Pico's Revival

 

 


When phylloxera swept across Europe between the 1860s and 1880s, the effect on wine production was horrendous, dramatically lowering quantity and quality and forcing growers to graft their vines onto disease-resistant American root-stock.

Phylloxera's impact on the tiny volcanic wine-producing island of Pico in the Azores – part way between Europe and the US and one of the first places to experience the devastation caused by the aphid – was even more disastrous. Locals compare it to the Irish potato blight in the 1850s, in that it completely devastated the only local crop (the basalt covered surface of Pico is not really suitable for growing much else than wine) and almost wiped from memory the delicious and famed fortified Verdelho wines which were exported across Europe, to the dinner-tables of London and Berlin and even to the court of the Tsar in St. Petersburg.    

 

“Within a very short time, most of those living and working on Pico and in nearby Faial (the adjacent island and home to the landowners who ran Pico's vineyards) were ruined. Many left for a new life in the US or Canada and never came back,” says Marco Faria, owner of Curral Atlantis, today one of Pico's biggest wine producers, making some 100,000 bottles out of the 250,000 that the island officially produces. 

 

Faria says that until the 1990s Pico's wine heritage was little more than history. Few were prepared to take on the big financial and logistical challenges that come with making wine in this extraordinary volcanic terrain. Little wonder – this is like no other wine region I have ever visited, unsurprisingly denominated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2004. 

 

It is characterised by tiny basalt-enclosed vineyards, some of which are over 400 years old. The vineyards were built out of the volcanic stone to protect the grapes from the wind and sea, which in some cases is just meters away. Soil for the vines was bought across from Faial, and the vines themselves from mainland Portugal, some 1500 kilometers away. The vineyards, like the entire island, is dominated by Mount Pico, Portugal's tallest mountain; the last eruption was back in 1718 but the volcanco exercises an eerie looming presence everywhere you go, and can be seen miles out as you fly towards the island.

 

The basalt surrounding the vineyards helps create a special micro-climate, with the heat-retaining rock warming the vines long after the sun has set. But with big clumps of rock almost everywhere you look, vineyard yields tiny and any form of mechanisation logistically impossible, working these vineyards is not for the faint-hearted. 

 

“At harvest-time, pickers have to climb down into the vineyards, get the grapes and put them into a basket on their backs, and climb over the rock to the next vineyard...It can take them several hours just to fill one basket,” says Faria.

So why bother? Because as Faria and other winemakers here attest – and there are currently just five registered producers although many more small growers  - Pico's wines are quite unique. 

 

Faria's Curral Atlantis wines (currently unavailable in the UK) include two of Pico's three indigenous white varieties, Verdelho and Arinto dos Acores (a different Arinto from that found in mainland Portugal), which are made as single varietal wines and as a blend, which here works very well, with the strong acidity of the latter giving backbone and heft to the rounded fruity Verdelho. He makes two reds (a Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blend and a Syrah) and both are surprisingly moreish, light (just 12% alcohol) and pleasingly saline reflecting the vineyard's 50 metre proximity to the sea. They give lie to the claim that Pico's fickle, generally quite cool climate makes it unsuitable for growing red grapes.

 

But it is the indigenous white grapes here that are so special. Marco Faria is planting “substantial amounts” of Pico's big gift to the wine world, Terrantez do Pico, a wonderfully aromatic but also remarkably saline variety that was all but extinct until a few plantings were found in the north of the island. The local coop, Vitivincola da Ilha do Pico makes a wonderful blend called Frei Gigante comprising Terrantez, Verdelho and Arinto dos Acores and the current 2015 is quite delicious, with the three varieties working together to produce a harmonious, wonderfully moreish wine.

 

However the new king of Terrantez do Pico is Antonio Macanita, a dynamic young winemaker from the mainland who has been making Azorean wine for the last few years for the Azores Wine Company, which he set up with Filipe Rocha, founder of the annual culinary extravaganza 10 Fest Azores. 10 Fest seeks to highlight Azorean cuisine by bringing in ten different chefs for ten days at the height of summer to the Azores main island, Sao Miguel, to create menus from the remarkable local ingredients here (the Azores may be based in the mid-Atlantic, some two hours flying time from Portugal, but it is virtually self-sufficent in food and boasts, amongst other things, world-class cheese, meat and fish).

 

With Rocha, Macanita must be given a lot of the credit for rescuing Terrantez do Pico from obscurity and near extinction. Producing wine since 2010, the Azores Wine Company now makes some 20,000 bottles of Terrantez, Verdelho and Arinto dos Acores, alongside a red and a pink wine,  Volcanico (made just metres from the sea and discovered, on testing, to contain four tmes the potassium and three times the sodium of Macanita's Alentejo-produced wines). 

However with a major planting programme now underway near Pico's airport, in the heart of the UNESCO-protected zone, Macanita hopes to be producing 100,000 bottles a year by 2020, and even more after that, with one third of the plantings intended to be Terrantez do Pico.

 

“Pico's grapes really are very special: Verdelho has a wonderfuly silky roundness, Terrantez an amazing saline complexity, whilst Arinto dos Acores is notable for a direct, linear acidity,” he says. Macanita adds that harvesting is really intense – plucking small amounts of grape from volcanic rock is unenviable work - and can be disappointing; 2014 was a really poor year, and 2012 non- existent, thanks to adverse weather conditions.

 

Last year was much better and hopes are high that 2016 will also be, laying the ground for the gradual increase in quantity up to and beyond 2020.

Macanita remains fascinated by Pico's wine history, and how it all but disappeared when the dreaded phylloxera hit the islands around 1857.

“Just imagine, Pico went from producing around ten million liters of wine to just 25,000 – in one year. It was quite devastating,” he says.

 

Because of this, Macanita makes a controversial wine called Isabella a Proibida, from the original  disease-resistant wine variety (Isabella) that arrived from the United States and helped lay the foundation for today's revival. Many say that what is made from Isabella isn't really wine –France and other countries ban its use in commercial wine-making because of its “foxy” taste – but Macanita is quite unrepentant.

 

“This is all part of our heritage and history and I'm proud to emphasize this,” he says. “That's what these wines are all about – a trip back to the past.”  

 

 

 

Azores Wine Company Wines are stocked in the UK by Red Squirrel Wines.

 

 

Hanging out with the Douro Boys

 

 

 

This year the celebrated Douro producer Quinta do Vallado commemorates its 300th anniversary – and lots of history. 

 

As you enter the winery a sign commemorates Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira, the legendary nineteenth century grande dame of the Douro to whom many of this region's port producers can trace ancestral links, including Ferreira port, now part of the Sogrape Empire. If you look closely, there are also references to the other four Douro Boys (Quinta do Vale Meao, Quinta Vale Donna Maria, Quinta do Crasto and Niepoort), a group often described as a marketing association of like minded wine producers but which is a great deal more. Four of the five Douro boys are linked by blood and/or marriage (the name Ferreira is a constant); all share a heritage that sees them work together, regularly help one another in either growing, producing or selling wine, at the same time maintaining a healthy rivalry that keeps quality and innovation high.

 

Important as all this remains though, something else these days is driving the Douro boys – modernity, pushed by the need to react to changing consumer trends.

Having come together to promote table wine – something most producers in the Douro have moved into in a big way over the past 20 years as port consumption dropped – the Douro boys are now boosting production of white wine. Many are also looking at new vinification methods aimed at improving quality and freshness, and making reds not necessarily dominated by the Douro's traditional grapes, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Barocca, with the field blend emerging as a new favourite amongst winemakers.

 

With its smooth grey granite walls, comfortable interiors and warm lighting,  Quinta do Vallado's new boutique hotel is one of the nicest places to stay on the Douro. The winery, built around 2009 by the same architect, is similarly state of the art. 

Most important though is what is being produced there. Amongst the range are three white wines, an entry level blend made from local varieties Arinto, Rabigato, Viosinho, Codega and Gouveio (Verdelho) a barrel aged reserva made from the same grapes minus Codega and most interestingly of all, a dry Moscatel called Prima, made from local Moscatel Galego Branco grapes, but completely uncharacteristic for the Douro.

 

“The response we've had to this wine has been extraordinary – we just can't produce enough of it,” says chief winemaker Francisco Ferreira, who ascribes its appeal to the discrepancy between the wine's warm honeyed aromas and the surprisingly dry palate (actually zero residual sugar) which throws you off balance when you first taste it. Ferreira says it's the perfect summer wine.

“Correctly timing the harvest is key – leave picking too late and the wine will lose that lovely freshness and acidity.”

 

Ferreira has overhauled Quinta do Vallado's whites, aiming for alcohol levels of between 12-12.5% maximum. He argues that contrary to early belief that the Douro's intense summer heat and undistinguished white grapes made it unsuitable for good whites, the region has excellent potential.

“When handled correctly, our local grapes work very well together: the Gouveio gives structure and complexity, the Arinto acidity and the Viosinho, herbal and spicy characteristics, to make very appealing wines.”

 

Further down the river at Quinta do Crasto near Ferrao, winemaker Manuel Lobo de Vasconcellos agrees much of the Douro's future lies in white wine, even though right now the lion's share of the 1.4 million bottles produced here are red (just 12% is port).

 

Driving up the hill to an astonishingly beautiful view over the estate and the river, he points to a huge area just planted with local varieties that in a few years time will substantially boost white wine output, with grapes that include Viosinho and Verdelho. White production has been aided by adopting the OXOline racking system which obviates the need for physically stirring barrel fermenting wine, as in traditional racking systems, which potentially harmfully exposes it to oxygen, with the winemaker instead topping and stirring the wine whilst the barrel rests on rollers.

 

“A few years ago I would have been hesitant to say this, but we are really getting a grip on how to make great whites here, wines that have strong appeal and a sense of terroir,” he says.

 

However the Douro boys have another secret weapon – the field blend. Neglected until quite recently with the focus on Touriga Nacional – which has become Portugal's signature red variety – winemakers have realised there is treasure within those wild, once almost ignored parts of the vineyard that somehow never quite fitted into their winery's mainstream portfolio. Ferreira at Quinta do Vallado reckons there are 45 different varieties in its Reserva field blend, made from vines that are at least 100 years old, whilst at least 49 go into Quinta do Crasto's Reserva field blend. 

 

“After 49 the DNA specialists we got into study this vineyard lost count: there are probably any more varieties there than we can know,” says de Vasconcellos.

These field blends were amongst the most characterful wines I tasted in the Douro and I'm not alone in my admiration:  last month, the New York Times just rated Quinta do Vallado's field blend as the best amongst a range of Douro wines it tasted, calling it “lovely, juicy, complex and balanced. Also impressive is Quinta Vale Dona Maria's field blend, the single vineyard Douro DOC red 2014, whose varieties include Tinta Francisca, Tinta Amarela, Rufete and Sousao.

 

“It's really important to use these grapes and nurture them or they will eventually die out,” says Francisca van Zeller, daughter of Cristiano van Zeller who has run the winery for the past 20 years. Cristiano names his full-bodied and luxurious black-cherry charged Vinha de Francisca after his daughter and of course, after the main variety within the wine, Tinta Francisca.

“We are really trying to break away from the dependence on Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz (tempranillo), which can make quite boring wines. Modern Douro wines should be about complexity yes, but diversity too,” says Francisca.   

 

Quinta do Vale Meao, located in the upper Douro not far from the Spanish border, has also been experimenting, making a delicious wine from the hardy Baga grape grown in some of the granite soils that run through the winery, which is built on a volcanic fault. Despite temperatures reaching almost 50 degree in mid-summer, winemaker Francisco Olazbal has made a fresh, highly approachable wine with just 12% alcohol.

 

The Douro boys' focus on making less predictable wines is music to the ears of Dirk Niepoort, who has long complained that for all its appeal the Douro has been making wines that are too heavy and – dare one say it – old-fashioned. Critics have argued they can be too predictable, almost too perfectly made, rather than having a sense of place or many points of difference.

You certainly couldn't say that about Niepoort's own field blend, Redoma, a lightly oaked blend of at least 40 varieties, or indeed his other Douro wines, which include, remarkably for this incredibly warm region, a Pinot Noir made from a plot he planted “because I'm an idiot.”

“Freshness is the key thing. And balance. And acidity, though you often have to work hard to achieve these things here.”

 

The ambitions of local producers have been aided by the Douro's massively improved infrastructure – a new tunnel and road just beyond Vila Real has cut travel times between Paso de Regua and Porto to little over an hour compared to the two and a half it took a few years ago, over poor and windy roads, which over the years tragically claimed the lives of quite a few winemakers here. 

But the key driver here seems to be adaptability, a determination by producers not to rest on their laurels.

“Quality here is improving all the time and one of the reasons I think is because people are making more terroir-based wine, recognising that a truly unique region like this can make unique wines,” says Niepoort.

 

Portugal's Forgotten Regions - Barraida

 

Mention Portugal and wine lovers think Douro for its ports and increasingly impressive table wines. If they like big bold wines made with hefty local grapes like trincadeira and alicante bouschet, the Alentejo region springs to mind as does Vinho Verde for white wines with finesse and character. Portugal's wine profile has never been higher: it made the front cover of the latest Wine Spectator and last year occupied three of the top four positions in that US magazine's 2014 Top 100 list. UK sales meanwhile rose 10% between 2013-14, reflecting consumers' desire for good quality/value wine and also perhaps more unusual grape varieties (Portugal has 250 local varieties, suggesting wide scope for discovery).  

One region on no one's lips however is Barraida. This hilly coastal-facing region lying between Aveiro (Portugal's Venice, because of its canals and brightly coloured buildings) and to the south, the university city of Coimbra, is best known for its sparkling wines and for being home to leading cooperative Caves Alianca.

Yet a visit to the glorious fin de siecle Bussaco Palace, former home of the Portuguese Royal Family and today a luxury hotel, reveals more interesting traditions. For years this estate has been producing delicious quality wines made from indigenous grapes from Barraida and the neighbouring region, Dao. It's by no means the only good producer: nearby Campolargo makes modern wines from native and noble grapes. Other producers focus on Barraida's indigenous grapes, including white bical and cercial and red baga, often described as Portugal's nebbiolo which has become something of a cult grape: seven of its bigger producers have formed Baga Friends to emphasise its potential.  

 

Foremost amongst them are Luis Pato and his daughter Filipa Pato whose eponymous wineries produce some of Portugal's most interesting wines. The former's modest looking winery in what feels like the middle of nowhere in central Barraida now produces some 350,000 bottles of sparkling, red and white wine. Although Pato used international varieties when he started out today there is no sign of them at all on his distinctive bottles (many bearing the image of a duck, which is what Pato means in Portuguese). This year will be Pato's 35th vintage and although many of his wines are traditional in style he is as much of a maverick as ever: his pink sparkling wine (made from baga of course and appropriately called Informal) has a beer bottle cap instead of cork, whilst on one of his wines (Pato Rebel 2010, made from 90% baga and 9% touriga nacional)) there is a drawing of him sticking his tongue out, because this soft and mellow wine is a ripost to those who say Baga can only be dense and tannic.

For the past 14 years Pato has had two harvests for his Baga crop, the first of which is used for sparkling wines and the second, still red wine. This works well – although bad weather last year wiped out much of the crop (baga is particularly susceptible to rot) - enabling baga to develop the deep dark violet berry flavours that make it so distinctive.

“As Luis gets older, the more determined he is to keep trying new things every year,” says Sara Rodrigues, who works with Luis at the winery. As she takes me through some of his wines, I feel they are a curious mixture of old and new. His main sparkling, made from the Maria Gomes grape (known as Fernao Pires elsewhere in Portugal) is crisp and very seductive, with the full flavours of the grape coming through; the pink Informal is exhuberant and moreish (perfect for a picnic, as its name implies). Its still white counterparts Vina Formal 2011 (single vineyard, made from Bical and Cerceal and left on the lees for nine months) and the less complex but equally appealing Vinhas Velhas 2013 (fermented and matured in large steel vats; comprising 50% bical and 25% each of cerceal and sercialinho) are quite different from one another but both representative of Pato's determination to let the local grapes speak for themselves, with minimal interference. The reds I tasted – Vinhas Velhas 2010 and Vinha Barrosa 2011 – suggest this even more: the latter comes from an 80 year old vineyard and shows baga's potential.

Like her father Filipa trained as a chemist and is also unafraid to experiment. However her wines also stress the underlying flavours of the grapes, and the motto “authentic wines without make-up” dominate her bottles and website. Sitting in one of her local restaurants, Rei dos Leitoes in Mealhada (where the speciality, unsurprisingly for a place called King of the Pigs, is roast suckling pig or Leitao), we try a selection of the 11 wines she now makes in a typical year.

First up a bical made in amphora and fermented in wild yeast – quite delicious and the sort of thing that causes palpitations at the Barraida Wine Commission, who have sweated much over Pato wines in recent years (they were appalled when Luis made a red wine from white grapes).

Most outstanding and consistent wines though are the red and white Nossa Calcario (made with baga and bical respectively) that Filipa makes with her Belgian husband, sommelier William Wouters. Unsurprisingly the wines have won many awards and have remarkable ageing potential: the white Nossa Calcario 2010 revealed depth and character, with creamy vanilla flavours supporting wonderfully expressive fruit, whilst the red Nossa Calcario 2013 that I tried was made with fruit from two of the best vineyards, very rich with amazing length, but in just tiny quantities: 3500 bottles.

 

“The wines reflect the chalky clay soils in which they were made, as well as the purity of the local grape: we wanted to make something that spoke of the land in which it was grown,” says Filipa.

Perhaps, but its that Pato magic which makes this family's wines - and this relatively unknown region of Portugal - so fascinating, and so different. 

And Dao …

It's a gloriously warm, still afternoon in early summer and I'm sitting by the swimming pool at the Pousada Vila Pouca da Beira. A former convent converted into a historic luxury hotel in the heart of the mountainous Dao region, it retains at the church which provided spiritual sustenance for its inhabitants so many years ago. The panoramic views over Serra de Estrela national park are remarkable - there can be few places to better appreciate nature's beauty. All around me are small vineyards – playing a continuing vital role in the life of this rather little understood region.

“Vineyards here seldom get to be larger than 40 hectares: most producers have to buy in their grapes and even then production tends to be relatively small-scale,” says Luis Lourenco, whose Quinta Dos Roques/Quinta Do Correiro brands are amongst the best regarded in Dao. Sitting in his tasting room in the hamlet of Abrunhosa do Mato, he admits the remoteness of his winery and others like it doesn't encourage much drop in trade.

“There have been efforts to create a Dao wine trail but wineries are too spread out and too remote for this to work,” he shrugs, adding though that the IP 5 road from Porto – which replaced one of the most dangerous roads in Europe – makes moving around much quicker.  

His own wines, imported into the UK by Raymond Reynolds, are certainly worth the trip. Like many local winemakers keen to overturn the clumsy reputation of the cooperatives which once dominated Dao, his production is small volume. At best this means 200,000 bottles out of the 22 wines made in a good year by his two Quintas, all made from only local grapes. This means Touriga Nacional, (native to Dao and not Douro, as some believe) Tinta Roriz and Alfrocheiro and for white wines, Encruzado, Malvasia Fina, Cercial and Bical.

“Our wines have a high natural acidity – reflecting hot days and cool nights – and benefit from granite and clay soils,” he says.  

The importance of soil diversity is clear when tasting Luis's Quinta Dos Roques wines – especially the Tinto, the 2011 vintage of which won last year's IWC trophy for both Dao and Portuguese wine – compared to those from nearby Quinta Das Maias; whilst the first stress minerality and structure, the latter are much richer and fuller-bodied. 

Dao's new emphasis on quality and for want of a better word, terroir, can be felt even more at Quinta da Falorca (imported into the UK by Armit). The 2009 Lagar – a heady blend of TN, Tinta Roriz and Alfrocheiro – scored 92 points from Parker and is a full-on yet wine, with brambly charred fruit giving greater richness and complexity (£21); the white Encruzado is a highly expressive, structured example of this grape. (£13.50)

But some Dao-based producers have developed ambitions that range well-beyond the region. Chief amongst them is Dao Sur, owned by Global Wines and thriving under chief winemaker Osvaldo Amado who has helped take the group in new directions after the departure several years ago of Carlos Lucas.

The group, which last year celebrated 25 years, is best known for its Quinta de Cabriz brand, the red and white of which sell in the UK for around £7; it which remains one of Portugal's more reliable entry level wines, with sales more than holding up there despite the economic downturn.

 

Yet Dao Sur has moved towards creating, as laboratory manager Ana Rodrigues says, wines that are both real and expressive of the terroir in which they are made. This is quite an ambition given that it now makes some 130 wines, from numerous estates in Dao but also Barraida, Alentejo, Vinho Verde and Douro, to name just a few. 

During an ad hoc tasting at the winery's restaurant I found some excellent Dao wines – the Cabriz Encruzado 2014 which sells in the UK for around £11, is a real winner with lovely vanilla, almond and hazelnut tones set off by two months in oak; at the high end, with fewer than 4000 bottles made, is the sublime Conde de Santar 2011, a luxurious blend of 50% TN and 25% each of Alfrochiero and Tinta Cao, with 9-12 months in oak, from the group's historic Paco de Santar estate, which dates back to 1609. If you can afford it, well worth its £65 price tag.

An even more interesting example of what Dao Sur is doing comes from Brazil where the company's ViniBrasil project has been running for a few years. The Rio Sul 2010 is the best Brazilian wine I have tasted (the brightest star in a dim universe, you might say, but against a backdrop of a wine industry that shows serious advances every year, this is not faint praise). Sadly just 5000 bottles of this Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah blend are made each year. Yet the group make two other wines there, Paralelo 8 and Vinha Maria, close to the equator, using a wide range of Portuguese and noble varieties. 

“I think the variety of wines we produce, and their quality, shows how far Dao has come from when we were dominated by the cooperatives,” says Ana. 

Mario Ferreira, managing partner at Quinta da Fallorca echoes this saying his winery and others are working hard to boost standards and make wines that are truly representative of Dao.

“The goal of the owners and winemakers, Carlos Figueiredo and his son Pedro, is to express the unique terroir of Silgueiros. We produce 75,000 bottles a year and we don't buy a single grape. We are committed to our land, and to preserve the main characteristics that make it unique, and our wines distinctive from others,” he says, adding that they keep more than 30 different clones of the main red variety they work with, Touriga Nacional.

So what makes Dao wines unique?

“Elegance, minerality and freshness in the wines that can age for decades. We still enjoy a wine we made in 1963,” he says.

 

Time perhaps for British consumers, familiar already with Duro and Alentejo, to re-discover this oft-cited yet not well known region.   

 

Amazing Alentejo

Portugal’s economy can at last look forward to recovery. Yet if the country’s fortunes had mirrored those of the Alentejo’s wine industry, it would be enjoying the benefits of growth already.

Around 10-15 years ago, Alentejo wine was largely bulk. It was hardly taken seriously by connoisseurs more interested in wines from Dao or the Douro (though this last was only starting to move away from an overwhelming focus on port). Much of what was palatable was made by co-operatives, especially the ever-dependable Adega de Borba, with the focus almost entirely on indigenous grapes (which for white meant Arinto and Antao Vaz and for reds Alicante Bouschet, Trincadeira and Aragonez, better known as Tempranillo).

 

 

 

The difference today is remarkable. Today there are at least 250 wineries in the region – the largest and hottest in Portugal – with many more opening every year, and eight DOC sub-regions, with a wide range of soil types and micro-climates. Quality now is a given, even for some of the cheaper wines (and in Portugal that means around Euro 4 a bottle), which are generally excellent by any standard.

Wineries are now increasingly confident in how they make wine, in ways that would once have appeared impossible. Not only are winegrowers coming here from abroad, they are experimenting with international varieties and those drawn from other Portuguese regions to produce luscious and often fascinating wines. The whites seem in many ways even more interesting than the always dependable reds, with consumers offered a choice of styles thanks to the versatility of the grapes (in an Arinto-Antao Vaz blend, the former provides flintiness and acidity, whilst the latter provides body and depth).

To get some perspective on this revolution, I crossed from Alentejo into Extremadura, the adjacent region lying just over the Spanish border. Despite a virtually identical climate and soil, as a winemaking region it is one of Spain’s less interesting: some decent wines are made under the Ribera del Guardiana DO but the dependence remains, rather dully, on Tempranillo (as elsewhere in Spain) and amongst whites, the rather unexceptional Cayetana. This – coupled with the Spanish sensibility that whatever they are doing must be great - seems to have depressed innovation and prevented a transformation similar to the Alentejo.

David Baverstock, a South Australian pioneer of wine-making in the new Alentejo and chief winemaker at Herdade do Esporao, agrees.

“There doesn’t seem to be the same interest or passion that we continue to see here in the Alentejo,” he says.

Baverstock should know. This year, the Adelaide-born winemaker celebrates his 22nd year with Esporao. It’s been quite a journey. When he started, the Esporao brand was only seven years old. Indeed the winery itself was only 19 years old, having been founded in 1973 by banker Jose Roquette before being promptly nationalised a year later during the 1974 revolution. Although it stayed in state hands for only four years, the damage to the vines, soil and took years to repair.

Baverstock made his mark early on, enjoying the full confidence of Roquette and his company, Finagra. The year he joined, mid-range brands Monte Velho and (less successfully) Defesa were launched, the former becoming a staple at eateries across the country.

“Monte Velho has been great for us from the start: we were competing with lots of other wines at that price point, but were able to give a little more in terms of quality and structure than they were, and consumers responded well. They still do,” he says.  

 Lots of other things were also going on, including archaeological discoveries – the estate's boundaries were set back in 1267 making this one of the world's oldest estates – a new winery for red and white wine production, and a growing focus on ecological production, which extends to the quality olive oils that are also produced here. In late 2012 the new restaurant, shop and tasting facilities were opened, looking onto Esporao's vines and its beautiful lake and making this a must-see destination for visitors to the region. 

 

 

Gazing out across his vines, Baverstock says Esporao will continue to innovate and reinforce its reputation as one of the Alentejo's leading producers. Agritourism plans are in the works – which suggests a hotel may eventually emerge – building on the winery's reputation for sustainability but in the meantime all efforts are being put into the wines. The flagships – Esporao Reserva, both red and white – continue to attract worldwide fans, and the red in particular has won a well-earned reputation for consistency. The current vintage (2011) is no exception: combining Aragonez, Trincadeira, Cab Sav and Alicante Bouschet, this is a profoundly well-structured wine with considerable depth but also delivers lots of upfront fruit. However the white reserva has been gradually refined with each vintage with less oak used, and a greater focus on freshness and acidity: when I was visiting, the 2013 was just being bottled and is very different from the more buttery 2012, combining Antao Vaz, Arinto, Roupeiro and Semillon.

 

 

Baverstock has also been building up Esporao's range of single variety (monocastas) wines, with four now available in the range: a verdant, wonderfully summery Verdelo, a powerful, cassis-charged Touriga Nacional, a wonderfully layered and complex Syrah and an interesting, fruit driven Alicante Bouschet.

However Baverstock is also turning the expertise he developed in Alentejo to the Douro. Roquette's company has been developing the hilly, historic Quinta dos Murcas estate in 2008 since acquiring it in 2008. Last year saw the launch of a new mid range wine, Assobio – very accessible, with good structure and fruit - to sit alongside Quinta dos Murcas Reserva, currently the 2010 vintage. This remarkable wine is made from some 30 different grape varieties, which grow side by side in the vineyards before being crushed manually (and traditionally) in huge lugares. 

For the future? Baverstock suggests something is missing from the Portuguese portfolio.

“I've always been a fan of Vinho Verde wines and it would be lovely to develop something up in the Minho, he says. “But then again Dao is also such a fantastic region.”

Watch this space.  

Herdade do Esporao wines are available in the UK through Barwell and Jones (www.barwellandjones.com, 0208 418 2888) . 

A full list of wineries can be found at the Vinhos do Alentejo in Evora. However even a cursory visit to the region should include, as well as Esporao:

Cortes de Cima: a remarkable range of wines produced by Hans and Carrie Jorgensen. Syrah is the star grape – this was the first winery in the region to grow it - and their Syrah (currently 2011 vintage) remains a UK bestseller. Traditional Alentejo grapes also feature both as single varietal wines (including a Trincadeira 2012 and an Aragonez, 2011) and in skilful, moorish blends, including best-selling Chamine (2012) at entry level and the fine Reserva (2009) at the top end.

 

Amongst the whites, the green and being-labelled Cortes de Cima is an exotic, unusual and moreish blend of Alvarinho, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc, partly fermented in French barrels with lovely minerality and lime and blossom notes. These wines are well worth exploring. Truly an experience!

Adega de Borba: Almost certainly Portugal's most impressive cooperative winery,with the opening of a brand new facility, the list has now expanded to include various high-end and single variety wines, including the Senses range (the Touriga Nacional 2012 is recommended). 

Herdade Dos Grous: A fantastic range headed by Moon Harvested, a dark, rich and exotic wine made from Alicante Bouschet in accordance with the lunar cycle. 

Ervideira: This family owned winery has been running since 1880 - aside from a gap during the mid 1970s when its assets and vineyards were expropriated during the Revoution. Its mid range blends are commonly found at restaurants across the regionfor the very good reason they are a perfect expression of the terroir and the local grape varieties: the Vinha D'Ervideira Rose is a dark, food wine with excellent structure, thanks probably to the Touriga Nacional that is added to the Aragonez and Tinta Caida. Unusually for the Alentejo however, it is the whites that stand out: at the high end (around Euro 15 a bottle), the Conde d'Ervideira Vinho Branco (Private Selection) is a lovely, supple blend of Antao Vaz and Arinto, with lime, white blossom and mint notes. Grapes are picked at night to boost their aromatic potential - and it seems to work. Less expensive at around Euro 8 is the unusual but enticing Invisivel, again moon-harvested but from red grapes (Aragonez). Tasted blind, this is quite confusing: your palate and nose are telling you one thing, yet the reality is a well-crafted, and very well made white wine, with aromas of sage, mint and bossom. Well worth seeking out.    

  

Malta and the Algarve's wines move forward

 

  

Until pretty recently, wine lovers visiting Malta or the Algarve had a stark choice - put up with locally produced, rather average plonk or drink something from nearby, which in Malta's case usually meant Italy and in the Algarve, meaty wines from the Alentejo. As drinking local is for many people part and parcel of the holiday experience, this represented a fairly tough choice; it also meant that visits to local wineries was off the agenda , unless they happened to enjoy stomping around the cooperatives that used to dominate wine production in both places.
However, as a recent visit to both Malta and the Algarve confirmed, things are changing. In both, new well-financed wineries with wine-makers often bought from the New World or France have sprung up, producing solid, well-made wines in relatively small but still sufficient quantities. In both places the grip of the big producers - Marsovin in Malta and Adega Cooperativa de Lagoa - has loosened, with the former in particular now focusing on creating more interesting, up-market wines, whilst the latter faces acute financial problems (not surprising, perhaps, given that their entry level wine costs less than Euro 2 a bottle, cheap even by Portuguese standards).
And in both one more people are coming into visit wineries. Neither Malta nor the Algarve have what you could call proper wine routes, but for wine lovers a visit to Meridiana near Mdina in Malta and in the Algarve to arty, German-owned Quinta Dos Vales or Cliff Richard's Adega de Cantor are becoming increasing popular ways to pass a lunchtime or afternoon. With good reason: the two Algarve wineries in particular have become increasingly savvy, offering tours and tastings whilst Quinta dos Vales (complete with mini zoo and a vast collection of artfully painted, fibreglass sculptures) has extended into accommodation.
The industries in both places still face quite considerable hurdles - in Malta the big problem is lack of space (the Meridiana vineyard, for example, is just 18 hectares) whilst in the Algarve it is the high cost of land, which can place question-marks over the whole wine-making process, particularly when producers are trying to compete against wines from the Alentejo, where all the factors of production are more favourable for wine-makers. Neither place will ever become major, in wine-making terms - just five families dominate the industry in Malta - but both are making increasingly interesting and increasingly classy wines, using some interesting indigenous grapes.
So what are some wines to look out for?
In Malta, Meridiana - which is in a joint venture with Antinori of Italy - makes some good wines that are worth seeking out even though these tend to be amongst the priciest on the island. At the high end, amongst whites, the winery makes two pretty solid Chardonnays, Isis and the premium Mistral: the latter in particular has good buttery vanilla flavours and light oak, giving the wine depth and character. Amongst red, the syrah - Bel - is probably a better bet than the Ceb-Merlot blend Melquart: there's lots of bramble and cassis here making this a good solid accompaniment to grilled meats. However if you want cheap and cheerful , go for Meridiana's Fenici: the white is a blend of Viognier/Vermintino, the red a mix of Syrah-Merlot: both are fruity with plenty of up-front fruit.
Amongst Marsovin's wines, it is probably best to avoid their mid-price range - around Euro 8-9 a bottle - Caravaggio: the Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 was pretty acceptable but both the Syrah 2010 and Chardonnay 2010 were sub-standard on the nose and palate, with the latter excessively tarry. However there are reasons to be optimistic. Three years ago, with an eye on improving the overall quality and reputation of its wines, Marsovin announced it would henceforth use only Maltese grapes in its wines, even though these tend to be more expensive than the Italian grapes it had been importing. And it is making an increasing number of premium wines, albeit in tiny quantities: look out for Primus, an intriguing blend of Syrah and the local red variety, Gellewza, or the buttery Atlantis Chardonnay from Gozo.
Other wines to look out for in Malta include some from Delicata, which seems to specialise mainly in inexpensive gluggers including the fruity, approachable Pjazza Regina range which retails at around Euro3.50 - the white is particularly appealing, a blend of Gigentina (the light, fruit local white variety), Chardonnay, Vermintino and Viognier. Also worth trying is the sparking Girgintina Frizzante. Amongst other newer wineries, Camilleri's single varietal Palatino range - particularly the Chardonnay and the Vermintino - are well worth tasting, whilst those wanting a heavy, oaky red could consider some of the wines from Montekristo.
There is even more to chose from in the Algarve, although most of the region's wineries remain concentrated around the Portimao-Lagoa area.
Quinta dos Vales is still in its relative infancy - it was only established in 2007 - but has already established a reputation as the most upmarket producer in the region under the Marques Dos Vales label. Its entry level wines - Selecta - and the more expensive brother Grace are both decent wines; the red of the former is a blend of Castelao, Syrah, Aragonez and Cabernet Sauvignon and is remarkably well-balanced, with the soft, brambly fruit supported by strong tannins, whilst the Grace Touriga Nacional is superb, lots of full-on berry fruit yet also smooth: this wine could stand comparison with Touria Nacionals from their home region, Douro.
Of the other producers/wines that should be tried by wine-appreciating visitors, Quinta do Morgado da Torre's Alvor is a red blend, which changes each year according to how the grapes have performed under the hot Algarve sun. The 2008 that I tried was a mix of Syrah, Touriga Nacional and Alicante Bouschet; quite full-bodied and bold but probably works best with big food rather than on its own   Lovers of rose will appreciate meanwhile Quinta de Mata-Mouros's Xelb; this is quite a dark, concentrated wine but also quite moorish, particularly under a stark blue Algarve sky.
Herdade dos Pimenteis, just outside Portimao, focuses on reds although I found its Touriga Nacional 2007 a bit OTT: too beefy with the fruit rather over-whelmed by the tannins. For me however the revelation amongst the Algarve wines I tasted was Quinta do Barranco Longo's Grande Escolha white 2010; a beuatiful, perfectly made blend of Arinto and Chardonnay, this has a wonderful golden colour. On the palate, lovely vanilla-flavours give full expression to the fruit, with the flintiness of the Arinto working well with the creaminess of the Chardonnay. If the Algarve can keep making wines of this stature - and those produced by Quinta Dos Vales - this region has a bright future as a wine-making region. 

 

(September 2012)

 

 

 

Tremendous Toro




For most British wine drinkers Spanish wine broadly equates to Rioja - maybe also Navarra and Cava - despite this large country having regions that produce much better wines. For my palate, though there are honorable exceptions, Rioja has become one of the more boring wine regions; production is dominated by large producers making bland "modern" riojas without those special characteristics that once made Rioja different. Given that Spanish wine - and Rioja - is dominated by one grape, tempranillo, the result not surprisingly is that wines can taste remarkably consistent - and not necessarily in a good way.
Yet for the interested drinker, the other regions are well worth exploring, whether by bottle and glass or literally. Most of the more interesting wine regions are in northern Spain, which means it is easy to take a crossing with Brittany Ferries and fill up the boot with lots of interesting un-commercial wines that you would never find on a British supermarket shelf.  So that's what I did: booked myself on a passage from Portsmouth to Santander - a mere 24 hours although time on the company's flagship vessel Pont Aven flies once you've had dinner, wandered around, caught a movie and slept.
This being summer, I avoided Ribera del Duero. Although arguably Spain's best wine region (as anyone who has tasted Vega Sicilia will attest: Unico, this famous producer's most iconic wine can be picked up for a mere £250 a bottle at your local Majestic), most wineries are closed in August, a month that also gets ferociously hot). Other regions I could have visited up here include, to the west, in Galicia, Rias Baixas, home to what is now Spain's most fashionable grape, Albaino, Rueda, which makes good value, crisp and accessible whites, and Bierzo, which makes intriguingly layered and often delicious reds.
Instead I focused on an unjustly ignored region: Toro.
There are quite a few paradoxes about this place. Although one of Spain's oldest wine regions - wines were made here in Roman times and later were famously sent to the New World with Columbus because their high alcohol levels gave them a chance of surviving the voyage- it only became a DO (denominacion di origin) in 1987. Yet at that time according to Bernardo Farinha, owner of one of the oldest wineries Bodega Farinha, there were just five wineries, most either co-operatives of large bulk producers. Compare this to today's 47 wineries, many focused very much on the quality end of the market; foreign producers are starting to set up shop here, including Gerard Depardieu, recognising the uniqueness of the soil and climate. Paradoxically again though, many are ditching Toro's strong, gutsy high alcohol wines for more nuanced, balanced wines. Alcohol levels now are typically around 13.5% against the 15% or even 16% that Toro was once famous for, yet the wine is still distinctively tannic because of Tinto de Toro. This grape is a close relative of tempranillo but tends to be smaller and tougher skinned, which makes it harder to grow and cultivate effectively but on the positive side, it is capable of great concentration.
So where to start? For visitors to the town of Toro - well worth seeing, not least for its impressive Romanesque church, the Colegiata and the views from the terrace nearly down to the Duero river - there is no shortage of places to taste.

 

Restaurants in and around the main square have a wide range, but well worth a mention is Meson Zamora which sells some great wines - including Gran Cermono 2006, a lovely supple wine with rich dark fruit flavours - at almost retail prices, many by the glass as well as bottle.
Winery-wise, just outside the town centre is Bodegas Farinha, which has been producing since 1942 and is now one of the larger bodegas in the region. Bernardo Farinha - the third generation of his family to make wine here, which he does alongside father Manuel - has branded his wine in honour of the town church. Entry level wines - Colegiata - are accessible and fresh: the white, a Malvasia, is fruity and supple whilst the strawberry-cherry coloured Tinta de Toro Rosado is perfect for hot summer days (of which there is no shortage in Toro).
However it is at the next step up that Bernardo and Manuel's wines get more interesting. The Gran Colegiata Crianza 2006 Roble Frances is a full-bodied yet rounded modern style wine, fermented in steel tanks before being aged for 11 months in French oak; lots of luscious berry fruit make this a distinctive choice. It is a complete contrast to the Gran Colegiata 2006, which by contrast is aged in American oak and is more open, tannic and "big." The contrasting styles of these two crianza's make for a fascinating comparison. Different again are Bernardo's high end wines, made entirely from old vines, some almost 140 years old, which makes them pre-phyloxera. Campus is made is very small quantities and is very full on, with lots of berry fruit, cherry notes, liquorice - particularly on the nose. The Reserva 2004, like Campus, made from hand picked grapes, is a serious, elegant wine, quite restrained in style but an impressive accompaniment to local cuisine.
A very different winery, run by very different winemakers, can be found a few miles down the road, just off the road to Salamanca. Estancia Piedra, owned by Scottish lawyer Grant Stein, only had its first vintage in 1999. Today it makes around 150,000 bottles mainly from Tinto de Toro although it also produces a Rueda-sourced white from verdelho. If Bodegas Farinha seems conditioned by tradition Piedra is the essence of modernity as exemplified by the winery's white glass-fronted tasting room and shop, which look up onto the vineyards.

Despite relatively small production, Piedra has no fewer than 7 wines including the aforementioned white, a cracking, summery rosado and five reds. The entry level Piedra Azul is great for tasting the un-interfered with essence of Toro wine. However one has to mention the high end wines including the small volume Lagarona (made from 40 year old vines and blended with 25% Grenache). This is very much a Marmite wine - love or loathe - and I'm afraid I feel into the negative camp, possibly finding the blend a little unbalanced, although to say I disliked it would be going too far. The top premium wine, Paredinas, made from 100 year old vines before spending 24 months in French barrique, was another matter: some may find this OTT but I liked its vast full-bodied, full on fruit oakiness. The downside? Only 6500 bottles of this were made which means you are unlikely to be able to try it unless you head out to Toro yourself. So consider it. Toro is well worth the trip and you'll end up with some wines that will make your friends weep with envy.


Justin travelled to Spain as a guest of Brittany Ferries. For details of their services to northern Spain see www. brittanyferries.com.

(September 2011) 

 

 

An Alentejo Journey

 

 

Here I am, back in the Alentejo just a few months after I was last here. My family and I passed through here in the summer on the way back from the Algarve. We loved the lack of crowds, the food and wine of course but also the excellent pousadas, which like many great things in Portugal, hark back to an earlier time, far from the economic crisis now afflicting this lovely country.

In late October with the wine harvest almost in, this land seems even emptier than in the summer. The temperatures are lower, of course – 45 degrees Celsius are not unusual in August and now it is in the comfortable mid 20s. But aside from the wineries, which have grown dramatically in number and size over the past 8-9 years, there really seems to be nothing here. Portugal’s best-known writer Jose Saramago, who died this June past, called the Alentejo Portugal’s inland sea and with its endless vistas and big skies that seems an apt description. Of course, one of the reasons the wine industry is still in its relative infancy here is that the former dictator Antonio Salazar decreed the land should be turned to wheat to support his self-sufficiency drive. So grain and cork were largely what this land produced for many years. Although cooperatives such as Borba also made wine, much of it was low to mid quality bulk stuff. All that is now changing of course. The last 10 years has seen the wine industry take off from almost nothing to now being this otherwise neglected region's most promising asset, with a clearly defined – though often long and rambling, reflecting the large distances – wine route to encourage wine lovers here.

 

 

And it continues to grow in leaps and bounds. From not many, back in 2000, there are now some 250 producers making increasingly good quality wine out of eight sub-regions, using indigenous but also increasingly, internationally-renowned grape varieties. The focus is towards higher quality wines like Esporao that are increasingly well-regarded both within Portugal – where they now account for 15-20% total wine production – and in export markets. Many of the wineries also make world class olive oil that would put Italy and Spain to shame. My overall conclusion is that Alentejo’s meaty, full-bodied wines often also convey a fine sense of terroir as well as innovative wine-making techniques: this is very much a place to watch. 

Where to start? With the Alentejo’s wine commission the CVRA as my guide, and five other wine journalists as company, we started atMouras de Arraiolos, near Estremoz. Established just for years ago with “private business money” this is a very new, state of the art winery with the latest steel tanks and bottling equipment that enables it to produce some three million bottles a year. Winemaker Jaime Quendera, formerly with JP Ramos, is making impressive, well-crafted wines at remarkable prices – particularly within Portugal where some of the entry level wines sell for under Euro 2 but also for the export market. Direct Wines are selling Quinta de Mouras 2009, a Syrah-Alicante Bouschet, via the BA wine club for £7 and you can see why this appeals: full-bodied yet also restrained, with lots of berry fruit flavours, this is a lot of bang for your buck. More interesting was their Reserva Branco, a lightly oaked white made from Arinto and Antao Vaz and costing around Euro 6 locally. Lovely depth and character with the sumptuousness of the Antao Vaz offsetting the flintiness of the Arinto.

I expect Alentejo wines to taste like Alentejo wines which is probably why I didn’t get on so well with the wines from Herdade Das Servas, which are made in an international style. In other words, well-made, sophisticated but without that bold sense of terroir and rusticity that make wines from this region so appealing. For me, the most appealing wine was the Touriga Nacional 2006, a full-bodied fruit driven expression of this grape: winemakers here are increasingly using this native Dao/Douro grape to great effect. 

More interesting for those with a sense of history is Adega de Borba, one of Portugal’s oldest (established 1955), most respected and increasingly innovative wineries, located in the small town of Borba. Producing an annual 12 million bottles a year – 65% red, 35% white but using some 25 different grape varieties - it has just invested £11m in a bottling plant and other new equipment. This struck me as a very modern, go get em type of winery that is responding to evolving tastes. It has a full range of wines from top end – the impressive Montes Claros, a full-bodied Alentejo red par excellence – to the new upper middle level single varietal range Senses, to its old established labels including the famous, cork covered Adega de Borba right down to entry level Galitos. Adega de Borba strikes me as a well-organised, forward looking organisation that knows how to improve its market share: all the wines were of high quality with modern labelling making them even more attractive. How odd they don’t export to the UK: they seem to have successfully accessed other important export markets.

Lack of visibility is hardly the problem at Cortes de Cima, our next stop near Vidiguera, which has developed something of a cult following amongst fans of Alentejo wines. In the UK, for some reason, their Syrah is the most visible wine, sold by Waitrose for around £12.

 

 

 

By contrast the budget shopper in Portugal will be most familiar with the entry-level Chamine white and red (though at around Euro 4 a bottle this is much pricier than most equivalents). Over a long and boozy lunch we tasted the entire range – some nine wines – and were very impressed, at every level. For the money, Chamine is remarkable using a wide range of grape types (the white, A.Vaz, Viognier, Verdelho and Semillon) the red, well, as little bit of everything: the result is a drinkable, very accessible but intriguing wine. The winners here, for my money, were the Hans Christian Anderson 2008 (a 100% syrah) and the wonderfully smooth and elegant Trincadeira 2008.

However the best is yet to come. You would never describe maker Luis Duarte restrained and his wines aren’t that either. Yet he has managed something remarkable: the great wines he makes for Herdade de Malhadina Nova and Herdade dos Grous are stylistically completely different, yet the two wineries are just five to ten minutes drive from each other outside the city of Beja in lower Alentejo. Asked how he manages this he shrugs nonchalantly and says: “I imagine I am in a different place, almost a different person, when I make the wines.”Quite so.

Malhadina Nova proves to be a stunningly beautiful place, thanks to the incredible work of owners Joao and Rita Soares: horses, a beautiful hotel with infinity pool, state of the art cooking, everything a holidaymaker might want is here. There is also great wine, made in the modern style, by Duarte/For me the whites stand out here with the entry level Antao Vaz (around Euro 9 a bottle), very decent and wedll-structured, with light perfume notes, and the Malhadina (Euro 18) a delicious blend with a long, sophisticated finish.

But it is at Herdade dos Grous (which means stork) that Duarte’s skills reach full expression. These are without doubt the most impressive wines I have tasted in Alentejo – and in a region where almost every winery produces really good, memorable wines, that really is saying something. Over a delicious local meal that includes the famous Alentejo speciality black pig (which get a special flavour from their acorn-heavy diet) and migas, a local speciality made using yesterdays’ bread, we try the full range. Worthy of special mention \are 23 Barricas 2009 is an astoundingly rich blend of syrah and TN and drinks superbly but and the award-winning Moon Harvest 2009, made from 100% Alicante Bouschet. The wine is so named because the picking of the grapes was timed by the cycle of the moon, which guarantees PMH (potential maximum harvest, in case you wondered). Opinions vary about whether the moon can really influence the quality of a wine but whichever way one views it, Duarte is doing something right with this delicious, berry-charged but amazingly well-balanced wine. For UK consumers, the really good news is that Great Western Wines now import all Grous wines. 

On now to be a judge at the FIJEV contest. This is my first time at Vinipax, an annual wine event established to promote wines of southern Portugal. Although the organiser Annibal Coutinho has reduced the range to be tasted down to 25 – 12 white and 13 red - it really is hard to find a red and a white wine that stands out, because really they are all so good. And that’s probably the best compliment I could pay these wines.

November 2010

 

 

 

 

Pera-Manca Must Breathe!

 

 

 

Just when, exactly, is the right time to open a really good bottle of wine? I suspect most readers of this site have bottles at home that they have squirreled away for that special occasion, only to find that that special occasion never really seems to come. Despite numerous Christmas, Easter and Birthday dinners, I still have two really, really good wines – a 1998 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hills Cab Sav and a 1997 Gaja Sperrs – collecting dust under the stairs.  And I still don’t know when that special time will come. 

For this reason I was determined not to allow the same thing to happen with a bottle of 2005 Pera-Manca. For Portuguese wine enthusiasts, Pera-Manca Tinto is an almost legendary wine, superlatively made by one of the Alentejo’s best wineries Fundacao Eugenio de Almeida Evora, located just outside the UNESCO-recognised city of Evora.

 

 

 

Three days earlier I had visited the winery, which is now high-tech, since new machinery and the relocation of production doubled capacity to three million litres. I tasted much of their range, which I found both varied and impressive.

At the entry level, the EA range – available in local supermarkets priced from around Euro 4 – is accessible and very well made: the 2009 white and 2008 red (both made from indigenous Alentejo grapes) had lots of character, with the former benefitting from plenty of fruit (melon and kiwi predominating) the latter from smooth but firm tannins that made the wine taste more than the sum of its parts. However amongst this range it was the pink wine that most impressed made from a blend of three grapes that for 2009 included Touriga Nacional, a variety that is increasingly being used in this region, to very good effect (the other two are Castelao and Grenache). The strawberry and cherry flavours that come through this wine make for a perfect summer aperitif ; this was a very different and markedly superior wine to the 2007 EA rose, which I tasted a few days later, and which used syrah instead of the TN., though this was also very accessible and well-made. This really is a wine that would sell well in the UK with its current enthusiasm for pink wine but also its relative lack of really good ones.

The curate’s egg in this producer’s range is the relative newcomer, Scala Coeli, made only since 2005 and using a non-native (for the Alentejo) grape variety. The 2006, which I didn’t taste, used syrah; the 2007, which I did taste and found very impressive, uses 100% TN, and the result is a deeply complex, richly layered wine with hints of blackberry, liquorice and black-current.  

 

 

For most people Fundacao Eugenio de Almeida is synonymous with Cartuxa, the red wine named after the Carthusian monastery that lies just 200 yards from the new production facility. Though hard to find in the UK – God only knows why – this is one of the Alentejo’s best-known wines. I tasted the 2007 Tinto and the 2005 Reserva and found both excellent. The first is a well-made, full-bodied blend of Trincadeira, Aragonez, Alicante Bouschet and Alfrocheiro; a good attack gives way to a rounded but dry and firm wine that seems clearly designed for the meat-based Alentejo diet. The Reserva, characteristically, was fuller and slightly more generous with the fruit emboldened with hints of spice and pepper.

And what of the famous Pera-Manca? After a few days of dragging this impressive wine around in 40 plus degrees Celsius, worrying for the well-being of my suitcase – the weighty bottle alone must be one and a half kilos – I finally had enough of dithering. If it made it home to England, this wine, which has many years of bottle-aging ahead of it, would doubtless take its place alongside the Napa Cab Sav and the Barolo, and stay untouched for years. Te alternative was to have it with local food, less than 100 kilometres from where it was made. Sitting over dinner at one of Portugal’s finest pousadas, Sao Francisco de Beja, I cracked. Where better to enjoy this delicious wine, made by a winery once operated by Carthusian monks, than in the impressive dining room of a 13th century Francican convent. I asked the waiter to open the wine – “Pera-Manca must breathe,” I told him, as he weighed the bottle in his hands.

 

An hour or so later? Bliss. An incredibly deep purple colour gives a foretaste of the richness inside, suggesting forest fruits, cherry and chocolate all held together with smooth tannins. You’d almost be happy to simply smell this wine all evening, but I was lucky enough to drink it as well, and must count it as one of the most impressive wines I have tasted in a long time.

Pera-Manca must breathe, sure, but it must also be tasted by anyone with even a passing interest in Portuguese wine. But don’t ignore its less sophisticated siblings, which are perfect proof – if ever it were needed – of just what Alentejo’s wine industry is now capable.

 

For more information on accommodation in Portugal’s historic pousadas - which as well as former convents, monasteries and castles include a range of other historic buildings, visit www.pousadas.pt.

For more information on Fundacao Eugenio de Almeida, visit www.cartuxa.pt.  

 

Living the Vida Nova

Cliff's Algarve venture moves forward


What would you rather drink: fig juice or wine? A pretty easy question to answer, which is why when flying Australian winemaker David Baverstock asked it of Cliff Richard the veteran English pop-star ditched his initial plans to plant fig-trees on the new farm he had bought and opted for vines instead. Some nine years later his Adega de Cantor - winery of the singer - is starting to show its' potential, with Baverstock's input and the winemaking skills of general manager Max Birch making themselves felt across a growing range of wines.
"Our first proper commercial vintage was in 2003 but it's only now that we really know what we are doing, and what grapes work best here," says Max Birch, looking out across the three vineyards that comprise Adega de Cantor. Production at the winery (located at Guia, outside Albufeira) is now around 150,000 bottles. This may sound small but it makes this the largest winery in the Algarve, despite increasing numbers of winemakers being attracted by the commercial potential of making rose in Portugal's main tourist destination.
And pink wine continues to be Adega de Cantor's biggest money-spinner with its strawberry-fresh Vida Nova available in Waitrose for around £7.50 a bottle. Max says the wine - a dry, but relatively full-bodied blend of Syrah and Aragonez - is intended to be the opposite of Mateus, but at the same time appeal to holidaymakers.
"A lot of people passing through here buy our wine. I'm sure the Cliff connection helps (the singer spends some two months of every year), but the weather here makes pink the big seller," he says, adding that this year should see production rise to around 30,000 bottles.

 


That said, Max and his team are trying their hand at other wines in the three vineyards that comprise the Adega. These include a relatively new sparkling pink syrah which works rather well and that will soon be available in the Uk (for £20 a bottle) and Vida Nova Tinto Reserva, a full-bodied, plummy upgrade on the winery's standard red. And what of the standard Tinto, made from a blend of syrah (75%), Aragonez and Alicante Bouschet? Well, it's by no means a blockbuster - as Max explains, the soil and climate in the Algarve make these hard to muster. However it has some good and interesting fruit flavours, nice firm tannins and a sense of terroir all combining to make it very different say, from an Alentejo red. The 2009 Branco, a blend of Verdelho and Arinto is also quite quaffable with some nice melon and peach flavours, though in reality not much to write home about. Which suggests that in the short term at least, the decision to focus on Vida Nova pink is probably the right one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pleasures of Portugal

 


These are fascinating and exciting times for the Portuguese wine industry. Although market share is still low in most countries – below 2% of the total in the UK, one of its more important markets – sophisticated consumers in particular are awakening to the charms of Portuguese wines. It is not hard to discern why; after years of the industry being dominated by often indifferent cooperatives, quality independent producers are now leading the way, particularly in the two prime producing areas, Douro and Alentejo. Add to this Portugal’s myraid grape varieties – many with unpronouncable names which somehow make them even more appealing – and the focus on blended rather than single variety wines, and you have a country well worth investigating. The industry itself seems increasingly aware of its potential. Earlier this year, industry body ViniPortugal announced long overdue reforms of the country’s 64 wine regions, with more changes promised. A bunch of the regions around Lisbon are now merged into one, Wines of Lisbon, whilst just to the south Terras do Sado has been renamed Peninsular de Setubal, on the basis that the geographic description will at least give consumers an idea of where the wines come from.
Certainly the move pleases Setubal Penisular’s largest two producers, Jose Maria de Fonseca (one of the country’s oldest producers) and Bacalhoa. Both based in Azeitao (home to one of Portugal’s finest cheeses, an Epoisses-style creamy sheep cheese), the two wineries make a fascinating study in contrasts.
The first traces its lineage back to 1834 and visitors are guided daily around the old manor house in the centre of Azeitao, complete with its ancient cellars containing wines dating back well into the 19th century.  Still very much a family business, the sixth generation of the Soares Franco family is now running the business – and a member of the seventh generation, Antonio, was my host for the visit.
JM de Fonseca is today probably best known for two of Portugal’s best-known wine brands – Periquita, the country’s first wine brand, first made in the 1850s (a white and rose are also now produced) and Lancers, introduced after the war to appeal to American palates reared on soda pop. However it is still very proud of its moscatel, the orangey-red sweet wine fortified with grape brandy that is so popular in Portugal – particular as an aperitif or with pastries – but which Brits do not seem to know what to do with.  And it is also branching out into Alentejo and Douro, where it makes two wines that seem equally characteristic of their regions.

Recommended: Periquita – both white and red – is stocked by Waitrose at £3.99, almost the same price as in Portugal. Until relatively recently, the red was predominately Castelao, native to the Ribatejo region north of Lisbon but bought south to the Setubal penisular by JM de Fonseca himself, where it flourishes. Today, this light to medium red is blended with 10% Aragonez (better known to you and me as Tempranillo) and 10% Trincadeira, which helps give the wine more depth and character. For UK palates, the white (a blend of 70% Moscatel de Setubal and 30% Arinto, which gives a slightly steely backbone to the otherwise overwhelming fruitiness of the wine), is probably more appealing, particularly on that rare sunny day in the garden or park. 
When in Portugal, try the red Periquita Reserva; the 2005 vintage is now widely available, and costs around Euro 8 retail. An intriguing but successful blend of Castle (50%), Portugal’s most famous grape Touriga Nacional (30%) and Touriga Franca (20%), this wine spends eight months in oak prior to bottling. Although it has only been produced for a few vintages, winemaker Domingos Soares Franco has created an impressive wine with good ageing potential.  

 

 


Bacalhoa seems, if anything, to have an even wider range of wines than its neighbour. Majority owned by Joe Berardo one of Portugal’s richest men – indeed one of the world’s richest men, according to Forbes magazine – Bacalhoa has grown to be the second largest wine producer in Portugal (after Sogrape) following its purchase last year of Caves Alianca. It is now incorporating these wines into its extensive portfolio.
As befits its name, Bacalhoa Vinhos de Portugal has wineries in three regions, Alentejo (Quinta do Carmo), Estremadura (Quinta dos Loridos) and its HQ in Setubal. The first thing that strikes a visitor to this winery is the building itself, bought from publishers Reader’s Digest a few years ago. An ultramodern hexagonal structure with an umbrella roof, this seems the very antithesis of a traditional winery, and is filled with impressive works of art, including some beautiful traditional tiles (azuelos). Outside are olive trees rescued from what is now a vast man-made lake in central Alentejo, and some impressive copies of the Terracotta Army. Behind is the ageing cellar for the moscatels – in a former greenhouse so the fortified wine can benefit fully from the hot summer sun. The tasting room is a separate building, surrounded by a Japanese garden (including a tree descended from one of the few trees to have survived the atomic bomb on Nagasaki) and Japanese sculptures. Those in search of tradition can organise a visit to nearby Palacio da Bacalhoa with its stunning gardens, impressive rooms, although notice needs to be given.


Recommended: UK palates will be most familiar with Tinto da Anfora – stocked by Waitrose and Majestic at around £7 a bottle – one of the best Portuguese wines available here for such a price. More budget conscious Portuguese will know JP, an astonishingly cheap red and white brand which delivers rather more than the Euro 1.69 one pays for it at the country’s leading grocery chain, Pingo Doce. Quite how Bacalhoa makes any money on this beats me but they’ve been making it since 1993 and not surprisingly,  selling it by the bucket load. Higher up the price and quality scale is the flagship wine Quinta de Bacalhoa, the red a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (90%) and Merlot, the white an unusual and striking blend of Semillion, Sauvignon Blanc and Alvarinho, the grapes sourced from the vineyards surrounding Palacio da Bacalhoa.  Both are elegant and well-worth trying, as are the winery’s single varietals, So Syrah and So Touriga Nacional, both made locally. 

Accommodation Tip: If visiting these wineries, rather than heading back to Lisbon why not stay and see what the area has to offer. The nearby Parque de Arrabida – where many of the best moscatel grapes are sourced – is well worth exploring, as is the Cabo de Espichel, the wild region at the end of the Setubal Penisular, complete with dramatic cliffs and excellent walking. Setubal has a beautiful historic pousada, located in castle with dramatic views of the town and sea: visit www.pousadas.pt. Another option, particularly if you like sandy beaches and swimming, is the nearby seaside town of Sesismbra; the Hotel Sesismbra and Spa (www.sesimbrahotelspa.com) has great sea-facing rooms and a nice pool.

 

 

 

Life beyond Port?

“Demand for vintage and single estate ports has been relatively buoyant – indeed in some cases it is outstripping supply,” says Tim Stanley-Clarke of wine importer John E Fells & Sons.

The overall picture though, is less encouraging. With the credit crunch depressing spending and confidence almost everywhere, even the most optimistic in the business expect spending to be down over 2009 and port will be no exception. Figures from Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto up to end 2007 show total port sales – including those of inexpensive ruby port, which provides the bulk of sales - remained stagnant at around 10m cases. It would be a brave man to predict anything other than a decline for 2008 and 2009. 

Even before the credit crunch, the economics of port production were never obvious. The Douro Valley may be one of the world’s most remote and beautiful wine regions but many of the hilly, stony and narrow terraces that line the river have just one or two rows of vines. Yields can be tiny and land costs are high.
However other factors have also been working against producers.
Labour costs have been rising thanks to low cost airlines and improved local roads; locals who once had little choice but to work on the harvest now have a world of alternative employment. The 25% appreciation of the Euro against sterling has hardly helped vintage port sales, given that the UK accounts for almost one third of these globally. LBV ports have had their image and profitability battered by supermarket price cuts, particularly prevalent in the approach to Christmas, traditionally the biggest selling period for the port industry. Meanwhile, global warming has generated its own problems with many vines drying up in the absence of irrigation.

Standing in the flagship Quinta dos Malvedos vineyard – where Symington Family Estates (SFE) source the best grapes for the Graham’s brands – MD Paul Symington says “this has to be one of the more difficult places in the world to make a living from wine, now more than ever.”
One of the six Symington’s from the 13th generation of the extended family active in the business, he admits that port runs in the family blood, despite all the challenges.
As well as Graham’s, SFE owns the Dow’s, Warre’s, Smith Woodhouse and Quinta do Vesuvio brands, all but the last of which produce the full range of ports, from ruby through aged tawny to vintage. In mid 2006 it bought two famous port names – Cockburns and Martinez – from Beam Global Spirits and Wines, making it the Douro’s largest producer (Beam retained just the brand names), with some 900 hectares of land in the upper and lower Douro. This and having a wide range of properties has been key to making excellent wines, particularly given that terroir and different wine-making styles can make such an enormous difference. A prime example are Dow’s Senhora de Ribeira and the grand Quinta de Vesuvio, properties which face one another across a remote part of the upper Douro yet produce quite dramatically different ports.

 

Symington sees innovation as key. Ten years ago he introduced robotic lugares – an invention he admits was initially drawn up on the back of an envelope – into its wineries. This is a state of the art system that neatly simulates the action of human feet in treading the grapes. Today SFE operates 16 of these huge machines at its wineries.
 “We can tread as often as we like, how we like and whenever we like – even at 2am when all the grape pickers are in bed and fast asleep,” says Symington. He says the result has been consistent high quality ports that have raised the company’s profile and helped it stay ahead of the competition.
His new weapon appears to be upping production of quality table wine.
Like other port producers, SFE always made wine but mostly bulk of variable quality. That changed when it introduced Altano, an entry level brand made from traditional local varietels like Touriga Franca and the award-winning Chryseia and Post-Scriptum – hard-crafted reds made in a joint venture with Bordeaux winemaker Bruno Prats. In late 2008 SFE launched a new higher quality Altano made from fully organic grapes. But that’s just for starters. In March-April 2009, around the time SFE is expected to announce the 2007 vintage, it will unveil two new single vineyard wines from Quinta De Vesuvio, a property which has near-cult status amongst port enthusiasts. Aimed at the discerning wine-drinker, Pombal de Vesuvio will - like Chryseia and Post-Scriptum – comprise two lines, one priced around Euro 50 and the other around half that. Both will be made from Touriga Nacional, the king of Portuguese varietels. Symington says the plan is for 1500 cases at first but this could grow with future vintages.
So could wine – which currently accounts for just 4% of profits – really boost the bottom line and prove a new way forward for the famous port family? Certainly given the increased international prominence of Portuguese wines, with consumers keen to escape predictable New World tastes and try lesser-known grape varieties, it could prove a clever strategy.