Archive for the ‘Portugal’ Category

Portugal: Paradigms and Paradoxes

August 17, 2017

Portugal is, vinously speaking, an odd place. A small country, squeezed into the extreme southwestern corner of Europe, its language is nevertheless one of the most widely spread and widely spoken in the world. And it has a history of wine making as long and as important as any in Europe. But for all the intensity of its viticulture, Portuguese wine is not that well known – though that may be changing.

For one thing – one very big thing – it’s not all Port. Portugal possesses a great number of indigenous grape varieties with long histories of cultivation and high-quality vinification. In addition, the native varieties have been supplemented, post-phylloxera, by a selection of French grapes, some the usual suspects but also some surprises. This is true of all Portugal’s provinces, but nowhere more so than in the Alentejo, a large province that encloses some of the country’s most important wine-growing zones.
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About two weeks back I attended a morning-long presentation of many Alentejo wines. The format opened first with a 12-bottle tasting of the wide range of the area’s wines, followed by a second, more focused 12-bottle tasting.  Evan Goldstein was the leader of the seminar. (He was joined at lunch by Josh Greene, the publisher of Wine & Spirits Magazine, a long-time partisan of Portugal’s wines. Unfortunately I was unable to stay for the lunch and so missed Greene’s remarks, but he published a very interesting article about vineyards in a special part of Alentejo in the April 2017 issue of W&S – “Marble Terroir.”)
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The second tasting/presentation concerned not simply the wines of Alentejo – that’s still a pretty broad field – but focused exclusively on wines made with the Alicante Bouschet grape. Here’s a major Portuguese puzzle:  Alicante Bouschet, though the most important red grape in the entire Alentejo – probably the most important grape, period, in the Alentejo province – is not native to Portugal. In fact, it’s not a naturally occurring grape anywhere. It was invented in 1866 by Henri Bouschet, who produced it by crossing Grenache with Petit Bouschet, itself a hybrid devised by Henri’s father from Aramon noir and Teinturier. It was widely planted in France after the devastations of phylloxera when growers needed a vigorous, heavy-bearing vine to rebuild production quickly. For the same reasons, Alicante was brought into Portugal, where it has thrived, even though it is now declining in France.

Nowadays in France, Alicante Bouschet is generally regarded as a rather rustic grape, and out of favor for that reason. In Portugal, on the other hand, that hearty rusticity seems to be prized, and some growers also contend that older Alicante vines can yield very elegant wines. And some enthusiasts are backing up their opinions by making 100% Alicante wines. These are still not common in Portugal (though we had several for the Alentejo tasting) and are certainly a great rarity anywhere else.

So, in some respects, is Alicante Bouschet itself, and not simply in the sense that it isn’t as widely planted outside Portugal as once it was. Its greatest distinction is that it’s one of the very few red-fleshed grapes in cultivation, and as such it gives deeply flavored and deeply colored juices – sure indications of its Teinturier descent.
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What Alicante contributes to most blends is color, body, and a generous dose of tannins. Young Alicante vines in particular show real vigor, both in the amount of grapes they bear – so serious green harvesting is an absolute necessity – and in the vivacity and intensity of flavor of the grapes. For all those reasons, Alicante Bouschet is highly prized in Alentejo blends.

The tasting portion of the seminar encompassed a good selection of both monovarietal and blended Alicante wines. None of the wines was older than six years, which I thought was a real shame, because I sensed that most of the selected wines had significant aging potential. I would have liked to taste what a really mature specimen had grown into, to help me understand what I should be looking for and paying attention to in younger specimens. Without that, and especially with a group of wines I’m not familiar with, I’m really flying blind. So my reactions to the wines at the tasting may be way off base – for good or for ill. Be that as it may, here are the wines (in the order they were presented) and my thoughts about them.

2011 Grande Riserva Tinto from Adega de Borba
Berry-ish nose; soft palate of a vaguely blackberry flavor, with good acidity and a long, slightly sweet finish. Evidently capable of much greater life and development. A blend of Alicante Bouschet and Trincadeira, a native grape of great potential and importance throughout Alentejo. This wine is made only in top-notch vintages.

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2014 Alicante Bouschet
from Terras de Alter

Less aromatic than the preceding wine, but much richer in the mouth, with more pronounced berry fruit. Long licorice/black fruit finish.

2011 Dona Maria Grande Reserva Tinto from Julio Bastos
Vinified half from Alicante, half from a mix of Syrah, Petit Verdot, and the native Touriga Nacional. Palatally somewhat like the preceding wine, with a drier, more austere finish. This wine is a perfect emblem of the cross-currents of Portuguese winemaking, both in its blend of native and foreign grapes and in its cellar treatment: The grapes are crushed by foot in ancient marble troughs, then aged in new oak barriques.

2011 Grande Escolha Joaquim Cerejo from Herdade Fonte Paredes
30% each of Alicante and Touriga Nacional, plus 20% each of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Light berry nose, berry and light plum palate, with a medium-length licorice-y finish. High alcohol (16˚), but not at all hot.

2014 Monte do Zambujeiro from Quinta do Zambujeiro
35% Alicante, the rest predominantly native grape varieties. Stainless-steel fermented, French-oak aged. Mulberry/licorice nose and palate, with some leather on palate and in finish. Very young: definitely wants some time to develop.

2012 AB Alicante Bouschet from Esporão
A seemingly very young 100% Alicante, still quite closed. It seems promising, but needs lots of time to develop.

2012 Monsaraz Alicante Bouschet from Carmim
Another 100% Alicante of the same vintage, but this one seems much more open: high acid/herbal nose; herbs and berries in the mouth; licorice and leather in the finish. This was one of the most interesting wines of the tasting, from an obviously high-achieving co-op.

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2013 Alicante Bouschet
from Tiago Cabaço

Another interesting 100% Alicante, a little closed in the nose, but showing nice black fruits and walnuts on the palate, with a robust, leathery, tannic finish. Very obviously structured for the long haul.

2014 Grande Escolha from Solar do Lobos
A blend of Alicante, Touriga Nacional, and Syrah. Earthy aroma. On the palate, nuts – walnuts especially – and mineral notes. Black fruit/leather finish. Already rounding nicely into shape.

2014 Menino António from Herdade da Malhadinha Nova
A 100% Alicante wine marked by black fruits and earth aromas and flavors, with abundant soft tannins. Leather and dried plum finish. 15˚ alcohol but not at all hot. (Many of these wines have been high alcohol, but all have been sufficiently balanced so that it was not an assertive characteristic.)

2014 Herdade São Miguel Alicante Bouschet from Alexandre Relvas
100% Alicante. The sheets provided at the tasting said this was a 2014, but the vintage information provided by the producer said 2015. I am inclined to believe the latter, because this wine tasted to me so young and closed that I find it impossible to say anything at all about it.

2015 Moon Harvested Alicante Bouschet from Herdade do Grous
Another very young 100% Alicante, this one a little less closed than the preceding, giving a little mulberry on the palate and a little nut-and-fruit-leather in the finish, but still really impossible to say anything definitive about.

The morning’s first tasting, the broad survey of Alentejo wines, had presented two other wines containing significant amounts of Alicante Bouschet, a 2012 Tinto from Adega do Monte Branco and 2012 Vinhas da Ira Tinto from Herdade da Mingorra. The latter was a very promising mix of old-vine Alicante and Touriga Nacional that seemed to be just hitting its stride at five years of age. The former blended 70% Alicante with 30% Aragonez (the local name for Tempranillo) to produce an attractive wine with subdued mulberry aromas (that seems to be an Alicante trademark, at least in Portugal) and a soft, merlot-like palate. It finished slightly short, but was nevertheless quite pleasing.

All in all, it was a very instructive morning for me.

Madeira, The Methuselah of Wines

November 23, 2015

Asked to name some of the world’s great dessert wines, casual wine drinkers would probably have a hard time remembering Madeira. Sauternes, sure, plus a handful of other French specialties. Port, almost certainly, and probably Sherry. Maybe even trockenbeerenauslese Rieslings. But that lonely little island in the deeps of the Atlantic, a few hundred miles off the coast of Morocco,

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where they speak Portuguese and grow Portuguese varieties and age their wines forever? That is more often than not forgotten. Which is a plain shame, since well-aged Madeira is almost certainly the greatest dessert wine of them all. Certainly, it is the longest lived of all wines.

A few weeks back, Rui Falcão of the Madeira Institute presented a seminar in New York on Madeira. It was a fascinating event, filled with the kind of information and lore that we winos love. Falcão started by saying simply that everything that kills every other kind of wine is exactly what makes Madeira great. After that, things started to get interesting.

It turns out he wasn’t joking. The two great enemies of most wines are heat and oxygen. Madeira couldn’t begin to exist without prolonged exposure to both of them. When we describe another wine as maderized, we mean it’s dead – oxidized, perhaps even cooked-tasting. That’s where Madeira’s distinctiveness starts. All Madeira, of whatever type (more about that later), Falcão said, is kept for years before it’s bottled, sometimes for decades, in large barrels in above-ground storage without temperature controls.

This on an island off the coast of Morocco. Granted, the Atlantic moderates the temperatures somewhat – but still we’re in the tropics, where the first wonder is that they can make wine at all, and the second is how they treat it.

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Throw out the rule book: Madeira plays a different game. Its wines are driven neither by variety nor terroir: like Champagne, Madeiras are wines that are shaped by the process of their making more than by any other factor. Even fermentation does not proceed “naturally.” It is always stopped, at the moment of the maker’s choosing (according to the grapes he’s working with and the degree of sweetness he wants in the wine), by the addition of neutral alcohol (originally derived from grapes).

In the days of sailing ships, Madeira producers used to send their wines on trips around the world in barrels stored below decks in unheated, uncooled holds, in order to expose them to the kind of temperature extremes and the kind of motion that would turn other wines into undrinkable bilge. Now makers accomplish the same thing more quickly and more economically by repeatedly heating the wines and allowing them to cool down over a period of months. After that, the wines selected for the best grade of Madeira are stored in casks stacked on the warmest level of the winery for any number of years. Literally so: they lie there for minimally three years, with no maximum other than the maker’s hopes.

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Madeira can take it: Falcão told us that he once tasted a 300-year-old Madeira. “Was it OK?” he asked rhetorically. “No: It was great.” I can’t affirm or dispute that from my own experience, but I’ve been lucky enough to have several times tasted 75-year old Bual, and I can assure you that that wine was nectar – probably the most elegant, complex, fortified wine I have ever drunk. It had so much acidity, and so many different flavor elements playing through it, that I hardly noticed that it was lightly sweet. In its evolution, the sugars had become very minor players in the wine’s character.

Bual is one of the grape varieties used in Madeira, and each is associated with a sweetness level. Sercial is the driest, then Verdelho, then Bual (sometimes Boal), and Malvasia – Shakespeare’s Malmsey – always the sweetest. These are all white grapes: They are the most prized and are always mentioned on the label. Tinta negra, the only red grape used, can be produced at any sweetness level – the label will say – and until recently was never named.

There are between six and eight producers; the number is unclear because some consolidation may be taking place. But there are 1,200 growers, who own a total of 1,200 hectares, and each of them has long-standing, sometimes generation-spanning, ties to a specific producer. Falcão said that the smallest grower was a lady who cultivated three vines, and every year sold their grapes to the same house. That kind of quirky charm seems almost to epitomize Madeira.

Wine Journalism: the Agony and the Ecstasy

January 11, 2012

Wine journalism is a glamorous job, right? Those free press trips to exotic locations, lavish hospitality from famous wineries, all-expense-paid attendance at international conferences where you drink the best of the best of famous vintages . . . that’s the lush life, isn’t it! Want to try it? Take a look at what the job really entails:

Marathon mornings. We all love drinking wine – but would you still love tasting about 75 of them, all young and raw, every morning for a week, every single one of them magnificently served from brown paper- or foil-wrapped numbered bottles by harried sommeliers in a cavernous – and cold – former railroad station amid the clatter and grumbling of about a hundred other equally cold, tired, already palate-weary colleagues? Do you think you can muster up the focus to taste, analyze in some fashion, and evaluate each one of those wines with equal attention? And record your impressions and evaluation in some fashion, from lined pad to iPad, quickly and accurately enough to get through your morning’s allotment of wines in time?

Arduous afternoons. After enough lunch to scrape the tannins from your cheeks and tongue, are you up for flying visits to three or four wineries, tasting up to a dozen wines at each, listening to the winemakers talk about their wines, this vintage, and what is slumbering in their cellars, and then asking them intelligent questions to elicit the kind of information that you and your readers need to know to properly understand and evaluate this harvest and its wines? After that, can you manage – if you’re very lucky, you may first have up to half an hour at your hotel to wash your face, brush your teeth, and “rest” – to sit to a multi-course, multi-wine gala dinner that will start late and run far too long, especially with a 6:30 wake-up call awaiting you back at your hotel? That hotel, no matter how Spartan it may be (forget about luxury suites and swimming pools), now looks like an unattainable oasis to you.

Bus bondage. Busses, of course, are the blessing and the bane of trips like this. The blessing is that you don’t have to drive yourself and can sit in comfort (sometimes) while the driver squeezes his giant Pullman through narrow streets and narrower entranceways. The bane is that you can’t drive yourself, but are stuck wherever you may be until the bus arrives, and then maybe stuck some more until all the passengers who are supposed to be there show up. It does no good that you know writers X, Y, and Z aren’t planning to join the bus: they’re on the list, and the bus doesn’t move until they’re officially accounted for. And then, for a random example, you drive at ponderous, regulated speeds into the usual massive traffic jam on the Florence-Siena autostrada, where you sit for anything from 20 minutes to 2 hours.

If you are masochist enough that all that really appeals to you, then welcome to the club: you’re at least psychically fit to play the pro on the wine circuit.

I always wanted to write a magazine story that would tell wine lovers what it was really like on a wine press trip – but I could never get any editors to OK the idea. Given what sells most wine magazines, they didn’t want to puncture any romantic notions – better to leave the illusions of luxury travel lubricated by the nectar of the gods intact! Believe me, ladies and gentlemen, for the vast majority of us serious working stiffs of the wine press, life aint like that.

This was all brought forcefully to mind for me by the fact that each new year brings with it the annual renewal of the three Tuscan new-release events – Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Brunello di Montalcino. These three very important presentations are all crammed into one week in February, which is both convenient and borderline hellish. I love this week, and I hate it. I love it because, like the annual Barolo and Barbaresco presentations in May, it gives me a chance to really learn the new vintages – to see what the wines are like not just from one or two producers but across the whole spectrum of the appellation. You don’t get many opportunities for that kind of perspective or that kind of depth, however physically and intellectually trying the learning may be. That knowledge, and the small handful of truly unforgettable wines you will taste during the week, are as much ecstasy as you get.

Another reason I love it is that, like the May week in Alba, it also gives me a chance to schmooze with colleagues from all over Europe and (increasingly these days) Asia and get their perspectives on the events and the wines. These are often very different from those of the few American participants, and that makes the experience even more valuable. My European colleagues especially often look for different things in the wines than I do, and rate them by a different scale. It can be quite eye-opening to try to come to terms with those differences: you can learn a lot just by listening.

All of which, incidentally, always makes me wonder: Why are important American journals like the New York Times, the Wine Spectator, and the Wine Advocate never represented at these events? Just asking.

I hate the week for lots of reasons, most to do with personal comfort. To begin with, February isn’t the best time to visit Italy. Tuscany is cold, and the huge, centrally unheated, stone palazzi where the tastings usually occur are colder still. I remember more than one year when we foot-soldiers of the press corps tasted with our overcoats and hats on, and the producers put their best bottles right on the few and feeble radiators to try to bring them up to a drinkable temperature.

At least it didn’t snow that year. The year that it did, we all feared being trapped in Montalcino after the end of the tastings, because its steep streets and access roads were unsafe for cars and busses.

Other countries can be far worse. I remember a Portuguese trip where our van driver and the local guide/translator (whose solitary word of English seemed to be “No”) got lost the minute we left Lisbon. They stayed that way for a week, refusing ever to ask directions or to take advice. Iberian pride, I guess. We arrived at every appointment two to three hours late – only to discover that, no matter how late we were, our hosts weren’t ready to receive us – in fact, treated our arrival as a (we hoped pleasant) surprise.

Then there’s the hospitality, which is generous to the point of life endangerment. One trip to the Italian Piedmont, the week before Easter, produced multi-course meals (many antipasti, many pastas, huge secondo, many cheeses, desserts) of roast kid twice a day, every day. In Portugal, it was bacalao – another great dish, but not twice a day every day. By the end of a week like that, beer and pizza look like heaven.

But the reason I hate it most stems directly from the factor that makes the whole week worthwhile – tasting so many wines, one after another, without food, without conversation, without leisure. It’s artificial, it’s false, it’s completely untrue to the way we actually consume wine, and it makes every individual judgment provisional at best. But it is also the only possible way to gain a vision of the whole spectrum of a zone’s production in a particular harvest. So the agony is real, but the compensations, in the form of knowledge and experience, are great, very great.

As for glamour: Between bouts of waiting for busses and eating too much, you’ve been tasting somewhere between 80 and 100 young red wines, perhaps more, every day. You have to have learned something, but the payment for that knowledge is a tongue and cheeks that feel like the sole of your shoe, and a sleep deficit that a winter-storm-tossed transatlantic flight is not going to remedy, and who knows what other physical after-effects. I call on my fair bride as the state’s star witness. As I came through the door after one of these trips a few years back, Diane nearly screamed. “Good god!” she said, “what have they done to you? You look like the Michelin tire man.” So much for glamour.

White Wine, Red Wine, and Local Color

April 8, 2011

1: A Green Thought in a Green Shade

Vinho Verde doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s one of those wines that nobody thinks of until confronted with it as The Only Possible Choice – typically on a hot summer day, off your home turf – when you desperately need something cooling. Ta-da!  Vinho Verde to the rescue. Light-bodied, low in alcohol, slightly sparkling, crisp, clean, and refreshing: It’s perfect as a cooler in the summer or an aperitif all year long. It likes party nibbles and it loves seafood. So what’s not to like?

At the huge annual tasting of Portuguese wines, held this year in the airy promenade of Lincoln Center’s David Koch Theatre, I tasted several Vinho Verdes in a couple of different styles – all quite enjoyable.

The Vinho Verde zone is Portugal’s largest, and there are some significant variations in the wines produced there, even though they all share the same name. The major distinction is between the light-bodied, low-alcohol style most of us are familiar with, and a slightly bigger, slightly more imposing dinner-wine style. The latter is usually vinified from the Alvarinho grape, while the former comes from the Loureira and Trajadura varieties. Many growers are also now producing Vinho Verde from 100% Loureira.

Among the most enjoyable aperitif-style Vinho Verdes I tasted, I would give top ratings to Alianca’s 2010, Aveleda’s Fonte 2010 and Casal Garcia, and Quinta di Santa Maria’s Quinta do Tamariz 2010. All are great values – as indeed are many Portuguese white wines. Among the fuller-bodied Vinho Verdes and their kin, I especially liked Aveleda’s Quinta da Aveleda 2010 and its Alvarinho 2010, as well as Quinta de Santa Maria’s Alvarinho 2009.

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2: Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot?

I had lunch recently with a Wine Media Guild colleague, Jonathan Levine, and a few of his friends who regularly get together to enjoy good wines. Nice people and a pleasant, low-key occasion, with some very nice bottles. There were two Vallana Spannas, a 2007 and a 1964. Bringing the 64 was a very generous gesture on the part of one of the regulars, since this was his very last bottle of that great vintage. It gave everyone a chance to taste why those of us who remember Vallana are so excited by the winery’s return to the US market.

I’ve written about Vallana before, and the young Spanna we drank on this occasion justified every word of praise I gave it. For those who didn’t believe it the first time, let me repeat that at a retail price of about $13, this wine is a steal!  The sommelier at Trattoria del Arte (the site of the lunch) joined us for a taste and pronounced it as good as wines three times the price. Everyone at the table agreed. The 1964 showed what this wine might become when it grows up: lovely mature fruit, beautiful structure, gentle tannins, and an overall elegance. And with all that, the wine was still fresh-tasting: there was nothing tired or over-the-hill about it.

By contrast, a 2005 Travaglini Gattinara tasted too young and undeveloped. It just wasn’t fully together yet, even though it was eminently drinkable and already showed Gattinara’s characteristic well-bred elegance. In fact, the Spannas and the Gattinara together put on a first-class show of just how much elegance sub-Alpine Nebbiolo is capable of. Really, these wines of the northern Piedmont are an under-appreciated resource, and not just for Nebbiolo devotees.

I brought to the table a 1991 Borgogno Barbaresco. ’91 wasn’t a great year, and certainly has been overshadowed by the majestic 1990s, but Borgogno is one of the great traditional makers of Barolo and Barbaresco, and the Boschis siblings (until the quite recent sale the hereditary owners of Borgogno) knew how to blend the harvest of different parts of the zone to produce a good wine even in a merely average vintage. This one showed that quite clearly: not big, but beautifully balanced and – after some time in the glasses (I should have decanted it) – very velvety. Yet one more demonstration that Nebbiolo is more often graceful than muscular.

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3: Sleep Well, America

This has nothing to do with wine, but it is a true story and I feel compelled to share it.

As I was walking south on Sixth Avenue a few days ago, I encountered an archetypically American group trooping toward me across Eleventh Street. They all looked somewhat alike, a touch walk-weary, fair-haired and fair-fleshed (a little too much of that all around), eyes front or on guidebooks, striding gamely northward, and noticing nothing of the interesting (not to say bizarre) urban juxtapositions they were marching through – the Jefferson Market Library, French Roast Restaurant and Cafe; The Second Cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue; Little Igor and Johnnie Be Good Hair Stylists and Barber Shop; P.S. 41; Patchin Place (former home to Djuna Barnes and e. e. cummings); Famous Ray’s Pizza.

As I passed the group, the woman at their center looked up from her map and smiled encouragement at them:  “Just a few more blocks now and we’ll be in Soho.”

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(For those unfamiliar with the local geography, Soho lies a good half-mile south of 11th Street.)

Have Some Madeira, M’Dear

July 15, 2010

The wonderful Flanders & Swann song quoted in my title wittily celebrates the seductive charm of Madeira, a wine that once stood much higher in public esteem than it now does. Since I firmly believe the world needs a renaissance of wit, charm, and seductiveness – especially in wines – I was delighted recently to attend a seminar on and tasting of Madeira, a wine I’ve always loved.

Once upon a time, Madeira was not just an important wine worldwide but had a very special presence in America: 95% of Madeira production was sold here, according to Robin Kelley O’Connor, the leader of the seminar.

Robin Kelley O'Connor, left, and Ricardo Diogo, winemaker of Vinhos Barbeito

Maybe it was because of Thomas Jefferson, who seems to lie at the root of almost every American wine situation: He certainly loved Madeira and drank as much of it as he could get. In any event, so important was the American market to Madeira producers that Prohibition was a worse disaster for them than phylloxera – again, according to O’Connor. Overnight, their major market disappeared and their livelihoods dried up. Many tore out their vineyards and planted subsistence crops in their stead, so that mixed agriculture still prevails in Madeira, and a whole hillside of vines remains a rare sight.

Madeira is an island, the largest of a cluster of them, a volcanic archipelago stuck out in the Atlantic about 300 miles west of the coast of Morocco, and about 500 miles south of Portugal, which has owned it for centuries. Think of it as the Atlantic Ocean’s answer to Hawaii: a 50-mile long, 30-mile wide, subtropical, steep-sided upthrust from some of the deepest waters anywhere. It’s a wonderful place to visit, and not just for the chance to drink gallons of its wine: Its harbor and capital, Funchal, is a charming small city, and the seafood – especially espada, a fish of the great depths just offshore – has to be tasted to be believed.

Espada -- ugly but good

In the days of sailing ships, Madeira was an important way-station, a place to harbor and refit, take on fresh water and food before proceeding on to either the Americas or the Indies. Madeira the wine was discovered when some of those ships’ captains, either more abstemious or more clever, saw that casks of the island’s wine that had made the round trip out and back in their ships’ unheated and uncooled holds had changed remarkably for the better. They were prematurely aged and thoroughly oxidized, which would spell doom for most wines; but Madeiras, fortified and high in alcohol as they were by human manipulation and highly acid by gift of the island’s volcanic soils, were not only still alive but had grown richer and mellower.

Nowadays Madeiras can’t afford that round-the-world cruise: The aging and oxidation are accomplished under very controlled conditions right on the island, in a process that will remind Italian wine fans of the creation of Vin Santo. But the result is the same: a lush, golden-amber wine, with an aroma and flavor that seemingly include the whole family of nuts – almond, hazel, walnut, chestnut – plus caramel and dried fruits and even rancio, that leathery/high meat aroma that often distinguishes the best Armagnacs.

There is an extensive range of Madeira wines, from simple young ones like Seleccionado or Rainwater right up to 40 Years Old. Wines with a specific vintage year on the label must contain at least 85% wine from the indicated year, aged minimally 20 years in wooden casks. And Madeira of any age may be Rich (i.e., sweet), Medium Rich, Medium Dry, or Dry.

Producers achieve that wide range by selecting from among the island’s many grape varieties for the style they’re after. Sercial is the driest, Verdelho medium dry, Boal medium rich, and Malvasia (Malmsey: that’s right, Shakespeare’s Malmsey, a barrel of which is always useful for drowning a prince or two) is the sweetest. All, however, finish dry, which makes them more versatile with food than you would expect from what is usually thought of as a dessert wine. For me, most Madeiras – especially older ones – qualify as what Italians call vini da meditazione: wines for sipping by themselves and just thinking with, or thinking about. That’s a very useful wine category that deserves more attention than it gets. Maybe some smart entrepreneur will open a Vino Da Meditazione Bar.

I tasted a large number of lovely Madeiras at that seminar, since five of the island’s major producers were represented: Blandy’s, Henriques & Henriques, Justino’s, Pereira D’Oliveira, and Vinhos Barbeito all showed multiple styles and ages of Madeira. Here are the ones I enjoyed most:

Blandy’s Sercial 10 Years Old: fine, light, and elegant; very long finishing.

Blandy’s Vintage Bual 1968: just lovely – hints of sweetness throughout, but overall dry and elegant.

Henriques & Henriques 15 Years Old Bual: lush, with lively acidity and a slightly sweet toffee finish.

Justino’s Madeira Old Reserve 10 Years Old Fine Dry: attractive nutty, dry nose; light on palate; long walnut/hazelnut finish; very fine and elegant.

Justino’s Madeira Old Reserve 10 Years Old Fine Rich: surprisingly dry, with excellent balance and a wonderful nutty finish; 100% Tinta Negra.

Pereira D’Oliveira Reserve Verdelho 1973: Rich, strong nose and palate; quite impressive.

Pereira D’Oliveira Reserve Boal 1968: Caramel and chestnut nose and palate, dry nut-and-leather finish; very fine.

Pereira D’Oliveira Reserve Boal 1922:  Dear Reader, you can never guess how much pleasure it gave me to drink a wine older than I am! This was a simply gorgeous wine that doesn’t separate into components but offers itself as an integrated experience, and an amazingly fine one.

Barbeito Historic Verdelho Savannah Special Reserve: Lovely, soft, with the slightest hint of sweetness and a dry, bitter almond finish; 85% Verdelho variety plus 15% older Tinta Negra.

Barbeito Historic Series Bual Boston Special Reserve: A beautiful amber wine, with the classic caramel and rancio aromas. Excellent.

Barbeito Sercial 1988 Fraquera: Fine and exceptionally lean, while still retaining typical Madeira character.

Flower market in Funchal

March Madness and April Angst

April 26, 2010

March and April form the heart of the wine season in New York, with tastings – frequently multiple – almost every day, while at the same time wine fairs, new-release events, regional shows and such are taking place all over the US and Europe. Anyone trying to attend even half of what was going on could end up exhausted, obese, and alcoholic – all occupational hazards of a very real order at this time of year. I made the mistake of seriously overscheduling myself this year: hence the absolute necessity of my taking last week off, to save myself from palatal burnout and prose fatigue.

Two events stood out for me, however, in that blur of vinous activity: a chance to taste the fine range of Champagnes that come to the US under the Moët-Hennessy umbrella, and an amazingly comprehensive tasting of Portuguese wines presented by Viniportugal. Both offered unusual opportunities to make side-by-side comparisons as well as the chance to taste wines or vintages that are otherwise not easily available, so – overscheduled or not – how could Ubriaco say no?

The afore-mentioned Moët-Hennessy umbrella is quite a large one: It covers Moët Champagnes proper, as well as Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart, Dom Perignon, and Krug – some heavy hitters for sure.

The basic, non-vintage wines from all houses mostly showed very well, with the surprising exception of Veuve Clicquot, whose nv and nv Rosé both tasted a bit bare-bones to me. In contrast, Moët’s Imperial nv and Imperial Rosé nv both showed lovely freshness, the Rosé in particular displaying lovely fraises des bois and wheat flavors. The Ruinart nv Blanc de Blancs also was quite enjoyable, tasting light, fresh, and toasty. Krug, of course, was exceptional in the other direction, its nv Grande Cuvée showing the classic Krug size and power – a basic, nonvintage wine the equal of most makers’ premium Champagne, as its hefty price tag accurately indicates.

The vintage wines and têtes de cuvées performed exactly according to my expectations – that is, all were wonderful wines, though a few reached dimensions above and beyond the others. Dom Perignon 2000 was lovely: austere, but still mouth-filling and long-finishing. Dom Perignon Rosé 1998 tasted even better to me – full and floral and appealing. I suspect the difference is not just Pinot noir but also the vintage: 1998 is a year to look for in Champagne.

Veuve’s 1998 Grande Dame corroborated that point, showing fresh and live and fine.   Veuve’s 1985 Rosé gave even more: Fresh despite its 25 years, its lovely color, attractive nose, and big, balanced palate showed it to be a really great wine. Fine as it was, the Dom Ruinart 1998 was for my palate even better, full of sottobosco-tasting fruit and extremely long-finishing. Krug once again capped the procession with its 1998, an astonishing medley of toast and strawberry flavors, characteristically huge in the Krug style yet still limber and graceful.

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The Portugese tasting too was overwhelming, from its sheer size. Held in the cavernous Cipriani space on 42nd Street, it presented 50 – yes, really fifty – tables of Portuguese producers, each with multiple wines to pour. Clearly, completeness was impossible: that way led to crise de foie and DTs. So I focused on two red wines I love: the Dão appellation and wines vinified from Touriga Nacional, one of the best of Portugal’s myriad of indigenous grape varieties.

Like Italy and Spain, Portugal amounts to a treasure house of ancient grapes, many of which make really lovely wines. For my palate, Touriga Nacional is one of the most intriguing. While it is prized for making Port – a kind of wine in which I have zero interest – it also makes superb table wine. It used to be a major component of Dão wines too – you can see the thread of my interest here – but its use there is declining, partially because it’s being vinified more by itself and partially because it is not a generous bearer. Touriga Nacional usually yields a big wine that is kept lively by characteristically Mediterranean (ironic, since Portugal’s coast is entirely Atlantic) acidity. I liked particularly Valeda Reposa Reserva Touriga Nacional 2007 (DOC Douro), a wonderfully structured wine, big and dark. Even better was Follies Touriga Nacional 2006 (DOC Barraida) from Aveleda: equally big, with fine, berry fruit and a distinctive, racy mouth feel.

The Dão wines are always fun: Because blended, their character can vary from house to house, but they are all designed to be food wines. That means they may not bowl you over when tasted solo – but pay attention to the nature of their fruit and their acid/tannin balance. That will tell all you need to know about how well they will perform with dinner. I liked very much the Cabriz C. S. 2008 Dão from Dão Sul, a soft, simple wine with pleasing fruit and good balance. Bigger and better was the Cabriz Reserva 2006 – still soft and pleasing, but better structured and more intense. Dão Sul also produces Casa de Santar Dãos: both the basic 2007 and the 2006 reserva are quite fine, with sturdy structures and a marked touch of elegance. The Callabriga Dão 2007 from Sogrape Vinhos shows the characteristic Dão heft: big and full, with black fruit understrapped with enlivening acidity and firm tannin.

I tasted more wines than this, but some of my notes no longer make any sense to me. I wonder why that should be?