Category Archives: Portuguese wine

A Dream Comes True

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I guess that many Bristol Wine Blog readers have lists of ‘dream’ wines – bottles that they’d love to taste at least once in their lives.  Sadly, by their very nature, ‘dream’ bottles are often either fantastically expensive or incredibly rare – frequently both.  So dreams remain dreams.

But, just once in a while, an opportunity comes along and a dream becomes reality.  And that’s what happened for me recently thanks to a tasting organised jointly by the Bristol Tasting Circle and the West of England Wine and Spirit Association.  Our speaker was Christian Seely, Managing Director of AXA Millésimes, who brought along a selection of wines and ports from their multiple award-winning estate, Quinta do Noval, including one of my dream wines, Nacional Vintage Port.

noval-ports

What’s so special about Nacional?  It’s produced from a single, wonderfully sited vineyard of just 2 hectares (4½ acres) where all the vines still remain on their own rootstocks (so, not grafted onto American rootstocks, as most vines are, to guard against the deadly phylloxera bug).  Output of Nacional Port is tiny – just 3100 bottles of the 2003 vintage – the one we tasted – were produced and demand always exceeds supply many times over.

Did it live up to my dreams?  You bet it did!  Although still young (good ports can easily last 50 years), it showed marvellous concentration of fruit – damsons, plums, cloves and just so much more.  Truly, a once in a lifetime treat!

And though my attention was, understandably, on the Nacional, it wasn’t the only superb bottle on show: we also tasted the regular 2003 Vintage Port (from other Noval vineyards) and a tawny from the same year; either would have been the star of most tastings, as would Noval’s Douro red wine: unfortified and made from the same grape varieties as the ports, this would be a perfect match with robust food.  But the Nacional was just in a different league.

And just a mention for Bristol readers: the Douro will be one of the subjects of ‘Wine Rivers of Europe’, a 5 week course (Wednesday evenings) at Stoke Lodge starting in November during which we will be talking about (and tasting, of course) a selection of wines reflecting the title.  For more details: http://www.bristolcourses.com

Bristol’s Portuguese Heritage

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Portugal is Britain’s oldest ally and there have been trading links between the two countries for centuries. And one of our most important imports from Portugal for much of that time has been Port. It used to be shipped in barrel direct from Oporto right into the centre of Bristol and bottled in cellars such as those owned by Harveys and Averys. Sadly, these days, large boats have to dock at Avonmouth, downstream from the city and all bottling is done in Portugal but port, and, nowadays Portuguese wine, too, is still arriving.

This heritage was marked some years ago by the ‘twinning’ of Oporto and my adopted home town of Bristol and a very active Twinning Association now exists organising regular exchange visits and other activities including, recently, a tasting of Portuguese wines. Of course, I was keen to attend, particularly as the wines were presented by Rachel of Corks of Cotham (and now of North Street, Bedminster, too), a local independent wine merchant who have won a number of awards for their Portuguese specialism.

BS Oporto tasting

Two contrasting whites began the evening: a crisp, refreshing Vinho Verde from reliable producer, Raza, (£8.99) and Casa Figueira’s Antonio (£19.99), a wine with real character and richness, part-fermented in old oak casks from a little-known grape variety, Vital.

Turning to the reds, Herdade Sao Miguel’s Ciconia (£8.99) from the Alentejo was a lovely easy-drinking, juicy mouthful concealing its 15% alcohol very well, while the others were all definitely ‘food wines’. Quinta dos Roques’ Maias (£9.99) from the Daõ region was inky black with an attractive black fruits nose and intense and succulent on the palate. From neighbouring Bairrada came Casa de Saima (£11.99), a blend of old vine Baga (the native grape of the region) with some Merlot and Touriga Nacional, all aged in old oak. This showed lovely red plum flavours but, as with so many Portuguese wines, would benefit from another year or two in bottle to give its best.

This latter comment certainly also applies to Niepoort’s Vertente (£18.99) which was a fitting close to a memorable evening of wines. From one of the Douro’s best-known port producers who are equally skilled with red wines, this had deep and rich black fruits and a distinct hint of smokiness from 20 months in French oak barrels.

All wines mentioned are available from Corks and, if anyone is interested in further events organised by the Bristol-Oporto Association, please leave me a message and I’ll happily pass your details on to the Secretary.

A Shy and Reticent Wine?

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The English are often described as ‘reserved’ people: shy, reticent, not very forthcoming.  But the word ‘reserve’ can have other meanings: I can reserve a table at a restaurant or set a reserve – a minimum sale price – at an auction, for example. But what does it mean to wine lovers?

Look along the shelves of your local supermarket or wine merchant and you’ll notice that Reserve (or a local variant such as Reserva or Riserva) is one of the words most commonly found on the labels.  So, does it mean that the wine is shy, reticent and not very forthcoming?  Unfortunately not!  But, what it does mean (if anything) varies a lot, depending on where the wine comes from.

Things are clearest in Spain.  Spanish wine tasting (2)There, Reserva denotes a red wine that has been aged for at least 3 years before being released for sale, at least one year of which must have been in oak barrels.  For whites and rosés, the figure is 2 years (6 months in barrel).  The requirements for Gran Reservas are longer: for reds, 5 years (2 in oak barrel), for whites and rosés, 4 years (6 months in barrel).

Across the border in Portugal, the rules for their Reserva are much less specific, simply requiring the wine to be from a ‘good’ vintage (how do you define that?) with an alcohol level at least ½% above the regional minimum (which varies from place to place).

Italy’s equivalent is Riserva.

41 SelvapianaThis also varies from place to place – as do most things in Italy; it, too, denotes a certain minimum ageing, usually at least a year, although, for Barolo, it is as long as 5 years!  Often, higher alcoholic strength and other requirements are also included in the local rules.

And that’s as far as the regulated use of these terms goes.  Anywhere else and the word has no official meaning.  It might be used to suggest that the wine is of a higher quality, as in the French ‘Réserve du Patron’ or terms like Estate Reserve or Reserve Selection, or has seen some oak ageing, but, outside Spain, Portugal and Italy, none of this is guaranteed.

To my mind, we ought to reserve (sorry!) the use of the word to those places where it does have a legal meaning, but I’m not going to make a fuss about it because I’m English and too reserved!

Wine: Not Red or White but Green!

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Vinho Verde Anselmo MendesWine comes in 3 colours: red, white and rosé. Well, actually, no! It comes in 4! In Portugal, there is also green wine! Vinho Verde, the wine from Portugal’s northernmost region, the Minho, translates as green wine. And, to make things more complicated, although virtually all the green wine that is exported is white, in the region, you can buy red green wine as well!

Enough of this! Let’s talk Vinho Verde and we’ll concentrate on the white version. The Minho region is very different from the rest of Portugal; it hasn’t really got a typical wine growing climate at all. It’s fairly cool and relatively wet – in fact, its annual rainfall is 2 – 3 times higher than in many wine regions. So it isn’t surprising that, historically, it produced rather thin, acidic and under-ripe wines. These were nearly all consumed locally and within a year of production – the “green” in the name actually refers to this habit of drinking the wines while they were still very young, rather than their colour.

But things are changing. How? By better vineyard management and by concentrating on higher quality grapes such as Alvarinho (the same as Spain’s excellent and ultra-fashionable Alboriño) and Loureiro. And it was a wine made from this latter variety that we enjoyed recently.

Anselmo Mendes’ Muros Antigos is a delicious, fragrant, perfumed white with an incredible depth of flavour and great complexity and length. My wife and I had a glass each one evening and then put the cork back in and left it. By the following day, it had developed even more flavours and aromas. I can hardly believe it is only £8.75 (Wine Society) – quite remarkable at the price and the wine bargain of the year!

I’m not surprised at the quality of this wine – we visited Anselmo Mendes when we were in Portugal last year and quickly realised that here was a top class winemaker. We were treated to one of the most diverse and comprehensive tastings I can remember. Yet, we were faced with so many different wines, all the result of his great passion for experimentation, that, in the end, it was difficult to agree on what worked brilliantly and what didn’t quite work.

With just the one wine enjoyed in the peace and quiet of our own home, the quality shone through. But Mendes isn’t the only person making high class Vinho Verde. You should definitely look out for green wines on the shelves!