Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Portuguese Wine Sojourn.
I just returned from a very successful visit to a number of Portuguese wineries just before I embarked on a river cruise aboard the Viking Hemming, from Porto to Salamanca, Spain, and back..
The four wineries I visited make some exceptional wines, using indigenous grapes to create either monovarietal wines or blends in conjunction with international varieties. For example a liked very much a blend of Touriga National (indigenous) and Pinot Noir (international) and also a blend of Aragonés (Portuguese Tempranillo), Syrah (international), Alicante Bouschet (international) and Caladoc (international hybrid).
What is interesting is that some of the wineries I visited retain their marble cisterns where grapes are foot-pressed, over 100-year old large wooden fermenters and French barriques making wines the old-fashioned way; wines that are as good and interesting as ones from modern wineries where grapes are softly pressed with pneumatic presses, fermented in controlled-temperature stainless steel tanks and aged in either barriques or stainless tanks.
Whichever production methodology is used in these wineries seems to result in excellent wines. This proves that the quality of the grapes and the palate and knowledge of the wine-maker are far more important than the type or age of the equipment he/she is using.
The first Portuguese DOC I visited was Alentejo, the largest viticultural area in Portugal; covering about 1/3 of the entire country. Located on the Eastern part, slightly South from Lisbon and bordering Extremadura, Spain; Alentejo produces both easy-drinking, fruity white and red wines as well as some very serious reds that can easily compete as being some of the best wines produced in the Iberian Peninsula.
Tiago Caravana at Wines of Alentejo was kind enough to have me picked up early in the morning from my Lisbon hotel, for the hour and a half drive to the first winery. I thought that we left early, before the workday rush traffic really started, but I was wrong. Lisbon, like any other major capital city, is now suffering from bumper-to-bumper traffic starting before 7:00 am, lessening a bit around 10:30, restarting around noon for those returning home for lunch and a siesta until it lessens again around 7:00 pm when workers return home. And that was very early in December, just before the Holiday rush was on the way!
The first winery was the Júlio Bastos Dona Maria Vinhos in Estremoz, also known as Quinta do Carmo.
It is a regal estate, a palatial house built in the early 18th century by the then king of Portugal João V for his mistress, Dona Maria. A very large green lawn separates the house from the winery with a magnificent marble entrance in the center back leading to a formal garden that includes an ancient irrigation cistern the size of a swimming pool, with a white marble statue of Neptune over a group of nereids and sea monsters. Absolutely magnificent but, I guess, when you are the king of an important nation -- as Portugal was in the 18th century -- you can indulge your fantasies to charm your mistress.
In 2001, Júlio Bastos acquired the estate and in 2002 bought a vineyard which is now over 50 years old and located near the estate. The harvest is strictly manual.
The predominant red grape varieties are Alicante Bouschet and Touriga Nacional. In addition they also have plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Aragonês to be used in red blends. The white grape varieties are Viognier, as well as Arinto and Antão Vaz. The wines are mostly labeled under the Dona Maria brand with “Dona Maria Amantis Reserva” being the top white, and a Touriga National/Petit Verdot blend “Dona Maria Amantis Reserva” being the top red.
The only rosé is a blend of 50% Aragonês and 50% Touriga National aged in 60% French, 40% American oak barriques. It is a delicate, light, almost eye-of-the-partridge colored wine with aromas of strawberries and citrus fruit dominating this lovely, summer indulgence.
Additionally there is a number of monovarietal bottles both white and red.
Júlio B. Bastos Alicante Bouschet is the only non-Dona Maria branded red, a wine from select grapes of old Alicante Bouschet vines, foot-trodden in the marble cisterns; it is matured for 14 months in new French oak barriques. The wine shows a dark ruby color with plum, kirsch, blackberry and chocolate aromas. The silky and intense finish shows round mature tannins. I would rate this wine at 90/100 points.
The Dona Maria Amantis Reserva red is a blend of 25% each Syrah, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Touriga National. It has a beautiful dark ruby red color and aromas of ripe red and black woodland berries with a faint hint of sandalwood. The palate is rich and spicy showing red fruits, silky tannins and a very long and persistent finish. This wine would be rated at 90/100 points
The Dona Maria Amantis Reserva white was unoaked 100% Viognier. A nice wine, very aromatic and well balanced; it is a food wine that would pair very well with seafood and fish, especially fatty fish because of the light, vibrant acidity. However, I could also see it being paired with a nice spit-roasted piglet or even a stuffed breast of veal. I would rate this wine at 90/100 points.
The second winery in my Alentejo itinerary was the João Portugal Ramos Adega Vila Santa, located in another 18th century noble house. This winery is part of a group, with others in the Duro Valley, Tejo, Beiras (Quinta de Foz de Arouce) and a new project in the Monção region producing Vinho Verde.
The wines are branded under the Marquês de Borba, Vila Santa, Quinta da Viçosa Single Vineyard, Loios and Pouca Roupa labels. In addition to the wine production there is also olive oil production under the Oliveira Ramos Premium brand. This exceptionally tasting Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a blend of 75% Cobrançosa, 20% Picual and 5% Galega and I’m now the proud owner of a bottle for my summer salads.
Outstanding, of the wines I tasted with lunch, was the 2012 Marquês de Borba Reserva, an interesting blend of 30% Trincadeira, 30% Aragonês, 25% Alicante Bouschet, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, a deep red hued wine, redolent of jammy red and black fruit with hints of cedar and oriental spices. The palate is elegant with well integrated tannins and a long finish. I would rate this wine at 91/100 points.
But the highlight of this visit was the 2012 Estremus, a rich, ripe, jammy blend of Alicante Bouschet and Trincadeira. As far as I’m concerned this was one of the best wines I have recently tasted, Portuguese or otherwise, with pure fruit and exquisite depth. This wine I would rate at 96/100 or 97/100 points. The Estremus bottles are available in limited European markets but the Winebow Group that imports the João Portugal Ramos wines in the US, unfortunately does not import this particular wine. A pity!
The Estremus was paired with rare double lamb chops from an oven roasted rack of lamb redolent with rosemary and fresh oregano aromas. Exquisite!
The last winery in this visit, Tiago Cabaço is a considerably newer facility with production starting in 2004. It represents a younger generation of Alentejo winemakers that create seductive modern wines from classic grapes.
The vineyards are planted with traditional grape varieties on the 23 hectares planted with white grapes: Arinto, Antão Vaz and Roupeiro as principal varieties, and Verdelho da Madeira, Encruzado, Viosinho and Viognier as secondary varieties. The 60 hectares planted with red grapes include Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Nacional and Aragonês as primary and Syrah and Petit Verdot for blending.
The wine cellar is modern, with temperature controlled stainless steel fermenters and tanks but the aging of the red wines takes place in French oak barriques.
The wines created by Susana Estéban range from the whimsically named .com line (rosé, red, white); the bd white -- a sweet 66% Sèmillon and 34% Sauvignon Blanc blend aged in stainless steel; the Vinhas Velhas Red a blend of Aragonês, Alicante Bouschet and Trincadeira from the oldest vines, aged in French oak barrels, half new, half second year; and finally the “blog” a lovely red field-blend of Alicante Bouschet and Syrah, foot trodden in stainless steel lagar and aged twelve months in French oak barriques.
The 2015 blog, which I would rate at 90/100 points, was paired on my table with Bacalhau (the Portuguese word for salted and dried cod) fritters and oven-roasted pork and seemed to work very well with both dishes; a surprise for a rather muscular red.
For more information:
Dona Maria Vinhos http://donamaria.pt/en/
João Portugal Ramos http://www.jportugalramos.com/default.aspx?idioma=en
Tiago Cabaço http://www.tiagocabacowinery.com/en/empresa.php#
To your health!
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