less appealing notes of sweat and saddle leather.  The wine was clearly affected with brettanomyces (or brett for short), a type of yeast that creates these types of barnyard-y, body odour-y smells in the wine.  Some people appreciate brett for the added complexity it lends wines, and some producers actively intend to produce brett-affected wine and court these types of resulting flavours; others feel that brett is a contaminant that spoils the natural flavours of the wine.  I’m somewhere in the middle of this debate, but for me the brettanomyces-induced notes were a little too much in this particular offering; I suspect that the 2007 Caves Sao Joao, which did not seem to contain any traces of brett, would age and develop quite differently.  However, both the 2007 and the 2000 are available on the Alberta market, and both apparently are in the $20 range, which is absolutely insane — the types and depth of flavours I was pulling off the 2007 could have come from a $60+ Barolo.

89-90+ points (2007) / 87-88 points (2000)

Wine #6:  2009 Herdade de Esporao Reserva (Alentejo)

Grapes:  Aragones, Trincadeira, Cabernet Sauvignon, Alicante Bouchet

Alentejo, a rather large region east of Lisbon, was described as the “California of Portugal” in terms of the wines it produces:  big, powerful, and juicy, very much New World in style.  This bottle caused a touch of controversy at the tasting for possibly going too far down the modern/international wine path for some tastes (note the presence of global kingpin Cabernet in the blend), and it was not shy about doing so:  made by an Aussie winemaker, the Esporao came across very much like Shiraz, deep purple in colour and tasting of ripe black fruit, prominent oak and eucalyptus/mint.  Just like the Dialogo above, it was restrained, maybe even saved, by the streak of dusty tannins that gripped down just in time on the finish.  Some commented that the Cab component in the blend predominated or that the wine lacked a real “Portuguese” identity; at this price point (under $25), and for the likely target demographic (casual wine drinkers in export markets), I wasn’t as fussed about that…it was likely not created as a statement piece about Portugal’s wine identity but was probably more simply geared to go great with a big steak.

86-87+ points

image-10Wine #7:  2008 Quinta de Chocapalha Tinto (Lisboa)

Grapes:  Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Syrah

The winemaker at Quinta de Chocapalha is a former model who strives to put a modern spin on Portugal’s traditional grapes.  This wine ended up being a good bridge between Old World and New World style:  it was a similar purple to the Esporao above but was much less extracted and opaque, and it still featured ample generosity of fruit but was balanced nicely by a rustic earthiness, high acidity and a prominent tannin structure.  I thought this would only improve with some time in the glass and that it would particularly sing with food.

87-88 points

Wine #8:  2010 CARM Reserva (Douro)

Grapes:  Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional

I’ve had a long-standing love affair with the CARM Reserva:  I’ve written it up here at Pop & Pour and recommended it in Culinaire magazine, have bought it multiple times over many vintages and have given it as a present more than most other bottles.  It was the priciest table wine we tried at $40, but it backs up its price tag with tremendous purity of fruit (blueberry, blackberry), a mouthfeel that is somehow both plush and light on its feet and a subtle but powerful structure.  The hallmark of almost all Portuguese reds is that they combine high acid and tannin levels with such gorgeous juicy fruit that you almost forget the tannic/acidic skeleton of the wine is there, even as it seamlessly keeps the wine on course.  Clove, nutmeg and cinnamon spice lead into the characteristically dusty finish that I’ve already described 2 or 3 times above, a mixture of sunbaked earth and talcum powder which Kearney described as “Douro biscuit:  jam on hot rocks and dust” and then ingeniously followed up with “digestive cookie or Arrowroot biscuit”.  Put all of those tastes and smells together and you’re getting close.  To me, CARM is a standard-bearer for Portuguese dry red wine; it was incredible to get a small sense at the tasting of how much else is out there to be discovered, but at the end of the voyage it’s fun to come home too.

89-91 points

We finished off the tasting — of course — with a glass of Port, the Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old Tawny (which I fervently hope you’ve all tried…if not, it’s worth tracking down).  It was an ideal end to an excellent tasting, but I would prefer to leave the focus on the table wines above rather than the one Portuguese export with which everyone is already familiar.  Thanks to this tasting experience, I will without question be making more of an effort to acquaint myself with what else this all-too-often overlooked wine nation has to offer.  Obrigado, Wines of Portugal!

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