Discovering Portugal

Portugal is, just like Greece, one of those countries that I have almost no experience with. An advantage of globalization is the availability of wines from the other side of the world, but the side-effect is the standardization of the offer. International varieties (even if they are almost universally French in origin) dominate the mainstream market and regions that do not correspond to the larger public’s acquired taste tend to slip between the cracks. Luckily this creates a gap that can be filled by passionate importers who prefer to specialize in what they love instead of just conforming to a taste superimposed by multinationals. If not for them, a winelover would have even greater difficulties discovering something new.

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Portugal is but a blip on the radar of the general public and even this is only thanks to port. For those willing to put in the effort though, there is a plethora of indigenous grape varieties to be discovered. Portugese winemakers had little interest in export or in basically having any contact with winemakers from other countries. Even though this has led to a standstill for many producers, simply incapable of surpassing the often mediocre wines that they produce for the local market, the great advantage is that the wave of internationalization skipped Portugal, creating an offer of genuinely exciting wines that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. A recent tasting in order to prepare for our exams introduced us to some great wines.

The Douro is traditionally known for port and little else. Yet ever since some attention was diverted to the production of still wines, some simply revolutionary wines have been created. Sites that were originally intended for port were reconverted towards the production of still wines. Port is traditionally a blended wine. In the vineyard it therefore did not matter to have all varieties on different plots of land, creating a field blend. The focus thus switches from varietal expression to terroir expression. Whereas alcohol is a scrambling factor for the notion of terroir in port, this is not the case for still wines, offering exciting new possibilities.

Bastardo2008We tasted two excellent wines linked to Dirk Niepoort, arguably the most influential winemaker in Portugal. The Projectos range could be considered a set of field experiments. Either Niepoort will work with local producers in unfamiliar regions, or they will look for something new in the existing production and vineyards. The Bastardo 2013 is an peculiarity in itself. Bastardo is difficult to find and rarely used for a single varietal wine. In fact, the grapes are sourced from a vineyard with over 20 varieties, which means that pickers have to look for the right grapes vine per vine. The end project comes off a bit un-Portugese, very light in color and really made on finesse. Delicate aromas of little red fruit, which are also present on the palate. It’s a very refreshing wine with a surprising amount of depth towards the finish, a tiny complementary vegetative hint that adds some complexity.

IMG_2407The second wine was Meruge 2012 from Lavradores de Feitoria, a joint project between 18 local winemakers who originally used to sell their harvest to port houses. The wine can be considered a single vineyard project, advised by Dirk Niepoort, assembling the typical port grapes from a single plot. This was one of the winners of the night, red cherries and slightly sweet fruit on the nose, not overly expressive but present. Fantastic on the palate, refreshing, juicy with a spiciness towards the finish that is nicely balanced with silky tannins. There is a lot going on with this wine, and it may not yet be completely in balance, but it is already a pleasure to drink with a promising future.

IMG_2408Roquette et Cazes 2012 is a cooperation between Quinta do Crasto, one of the leading producers in the Douro, and Jean-Michel Cazes of Lynch-Bages (Pauillac) fame. The grapes are sourced from the middle (Cima Corgo) and upper part (Douro Superior) of the region and raised for a year and a half in French oak. You get the aromas you known from port, wild dark fruit and spicy wood yet without the real power you would expect afterwards. The mouthfeel is very Bordeaux-like, licorice and ripeness with a good supportive acidity countering the slightly chewy tannins. A bit too young for the moment, but if the power gets toned down a bit with time, this would be great.

Bairrada is a bit of an exception in the Portugese wine landscape as the focus lies on a single grape variety, baga. Often used for sparkling wine, it really shines when used for red wines with the potential to age for decades. When I first tasted a 100% baga wine I was reminded of the Greek xinomavro due to the acidity-based structure and of nebbiolo as well because of the rustic character displayed in its youth, commanding time to really open up. There is a trend towards making wines that are accessible earlier though, and comparisons to Langhe Nebbiolo pop to mind.

FILIPAPATOterritoriovivotinto2012145x405Filipa Pato is one of the most exciting winemakers of the moment. Daughter of Luis Pato, a pioneer in the region, she is also a member of ’Baga Friends’, a group of winemakers who want to promote the image of baga as one of Portugal’s greatest wines. The Territorio Vivo 2012 is made from old vines and aged in large 500L oak barrels. Quite floral on the nose with a hint of cedar. The palate is dominated by an invigorating acidity, really crating an energetic wine, yet firm towards the finish. It is a bit difficult to get the structure, as the tannins are struggling against the acidity. The purity of the fruit is there, and when the wine sheds some of its wildness it will only be more impressive. Second best wine of the night for me.

Going in, I expected powerful, nigh alcoholic wines and the tasting partially confirmed my expectations. Structured wines with a lot of oomph were found in the Douro, but they also had a complexity and a certain refinement that surprised me. They may not be easygoing wines, but they intrigue, offering more than I would have believed at first. The Bairrada wines were the real discovery though, finesse, freshness and elegance all balanced with good depth and intensity. I for one am intrigued and will make sure that Portugese wines appear on my radar from now on!

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