Portalegre classic: Tapada do Chaves vertical

Beautiful old vines & terroir at Tapada do Chaves

I first came across Tapada do Chaves at a “40 years of great reds” tasting hosted by Portuguese wine writer Joāo Paulo Martins in 2013.  The 1988 Tinto made sense of why, in recent years, a growing band of winemakers have headed north, for the hills of the Portalegre sub-region of Alentejo. 

An impression which was only reinforced this week when I tasted a vertical of Tapada do Chaves white and red – most especially the exquisite 1977 which I mentioned in Wednesday’s post.  I can well understand why it was one of the trophy bottles at Tomba Lobos restaurant which, since my last visit, has relocated uphill, out of the city centre in a cosy house.  The food is every bit as good (I digress, but it’s one of my favourite restaurants in Portugal).

Acquired by acclaimed sparkling wine producer Caves da Murganheira in 1998, its Chief Winemaker, Marta Lourenço, has made Tapada do Chaves since 2010.   It was a steep learning curve – she cut her teeth not just making field blends, but also making red wine. But Lourenço is plainly thoroughly enjoying the experience.  She beams when she tells me, “Murganheira is my mother, Tapado do Chaves is my baby.” 

White field blend varieties planted in 1901

She dug out these fascinating records (the cadastro) which detail the age and varietal split of the oldest field blend vines (planted 1901 and 1903).  They comprise about four hectares of the estate’s 30ha, which are located at around 400m above sea level in Fragoneira, Portalegre.

Red field blend varieties planted 1901 – note ‘Cinzaut’

Around 90% of these old vines are planted to red grapes, some of which might be green with 7% potential alcohol at harvest, while others are at 16% potential alcohol. “Magically,” she tells me, despite these extremes and so many different flavours, everything comes together in the wine.

Pruning underway

In the winery, Lourenço has continued the tradition of ageing the wines in Portuguese oak, as well as using French oak.  For her, the French oak gives the wines more finesse, while the Portuguese oak is a great tannin tamer – “it breaks the wines down,” she says.

Bar her first cautious vintage, the winemaker has naturally fermented the hand picked grapes, first subjecting them to a cold soak.  Old vine fruit is fermented separately. The reds usually spend 12-18 months in (225, 300 & 500l) barrels, prior to being aged for a similar period in bottle.

The current annual production stands at around 40,000 bottles of red wine and 10,000 bottles of white wine.  Here are my notes on the vertical:

Marta Lourenço and Joao Afonso prepare the vertical

Tapada do Chaves Branco 2014

Only one white wine is made, 100% from old vine fruit.  Following three hours’ skin contact, the grapes are pressed and the must is kept for several days on gross lees, with lees stirring twice a day to build structure.   Though fresh and lemony (lemon juice and skin) on the nose and attack, this pale, textural wine reveals subtly savoury celery salt, vegetal, green almond, resin and lees layers going through.  Good.  13%

Tapada do Chaves Branco 2010

Yellow gold with flavours which also put me in mind of mature Hunter Valley Semillon. It’s waxy of texture with lemon verbena and a nutty, leesy finish.  It has lost a bit of freshness so this would be one to drink up. 13.5%

Tapada do Chaves Branco 2000

A little sherried on the nose, with pot pourri, hints of orange peel and quite firm acidity. This bottle is looking tired – the fruit and acid are starting to divorce. 12.5%

Tapada do Chaves Branco 1996

We tasted three bottles of this because two had a degree of cork taint, but it was readily apparent that this was a great wine – my pick of the flight.  It has the waxiness and lemon verbena of the 2010, but with a pulse of pithy, grapefruity acidity and streak of salinity which gives energy and focus – line and length – to the palate.  Lovely spice too (fruit spice not wood spice).  Retains great palate presence and persistence.  Very good.  12%

Tapada do Chaves Branco 1985

Much more tertiary with spice, dried honey and resin to a promising nose.  The palate is drying out/lacks purity, with a smoky, fuggy phenolic, bitterness.  12.8%

Tapada do Chaves Branco 1977

Light tawny in hue, this is past its best, with coffee, bonemeal and saffron notes; what’s striking about it in a good way is its pulse of acidity – the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.  No alcohol given on the label.

Tapada do Chaves Tinto Reserva 2013

Modern labelling of the 2 red cuvees

A blend from different vineyards, including Aragones and Trincadeira from 35 year old vines and Alicante Bouschet from 10 year old vines.  It’s a deep colour with good freshness – an attractively vivid, pippy red and black currant quality to nose and palate. The alcohol comes as a surprise, well-disguised, as it is, by the freshness and definition of the palate.  Though it’s not especially long, I didn’t pick up any of the dried fruit or syrupy texture of some of the other much less successful higher alcohol wines I tasted this week.  Good.  15%

Tapada do Chaves Tinto Reserva 2012

A little blunter – more solid – than the 2013, but with some plum skin ‘bite’ and balsamic and spicy complexity to the palate.  The tannins are firmer – a little chewy even.  Solid; needs time.

Tapada do Chaves Tinto Reserva 2011

A deep colour and a powerful palate with fresh and baked fruits – the spread of ripeness impacting on texture and taste.  The tannins are a touch blocky on the finish but there’s good freshness.  Needs time.

Tapada do Chaves Tinto 2010

Lourenço’s first stab at a red; it was an inoculated ferment and there was no cold soak or maceration.  It makes for a palate which is a little underwhelming in the fruit department, with vegetal and raisined notes.  15%

Tapada do Chaves Tinto Vinhas Velhas 2013

This old vine cuvée is still 2-3 years off its release. With good reason.  It’s inky, quite opaque with a deep but tight nose and palate, yet to be mined.  But there’s little doubt that the goods are there – with pippy and richer fruit flavours and textures, a rub of dried (menthol?) herbs and chewy, firm tannins which foreclose the fruit, making for a tapered finish.  Still, the acidity is deliciously persistent.  Very promising.  Lovely to see the freshness which the region naturally delivers is cherished and preserved.

Tapada do Chaves Tinto Vinhas Velhas Tinto 2010

A rich nose and palate with a spicy, menthol almost tiger balm-like character which puts me in mind of some Swartland reds.  An attractive wild note.  Red and black berry fruit – not as well defined as the ’13 – is well supported by sturdy tannins.  Going back, the menthol note is more pronounced and pepperminty, which de-emphasises this wine’s 15% abv.  Good.

Tapada do Chaves Tinto 2000

Still sweet with jammy strawberry, dried fig and a hint of tomato puree/greeness and some acidity to carry the flavours.  Going through, the tannins become a little bony.  Drink up.  13%

Tapada do Chaves Tinto 1999

More concentrated and better structured than the 2000 with lovely lift and nuance to nose and palate, with spice, leather, game and pine needle notes to its dried fig, plum and sweet strawberry fruit. Rolling, persistent, salty acidity keeps the fruit dancing.  Textured tannins – fine and thread-like – play their part too, entrapping and extending the palate.  Going back at the end, the fruit is tiring just a little, but it’s very good.  13%

Tapada do Chaves Tinto 1996

A little green, reduced, meaty and peppery with pine needle and mouldy orange peel notes to nose and palate and a salt and iodine inflected finish.  Smudgy tannins lend a bit of oomph.  Tastes better than it sounds!  Interesting 12.5%

Tapada do Chaves Tinto Fragoneira  1988

My second bite at this cherry.  From a dreadful year when it rained until July.  With lots of mildew, production was very small, so Joao Portugal Ramos decided to ferment it in talha (small format), where it underwent a long maceration on skins prior to being aged in new barrels of Portuguese oak.  It’s a deep, deep colour with resin, eucalpt, liquorice, coffee, lots of balsamic, and mocha to its fleshy black plum and rich dried fig palate.  An impure note white-noise-like disturbs the frequency, which is a shame, because the dried fig sweetness builds and the acidity continues to push. Going back, there is no denying the concentration of this beefy wine, but the finish is a little flat footed and the white noise remains an irritant.  Oh for a good bottle! 13%

Tapada do Chaves Tinto Fragoneira 1986

A very deep hue.  A menthol/spicy nose and palate with sturdy black and wild berry fruits and forest floor notes is deliciously animated and extended by fresh acidity.  Long, with a salty piquancy and warmer, earthier tufa/dried porcini notes,  Very good.  13.5%

Tapada do Chaves Tinto Fragoneira 1977

The bottle of ’71 was madeirised so this was the last stop.  And what a fine finale it was!   I knew that ’77 was a generally declared Port vintage but, according to my fellow taster Joao Afonso, it was a very good year throughout Portugal.  The ’77 has a bricky hue with a high toned nose with iodine/oyster shell and a touch of brett.  Qualities which recede the fruit comes up, especially the latter.  And the fruit keeps coming.  Hours later I enjoyed this wine over dinner when it remained potent – very intense – with a ripe core of pine needle-edged sweet red fruits and dried fig and delightfully intricate riffs of spice, oyster shell and saline, the whole propelled along by fresh, mineral, very persistent acidity.  Wow….(No indication of abv for this wine).  Outstanding.



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