João Portugal Ramos’ “best ever harvest”: 2011 releases, including new flagship Estremus
With one foot out of the door, João Portugal Ramos (pictured) summoned me back down the hallway to view his shotgun cabinet. Of course, I know nothing about guns but, well stocked, I was glad I liked the wines!
In all honesty, I was on safe territory. Not just because crack shot Ramos hunts birds of the feathered variety, but also because he is a very fine winemaker, with a great knack for making uber-drinkable wines. As he puts it, “in Alentejo, there is a kindness in the wines.” And it is here where, having consulted far and wide (for around 30 wineries), he elected to put down roots in 1987 when he bought a dilapidated 10ha estate in the Alentejo sub-region of Estremoz.
Vine roots too, where Ramos rates Estremoz for its elevation (c. 300-350m) , continentality and favourable soils (schist, pictured, and limestone/clay). He planted his first five hectares of vineyard around Monte da Caldeira in 1990. He explains “if Portugal was to take its rightful position as a winemaking country, wineries needed to have their own oenologists, so I knew that my future in consulting was limited.”
Twenty five years later, Ramos’ eponymous Alentejo estate extends to 125 hectares (with a further 120ha under contract). A substantial (9,000 m. sq) state of the art winery with bottling line and sizeable cellar door/restaurant is a veritable hive of activity in this sleepy, southern region of Portugal. And that’s not all. Saying “I don’t like to buy liquid, I want to make wine,” he has also established wineries in Tejo (Falua Wines), the Douro (Duorum Wines), now Vinho Verde (and makes his parents-in-law’s wine, at Quinta de Foz de Arouce in Beiras). He’s even talking about starting a small vineyard in the Algarve (I gather it’s prime hunting territory!)
True to his belief that wineries should have their own oenologists, he reckons that the secret to his success is that “we are a company of oenologists…I employ specialists in each region,” notably former Barca Velha winemaker José Maria Soares Franco, who is also his business partner at Duorum (click here for a report of my visit last year). Referring to his tally of 500ha of vineyard, Ramos proudly points out “I don’t see a single project in Portugal started from scratch which has reached my size.”
During my visit, we focused solely on Ramos’ Alentejo range after a swift “recce” of the new dam and vineyards (pictured) as night fell. I was keen to see some of the adaptations to climate change which I’d discussed with Ramos when I’d interviewed him earlier in the year for wine-searcher.com (interview published here). With advice from Spanish consultant José Ramon Lisarrague (University of Madrid), the adaptations include:
- raising the height of canopies/fruit zone (to 70cm for white varieties; 60cm for reds) to improve air circulation (pictured above);
- encouraging semi-sprawl (two top wires, pictured below, encourage the canopy to flop either side) to improve shading of the grapes and gas exchange through increased aeration (and as result obtain better phenolic maturations);
- improving water management (increased irrigation efficiency and adapting it to the needs of each of the varieties planted) – a new dam has been constructed (pictured above);
- planting new white varieties (Alvarinho, Viognier, Verdelho, Arinto) and using Verdejo rootstocks to improve acidity, aroma and balance;
- planting Touriga Franca, also more Alicante Bouschet and Touriga Nacional;
- increased accuracy of harvesting by variety;
- soil protection improvement (including organic compost and a 40ha organic trial).
While 2010 was the first year Ramos didn’t produce any single varietal wines (“they weren’t good enough”), in 33 vintages, he reckons 2011 (a year with, at 1000mm, double the usual rainfall, hence water reserves) is “the best harvest ever.” Hard to disagree on the evidence, including Ramos’ new flagship Estremus (rated among the best wines of the year in João Paulo Martins Vinhos de Portugal 2013 – see the full list here).
João Portugal Ramos Ramos Reserva 2011
This blend of Trincadeira, Aragónez and Syrah is one of two outrageously good value for money reds recently listed in the UK, this one with Majestic. It’s Alentejo to a T – rich, round and supple, with velvety tannins, spicy ripe plums and chocolate. 13.5%. £8.49 or currently £6.99 on deal when you buy 2 Portuguese wines at Majestic (subject to minimum purchase of 6 bottles, can be mixed).
João Portugal Ramos F’OZ 2011
And here’s the second, another Aragónez/ Trincadeira lead blend. Sumptuous without being jammy, smooth yet gutsy, it’s a rich swirl of dark berry and cherry fruit layered with dried fig, spicy liquorice and chocolate notes. I can well understand why The Guardian’s Fiona Beckett reckoned it tastes a good fiver more! 14% £9.99 at Waitrose.
João Portugal Ramos Marques de Borba 2011
Barrel ageing and lead variety Alicante Bouschet (blended with Aragónez, Touriga Nacional and Cabernet Sauvignon) make for a structured, finer red with silky, chocolate-edged ripe fruit – raspberry, blueberry, blackberry – and a long, really delicious, juicy plum finish. 14%
João Portugal Ramos Vila Santa Trincadeira 2011
Ramos is a big fan of Trincadeira, which is one of Alentejo’s oldest most traditional varieties. With its signature leafy tobacco note, he compares it to Cabernet Sauvignon. This inky wine shows rich dried fig and bright blueberry fruit on attack and mid-palate; a long tapering finish shows firm (but ripe) tannins and leafy tobacco lift. Aged for 6 months in new French barriques. 14%
João Portugal Ramos Vila Santa Syrah 2011
This is a fleshy, mouthfilling, violet-perfumed Syrah, sweet and jubey with a big fat mid-palate of black berry and cherry fruit and lick of vanilla oak (it’s aged for 6 months in new French and American barriques). Firm tannins suggest good mid-term ageing potential. 14%
João Portugal Ramos Vila Santa Aragones 2011
Aged for 6 months in new American oak barriques, this is a surprisingly powerful wine, with real heft to its muscular black berry and raspberry fruit. Firm chalky tannins and mocha oak lend gravitas. 14.5%
João Portugal Ramos Quinta da Vicosa 2009
Ramos thinks of Syrah Trincadeira as a Portuguese take on Australia’s Shiraz Cabernet. The Syrah is grown on limestone, while the Trincadeira is grown on schist. Sure enough, its firm backbone of tannins is fleshed out by ripe raspberry and glossy black cherry fruit through the mid-palate, before tapering to a fine long finish. Well made. 14%
João Portugal Ramos Marques de Borba Reserva 2009
Very on song – vinous, fleshy and elegant, with spicy red fruits, fine tannins and a long, involving chocolate-edged, palate-staining finish of great intensity.
João Portugal Ramos Touriga Nacional 2011
Sourced from Quinta da Vicosa, this is an impressive debut. Very deep in hue, it has terrific varietal character and, headily scented with violets and bergamot, has pronounced aromatics for Alentejo. Its deep-seated fruit is well framed by firm, chalky tannins and mineral, schistous acidity, which lends balancing freshness/definition. Very good and very young. Keep for a couple of years before broaching.
João Portugal Ramos Marques de Borba Reserva 2011
After the Touriga’s muscle, Borba Reserva puts in an elegant performance. This vintage sports more Alicante Bouschet than usual, which explains its similarly inky hue, but the Borba has a cool, silky, juicy quality – a fluidity and finesse – to its concentrated fruit. Terrific balance. Firm but ripe tannins lend backbone and tease out its sweet, ripe fruit over a long finish with well integrated spicy oak. Broachable, but it has so much more to give – layers to unfurl. A lovely wine, with a bright future ahead.
João Portugal Ramos Estremus 2011
At the point of tasting this wine (November), it had yet to be named. Worth the wait because the name is perfect – a reference to extreme viticulture and its place of origin (Estremoz) both. Why extreme? It’s about the microvinification. Estremus hails from several rows of vines (Alicante Bouschet and Trincadeira) on the limestone over marble slopes of Estremoz castle. Just 3000 litres of juice from 0.4 hectrares. Ramos told he’d been experimentally microvinfiying the plot for at least six years. Again deeply coloured, but ultra fine going through – gossamer light, well perhaps not quite, but you get the drift! A really silky, perfumed wine, with terrific balance and length. For Ramos the Touriga is about power and this is about finesse. Absolutely – it’s an outstanding wine.