Archive for the ‘Portugal’ Category

Beginning to Appreciate Port

In the past, I’ve not been a big fan of Port. It was a sort of palatal blind spot for me. Often, I could taste nothing in it but sugar. Even the most highly esteemed bottles have often left me cold, since I couldn’t get past the sweetness. In a wine world where Port is an object of devotion, this disability has often earned me much pity – and not a few sneers – from my wine colleagues.

In recent years, however, I’ve found my tolerance – and even my enjoyment – of Port gradually increasing. Why, I’m not sure, but my current theory is that my aging body requires more fructose than I’ve been giving it. Whatever the cause, I’ve begun tentatively enjoying some bottles of a small trove of Ports that over the years I’ve willy-nilly accumulated. I wish I could say it was incredible foresight, but no, it was pure blind luck.

Recently, a small crisis (well, a crisis for a wine nut) pushed me to open a venerable bottle of Port from Croft: 1983 Quinta Da Roeda Vintage Porto. While searching for something completely different in my wine closet, I noticed fresh wine drips in the Port bin. The culprit turned out to be this particular bottle, whose cork had apparently just failed.

I pulled it out, cleaned it up, and attempted to pull the cork, which promptly crumbled to pieces, thus necessitating decanting and filtering to remove the fine cork bits. That was one dead cork, but the upshot was a good use of a handsome Victorian Port decanter I had bought many years ago, which until now had served exclusively as a decorative object. It always pleases me to see things find their proper use (and that, of course, includes the human palate).

I didn’t really know what to expect of this wine. The probability was that it was dead, but Port handles exposure to oxygen very well, so there was a remote chance it would still be drinkable. Well, it was – surprisingly fresh, though dominated by mature flavors, in a range that I thought of as maderized, in the very best Madeira sense of the word.

This was intriguing enough that I made up my mind to try a totally sound bottle of Port soon, to see how much more there might be to it than I had experienced. Hence a recent winter evening’s dessert..

Walnuts and roasted hazelnuts, dried figs and dried apricots, and a bottle of 1994 Churchill’s Late Bottled Vintage Port. For a light dinner before this simple but extremely rich dessert, Diane had prepared a cheese soufflé, which set up our palates perfectly for the range of sweetnesses to follow.

The LBV – Port drinker’s shorthand, I have learned – surprised me. Yes, it was sweet, as I had expected, but most of that sweetness lurked behind an intriguing veil of maderized, mature wine flavors. It was in no way cloying (as I had feared), but it was intensely rich – and very easy on the palate, despite its high (20˚) alcohol. (It is a fortified wine, after all.)

It loved the hazelnuts (as did I) and tolerated the walnuts and dried fruits. The concentrated sweetness of the fruits competed too much with the Port’s own sweetness to make a fully comfortable match, at least for my palate, but the pairing was illuminating. For me, the Port showed its best on its own, without any other palatal distraction.

So the moral of the story is this: I will never be a big Port fan, but Port is definitely not the straight sugar cocktail it so long seemed to me to be. I don’t think that Port producers have changed very much, so it must be that my palate has evolved as I’ve gotten older. I’ll give one cheer for that.

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Portugal has as long a history of winemaking as any country in Europe. Unfortunately, most modern wine drinkers know it for only one wine, Port – a special niche wine if there ever was one. The best Ports have an almost cult following, but most winos consider them as heavy, super-sweet, and old-fashioned – think quaint pictures of vineyard workers still crushing grapes by foot, and Victorian vicars passing carafes of old Port along with their cigars.

While the foot-stomping for Port still occurs, many other aspects of Portuguese winemaking are much more up-to-date. This tiny country may harbor as many indigenous grape varieties as Italy, and many of its producers are moving as fast as they can to reclaim its once sizable share of world wine markets. In rural districts, you can still see the occasional oxcart on the road, but nowadays you’re just as likely around the next bend to happen on large, temperature-controlled, stainless-steel fermenters and wineries with well-equipped, up-to-the-minute testing and laboratory equipment.

Portugal’s wine output is tremendously varied, and I haven’t the space – or the current knowledge – to survey it all. What I want to talk about is one great producer, the acknowledged master of Bairrada – which is both the name of a district and the Portuguese equivalent of its DOC. That’s Luis Pato, and the grape that makes his wines is Portugal’s indigenous Baga.

Baga is a difficult variety: Some producers say impossible. In Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson’s brief entry on Baga describes it as a “controversial, demanding Portuguese variety capable of making great, ageworthy wines.” It can, she says, “make the best of wines and the worst of wines.” Much depends on whether the growing season stays dry long enough for Baga to reach full ripeness. Short of complete ripeness, its tannins can be brutal. But in the best vintages, Baga makes a wine that may be austere in youth but matures into a rich, fascinatingly complex mouthful of flavors that range from forest floor through a whole bowl of fruits to tobacco and smoke. These are amazingly long-lived wines, and can go on for years at their peak of flavor.

A Baga vineyard in Bairrada

Luis Pato is the master of this kind of Baga. A no-nonsense kind of guy, he recently withdrew from the Bairrada DOC because he couldn’t stand all the politicking it involved, so his newest releases no longer say Bairrada anywhere on the label. I was lucky enough just a few months ago to be able to buy, at a quite reasonable price (don’t ask), a small cache of 2000 and 2001 vintages of some of Pato’s bottlings. He does several, each representing a different vineyard: He even bottles one, called Quinto do Ribeirinho Pé, with grapes from a pre-phylloxera vineyard. I had the good fortune to taste this 30 or so years ago, when I visited Luis Pato – its intensity is still vivid in my memory – but I have never seen a bottle of it here in the US (and probably couldn’t afford it if I did).

What I did recently acquire was his 2001 Vinha Barrio and 2000 Quinta do Moinho, both for me rarities and treasures.

As my regular readers will know, I’m very skeptical of the value of tasting notes (they’re true for one person, one time, under a set of peculiar circumstances), but I can’t resist giving you my reaction to the Quinta do Moinho:

Big big big!  Lots of semi-soft tannins. Black currants, berries and coffee in the mouth (coffee in the nose). Only 12.5% alcohol, but it feels much bigger – not hot, but mouth-filling and complex. Long coffee/berry finish. A fine, quite distinctive wine. Served with a risotto of mushrooms, onions, and Spanish chorizo. The cheese course (Pont l’Eveque and Taleggio) brought up all the wine’s sweet fruit – cherry/berry, quite fresh. This wine seems to have decades yet to go.

In discussions of Pato’s wines, you sometimes run across very esoteric comments comparing his Bagas to Bordeaux wines, with finely nuanced arguments for their more greatly resembling Cabernet-based left-bank wines or fruitier right-bank wines. I don’t see that at all: these Baga wines seem to me distinctive, quite different in character and flavor from French, or Spanish or Italian reds.

That distinctiveness was reinforced for me on an evening when we paired lamb chops and chanterelles with Pato’s 2001 Vinha Barrio. That vineyard has been since replanted, but when this wine was vinified, the Barrio vineyard was Pato’s oldest: head-trained vines, ranging between 80 and 100 years of age.

They yielded another extraordinary wine. It felt huge in the mouth despite a modest 13% of alcohol, and it had a heady aroma – tobacco, coffee, pine duff, multiple forest and forest floor scents. All these also showed up on the palate, plus – to my total surprise – apple and other white fruits!  With the lamb, it was all polish and depth: dark fruits, tobacco, dried berries, especially black raspberry.

Old vines can almost always surprise: here, a mature nose combined with a very fresh palate – in all, a wine of intriguing paradoxes, tasting to me nothing like any Bordeaux wine, much less any Barolo, to which it is also often compared. Pato’s wines are sui generis, and a very distinguished genus it is. I think you can see why, despite my distrust of tasting notes, I needed to present these to give you some sense of the complexity and caliber of Pato’s wines.

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Drinking in Portugal

Last month, Diane and I spent a tourist week in Portugal – a few days in Lisbon and almost a week cruising up and down the Douro river, best known to most winos as the pathway of Port to the world. Those who know me will find this perverse, because I never drink Port: It’s a palatal blind spot for me. I just can’t get past the sugar, in even the driest specimens. Fortunately, Portugal in general and the Douro valley in particular produce a great many other wines.


Wine production in Portugal is really amazing. For a small country, it produces an astonishing variety of wines, from a truly enormous number of mostly native grapes, almost 500 of them by some counts. The best known – and that is not saying much – of the varieties cultivated and vinified are probably Touriga nacional and Touriga franca, which are very roughly comparable in character and vinicultural roles to Cabernet sauvignon and Cabernet franc, though I wouldn’t push that analogy very far.

Other widely grown varieties include Baga, Periquita, Tempranillo, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, and Tinta Francisca – and those are just the reds. The even more varied whites include Alvarinho, Arinto, Codega do Larinho, Moscatel, Rabigato, Verdelho, and Viosinho, and their roles range from light-hearted Vinho Verde to serious-minded dinner wines.


The shipboard wines tended strongly to the lighter, easy-drinking end of the spectrum. That’s understandable, from CroisiEurope’s (our cruise line) point of view: We’re all there to have fun, after all, and very few of our fellow travellers’ ideas of fun included serious wine. Besides, most of the line’s clientele are French, and I am constantly surprised by how little many French people actually know or care about wine, especially that of other nations.

Here is the list of the ship’s endlessly pourable at-no-cost wines:

And here is the for-a-fee list:

We found nothing on either list that would change anyone’s life. Mostly, they were simple, agreeable wines that adapted well to the ship’s good French-hotel cuisine.

The single exception, which we chose to match with the cruise’s special gala dinner, was one of only four French wines on the list, a Château Carbonnieux rouge, which turned out to be a 2003 vintage. This had been a bit of a shot in the dark, since no vintage was named on the list, but 2003 was a better-than-respectable vintage and is just about at a ripe drinking age now – so we lucked in, and enjoyed a classic red Graves with our gala foie gras and roasted veal.

For all my disappointment with CroisiEurope’s wine lists, I give it credit for (a) trying to expose its clientele to the range of Portuguese wine and (b) stocking a wine of the quality of this good Bordeaux and selling it at such a reasonable price (€42).


Our brief stay in Lisbon was vinously much more rewarding. As Diane has reported in her blog, we happened on a tapas bar named Bebedouro, where over two lunches we enjoyed flights of red and white Douro wines. These provided a tasty and informative introduction to Portuguese wine, at least that of the Douro.

Montes Ermos 2017 DOC Douro, Vale de Cavalos 2016 DOC Douro, and Carm 2016 DOC Douro Reserva were the reds, all substantial wines worthy of attention, and all fine companions for BebeDouro’s tasty tapas.

The whites included Porrais 2018 Douro DOC, Lacrau 2018 DOC Douro (100% Moscatel Galego Branco, almost totally dry: very intriguing), and Quinta Seara d’Ordens 2017 Douro DOC, a substantial wine blended from several native varieties – Rabigato, Malvasia Fina, and Fernão Pires. This restaurant was a serendipitous find for a pair of foot-weary, wine-curious tourists.


The vinous highlight of Lisbon for us, however, was unquestionably the lovely bottle of 1970 Dão Reserva we drank with dinner at La Varanda, one of Lisbon’s best restaurants. The bottle provided little information other than the maker’s name – Vinicola do Vale do Dão – and the wine list none at all, other than a price so low (€55) that I seriously asked the sommelier whether the bottle was sound.

La Varanda is a restaurant that sports a wine list with many very pricey bottles – if you could afford it, you could arrange a lengthy vertical of Portugal’s legendary Barca Velha here – so the cherry-picker in me couldn’t ignore a nearly 50-year-old wine at a bargain price. And very happy we were with it: The wine was in perfect condition, and kept getting better and better, deeper and more nuanced, as it breathed. Part of the fun of it, by the way, was the elaborate – and we gathered, traditional Portuguese – way of opening the bottle by cutting its neck with red-hot tongs and pulling the still-attached cork out along with the neck piece.

After Port, Dão used to be the most famous name in Portuguese wine, way back in the Salazar days, before Portugal joined the EU and started modernizing its wine industry. I’m sure I don’t have to tell any reader of this post that modernization is always a mixed blessing. Back then, wine makers’ fortunes rose and fell with the quality of their product, and even though Dão is the name of a now prestigious region, the producer’s reputation was always the key consideration. This was especially so because Dão wine was then an unregulated blend of varieties at the choice of the makers, so everything rode on their skill and consistency. Dãos could be wonderful wines, with all the qualities of depth, complexity, character, and longevity that we wine lovers prize – so when I have a chance to taste an old one, made back in those now legendary days, I leap at it and, as in this case, I love it.

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If you’re a committed wine lover and need your fix every day, it’s a great advantage to live in New York City. The variety of fine wine available is unmatched anywhere in the world, and shopping is a snap. Let it sleet and storm outside: You can sit at your desk – perhaps sipping a glass of wine – and let your search engine (Wine-Searcher is a good one) investigate for you. That’s especially handy if you know more or less the kind of wine you’re seeking.

Even handier is the search service provided by several of the larger retail shops in New York, which allows you to rummage through their entire inventory by any of several different criteria.

I’m especially fond of one that Astor Wine and Spirits offers: searching by price range. That’s useful for any number of reasons, but I especially like that it offers me things I might not have thought of, wines outside my usual Italian and French go-to categories. We all get into ruts: This helps push me out of them. Twenty minutes of online browsing and I can put together a case of 12 different whites and another of 12 different reds at prices I like – say between $10 and $20 for everyday wines – and they will probably be delivered within 24 hours. For an aging wino, it doesn’t get much easier.

Let me be clear: When I say everyday wines, I mean every day. Diane and I have wine with dinner every night. All right, maybe once or twice a year we have beer, but 99 times out of 100 we opt for wine – and like most people in this galaxy, we can’t afford to drink great wine every time. Not that I haven’t done my best to raise the level of our daily bottle by, for decades now, buying wines young and unready but at reasonable prices and squirreling them away for as long as I could.

Besides, it’s not just wine we care about: It’s also and especially what Italians call the abbinamento – coordinating the wine with the food it accompanies. That’s crucial to making an everyday dinner something to relish. You have to pay attention to the way the wine and the food mesh. Much as I love mature Barolo and Barbaresco, I don’t want to drink them with a dish of frankfurters and beans. It’s disproportionate – and besides, good franks and beans are estimable in their own right and deserve a decent wine that works well with them. Don’t send a Brunello to do what a Bardolino can do better, don’t open a Beaune Premier Cru where a Beaujolais Villages is what’s needed.

(Incidentally, the above examples illustrate the first principle I laid out centuries ago in The Right Wine, my book about wine and food matching: Scale is crucial. I feel even more strongly about the second principle declared in that book: Acidity is what makes a wine food-friendly. But that’s a topic for a different post. End of digression.)

Now, just what sort of everyday wines am I talking about? Well, here’s the case of white wines, all under $20, that I recently purchased, most of which I tasted first as an aperitif (we all need to keep up our strength while cooking) and then with dinner.


Alsace Auxerrois Leon Manbach 2017 – Very pleasant, light, but substantial enough to handle a choucroute. Nice white-flower and mineral nose, round, but with enough acidity to work with food. Quite decent.

Alvarinho Couto de Mazedo 2016 (Vinho Verde) – Very nice Albariño, crisp, fresh, aromatic: Good aperitif, fine with fish.

Alvarinho Regueiro 2016 (Vinho Verde) – quite fine: rounder and fuller than the preceding wine, more dinner wine than aperitif. Excellent with a roasted orata (sea bream).

Jean-Paul Brun Beaujolais Blanc 2017 – excellent Beaujolais producer. Nice unwooded Chardonnay, with round fruit and great freshness. Very enjoyable.



Classic Domaine de l’Ecu Muscadet 2016 – This is a Muscadet producer I normally like very much, but this bottle was a bit of a disappointment. Drunk by itself, it tasted too much of oak. Food wiped that out to some extent, but it never rose to the level of crispness and sharpness I had hoped for.

De Cranne Bordeaux Sec 2016 – Should have been really interesting (the blend is 40% Sauvignon gris, 25% Muscadelle, and 35% Semillon), but turned out to be somewhat coarse and disappointing.

Gavi di Gavi Podere Merlina 2017 – Not a big, round Gavi, but a lighter-bodied, mineral-inflected example, with a marked and enjoyable citrus bite. Fine as aperitif and with lighter fare.

Meyer-Fonné Alsace Gentil 2016 – A lovely Alsace wine, so floral that the initial taste seemed German, but it rounded beautifully with a pheasant pâté and roasted chicken thighs.



Ribolla Gialla Ronchi di Cialla 2017 (Friuli Colli Orientali) – quite fine and characteristic. Stood up beautifully to a choucroute garnie, and I don’t know how much more you can ask of a white wine.

Rioja Blanca Real Rubio 2017 – A bit disappointing: old-fashioned, slightly oxidized white, not unpleasant but with no charm.

Timorasso Colli del Timorasso Ricci 2014 – A lovely light Timorasso, soft-bodied but with sufficient acid; floral aroma and delicate palate of dry pear and apricot. Very enjoyable.

Weszeli Grüner Veltliner Langenlois 2017 – Very good and characteristic Grüner, with nice balance, body, and minerality. Partnered quite nicely with Chinese dumplings and home-made egg foo young. Bright, light on palate.


I grant you that this is not an earthshakingly exotic list of wines: Had I wished, I could have cast a much wider net. But these are the kind of wines I like, so this time around I stuck with them. Others, of course are free to be as experimental as they wish: There were 88 other wines on the list I was choosing from. Have fun!

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In land mass, Portugal is one of the smallest countries in western Europe, but in terms of the number of grape varieties grown and kinds of wine produced, it’s right up there with its larger neighbors. The Wine Media Guild November meeting featured a generous selection of its wines – two dozen, to be precise – organized by WMG member David Ransom.

For a very pleasant and auspicious change from tastings of Portuguese wines I have attended in the past, these wines all had importers and hence are available on these shores, even if not in all stores. That eases my writerly conscience considerably, since I hate to write about wines that my readers can’t get hold of, even if sometimes there is just no avoiding it.

This time, that wasn’t a problem. However, I found the wines a very mixed bag, with most of the whites tasting – to my palate, that day – just ho-hum. So I’m going to focus here on the reds, which my palate that day found much more enjoyable and interesting. With very few exceptions, they were also quite reasonably priced, which is always welcome news.

Among Portugal’s many red varieties, three stand out, as much for their quality as their ubiquity across the country’s multiple wine zones: Touriga nacional, Touriga franca, and Baga. All three are first-rate wine grapes, the latter two most important in the Douro Valley and in north-central Portugal respectively, while Touriga nacional, as its name implies, seems to be grown everywhere. Once it was used only to make Port, but its rich aromas and flavors have long outgrown that restriction.

These all seem to be truly indigenous varieties, until quite recently planted nowhere outside Portugal, but how little is truly known about them is reflected in the brevity of the comments on them in Wine Grapes (Robinson, Harding, Vouillamoz), where all three are recognized as of very high quality, but awarded only a few paragraphs each. Wine Grapes distinguishes Baga as probably the variety with the greatest drinking and aging potential, though also, because it needs a long ripening season and Portugal’s Atlantic climate does not always allow that, the variety that can make the most disappointing wines – so worth seeking out, but find out all you can about vintages before buying.

There was only one wine at the tasting identified as a Baga (though I suspect Baga was at least a component in several others), and that was from the acknowledged master of the variety, Luis Pato: Luis Pato Bairrhada Tinto Vinhas Velhas 2015.

Even though young – Baga really needs time – this showed everything I expect of Baga and of Luis Pato. It was dark and brooding and deep, smelling of underbrush and black berries, smooth, almost velvety on the palate, and very long finishing. I’d want to drink this wine when it’s 20, if I could last that long. Not so by-the-way, Pato has a pre-phylloxera Baga vineyard that produces just extraordinary wine: Quinto do Ribeirinho Pé Franco. If you ever see it at anything resembling a reasonable price, by all means try it.

Two other wines really caught my attention that day: Julia Kemper Touriga Nacional 2011 and Chocapalha Castelão 2015.

The latter wine is vinified from the Castelão grape, which is sort of the Barbera of Portugal. It’s widely grown and yields a medium-bodied wine that in the best examples, of which this bottle is one, is delightfully fruity – berries and underbrush – and well-structured and makes just plain enjoyable drinking. Touriga nacional more resembles Sangiovese or, for Spanish wine fans, Tempranillo: good fruit, often intense and nervous, with fine structure and breed, that rewards cellaring. I found this Julia Kemper example quite classic – still vivacious at seven years of age and promising a much longer lifetime.

There were other red wines I enjoyed – Quinto do ValladoTouriga Nacional 2015, Quinto do Crasto Reserva Old Vines 2014, Wine & Soul Quinta da Manoella 2015, Joao Portugal Ramos Vila Santa Reserva 2013 – but the other real stand-out of the day for me was a lovely Madeira, Broadbent 10 Year Old Boal.

Madeira is a sadly underappreciated wine these days, and no matter how often publicists cite Thomas Jefferson’s love for it, it just never seems to catch on in this country. I’ll simply say this: If I were restricted to only one dessert wine for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose Madeira. This Boal was perfect: the color a brilliant tawny amber, the nose big and rich, redolent of dried figs and apples, the palate balanced and harmonious, with the same flavors riding an undercurrent of tea and cacao, the finish long, long, long. It was a perfect way to end the tasting and the lunch.

I’m about to commit the biggest sin of omission available to wine journalists at this time of year: I’m not going to write about Champagne or sparkling wine. There are good reasons for this – the exalted price of so many of them, for one – but the compelling reason is that I’m bored with the endlessly repeated insistence that sparklers are an indispensable accompaniment to holiday festivities. Nonsense: There are plenty of fine, celebratory wines out there that will make your holidays just as enjoyable as any sparkler.

So, with that little bit of Bah Humbug! out of the way, let me wish you all a very Merry – and still – Christmas!


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This is a post that will hardly be of interest to anyone but me. No pictures, just words. No tasting comments, just thoughts. Anyone not interested can leave now: No offense will be taken.

I’ve been wondering lately about whether it would be possible to put together a case of wines that would enable wannabe winos to learn the world of wine on their own, at their own pace. I myself got hooked on wine long ago by just such a mixed case that a retailer in Baltimore put together for me so I could explore wine.

Of course, the wine world was a lot smaller back then, and very different from what it is now. That case cost about $100, which then was a substantial fraction of my monthly wage, and it consisted, if memory serves, entirely of French wines – because way back then if you wanted to understand wine, wine spoke French. Germany, Spain, and Portugal came up in wine conversation only peripherally, Italy and Austria very rarely, and California was the smallest, remotest blip on the radar. For most American wine lovers, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand did not exist as wine-producing countries, only as exotic vacation destinations.

I don’t have to tell you that much has changed since then, and genuinely for the better. The wine world is broader and far more diverse now, and field and cellar techniques have improved to such an extent that I can honestly say we’re living in a golden age of wine. We now get good, better-than-drinkable wine from almost every harvest, whereas “back then” one or two of every ten vintages were superior, three or four were OK, and five or six were not worth the drinking.

With all the changes that have occurred, I wondered what would happen today if a naif, as I then was, should walk into a good wine shop and ask a knowledgeable retailer to put together a case of wines to introduce him or her to the world of wine. Phew!  Talk about the labors of Hercules: It would be an impossible task. One bottle from each of the principal wine regions of the world would overflow the case. One bottle from each of the principal wine-producing nations would easily fill it – and what kind of introduction to wine would that be, with something like a single Napa Cabernet representing all the wine of the US, or one red Burgundy all of France?  No, the task couldn’t be approached that way: The whole question has to be rethought.

Perhaps it could be done by using benchmark wines, great ones that show the heights wine can reach. That, of course, is where cost comes into play. Wine prices, like medical costs and the cost of a college education, have increased at many times the rise in incomes, and many times the rate of inflation, especially in recent years. The present-day equivalent of my 1968 $100 would be approximately $725 now: $725 would merely be a down payment on a single bottle of young Château Margaux. Back then, Margaux and Lafite and such wines – the great Bordeaux first growths – were little more than twice the price of wines like Château Gloria and Château Brane Cantenac, which were included in my introductory case. If memory serves, I’m pretty sure those two then cost under $4 a bottle. So the option of structuring our hypothetical case around benchmark great wines can only be a pipe dream: The cost would be prohibitive for all but hedge fund multimillionaires.

So what about organizing by grape variety?  That is, for American wine lovers at least, a very popular approach to wine, so let’s consider it. If we start with white wines, Chardonnay demands inclusion – but its very popularity makes it a difficult choice. Which Chardonnay fairly represents the variety?  Burgundy?  Chablis?  Napa? Sonoma? Long Island? The Finger Lakes? Sicily? Friuli?  Oaked, or fermented in stainless steel?

That would be only Wine #1. Suppose we go on to #2: say Sauvignon blanc. From Sancerre or some other spot on the upper Loire? Or somewhere in California or New York? Or Friuli or Alto Adige? And where do we go for Wine #3?  Riesling, to be sure – but from the Rhine or Moselle, or from Alsace, or the Pacific Northwest, or Australia, or Austria, or Italy?

Only three grapes considered so far, and you see the dimensions of the problems. And the three varieties I’ve so far mentioned show the still built-in Francophilia of the wine world. We haven’t even considered any of the great white grape varieties of Spain and Portugal, Italy, and Greece. And beyond them, there is the plethora of “lesser varieties” from all these countries and from France, any one of which makes perfectly enjoyable wine. Once we say basta to white wines and move to reds, the problem becomes greater still: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot noir, Syrah, Cabernet franc, Mourvèdre – or, to break the Francophilia, Aglianico, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Touriga nacional, Tempranillo, Nerello mascalese, and maybe even Zinfandel.

It’s an endless task. For that reason, for the past 20 years I’ve resisted all suggestions that I update Mastering Wine. It’s impossible: That book’s format can never be used again, not for anything that pretends to be a thorough introduction to wine. No: There’s only one way that our hypothetical instructive case of wines could be assembled, and it’s by pure subjectivity. An individual could do it, drawing entirely on his or her own knowledge and preferences – making them clear, of course, every step of the way. That could produce a coherent collection, with both scope and focus and even some serious attention to cost control. I’m considering trying it, but it will be a time-consuming job, so stay tuned for developments – but not right away.

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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.

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.”)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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,

. island.

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.



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.




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.

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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.

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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.









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.


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.”


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

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