Portugal, Mostly Whites

I'll say it for the thousandth time: Portugal's secret weapon is the country's arsenal of white wines. Even in the regions more renowned for their red wines, I strongly recommend you seek out the whites.

In Israel, just about anything interesting from Portugal is carried by two boutique importers, Eyal Mermelstein and Dani Galil. These days you can find them at many of the more trendy, small restaurants and shops in Tel Aviv. The best place to find Eyal's imports is at his restaurant, Tchernichovsky, which doubles as a wine store.

The wines Eyal imports had been a big mainstay at our home during the Corona weeks, so settle down for a long read.

Luis Pato, Bairrada, Vinha Formal, 2017
In Bairrada, where Baga is the King of the Red Grapes, and where Luis Pato has been dubbed Mr. Baga, this same Luis Pato makes two very special single vineyard white wines from white grapes unique both for their origin - they are grown nowhere else in the world - as well as their personality. Trust me, no other white grape displays quite the same exotic aromas and flavors.
Pato grows two white grapes in the Vinha Formal vineyard: Cercial and Bical, the latter is what this Vinha Forma bottling is based on. I won't retract my praises, even though this vintage - or is it just this bottle, at this specific point in time? - is more limpid than other vintages/bottles I've had. But the nose serves well to underline those same praises. The bouquet is a focused mix of fruit, minerals, flowers and spices that I can't break down into specific, recognizable descriptors. It's so exotic, alien even, that it almost feels psychedelic.  
Pato also bottles blends of his prized vineyards as regional wines (of both colors). They don't need as long to come around. Because of that, the Vinhas Velhas (Branco), 2018 is in a better place, a coiled wreath of lime, cantaloupe, salt and sand. Maybe vintage variations had to do with that as well.

Niepoort, Douro, Branco, Tiara, 2017
If Ports are the Duoro's conventional weapons and the reds their nukes, then the whites are a fleet of stealth fighters. This is an especially fine specimen, the nose complex and powerful, the palate lithe and long, a perfect marriage of structure and expression. It's somewhat less exotic than the Bairrada whites (but only because the Bairradas are so outré no other wine can match their kaleidoscopic effects)  - a splash of sea salt over summer fruit, but the salt seems mined from an extraterrestrial sea. The vines are up to 100 years old and the grapes, well the Niepoort site has this to say about them: "Códega do Larinho, Rabigato, Donzelinho, Cercial and others". "And others"...? Because the others are household names, right?

The Tiara is not an especially expensive wine, something like 120 NIS. Still, it's not exactly a weekday wine. A 'lesser' wine, and no less enjoyable for two thirds of the price or less, is the Dialogo Branco, made from a variety of local grapes of decent vine age (10-55 years). The 2018, like previous vintages I have drunk, presents not only a great QPR (Quaility to Price Ratio) but also a great MPR (Minerals to Price Ratio) - lime fruit loaded to the brim with Atlantic salt and flint. It's a lithe, racy wine, born to pair with seafood and the beach. It's red sibling, the Dialogo, 2018, is a paragon of spicy, smoky, moreish freshness.

One of importer Eyal Mermelstein's workhorses is a Duoro operation called CARM (Casa Agrícola Roboredo Madeira). The whites are lovely, dependable and exotic, albeit not in the same league as Niepoort or Pato. The Rabigato, 2018, a varietal sourced from very old vines, plaid and conservative in contrast with the Dialogo, only hints at what Portugal has to offer. The CARM, Reserva Branco, 2018 (a blend of Códega de Larinho, Rabigato and Viosinho) takes the game up beyond hints and loosens its tie, showing the alien, mineral salts and peaches charm of the Duoro whites. It's rounder and sweeter than the Dialogo, but to me it's more of a stylistic difference than a qualitative one (plus, it seems to need more cellar age than the Dialogo - I need to try and age it a bit).

Of the CARM reds, I've only drunk the premium Maria de Lourdes, 2011, which was still big and primary in its seventh year. The Biologico, Tinto, 2016 is the exact opposite, a lithe, fresh red full of spicy black fruit you'd drink gallons of in a bistro or on the beach or on your porch without understanding where the bottle went. For some reasons of marketing I can't figure out, it's not listed in the CARM site

The last of the Big Three appellations of Portugal is Dao. It, too, is renowned for its reds, even though the whites are the real killers. The crown jewel of the white grapes is Encruzado. Alvaro Castro makes some textbook samples. The Quinta de Saes, Encruzado, 2018 marries a fruit profile somewhat reminiscent of Meursault - pears and bitter apples with springy acidity - with flint and that Portuguese exoticism. Castro makes a somewhat more expensive version and the Quinta de Saes, Encruzado, Late Release, 2017 was the best white I had this entire period. This wine goes through a few days of skin contact, which seems to bring the grape's exotic character into greater definition, along with with such depths of mineral aromas and flavors it could well have come from a salt mine. It's really an expressive, brilliant wine and already hitting its stride, despite its youth, with bright acidity with fruit that's half pear and half tropical.

Like I said, white wines are Portugal's secret weapon, but there's one appellation where the white wines are not a secret. Technically, though, they're not white wines.

Anselmo Mendes, Vinho Verde, Muros de Melgaço, Alvarinho, 2018 
The so called 'green wines' of Vinho Verde are the most conventional of Portugal's whites. You can't mistake them for a Chardonnay or a Sauvignon Blanc, but they don't display the exotic flair of Bairrada, Dao or Duoro. This, for example, is a saline wine, developing nicely since I last had it and approaching its peak - I don't think many of the Vinho Verde are meant to be aged very long. The temperate barrel aging has left no imprint on the taste, endowing it with complexity and making it very moreish.