Encontro com Vinhos e Sabores 2018: 10 Most Impressive Portuguese Wines

Revista de Vinhos

Rocking my wine world: Ten Portuguese wines

On Monday, at Encontro com Vinhos e Sabores 2018 in Lisbon, I was extremely honoured to be asked by Revista de Vinhos to present the 10 Portuguese wines which have impressed me the most since I started tasting Portuguese wine.

I first visited Portugal’s wine regions in 2004 and it is no exaggeration to say that, since then, there has been a revolution in wine growing and wine making. I feel privileged to have been in the box seat, witnessing a great burst of confidence and creativity.

It is why it both pained and thrilled me to make the selection.  It pained me, because there were so many terrific wines from which to choose.  And it thrilled me for the same reason!  There were so many terrific wines from which to choose.  Even compared with 2010, when I chose my 50 Great Portuguese Wines for an annual tasting in the UK organised by Wines of Portugal.

So what to do? Just ten!  Inevitably, what most impressed me has a personal resonance. Since I am drawn to the dynamic and the diverse, those wines which have impressed me most stand out because they have a strong sense of identity.  It differentiates them on the global stage and, within Portugal, by region, sub-region or site.

Portuguese grapes, but also terroir expression, are key to this point of difference, so I never want to see either of them obscured by oak or over-extracted, overripe fruit. Linked to this, I am drawn to freshness – an edge of tannin and acidity, for me the structure which supports and lifts terroir expression and helps define and tease out layers of complexity, giving energy and life to a wine.

As for dynamism, all six of the white wines and two of the four red wines did not exist when I first visited Portugal in 2004, although grapes for Wine & Soul’s maiden Guru would have been almost ready to pick.

My selection includes pioneering wines which have pushed stylistic boundaries and shattered stereotypes. The spectacular revolution in Portuguese white winemaking in particular is reflected in the fact that six of my 10 wines are white wines.

Forging new paths and perceptions for Portuguese wines, my 10 wines stand on the shoulders of others, whom I’ll sneakily name drop.  A good number draw on that most consummate of Portuguese  skills – the art of blending, which has achieved worldwide recognition thanks to Portugal’s fortified wines, especially Port and Madeira.

Since 2004, there have also been fresh trends and exciting innovations in the fortified sector.  Take the rise of Very Old Tawny Port (spearheaded by Taylor’s Scion) and introduction of the age-dated white Port category (pioneered by Andresen).  Or, in Madeira, the rise of Terrantez (including age dated examples from Henriques & Henriques and Blandy’s), the en-nobling of Tinta Negra and return of Bastardo (step forward Barbeito).  Outside these classical strengths, we have seen a revival of Carcavelos and Baga Licoroso DOC Bairrada – thanks to Villa d’Oeiras, Filipa Pato and Quinta das Bageiras.

However, with just 10 wines to select, I focused on (unfortified) wine because it is the area in which I have seen the most dynamism and innovation and where Portugal is still forging its reputation on the world stage.  I felt it deserved to be in the spotlight, but I shall continue to write about both and look forward to keeping you posted on these pages and in my new monthly column for Revista de Vinhos, which starts next year.

Here are my ten wines which, as you’ll see from my notes, are a springboard to highlight exciting trends which I have seen unfold this last 14 years.  My tasting notes are from earlier tastings, but I have indicated how the wines showed on Monday in italics.  It was so enjoyable to see some of the older vintages once more and see how beautifully they had evolved!

Aphros Daphne Loureiro 2016 (Lima, Vinho Verde)

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Vasco Croft of Aphros

When I first came to Portugal, in some regions, including Vinho Verde, stellar producers were thin on the ground.  Pedro Arujao and Anselmo Mendes at Quinta do Ameal had pioneered fine, age-worthy Loureiro in the Lima sub-region.  However, whilst neighbouring Monção e Melgaço enjoyed a growth spurt of ambitious Alvarinho producers keen to follow in the footsteps of Mendes and Quinta de Soalheiro, others were slow to follow Ameal’s example with Loureiro.

Vasco Croft at Aphros puts the dynamic into biodynamic – he has compensated, making several ambitious wines with Loureiro since starting to make wine in 2005 at his family’s estate – Quinta do Casal do Paço.

Daphne is my favourite cuvee.  I well remember tasting the first vintage – the 2011 – over three days.  I was just blown away by its purity, poise and depth.  Quietly powerful it exuded minerality, commanding my attention. The 2016 shares its intensity and presence.

What I also like very much about this wine is that it highlights a really exciting trend which I have seen develop in Portugal – the revival of select techniques grounded in tradition:

  • Cultivating the vines organically, without recourse to synthetic chemicals, Aphros has been certified biodynamic since 2011
  • Daphne underwent skin contact for 14 hours
  • It was fermented and ageing in chesnut wood & concrete (egg), as well as French oak

Tasting notes: Tasted in February and May 2018, Daphne 2016 has a commanding presence on the palate – great stillness, yet it radiates power – Loureiro/terroir vibes!  It is salty, firm, mineral and precise, very long and insistent.  Looking very fresh and limpid at my presentation this month.  All Atlantic restraint.  12%

Azores Wine Company Terrantez do Pico 2017 (IG Açores)

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Azores Wine Company Terrantez do Pico 2017

Whereas Ameal had highlighted the potential of Loureiro some years before I first tasted their wines in 2004, I had not even heard of Terrantez do Pico, let alone tasted it.  The samples I was sent from the island in 2012 when I was consulting on the current 7th edition of The World Atlas of Wine for Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson MW gave no clue either.

So I was totally blind-sided by my first taste of an Azorean dry table wine made by Fita Preta’s Antonio Macanita.  It was 2014 and that wine was the 2013 Arinto dos Açores, which variety I’d not heard of either!

There has been no revolution more seismic than in the Azores whose volcanic soils and harsh, salt-riven Atlantic climate produces wines which scream terroir!  Like a force of nature in a bottle, where Aphros Daphne shows restrained Atlantic influence, Azores Wine Company’s Terrantez do Pico has explosive Atlantic influence.

I chose this wine because it was Terrantez do Pico that first captured António Maçanita’s imagination when he found out about a project on Sấo Miguel to recover local grapes, led by Engª Susana Mestre and supported by the Regional Secretariat for Natural Resources.

Macanita’s first Azorean wine – Fita Preta Terrantez do Pico 2010 – set him on a collision course with Filipe Rocha and Paulo Machado, with whom he founded Azores Wine Company (AWC) in 2014.  Together, they have been the whip crackers behind the archipelago’s modern wine renaissance & contributed to potentially myth-busting research about the origin of Verdelho, Terrantez do Pico, Arinto dos Acores.

Despite its name, this wine comes from São Miguel island where at least 1.5 ha of new plantations of  Terrantez do Pico have recently been planted by Engª Susana Mestre at  Azores government Agriculture Department, in S. Miguel island, building on original planting of just 89 vines.

The soils in Ponta Delgada could not be more different from Pico.  The island is much greener and the older soils potassium rich and fertile.  However, thrillingly, the success of AWC has encouraged Pico producers to reclaim their grape and it is being replanted there in traditional vineyards, surrounded by currais.

So this wine highlights two terrific trends in Portugal:

  • the re-discovery of overlooked native grapes; and
  • the unleashing of their potential using a clever blend of traditional and contemporary techniques

Tasting notes: Bristling with energy still after day two, I couldn’t bear to tip the rest of the bottle away when I tasted it one Thursday in August this year with AWC’s other 2017 whites (reported here, where you will also find an article I wrote for The World of Fine Wine about the Azores).  So I decanted it into a smaller bottle and came back to it after a weekend away.  It was quite stupendous on day four! As I’ve come to expect, AWC’s Terrantez do Pico has a spicy, tannic edge and a briny, earthier saltiness than the Verdelho (saline) or typically rock salt flecked Arinto dos Acores.  Flavours of salted lemon, roasted lime and salsify add to its idiosyncratic profile. Quite unique, with terrific palate presence and mouthwatering length and drive through the finish.  12% 803 bottles produced.   Looking super briny and textural on Monday at my presentation, with terrific force of personality and persistence, it put me in mind of Maçanita’s comments about the influence of volcanic soil’s high potassium levels – it gives them “a fat sensation—a density in the mouth” that, he told me, “is useful in the Azores, because it lowers the perception of acidity, which is naturally high.” Just 25% of the must was fermented in oak barrels for 9 months, with battônage once a week.

Filipa Pato & William Wouters Nossa Calcario Branco 2015 (DOC Bairrada)

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Filipa Pato, wine grower & wine maker

On my first visit to Bairrada in 2004, I met Filipa Pato at a tasting of her father, Luis Pato’s wines.  Luis almost single-handedly put Bairrada on the map with his sophisticated Baga reds.

Until recently, Baga has very much over-shadowed Bairrada’s white wines, though Luis has long made very accomplished and ageworthy examples and I included Quinta das Bageiras Garrafeira 2007 in my selection of 50 Great Portuguese Wines in 2010.  Still looking fabulous, incidentally, when I tasted it at Bageiras with Mario Sergio Nunes in September.

Since my 50 Great selection, the white wine from Bairrada that, for me, has really pushed boundaries – all the way to French three Michelin-starred restaurants – is this wine.  With its beautiful, silky texture, freshness and minerality, so many sommeliers mention it in the same breath as fine Burgundy.

First made in 2008, like Burgundy, it comes from chalky clay soil, hence the name – Calcario.  Specifically, the chalky clay mid-slopes of Ois de Bairro. But there’s a less obvious similarity to Burgundy which I wanted to highlight by including Nossa Calcario in my 10 wines.  Filipa and her Belgian husband and partner in wine, William Wouters, live next door to the vineyard and live above the cellar.

They represent a new generation of producers who, like so many of Burgundy’s top producers, tend their own vineyards as well as making the wine.  It’s why, Filipa told me, “I don’t like to say I’m a winemaker, I’m a wine grower who grows grapes and makes the wine.”

Being so close to the vineyard has helped Filipa and William convert their vineyards to biodynamic cultivation and get to know them better.  In consequence, I’ve seen their wines become even more refined, whilst remaining “authentic wines without make up” – a brilliant phrase which Filipa coined.

This shift towards wine growing is important for another reason.  To stem the flow of younger people leaving the countryside to work in Lisboa and Oporto, now tourism is booming.

Tasting notes: Making the cut for my September Wines of the Month in 2017, Pato and Wouter’s old vine Bical is a wine of great subtlety and beauty.  Pale with golden glints, it’s very fine and delicate in the mouth given its intensity and depth of flavour.  If you broach it young, do decant it because, as I discovered tasting it over 3 days,  it really rewards time and air to show off its many intricate layers of fruit and minerals, lees and oak.  The nose initially shows off the latter – with delicate nougat/dried honey hints, on day two, a touch of vanilla and cedar.  Always subtle.  Similarly, the mouth fleshes out with time, making for a perfect integration of acidity and very harmonious balance. At first, the flavour profile is markedly salty and mineral with a streak of grapefruity acidity, bruised apple and white peach.  As the fruit comes up – white peach/peach kernel, waxy apricot even – the texture becomes suaver, with gently creamy – think pillowy, feather-light – lees.  Mica crystals glimmer through the long and limpid finish.  A tender wine whose still waters run deep.  I re-tasted it over lunch during my visit which very much confirmed first impressions.  Pato compares it to the 2010 of which I’m a big fan. In fact only the previous week I’d enjoyed a bottle at home with pan fried scallops, sauteed potatoes and cauliflower puree.  Delicious. Food immediately sprang to mind – that dish – when I tasted this wine on Monday – wonderfully silky, refined and balanced in the mouth, this magnum has lovely freshness and finesse.  From a south-east-facing vineyard, it was fermented in 500l French oak casks (20% new, 80 % used) and aged until bottling in May 2016 in the cellar under the couple’s house (where temperatures are never more than 18 degrees). 12%

Wine & Soul Guru 2013 (DOC Douro)

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Jorge Serodio Borges & Sandra Tavares

Another power couple make my next wine – Sandra Tavares da Silva and Jorges Serodio Borges.  They established their own brand, Wine & Soul, in 2001.  I showed Wine & Soul Guru 2013 – a standout vintage for Douro whites.

Ramos Pinto with Duas Quintas and Niepoort with Redoma were very much pioneers of Douro white wines back in the 90s – wines which are still tasting superbly now (I tasted Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas 1994 at a brilliant 25th anniversary vertical in 2015 & Niepoort Redoma 1996, this year).  For most producers, the focus was very much on Douro reds.  But in 2004, Guru came along and these days, there are a very many Douro white wines to choose from.  I tasted one from Quinta do Noval last week – the second (2017) vintage (which doesn’t make it out of Portugal).

I chose Guru because, unlike the original top Douro whites, it is not a blend of different terroirs. First made in 2004, it comes from four different parcels in Porrais/Murca, Cima Corgo, at 600-700m on transitional granite and schist soils.  The vines are around 60-years-old and comprise principally Gouveio, Viosinho, Rabigato and Códega do Larinho.

This laser-like focus on Porrais translates into a consistently brilliant and very consistent stylistically laser beam of a wine.  On release, it is exceptionally taut and mineral, with great acid drive – qualities which I attribute to its terroir.  From the first vintage in 2004, it had a striking gunflint/struck match character.  Tavares told me that the vineyard smells like gunpowder and it’s the schist parcels which give Guru its pronounced flinty minerality.  A real kick of cordite, which I’d initially thought was a reductive character.

Though very consistent, like Nossa Calcario, tweaks over the years have produced greater clarity of expression.  These include adjusting barrels and toast.  In the past, Guru was fermented and aged in 100% new French oak; in 2013, the new oak percentage was down to 50% & 500l barrels has been substituted for barriques; the amount of new oak in 2016 is just 30%.  Ageing on lees has helped maintain freshness but, probably the biggest influence here is picking date.  Whilst the first vintages were 13.5% and I typically found more (stone) fruits in the wine, from 2006 grapes were picked in and around the beginning of September – “no more August holidays,” a rueful Borges once joked.

Tasting notes: My tasting note from 2014 starts [W]oweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, this is an energetic wine.  On day three it was still looking fabulous – taut, flinty/cordite-ful and salty with lime peel, pith and oil and smoked hazelnut, the latter emerging on day 2.   Tavares da Silva & Borges told me they’ve significantly reduced the new oak, just 50% this year and it gives this racy, mineral wine – always a favourite – even more verve and finesse, not to mention truly exceptional purity, line and length.  I reckon it’s the best yet.  If you’re a fan of top Aussie Chardonnays Oakridge 864 or Penfolds Reserve Bin A bag yourself a bottle of this! 12.5% Smoking! Literally.  Super gun-flinty on nose and palate with pungent curry powder.  Retains great drive too.  Energetic.  The 2013 vintage was harvested in the first week of September in perfect weather conditions. It was fermented in new French oak barrels (50% new) at low temperatures during four weeks, after which it was aged for five months with battonage.

Nuno Mira do Ó Druida Encruzado Reserva 2013 (DOC Dao)

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Nuno Mira do Ó, Druida

I first tasted Druida – the debut 2012 vintage – in October 2013 in Lisbon, where Wines of Portugal used to host a wide-ranging tasting for me during the 10 years that I contributed to Hugh Johnson Pocket Wine.  You can’t visit everyone and, at a time (and still) when so many new producers and wines were emerging, it helped me keep track of developments!

Made by Nuno Mira do Ó, Druida 2012 was a stand out new discovery from that 2013 tasting.  It seems to have been the perfect article from birth.  There can be little doubt that Encruzado is the Dấo’s flagship white – Quinta dos Roques singled it out early on, showing how brilliantly well adapted it is to the region and how well it can handle oak.  I have always found striking examples.

So why choose Druida?  There’s serious competition here, from pioneers like Roques, Q dos Carvalhais, Casa de Santar and Alvaro Castro and relative newcomers like Casa de Passarella and Antonio Madeira.  But probably the same thing that meant that the 2016 vintage won best white in The Wine Merchant Awards earlier this year. Judged by a panel of 21 independent retailers, they assessed wines not just on their taste credentials, but the value that they offer.

The crisp, classical label is also a clue. Druida has a very classical, restrained but well-structured palate, with terrific clarity, tension and persistence.  It is the embodiment of a region which I think can produce among Portugal’s most elegant wines though, for a time – especially for reds – too many Dao wines were wannabee Douros.

I think that’s changing and Druida white and red are both great examples of that. Every vintage since the first has lived up to expectation, as I discovered when I tasted a vertical at Quinta de Druida last November.

Tasting notes: Tasted on a vertical tasting at Quinta da Turquide from where it is sourced last November, Mira do Ó rates the 2013 vintage highly, saying everything was picked before the rains came on 20 September.   It very much puts me in mind of the ’15, with its appetising flinty nose and palate.  With a couple more year’s bottle age, it is long in the mouth – really lovely mouthfeel – with hints of tertiary complexity coming through on the long, mineral/granite sluiced finish. Terrific complexity with zingy lime zest ricochet and resonance, hints of orange peel and pine needles.  On Monday, it is showing struck match and flint, with silky white peach and racier lime zest.  Terrific stuff! When we met last year, Mira do Ó expressed a view which Serodio Borges and others have said too – that ideally, their wines would be released with more bottle age.  Consumers have raised this point too, especially in connection with red wines.  Of course, this ageing process demands a premium, but I notice more producers doing it for top wines, including Alvaro Castro, Niepoort, Quinta do Crasto.  The grapes for this wine were grown by Nuno Matos at 500m at Quinta da Turquide, in S. João de Lourosa, Silgueiros, on the right bank of the Dao river. The vines were planted in 1992. Druida is naturally fermented in barrels and this vintage was aged for 10 months in French oak barrels, 20% new,  It spent a further eight months on lees in tank, before bottling in March 2015.  It did not undergo malolactic fermentation. 

Quinta dos Carvalhais Especial NV, 2017 bottling (DOC Dao)

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Quinta dos Carvalhais

Also from the Dao, Quinta dos Carvalhais Especial could not be more different from Druida – it has girth, where Druida has rapier precision.  And yet it has the freshness which is part of the Dao’s DNA.

I was blown away and perplexed by this wine when I encountered it blind at Decanter World Wine Awards in 2015.  It was non-vintage, yet enjoyed DOC status.  Of several hundred entries that year, it was my wine of the competition.  A bigger surprise was waiting – this bold, highly idiosyncratic wine was made by Portugal’s biggest company – Sogrape.

I have included it on its own merits, also because it represents boldness and innovation and, at the same time, celebrates a great Portuguese tradition – the art of the blender.  When I interviewed Beatriz Cabral de Almeida about it, she told me that Q dos Carvalhais Especial  came about by accident.

When she joined Carvalhais in 2012, her venerable predecessor Manuel Vieira showed her the experimental wines he had stashed away over the years to monitor how they performed.  The barrels were ageing in a traditional cellar, without temperature control and had been more or less untouched. Excited by what they found, they re-tasted them over the next three months then put together the first release of Carvalhais Especial.

It was fun to take a bottle to the Alternative Wine Variety Show judges’ dinner in Australia in 2016 – it was one of the wines of the night and, the following year, it was fun to see fellow Wines of Portugal Sommelier Quest judge Ronan Sayburn MS keep returning to his glass to taste it, making comparisons with Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia White Reserva.

This example is the 3rd release, bottled in 2017.  It is an innovative uber-blend of vintages:

  • 2005 – an outstanding year, with the conditions for maturation with great phenolic evolution.
  • 2006 – a cold and dry winter, rainy but good flowering and good hydric and thermal balance was maintained throughout summer, so good maturation.
  • 2009 –  the constant presence of water in the soil coupled with cold nights alternating with hot days at the end of August and in September produced excellent levels of maturation.

And an innovative blend of varieties:

  • 40% Encruzado
  • 30% Gouveio,
  • 12% Semillon,
  • 18% mixture of experimental white grape varieties (around 30 varieties).

Evidently it has been successful since production has leapt from 3000 bottles to 4,500, now 7000 bottles for this third release.  I hope Beatriz is cellaring vintages now to keep making this wine in future years!

Tasting notes: Tasted last November, this powerful über-blend of vintages (2005, 2006, 2009) and grapes (Encruzado, Gouveio, Semillon and 18% field blend) has terrific palate presence and incisive acidity to its oxidatively handled (10 years’ barrel aged) oak-spiced candied lemon, dried honey, subtle salt caramel and poire tapée fruit, whetstone finish. Rich honeycombe nose, salty, fresh, some brazil nut, v intense, chewy, super long yet with great drinkability, energy and finesse. Dynamic impression. 14%  On Monday it showed brilliantly well – corpulent, but with great acid line as well as girth. Precisely what led Beatriz to compare it to the famously ageworthy wines produced by Cardoso de Vilhena at the Centro de Estudos de Nelas.

Adega Regional de Colares Arenae Ramisco 2007 (DOC Colares)

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Francisco Figueiredo, a.k.a. Xico Ramisco

Because of suburban sprawl, Colares is the smallest wine producing region of Portugal. Planted to some 1,500 hectares at its peak, just 65 hectares remain, of which only 12 ha are on the sandy soils – ‘chão de areia’ – which enjoy DOC status.  With Lisbon’s tourism boom, I imagine Colares I at risk of losing yet more land to property developers.

I chose Adega Regional de Colares Arenae Ramisco 2007 because the Adega and its winemaker, Francisco Figueiredo, a.k.a. Xico Ramisco, have been staunch defenders of the very special, distinctive wines of Colares.

Presenting it on Monday provided an opportunity to reinforce that niche wines have a key role in a wine world which increasingly celebrates point of difference and, importantly for Colares, authenticity and freshness.

All these factors contributed to this wine being the top scorer at a blind tasting of 137 UK Portuguese red wines priced between £8 and £25, which I chaired for Decanter magazine last year (reported here).

What’s more, the market for these wines has become more commercially interesting.  Lighter fresher reds and unusual grape varieties have won a growing fan-base.  UK importers and retailers of wines from Colares & Azores tell me these regions’ remarkable backstories is also very much part of that phenomenon.

Consumers and the trade alike are excited about rare native grapes, that Ramisco vines are ungrafted and the extreme terroir and method of growing which, ironically, has contributed to them becoming almost extinct.  So it’s heartening to know that, while much smaller scale given the available land, like Pico, Colares has been undergoing a renaissance and attracting new producers in recent years.

Fundação Oriente acquired a vineyard that would otherwise almost certainly have been lost to property developers in 1999 – I selected 2005 Quinta das Vinhas de Areia Fundação Oriente Ramisco 2005 for my 50 Great Portuguese Wines and it was subsequently listed by The Wine Society.  Latterly, Casal Santa Maria and Helder Cunha at Casca Wines Monte Cascas are making very contemporary expressions of wine from Colares; Vitor Claro tells me he is next!

Tasting notes: Tasted last summer and in February and April this year, it is a bright crimson hue, with a pomegranate nose and palate, firm, pure with cranberry, very fresh/crunchy/pithy, hints of catering chocolate, ruby grapefruit, subtle white pepper lift, pithy tannins hint of orange peel/chinato herbs going through.  Long, fine, persistent, with great varietal  typicity and the right side of cusp of ripeness….Terrific 12.3% Re-tasted from magnum (1500l) on Monday, you understand why it is so vividly etched, so alive – the wines need to be like this if the vineyards are to survive!  It is fragrant and as ethereal and exotic as the palaces of Sintra, with fine but firm feathery tannins, pine needle and leather notes to its ruby grapefruit.  The fruit was harvested in the last week of September and naturally fermented with 30% whole bunches in closed stainless steel tanks with temperature control (26-28ºC) and careful pumping over. The wine was then aged for five years in exotic wood vats, followed by one more year in small five year old oak barrels.  It was bottled in February 2016.

Vitor Claro Dominó Salao Frio Tinto 2011 (Portalegre, Alentejo)

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Vitor Claro and partner, Rita Ferreira

Like the vineyards, which scale 400m to over 800m, Portalegre’s reputation is climbing, as highly prestigious players from outside the region acquire vineyards there. This year, Sogrape acquired Quinta do Centro – Richard Mayson’s 13ha vineyard and winery, lock, stock and barrel.  Last year, the Symington family acquired the 43ha vineyard which produced Altas Quintas (they have re-named it Quinta da Fonte Souto).

Why Portalegre? Because, said, Paul Symington: “excellent wines from specific terroirs is what succeeds.”  Gratifying for the producers who have been leading its revival. I can remember visiting Portalegre for the first time with Rui Reguinga in 2009.  Located on the slopes of the Serra de S. Mamede, it was so different from the rest of Alentejo. Oak and chesnut trees spoke to its cooler climate and higher rainfall.  I was amazed by the elevation and old field blend vineyards with varieties from Portugal’s north and south and grapes I’d never heard of.  Grapes that, for the most part, had previously been disappearing into the local co-operative’s melting plot, diluting terroir and quality.

I chose Rui’s Terrenus Tinto 2009 for my 50 Great wines.  Two years later, fellow Brit Julia Harding chose Vitor Claro’s Dominó Monte das Pratas Branco 2010 – his first vintage – for her 50 Great Portuguese Wines.  I’d met Vitor when he was a chef at Herdade da Malhadinha, but had no idea he was making wine.  His chef’s touch showed in this gastronomic white.

A few months later, I met with Claro and tasted his 2010 red. Picked early and vinified with 100% whole bunch fermentation and lengthy skin contact, it was austere and failed to obtain DOC status because, he said, it was deemed too acidic, with a vegetal aroma.

Though Claro still labels his wines Vinhos de Portugal, how times have changed.  Freshness and difference have much more currency these days; the rise of Talha wines in Alentejo tells a story.  But just as importantly, goodness, this wine has evolved beautifully with time in bottle.  Now making wine full time, Vitor sent me a vertical of Domino White and Red last year.  The maiden 2010 vintage reminded me of the red fruits, forest floor and mineral acidity of Tapada do Chaves’ rather Burgundian Tinto Fragoneira 1977, which was a source of inspiration to Claro. Still building!

So while you might say this wine pushed boundaries, maybe it’s more correct to say it returned them to where they were?

Tasting notes: tasted in March last year, the 2011 was a brighter crimson than the (also beautiful) 2010 vintage, with a youthful rim. Very pretty and Pinot-like on the nose and palate, with red cherry and coltsfoot.  With intensity not density, despite its prettiness, it is bone dry and at the austere end of the spectrum. It’s as if it has a homeopathic essence of fruit sweetness, rather than sweet fruit.  The tannins are fine but palpable.  It has lovely minerality and length, with light herbaceous and floral notes going through and a shimmer of minerals to the finish.  This is an uplifting wine with some serious structure for the long haul.  On day two, the palate is building, showing a little more richness and wildness – savoury understones of pine needle, resin and mushroom; pretty violets too.  The fruit has a wildness about it (so it’s not commercial, broad appeal fruit, centred around sweetness and flesh).  It has a touch of saltiness and plum skin.  Going back after some hours, it is still unfurling, showing sweet perfumed but barely ripe, al dente red cherry, cranberry, pomegranate sluiced with mineral acidity.  Pithy tannins and said acidity carry a long finish, with inky violets, mushroom and sweeter berry notes.  12%    On Monday, I was once again very taken with its structure and remembered reflecting on the tasting last year and thinking about the northern Rhone as much as Burgundy.  It’s the Rhone that asserts itself today in this fresh, firm wine with its underpinning of tannin, complex savoury layers, violet lift and pristine core of fruit (as much blackberry as red fruits).  This wine was sourced from the Ribeira de Nisa vineyard – 1.47ha in the village of Salao Frio – village at 650m.  The north-facing vineyard is planted on granite with quartz; the (field blend) vines average around 85 years old.  The grapes were naturally fermented with 100% whole bunches layered with whole and crushed berries.  The wine was macerated on skins (no pigeage) for 60-90 days. It was aged for twelve months in old 228l French oak barrels.

Niepoort Poeirinho Garrafeira 2012 (DOC Bairrada)

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Dirk Niepoort – in search of freshness and line

It seems ironic that Dirk Niepoort’s first Douro wine, made in 1990, was called Robustus (1990).  Over the year’s his pursuit of freshness has been relentless, leading him to push, really flirt with, the boundaries of ripeness.  He has described the emphasis on ripeness, alcohol, and colour as “a modern disease” which means “wines become very jammy and over-extracted.”

Picking earlier, extracting less, making reds “without thinking about the colour” and ageing in bigger format, old wood have resulted in his Douro reds becoming lighter, fresher, more elegant. When I selected my 50 Great Portuguese Wines 2010, I included the elegant Niepoort Redoma Tinto 2007 – the first to incorporate some ageing in old, large format oak.  Since 2013, this wine – a consistent Douro favourite – has only been aged in large wooden vats.

But ultimately, the quest for freshness has taken Niepoort to the cooler climes of Cantanhede in Bairrada. Quinta do Baixo was acquired in 2012.  “With its soils and temperate Atlantic climate,” he told me “I am more and more convinced that Bairrada has Portugal’s best terroir.”  It is most certainly a terroir whose temperate maritime climate and clay/limestone soils (and grapes, notably Baga) naturally lend themselves to elegant wines with marked acidity and minerality.  And it is here (I believe) where Niepoort first went 100% big format, in tribute to this terroir and, he told me, the great Bairrada wines from the past – Dores Simoes from the 80’s – “not fruity, not big, not alcoholic, not sweet, but fine with great richness and intensity and incredible lightness of being, but particularly very, very long.”

Lightness of being and drinkability are very much buzz words these days and perfectly sum up the allure of Niepoort’s Baga wines.  I was smitten from my first taste of Niepoort’s Bairrada wines, starting with Baiju 2011 (12.5%), an experimental Baga, which impressed me making no attempt to oak- smooch its vibrant yet finely etched red currant and wild berry fruit. Which laid bare its fine flavour-anchoring web of suede-like fruit tannins and undertow of gravelly, mineral acidity.

Poeirinho, the flagship old vine [80-150 years old] Baga, was first made the following year, in 2012. Ratcheting up the finesse, I was bowled over when I tasted it in 2014.  So-called because Poeirinho is the old name of Baga, it comes from very old, centenarian vines.

The tribute is pushed a step further with this late release of Poeirinho 2012.  The Garrafeira wine, released this year, was aged for 40 months, spending twice as long in two old 2500l toneis as the regular release.  So there we go – it also marks a shift towards releasing top reds later.

Tasting notes: Tasted in September 2018, Poeirinho Garrafeira is still tight, very young, with pronounced (five) spice, floral and smoky iodine/chalk notes. Fine but striated tannins and mineral acidity – a backbone – parry persistently, making for an exceptionally long, tapering finish with plenty of back palate resonance – echoing flavours/perfume. 12%  Re-tasted on Monday gosh the iodine/chalky/smoky minerality is emphatic.  It has a boniness – a firmness and spare-ness.  It’s not an ounce overweight.  Which makes for a delicacy (certainly the fruit – al dente, red – is delicate, as is its kiss of five spice).  Mushroom nuances hint at the (Pinot-like) development ahead.  Incisive as you like!  Niepoort Poeirinho Garrafeira was part-vinified in lagares (with 20% stems), partly in stainless steel tanks (15% stems).  It was fermented on skins for four weeks, with a light maceration.  Malolactic fermentation occurred in old 2500l toneis and the wine was aged in these toneis for 3½ years.  Bottled unfiltered.

Poeira Tinto 2008 (Douro DOC)

Revista de Vinhos

Jorge Moreira

Jorge Moreira made his first Poeira in 2001.  I chose it because, from the off, he focused on making an elegant wine, “based on the acidity and fruit not oak or tannin.”

It came as no surprise to me that tasting wines from around the world at Niepoort developed his passion for wines which develop and age.  And it made perfect sense that the first red wine that he ever made, in 1996, was a Cabernet Sauvignon (whilst at Real Companhia Velha).

When I visited with Jorge in 2004, tasting the 2002, Poeira struck me as quite the most elegant Douro red I’d tasted.  These days, with changing tastes, it has more competition but there is only one Poeira, not least because the winemaker left nothing to chance.  He is as precise as his wines.

It is sourced from Quinta do Poeira in the Pinhão Valley, which he acquired in 2001.  Completely north-facing and steep, it is shaded in the afternoon and very much aligned to making Douro DOC (as opposed to Port) wine in his preferred style.

To help him really get to know the vineyard, Jorge built a home, winery and cellar at the foot of the vineyard in 2005.  With freshness in mind, it also meant that he could process grapes immediately in temperature controlled lagares, then age the wines in the cool barrel cellar beneath. He has never gone big on new oak.

With such attention to detail, irrespective of vintage, it always has exquisite balance and refined tannins.

Tasting notes: I first tasted Poeira 2008 in 2010 when I noted it showed fabulous intensity to its inky, floral nose and palate with well-defined, subtly spicy red and black fruits ably supported by ripe powdery tannins.  Very fine indeed.  I’ve tasted it a couple of times over the years.  In 2011 at a staff training session for Harvey Nichols retail and restaurant staff, when I learned that it was the best-selling Portuguese wine at the restaurant.  Then Jorge showed it to an Arblaster & Clarke tour group with whom I visited the vineyard last year.  They were very taken with it, as was I.  On Monday, it was in expressive form – richly perfumed, with lovely vinosity and poise to its cedar-edged blackcurrant and berry fruit and seamless tannins.  It was fermented in granite lagares with treading for a week, then transferred to second use French oak casks where the malolactic took place.  It was aged in the same casks for 16 months.  14.3%

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  1. Oswaldo Costa

    Fascinating, thank you.! Too bad you are so oak-tolerant, otherwise these could have been really useful notes.

    • Sarah Ahmed

      Glad it was fascinating at least, Oswaldo, if not to your taste! The privilege of being asked to pick 10. I’m not oak intolerant, but my preference is most certainly to see terroir over oak.

  2. José Matias

    Absolutely brilliant article! Have to confess that I read with growing pleasure your clear, honest and knowledgeable writing. WOuld like to know your impressions on older wines from both Bairrada and Dão regions, which are my delight.

    • Sarah Ahmed

      Hi Jose, thanks for your very kind feedback – great to hear. You can find posts about Bussaco – some terrific verticals – on my site. Also big fan of Caves Sao Joao and, not tasted much, but have enjoyed the odd bottle here and there of Dores Simoe, Centro de Estudos de Nelas, a memorable Vinicola de Nelas Escanção Branco 1990 last year. Bought 6 bottles of Q do Canto 1994, Bairrada Baga (Garrafeira) from Niepoort Projectos which was terrific. Always bottle variation in the older wines, but super interesting to try and top bottles can be amazing. Older wines from contemporary producers can be wonderful too – Luis Pato, Quinta das Bageiras, Alvaro Castro. In short, a fan! V best Sarah

  3. Duncan McLean

    Quinta dos Carvalhais impressed me greatly when I visited in late 2017, and tasted their range.
    But the most memorable wine of the visit was the vintage-blend Especial. It really is as multi-faceted and mysterious as you describe it: endlessly intriguing. As is the neolithic tomb in your vineyard photo – is it not called Casa Orca or something like that? – a pleasant connection for a visiting Orcadian.

  4. Steve Rigby

    Hello Sarah, I always love your newsletter and am fascinated by your choice of favourite wines. What a choice to make! I have just returned this afternoon to the Algarve after doing a recce of the Lisbon region for a trip I am organising for the Algarve Wine Society in May. I spent time with Pedro Marques and his brother, Manuel yesterday and was also at Casal Santa Maria at lunchtime today! It’s a fascinating region with so many interesting wines. It’s great that you are writing a monthly column for Revista dos Vinhos. Is there any chance you can persuade the ‘powers that be’ to translate at least some of the articles into English? I think there would be a big market among those Northern Europeans who live here.

    • Sarah Ahmed

      Thanks for the feedback Steve – lovely to hear. Lots happening in Lisboa – exciting! I shall pass on your comment to the team at Revista. All best Sarah

  5. Donna Jackson

    Hi Sarah, I so enjoyed finding this, what great wine writing! I had all but given up reading wine blogs, laden as they are with pomp and self interest, this article is a great testament to the exciting times in Portuguese winemaking, and knowing most of these winemakers as I do, made it even more enjoyable. As I now live in the Colares region and close enough to the new star area Bairrada I hope to meet up again soon over a glass of white ( I love them too, such diversity and originality, I share your over-oaked aversion). Thanks for sharing your knowledge of Portuguese wines with us and congratulations on your list. Donna

    • Sarah Ahmed

      Hi Donna – lucky you, living in Sintra and close to Bairrada. So much going on. And thanks for your feedback too – great to hear you found my post a great read. V best Sarah

  6. emma

    Have to confess that I read with growing pleasure your clear, honest and knowledgeable writing. WOuld like to know your impressions on older wines from both Bairrada and Dão regions, which are my delight.

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