Far from imperfect – first taste, Carlos Raposo’s Vinhos Imperfeitos

Catching up with Carlos Raposo, Vinhos Imperfeitos, in London

Carlos Raposo was Dirk Niepoort’s right hand man for Douro wines for eight years.  I always enjoyed talking and tasting Niepoort’s new releases with him, so I was keen as mustard to catch up with the 36-year-old winemaker and taste the first releases made under his own Vinhos Imperfeitos label (meaning Imperfect Wines).  Not least since these thrilling white wines from Vinho Verde, Vinho Verde/Dão (yes, really, a blend) and Dão are priced at £100-300 retail (yes really)!

It is hard to get away from those price points, isn’t it?  They are significantly higher than any other Portuguese white wine I can think of.  And 99% of Portuguese reds, for that matter. Vinhos Imperfeitos are most definitely for the few, not the many.  Not just because of the price, but also because the wines are, of necessity (see below), made in teeny tiny amounts.

Joking, Raposo told me, “the price is the only thing about the wines which is imperfect.”  It could sound arrogant coming from someone else, but Raposo is a talented, quietly reflective winemaker.  Explaining the thought process behind his rather contrary label, he told me, “in university I learned how to make ‘perfect’ wines and, with Dirk Niepoort, I learned how to make ‘authentic’ wines without additives.  The result of these two schools is imperfect wines.” 

Successfully making wines in this ‘imperfect’ way requires huge skill if a winemaker is to navigate the tension between precision winemaking and working with nature.  How does Raposo pull it off?  I was struck by his emphasis on developing a feel not just for individual terroirs or vineyards, but also the potential of each grape.  A grape from a specific place, picked at a specific point in time.  This micro-management of site and harvest dates is critical given Raposo co-ferments different parcels and varieties from several vineyards.  Because he is blending in the field (and not on the tasting bench), he must accurately predict how each pick will impact on flavour profile and structure – “saltiness from one variety, minerality from another and depth and length from others.”  Tasting berry by berry, small wonder Raposo works on such a small scale.  Hang the time, hang the cost, the resulting Vinhos Imperfeitos wines show no little mastery of a formidable string to the Portuguese bow – the art of blending.

Will they age?  Firmly pitched at an upper echelon price point for whites, one might legitimately expect Raposo’s wines to walk the fine wine talk and age well.  He has kept back 40% of production to allow for bottle-ageing.  Whilst, with a new label, one cannot point to track record, Dão whites enjoy a strong reputation for cellaring and top flight Alvarinhos from Monção e Melgaço, Vinho Verde age beautifully.  And as Raposo was (rightly) at pains to emphasise, whilst the Vinhos Imperfeitos label is new, it has been 20 years in the making.  The winemaker’s journey began at the tender age of 16, at the School of Viticulture & Oenology in Bairrada. With steely determination, he has since worked hard for his success, studying with and immersing himself in the best. Though not (then) a French speaker, his next stop was the University of Burgundy, then Bordeaux University, where he gained his Masters degree and hands on experience at Château Smith Haut Lafitte and Château Malescot Saint Exupery in Margaux. More globe-trotting ensued – Quinta Sardonia in Ribera del Duero, Robert Craig in Napa Valley and Stuart Wines Company in Heathcote.

Returning to Portugal in 2011, he joined Niepoort at an uber-creative time for the Douro-based producer, whose reputation for making wines at the highest level is beyond doubt.  The first vintage of Coche, Niepoort’s top tier Douro white, had been released the previous year and, in the following years (Raposo left in May 2018), the pursuit of elegance shaped not only Niepoort’s Douro wines, but also the portfolio, which expanded to encompass wines from Vinho Verde, Dão and Bairrada.  It must have been a roller-coaster ride, chock-full of learning at the coalface.  Not just about winemaking, but also how to kick start new projects and establish successful brands. And, just as importantly, developing an understanding of the elite international competition, which has certainly influenced Raposo’s seamlessly stitched whites.  Name-checking key formative influences during our meeting, they included Burgundy’s DRC, Armand Rousseau and Leflaive, Jamet from the Rhône (all of whom Niepoort represent in Portugal), and, from Bordeaux, Château Margaux – Raposo must have jumped the fence at Malescot Saint Exupery! Maintaining the link with “the best master in the world”, a.k.a. Dirk Niepoort, the pair have collaborated on a wine and Raposo continues to be involved in making Niepoort’s Vinho Verdes.

Vinhos Imperfeitos winery

Concrete is in at Vinhos Imperfeitos. Photo credit: Vinhos Imperfeitos

So what about his own project, which hit the ground running, starting in September 2018 (harvest time)? With impeccable logic, Raposo has based himself in Dão, “because I know Dão, I know where the best vines are and the grapes I want.”  Raposo’s roots go much deeper than his involvement making the first three vintages at Niepoort’s Quinta da Lomba (2012, 2013 and 2014).  He was born in Dão and schooled in Nelas, home to another hero – winemaking legend Cardoso de Vilhena of the Centro de Estudos Vitivinícolas de Nelas.  Several years ago, I ate at the Dão restaurant which Raposo’s mum once owned.  It had a great wine list, so I’m sure Raposo would have developed strong connections with local growers and producers, despite having worked elsewhere for so long.   Did his family own vineyards or a winery, I asked.  Yes, he replied, but he had given Niepoort the heads up on one of the region’s best vineyards, owned by his uncle and that was where the grapes would stay.  However, Raposo has rented and restored his uncle’s winery, which fell into disuse some 15 years ago.  The winemaker became animated talking about the old concrete vats from the sixties which he has installed at no little expense, having extracted them via the roof from a Trás-os-Montes winery (and cleaned them up himself, retro-fitting stainless steel lids).  Why concrete?  His eyes lit up at the memory of a visit last year with the biodynamic Bordeaux producer, Château Pontet Canet, who age wines of, they say, “uncommon precision,” in concrete – “one of the best reds,” said Raposo.

As for Raposo’s white wines from Dão and Vinho Verde, made in such small quantities and, with a hawk’s eye at the helm, they are distinctively (uncommonly) precise and dry in profile (as opposed to fruity), with a discreetly textured, reductive crushed rock/green tea minerality that I liked very much.  Saying “I don’t like fruitiness, I prefer the opposite – shyer, less easy like me,” Raposo reckons concrete brings a minerality to the wine.  They have terrific balance and length too.  The winemaker confided, “next time you taste, my dream is you will say this is Carlos Raposo’s wine, just like you might recognise Armand Rousseau’s wines.”   I admire his vision and ambition, neither of which seem misplaced based on this debut.  His Dão reds are in the pipeline and, showing his innovative side, the winemaker has also turned his hand to making an Algarve Negra Mole and a red inter-regional, indeed international, blend from Dão and Bordeaux.

Returning to price, the target market will make up its own mind about Vinhos Imperfeitos. Deeply thrilled, Raposo told me that his wines have already been listed at Belcanto, José Avillez’s two-Michelin starred Lisbon restaurant.  In this month’s penultimate episode of Masterchef The Professionals’, Avillez’s innovative kitchen provided the inspiration for the three finalists.  As the illustrious chef remarked, it is a “golden age” for Portugal, so good for Raposo for having the chutzpah to pitch his wines alongside the world’s most prestigious whites – a new arena for Portugal.  Someone needs to stick their head above the parapet and do it well, as he has done albeit, as he points out, it works in his favour that he doesn’t have much wine to sell.

Would I buy these wines?  It is an academic question.  Thanks to my job, I am privileged to taste wines I cannot afford. I am not the target market.  But let me turn on its head Oscar Wilde’s line from Lady Windemere’s Fan about a cynic being ‘a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ I think critics often know the value of everything and the price of nothing, so what I can say (apart from sharing my tasting notes), is that Vinhos Imperfeitos’ ‘garagiste’ positioning holds great value for Portugal which, frustratingly, is seen by many as a shopping ground for value wines.  With a big picture eye to sustainability, Raposo told me, “I am paying five times more for grapes.  Every year that I buy grapes from vines mostly as old as or older than their own owners (75 to 120 years old), it gives them more money to keep the family, not use herbicides and prune at the right time.  Otherwise, regions like Dão and Bairrada will die, because no younger people will look after the vineyards – already lots are abandoned.”  When Portugal’s viticulture reportedly represents a higher proportion of agriculture than anywhere else in the world (35%), such an exodus would damage the very fabric of the country.

Here are my notes on the wines:

Vinhos Imperfeitos Vinho Verde White 2018 (DOC Vinho Verde)

Keeping it artisanal, pure and clean, Vinhos Imperfeitos labels are designed by Raposo’s wife, Mariana

This unoaked blend of Avesso (“very special in the mouth,” said Raposo), Loureiro and Arinto is mostly sourced from the Baião sub-region and hails from over ten different vineyards.  Averaging 45 years old, they are cultivated old school on pergola or guyot trained.  Lifting off the page his scalpel-like selection process, Raposo might take just 500kg, 300kg, less even, from some vineyards.  He is particularly excited that, contrary to the stereotype, this Vinho Verde is fresher the warmer it gets, “because it is very mineral.”   And it’s true.  It has a chalky mineral nose and palate, with textural, crushed rocks and an attractive hint of sourness to its restrained citrus and stone fruit.  As it opens up, it reveals mouth-wateringly juicy nectarine and herbal nuances.  Less fruity than my note sounds, but ‘fruitier’ than the other two wines (as one might expect, given provenance).  Uncommon minerality and texture for Vinho Verde. 11.5% 1,500 bottles.  RRP £100,

Vinhos Imperfeitos D&V Code White 2018 (Dão & Vinho Verde)

I cannot say that I would put Dão and Vinho Verde together. For Raposo, whilst sharing a high ageing potential, freshness and elegance, they are completely different, so this blend offers the best of both worlds.  The Vinho Verde is “much crisper, ready to drink,” he said, whilst he finds the Dão component “more complex and deep.”  The Dão component, harvested 15 September, comprised over 7 white grape varieties (Esgana Cão, Rabo de ovelha, Encruzado, Malvasia fina, Douradinha, Barcelo, Branda, amongs others) from centuries-old vineyards in the Terras de Senhorim sub-region. The harvest was on 15th of September and, after a careful selection, the grapes were very slowly pressed with the stems and the must naturally fermented in stainless steel, before ageing in used Puligny Montrachet oak barrels.  The unoaked Vinho Verde component – a blend of Avesso and Alvarinho harvested on different days – comes from an old vineyard in the sub-region of Sousa. Following selection at the winery, the grapes were gently pressed, then slowly naturally fermented on fine lees in a stainless steel vat. I found D & V really expressive, with plenty of complexity and interest, starting with the savoury nose, with its flinty/curry powder nuances – qualities I associate with silex soils and/or reductive winemaking.  There is pronounced minerality and a trace of bitterness, ‘agrume,’ to its steely, focused grapefruit and fleshier but still firm yellow plum.  Texturally, very exciting, with a delicate but dynamic sense of dry extract, with sencha green tea and chalk.  Long, dry, arrow-straight, but deep too.  Terrific.  12%, 2,961 bottles and 20 magnums produced.   RRP £150.

Vinhos Imperfeitos I White 2018 (Dão)

Hand-picked from a selection of centenarian vineyards located between 400-700m above sea level on mostly classic granite soils, this blend features Esgana Cão, Rabo de Ovelha, Encruzado, Malvasia Fina, Douradinha, Barcelo and Branda grapes, among others. Following a manual selection at the winery, the grapes were gently pressed and the must was fermented (partial malo) in a combination of stainless steel and used Puligny Montrachet barrels. After a slow fermentation, the different components were blended in old concrete tanks. This is an exceptionally poised, precise, pellucid, mineral wine of great finesse.  Incredible textural refinement, with talc, and a sublime cool, wet in the mouth sencha green tea inflected lees/wet cement character. Whilst one is inevitably taken to Burgundy, its salinity and fresh, pure, grape-driven (not toasted, oak-driven) spiciness bring out its Portuguese-ness. Long, penetrating, with laser beam focus, without being hard, indeed retaining a lingering sensuality thanks to the texture.    A spatial wine, for another dimension. Exemplary.  12.5%, 2,154 bottles and 72 magnums produced; RRP £300.

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