File Under Portugal (Autumn, 2018)

I had set myself some wine geek goals on a recent family trip to Portugal. I wanted to expand my horizons. Granted I’ve drank some of the big names in table wines (Luís Pato in Barraida, Álvares Castro in Dao, Niepoort in Douro), but to a large extent, I know more Portuguese wine grapes than wine producers. 

So I wanted to try some Baga based reds made by someone other than Luís Pato. I wanted to try more whites - which I consider the real secret weapon of Portugal. And I wanted to taste some Vinho Verde.

Vinho Verde, green wine, is an AOC named for its style or flavors rather than its color (which is why there’s a red wine in the appellation, which I have yet to try). They offer a rather immediate pleasure: racy, green apples without a lot of complexity. They are rather ubiquitous in Portugal. Every supermarket carries the same 5-10 names, up and down the coast from Lisbon to Oporto, and you can get a good, if rather interchangeable, bottle in the price range of 1 to 5 euros a bottle.

The book on Vinho Verde says the best whites are Alvarinho from the Moncao e Melgaco sub-appellation - and that Soalheiro is the leading name. You can find the basic, plain  Alvarinho bottling in both supermarkets and boutique shops. The 2017 presents very pure and clean apple fruit, finely laced with minerals. Having drunk a decent beginner's selection of Vinho Verde and Spanish Albarino, from good value wines to good quality wines, I can testify this stands at the very top. And this just the basic bottling.

Beyond the basic Alvarinho, Soalheiro test the limits of the genre with Alvarinho-based blends, oak aging, sparkling wines, different alcohol levls and vineyards. The Soalheiro section of the Vinho Verde shelf in the wine shop I visited in Porto was a treasure trove. I opted for the Mineral, 2017, which is sourced from vineyards planted above 200 meters and aims to showcase the granite terroir common to Moncao e Melgaco. What I find here is greater clarity and form than in any other Vinho Verde, a longer finish and, yes, a more intense expression of minerals.

On to 'proper' whites. As good as the green wines can be, as pure and deep as they can be at their best, they  just don't have the breadth and flair of the whites. The whites are Portugal's secret weapon and the best are glorious even in the ostentatiously red regions. It took me a while to understand I prefer them to the reds. The wines I've tasted, now and over the years, make it impossible for me to choose between Dão, Duoro and Bairrada, but I do admit my biggest regret from our Portugal getaway is not buying Bairrada whites.

Moreira, Olazabal e Borges, Dão, M.O.B., 2014

This is a blend of Bircal and Encruzado (currently my favorite grape name). Someone once told that you shouldn't use the word "minerals" in a tasting note if you can't name the minerals and I'm often guilty of that. Especially with Portuguese whites, where the best free association I can come up with is oysters marinated in exotic herbs. This could face down a decent Bourgogne Premier Cru, with its focused composite of acidity and extract. Given its local retail price of 17 euros, I'm considering a relocation.

The Dão is represented in Israel by Alvaro Castro, who has two labels imported to Israel by two different importers, Quinta de Pellada and Quinta de Saes. The Quinta de Saes, Dão, Encruzado, 2016 is a mono-varietal. Encruzado is arguably the crown jewel among the Dão white grapes. It shows elegant minerality, without the explosive, exotic, punch of the M.O.B, offering more overt fruitiness and understated finesse instead. Understandably, its youth is a factor here and deserves a re-visit in a couple of years. 

My experience with Duoro whites has been very successful. The mid-tier whites I drank in Portugal were all very tensile and saline, a perfect expression of sour-sweet fruit and rock. The Niepoort premium wines carried in Israel by Eyal Mermelstein are broad and deep and will carry the same mineral stamp in a more Burgundian mold once they mature. A somewhat more reasonably priced portfolio from the Duoro is CARM (Casa Agrícola Roboredo Madeira). I've drank a good share of the low and mid-tier whites. I find them exotic and tropical, rather than mineralish, and offer a refreshing and fruity, rather than a tense and bracing, character. The house's premium white wine is the Maria de Lourdes, Vinho Branco, 2016. The blend is 40% Gouveio, 30% Viosinho and 20% Rabigato and it's an intense, bracing, flinty wine. It, too, is made in the same dry, savory mold that made the Cote de Beaune famous, albeit, in a cruder, smaller scale, and still mired in disjointed puberty. 

Luis Pato, Bairrada, Vina Formal, Parcel Candido, Cercial, 2015

This is the most special Portugese white I know. It's also one of the most mineral laden wines I know, the minerals so exotic they could well be moon rock. If this was Hollywood, the Cercial might not win an Oscar, but it would steal any scene it was in. This and the M.O.B are the highlights of the whites in this roundup.

Baga, Baga, we accept you

I'm planning a Portuguese wine tasting in the near future with friends and hopefully there will be more reds to write about. For now, a single red wine will have to do. 

Luis Pato has spent a lifetime marketing himself as Mr. Baga. And he's earned it. I like his quirky lower level wines a lot: his Rebel, Baga Natural, the sparkling wines based on Baga - wines seemingly designed to show how versatile Baga is and how suitable it is to creative and imaginative winemakers. What I still haven't come to grips with is the Big Baga wines, the single vineyard wines (Pan, Barrosa) that look to require a decade or two to show well. Pato's direct inheritor is his daughter, Filipa, who runs her own operation. She was on my list and I picked up an interesting wine in Porto, Filipa Pato, Bairrada, Post Quercus, 2016, which is Baga aged in amphorae. There's an almost Burgundian/Beaujolais feel to it, due to its silky tannins, earthy aromas, and tart cranberry fruit. But Baga is a much darker grape than Gamay, let alone Pinot Noir, and it has a very distinctive shade and flavor of iron that I don't find in any other grape, and none of that is lost here. In short, Filipa shows yet another facet of Baga as she crafts a complex, sensual wine out of it.

Well, I managed to go through another post about Portugal without writing about Ports. Instead, I offer a glimpse of the other other Portuguese dessert wine. 

Blandy's, Malmsey, Harvest, 2006

This is labelled as Harvest because Vintage Madeira is required to be aged for 20 years in cask. It has an appealing mixture of savory and sweet aromas and flavors, with just enough complexity to broadcast pedigree. Whatever it does lack in complexity it makes up for with an interplay of nutty richness and fruity softness, as it reaches for excess and pulls back. After a few days, the finish grows longer and saltier, while the iodine rancio character evokes a salty caramel/dark chocolate concoction.