Posts Tagged : Sarah Ahmed

Quinta do Vallado Vinha da Coroa 2013 – The Unflashy Crown

Text Sarah Ahmed

Vallado means “big valley.” As anyone who has taken Quinta do Vallado’s vintage Land Rover white knuckle tour to the top of this Douro estate can attest, it’s vertiginous too; the vines rise from 80 to 380 metres above sea level.  Up top is where the oldest vines – centenarian field blends of some 34 assorted grape varieties – remain stubbornly rooted.  It is from here – the crown (“Coroa” in Portuguese) – that Vallado has launched a new, strikingly different red wine called Vinha da Coroa from a two hectare parcel of that name.

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White knuckles at ease! The Land Rover reaches the top – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

Explaining the background to this wine, Francisco Ferreira confided that it had vexed him that, “every year, two old vine parcels very close to each other [and vinified the same way] produced the best wines and the worst wines.”  Doubtless it will now vex you to know that these “worst” wines came from Vinha da Coroa!  Grimacing, as if he’d just chewed a grape seed, Ferreira recalled, “every year Vinha da Coroa’s fruit was more green tasting and bitter.”

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Vinha da Coroa – predominantly north facing old vines – Photo Provided by Quinta do Vallado | All Rights Reserved

Until the release of Quinta do Vallado Vinha da Coroa 2013, this parcel’s fruit went into Vallado Tinto, the much bigger volume entry level wine.  A good ruse for diluting this greenness.  So why launch a new wine made solely from this parcel?  For Ferreira, it has resulted from getting to know Vinha da Coroa better.  A clue, until recently, undiscovered in old papers pointed to its cooler, pre-dominantly northerly exposition – the parcel used to be called “Old Moscatel” (i.e. was once planted to this white wine variety).  A factor which, together with its richer soils, explained why tannin ripeness – this greeness – was an issue for Vinha da Coroa, but not for Vallado’s other old vine parcels.

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It’s all a question of perspective – Francisco Ferreira with Quinta da Vallado’s south-west facing old vines – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

Quite sensibly given Vallado’s location in the Douro coolest, wettest sub-region (the Baixo Corgo), most of Vallado’s vines worship the sun, facing south-west.  An aspect which, says Ferreira, is the secret to the “very mature, very balanced” tannin quality of top reds Quinta do Vallado Reserva Field Blend and Quinta do Vallado Adelaide, not to mention their powerfully concentrated fruit.

Once Ferreira understood this difference, he understood that resolving Vinha da Coroa’s greenness lay in adapting the winemaking/wine style to its cooler site, specifically extracting less tannin and, for balance, more delicate fruit.  After all, as he observes, “the most important [issue for wine quality] is balance…I don’t care if the grapes are very ripe, if they retain good acidity and there is no excess  alcohol and overripe fruit; also I do not care if the grapes are a bit less mature, if it [the wine] does not shows green tannins or bitterness.”  As Vallado’s latest, very balanced release most eloquently reveals, with less extraction Vinha da Coroa is a favourable site for wines with upfront appeal (fruit and gentle tannins), but old vine savoury complexity. Or, as Ferreira puts it, “lighter wines, perhaps less flashy, but more desirable from the point of view of consumption.”

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Easy does it – no robo-fermenters (pictured left) for Vinha da Coroa – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

In fact, for Vinha da Coroa, he even picked this cool site a bit earlier to highlight its cool character – I liked its crunchy red fruits, peppery lift and fresh acidity very much.  This style of lighter but utterly serious wines has firmly taken hold in Australia where one producer recently told me “there has to be a life beyond the larger than life men and big wines about weight, power and strength. Australia can do that, but it can do other things as well.”  As can the Douro where, Ferreira acknowledges, Niepoort was at the vanguard of this approach with Charme.

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Quinta do Vallado Vinha da Coroa 2013 (Douro) – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

In pursuit of a lighter style, Ferreira doesn’t crush any of the grapes, 50% of which are also whole bunch (with stems intact).  While a robot-operated pigeage machine punches down the Reserva’s and Adelaide’s grapes perhaps four times a day, Vinha da Coroa underwent “very little extraction” (and a little Beaujolais-like carbonic maceration) during its 14 day ferment.  It was aged for 16 months in French oak barriques, none new.  Markedly paler than the 2013 reds I tasted alongside it, lively, fresh acidity sluices its crunchy red fruits.  Harmonious earthy/savoury whole bunch notes bring depth, while pronounced white pepper notes and hint of eucalyptus add lift to the tail.  Medium bodied, with good length and intensity, it brings an exciting note of contrast to Vallado’s portfolio. 14.5%

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Like a bird hide, Casa do Rio, Quinta do Vallado’s new boutique hotel – Photo Provided by Quinta do Vallado | All Rights Reserved

A contrast which, travellers take note, is now reflected in their sophisticated oeno-tourism offer since the Ferreira family opened Casa do Rio in the Douro Superior.  While Vallado’s well established hotels near Regua are within sight of this bustling town, Casa do Rio is distinctly off the beaten track.  In fact, very much on a track, not a road. The track gently winds down Vallado’s Quinta do Orgal vineyard, leading you to this small (six room) boutique hotel overlooking the Douro.  Almost hidden within the vine terraces like a bird hide, although bedrooms would benefit from better sound insulation, it’s a wonderfully peaceful location – a de facto natural retreat.  I recommend it.

Contacts
Quinta do Vallado – Sociedade Agrícola, Lda.
Vilarinho dos Freires
5050-364 – Peso da Régua | Portugal
Tel: (+351) 254 323 147
Fax: (+351) 254 324 326
Website: www.quintadovallado.com

Pormenor: The Devil is in the Detail

Text Sarah Ahmed

Pormenor” means “detail” in English.  Evidently, Pedro Coelho has indeed paid attention to the detail and done his homework – his first release of Pormenor Douro wines from the 2013 has already sold out. Not bad for a first generation winemaker who told me “my grandfather was an oak producer, my father a cork producer so… in the family it was necessary for someone to produce and drink… well that’s me!!!!!”

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Pedro Coelho – Photo Provided by Pormenor Vinhos | All Rights Reserved

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Pormenor Corks – Photo Provided by Pormenor Vinhos | All Rights Reserved

So, aside from Coelho’s boyish enthusiasm for the project, what’s the appeal? The packaging is simple – it’s not trying too hard – but it is classy with a contemporary feel which would catch your eye on the shelf.  And how contemporary is it to launch with two white Douro wines and one red!  There and again (another detail) his consultant winemaker is ex-Niepoort man Luis Seabra, whose very own “Cru” (translation “Raw”) range I wrote up in these pages earlier this year.

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Pedro Coelho – Photo Provided by Pormenor Vinhos | All Rights Reserved

Just like Seabra, Coelho’s aim for his own wines is to show the Douro “in the most natural way…with minimum intervention, giving priority to the main important characteristics from the Douro Valley: vines, grapes, soils and climate.”  And like Seabra’s Cru range, the whites are a little funky and very textural. In a way, not so very different from the labels – not trying too hard but insinuating – they find their mark.

In fact the whites are the stronger suit; I found the red a little rustic.  Which is fascinating when you consider that the whites come from the generally warmer, drier Douro Superior sub-region and the red from the Cima Corgo sub–region.  While the Cima-Corgo in the “heart of the Douro” is often cited as the source of the Douro’s most elegant wines and best Ports, Pormenor’s whites live up to their name – the devil is in the detail, especially site specificity.  It’s precisely this factor which explains why, contrary to received wisdom, the Douro Superior is the source of some of my favourite Douro whites.  Take Conceito, Quinta de Maritávora, Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas, Muxagat (though sadly Mateus Nicolau d’Almeida is no longer involved in this project) and Mapa.

Here are my notes on the maiden releases:

Pormenor Branco 2013 (Douro DOC) – this pale yellow wine was sourced from very old field blend vines on schist in the Douro Superior, located at between 400m and 500m in the Carrazeda zone, Ansiães. The grapes were harvested in late August in order to preserve acidity. Apparently Rabigato and Códega do Larinho pre-dominate, both of which  varieties have good fruit, though Rabigato is high in acidity and Códega do Larinho softer, with low acidity. The wine was fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks.  It is a pale yellow with a highly individual palate redolent of cinnamon spice-grilled pineapple, apricot and firmer quince – quite fruity for the Douro.  Complexing acacia honey and a creamy, nuttiness make for a round, silky mouthfeel.  A ripe, very seamless undertow of acidity carries a long finish. Drinking very well now on its own and has the weight and interest to work very well with sauced white fish dishes. 12.63%

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Pormenor Reserva Branco 2013 (Douro DOC) – Photo Provided by Pormenor Vinhos | All Rights Reserved

Pormenor Reserva Branco 2013 (Douro DOC) – similarly old field blend vines (with Rabigato and Códega do Larinho predominating) were picked early from vineyards in the Carrazeda zone, Ansiães.  However, the fruit came from higher vineyards at between 600m to 800m, so the palate of the slightly deeper yellow Reserva is firmer, more concentrated, grapefruity and mineral once you get past the oak – I much preferred it on day two when the oak was less intrusive and it finished long, focused and mineral. The Reserva was naturally fermented and aged for nine months in used French oak barrels from Burgundy without temperature control and without batonnage.  I’d leave it for a year or so to unwind and allow the oak to integrate.  12.5%

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Pormenor Branco Colheita 2013 (Douro DOC) – Photo Provided by Pormenor Vinhos | All Rights Reserved

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Pormenor Tinto 2013 (Douro DOC) – Photo Provided by Pormenor Vinhos | All Rights Reserved

Pormenor Tinto 2013 (Douro DOC) – this medium-bodied crimson blend of several classic Douro grapes (mainly Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Amarela and Rufete) is sourced from 50+ year old vines in Soutelo do Douro in the Cima Corgo planted at between 500m and 600m altitude.  It was fermented and macerated in stainless steel vats with some whole bunches (stems as well as grapes) for 25 days and aged for 14 months in used French oak barrels.  Like the Reserva White, this wine needed air.  This time because of a “white noise” earthiness to the nose which detracted from the fruit (and which I initially thought could be down to the bacterial spoilage, brettanomyces).  However, the clarity of the palate (from the same bottle) on day three suggests it was a “stemmy” character derived from the whole bunch fermentation.  So how did Pormenor Tinto look on day three? It showed fresh red currant, cherry and plum fruit with a very subtle hint of florality. Though the tannins were a touch earthy and rustic, they didn’t get in the way of this wine’s more enjoyable aspects – the fruit and freshness (indeed allowed that pretty floral hint to come through). While the rusticity arguably conforms to Coelho’s idea to show the Douro “in the most natural way,” best case scenario the stems in whole bunch fermentation can produce wines of thrilling spice, lift and structure. Coelho told me that this wine was picked in early September “to maintain a high level of acidity” but, while I commend the freshness of the palate, I wonder if the stems might have benefited from being a little riper?  Of course, 2013 was a tricky year – from 27 September there was a period of sustained rainfall which encouraged early picking.  So I for one am interested to taste follow up vintages of this wine.  12.5%

Contacts
Tel: (+351) 919 679 393
Email: geral@pormenor-vinhos.com
Website: www.pormenor-vinhos.com

Precision Engineering: Monte da Ravasqueira Vinha Das Romãs

Text Sarah Ahmed

I was bowled over by Monte da Ravasqueira’s latest releases, especially Monte da Ravasqueira Premium White 2012, Premium Rosé 2013 and Vinha das Romãs 2012.  A case of third time lucky because, although invariably well made, this Alentejo’s producer’s wines were not an instant hit with me. Did I miss something? Even the best wine tasters sometimes get out of bed on the wrong side!

A vertical tasting this June went some way to answering my question.  Looking at different vintages of the same wine is my favourite way to assess, not only the impact of the ‘hand of god’ (vintage variation), but also the human hand – changes in viticultural and winemaking approach are laid bare too. So what did I learn from looking at three vintages of Monte da Ravasqueira Vinha das Romãs (2012, 2011, 2010)?

If we’re talking ‘hand of god,’ each vintage lived up to expectation.  The 2012 was elegant with good structure.  The denser 2011 had more powerful fruit.  As for the 2010, it was relatively open-knit and, with a splash of Alicante Bouschet, a touch rustic – significantly the least age-worthy of the trio (even taking into account its relative age).   All in all, it seemed to me that the 2012 had an extra degree of refinement – greater finesse.  With brighter, better-defined fruit, it was more balanced than the teetering towards over-ripe 2011. In fact, contrary to received wisdom about these vintages, I reckon the 2012 will comfortably outlive the 2011.

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Monte da Ravasqueira Vinha das Romãs Single Vineyard 2012 – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

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Chief Winemaker Pedro Pereira Gonçalves – Photo Provided by Monte da Ravasqueira | All Rights Reserved

How come?  The varietal mix (70% Syrah, 30% Touriga Franca) is the same, as is the winemaking; I don’t think a year’s difference in vine age matters a jot (as a general rule, wines attain better balance with age).  For me the answer lies in Monte da Ravasqueira’s adoption of precision viticulture in 2012 (and the dynamic incoming Chief Winemaker who implemented it, Pedro Pereira Gonçalves).

To borrow from The Oxford Companion to Wine (Jancis Robinson MW), precision viticulture means “vineyard management is targeted rather than implemented uniformly over large areas.” It involves using technologies like infrared imaging, global positioning systems (GPS) and geographic information systems (GIS) first to assess, then manage, vineyard variables (such as soil type, depth and structure) which influence wine quality, quantity and style.

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An aerial view of Monte da Ravasqueira – Photo Provided by Monte da Ravasqueira | All Rights Reserved

For Gonçalves, managing the variables within each of Monte da Ravasqueira’s 29 vineyard blocks, even within the same variety, has been the key to a “true interpretation of terroir.”   Returning to the sheer balance of the 2012, one senses that each vine performed to the best of its ability, making it easier to pick at lower baumé before grape sugars shot up and while natural acidity was good.  At any rate it surely explains why the 2012 vintage is a full degree and a half lower in alcohol by volume.

When I subsequently checked out my impressions about the 2012 with Gonçalves, whilst acknowledging the ‘hand of god’ (“2012 was a fantastic year for Syrah and Touriga Franca”), he enthusiastically agreed.  To borrow from Jennifer Aniston (!) this time, “here comes the science bit.  Concentrate.”  According to the winemaker, “with the information that we have from the precision viticulture techniques, it was possible to look at the spots in the vineyard with more balance and separate them from the others. It doesn’t mean that the others were less quality, but they were not what I look to for the Vinha das Romas wine, that is a balance between alcohol, tannins and acidity, quality of tannins (high values of anthocyans and IPT’s (anthocyans+tannins) and type of fruit flavours (more complex flavours, black fruit and spicy characters without that easy red fruit that sometimes we see on Syrah).”

Here are my notes on the wines from Vinha das Romãs.   Incidentally, Romãs refers to the vineyard’s previous incarnation – it was a pomegranate orchard until 2002 when a five hectare parcel was replanted to Syrah and Touriga Franca.  The plot is vinified and bottled separately because it produces particularly ripe, concentrated grapes.

Monte da Ravasqueira Vinha das Romãs Single Vineyard 2010 (Vinho Regional Alentejano) – a blend of mostly Syrah and Touriga Nacional with a small percentage of Alicante Bouschet and Touriga Franca (despite the name, the concept of a single vineyard was not implemented here because “Vinha das Romãs” vineyard is only planted to Touriga Franca and Syrah).  The 2010 was aged for nine months in French oak barrels, less than half the time of the 2011 and 2012.  This together with the vintage itself perhaps explains why it is significantly paler and less structured than other vintages.  On nose and palate it has a distinctive menthol, spicy character and pronounced iodine note which I recalled from my first tasting of the 2012 earlier in the year.  Gamey undertones to the 2010’s open-knit sweet and yielding plum fruit put me in mind of Rhône Syrah.  The tannins are ripe and a touch rustic.  Drinking very well now this is not a keeper.  14.5%

Monte da Ravasqueira Vinha das Romãs Single Vineyard 2011 (Vinho Regional Alentejano) – this spicy blend of 70% Syrah/30% Touriga Franca was aged for 20 months in new French oak barrels.  It is the darkest, densest wine of the three.  Concentrated ripe black berry and riper still (arguably over-ripe) black olive notes are well framed by ripe but present tannins.  A firm thrust of acidity pulls out the fruit over a long finish.  A vigorous wine.  14.5%

Monte da Ravasqueira Vinha das Romãs Single Vineyard 2012 (Vinho Regional Alentejano) – the same blend and elevage as the 2011, but this is a more animated, motile wine.   Though its blackberry and plum fruit is poised, very well-defined, it has an exciting spatial quality which gives room for this vineyard’s distinctive spicy liquorice, eucalypt and iodine notes to shine.  I remain impressed by the fresh profile and dry, firm, pomegranate-like pithy tannins of this intense but elegant wine – qualities which suggest it will age rather well – for a decade at least. 13%

Contacts
Monte da Ravasqueira
7040-121 ARRAIOLOS
Tel: (+351) 266 490 200
Fax: (+351) 266 490 219
E-mail: ravasqueira@ravasqueira.com
Website: www.ravasqueira.com

Foz Torto: In Search of Elegance

Text Sarah Ahmed

In 2000, Lisbon-based IT entrepreneur Abílio Tavares da Silva started looking for a vineyard.  He was always dead set on the Douro.  But he was fussy.  It took five years to find the right site.  Today, he has a bird’s eye view of the Douro, especially Sandeman’s top vineyard, Quinta do Seixo, which is located on the opposite bank of the river Torto from his own slice of Douro pie, Foz Torto.

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On top of the world Abilio Tavares da Silva at Foz Torto – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

Foz means mouth and Foz Torto’s 14 hectares of steeply terraced vineyards tumble down towards the Douro river.  It’s not only because the vertigo-inducing view from the top (at 320m) down to the bottom (at 72m) that Tavares da Silva feels on top of the world.  More to the point, he is realising the passion which lead him to sell his businesses, re-locate his family in the Douro and study winemaking (he has a degree in Oenology from the University of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro).

Why that site?  Because, says Tavares da Silva, “I was looking for elegance and balance and my vineyard on the Torto river has been known for power and elegance for 200 years.”  “Mostly for Port,” he adds and, even today, 80-85% of his grapes are sold to Taylor’s for Port.  He attributes this reputation partly to Rufete, which is very common in the Torto and “is known more for elegance than raw power.”

That said, Tavares da Silva has re-planted some 80% of the vineyard from scratch (three hectares of 85 year old vines remain).  He explains “the vineyard was in bad shape because it belonged to a family who were embroiled in a court dispute for 10 years.”  Suffice to say his new plantings include Rufete, also Tinta Francisca, which the food lover describes as “condiments” to the Touriga Nacional and Alicante Bouschet which he has also planted.

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The vegetable garden at Foz Torto – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

Tavares da Silva is just as passionate about the vegetables he has planted at Foz Torto as he is about his vines.  Telling me, “I truly believe in vineyards to be enjoyed and visited like a garden, not just used to produce wine,” he showed me strawberries, onions, beans, potatoes, fruit and olive trees.  Such is his messianic zeal about the flavour intensity of the rucola which he proffered for me to taste that he (and I) forgot we were about to taste the wines.  The most peppery (hot as horseradish) rucola I’ve ever tasted proves to be my palate’s undoing.  Fortunately, Tavares da Silva obligingly sent me fresh samples to taste at home in London!

The wines, the first release from 2010, are made with Sandra Tavares da Silva (no relative) who honed her Douro winemaking skills in the Torto Valley at Quinta do Vale Dona Maria prior to establishing Wine & Soul with her husband and fellow winemaker, Jorge Serôdio Borges.  She is, says Abílio, “the teacher” to his “intern” and evidently, like me, he is a huge fan of Wine & Soul’s exquisite Douro white Guru, since he has acquired a second white wine vineyard close to its source in Porrais in Murça at 600 metres above sea level. I must say, I like the highly characterful Foz Torto white better than the reds which, though very soundly made, were not as elegant as I’d expected given both site and vintage.  But it’s early days and, where Tavares da Silva is content to study (for him “the pleasure is in the journey”), I’ll be interested to see how his range evolves.  In fact, on his “teacher’s” advice that it will help the wines taste “more elegant, more distinctive,” he has already started installing lagares for more small batch winemaking in the old winery which he is restoring in Pinhão.  As an IT guy well knows, “you have to take account of all the small details.”

Here are my notes on his latest releases:

Foz Torto Vinhas Velhas Branco 2013 (Douro) – from a small (under one hectare) 70-80 year old field blend vineyard with a predominance of Códega do Larinho and Rabigato.  Tavares da Silva tells me that the vineyard smells like gunpowder and, like Guru, this wine has a striking cordite/struck match character with, on day two, a spicy, fenugreek edge.  Though it’s leaner than Guru and not as powerful or long, I like its minerality and steely drive of grapefruit with riper lemon.  Complexing, complementary vanillin and lemon oil notes come courtesy of five months’ maturation in French oak.  Lots of old vine interest and intensity.  12.5%

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A Foz Torto trio – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

Foz Torto Tinto 2012 (Douro) – a blend of 40% Touriga Nacional, 30% Touriga Franca, 10% Tinta Francisca, 5% Tinta Roriz, 5% Alicante Bouschet, 5% Sousão, 5% Tinta Barocca from 7-8 year old vines; it was fermented for 8 days in stainless steel tank then aged for 16 months in 2nd and 3rd year French oak barrels.  It has dark-chocolate-edged ripe, round black berry and plum to nose and palate, with prune, tobacco, leather and berber whisky (stewed mint tea) undertones (the Alicante Bouschet?) and smooth-grained tannins.  The tobacco is more marked on day two.  A touch warm (alcohol) going through; would benefit from a little more definition and freshness.  14.5%

Foz Torto Vinhas Velhas 2012 (Douro) – an old vine field blend of more than 30 varieties; it was fermented for 8 days in stainless steel tank then aged for 18 months in 30% new, 70% 2nd year French oak barrels.  As you’d expect, more concentrated, mineral and spicier than the younger vine cuvée, with rich, ripe cassis, fleshier, juicier black plum and sweet raspberry. New oak brings vanillin sucrosity and more pronounced savoury notes of toast and mocha. A little over-ripe and warm for my taste, though it benefits from svelte tannins and a useful (uplifting) hint of eucalyptus to the finish.  14.5%

A Royal Flush From Vasques de Carvalho

Text Sarah Ahmed

Never before has poker shared a thought bubble with Port.  Not in my head anyway.  But royal flush sprang to mind when Vasques de Carvalho revealed its opening hand – these ever so handsomely packaged 10, 20, 30 and 40 Year Old Tawny Ports.

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Style with substance from Vasques de Carvalho – Photo Provided by Vasques de Carvalho | All Rights Reserved

It’s a startlingly bold, high end debut in a sector with such notoriously high barriers to entry.  Consider this.  To start a new Port House requires a minimum stock of 150,000 litres if, like most houses, production is not exclusively sourced from your own vineyards.  What’s more, the so-called “rule of one third” (Lei do Terço) requires Port producers to retain stocks of three times the amount they put up for sale. Suffice to say, with this strain on capital, Port houses do not spring up overnight.  Less so producers of 10, 20, 30 and 40 Year Old Tawny Ports, which require decades of aged stocks successfully to produce these highly complex wood-aged blends.

So how did Vasques de Carvalho pull it off?  The answer lies in the partnership behind the brand.  In 2012, António Vasques de Carvalho inherited his family’s wine cellars, 6 hectares of very old (80 years old+) vines in the Baixo Corgo and about 45,000 litres of old Ports, (including a rare lot of 1880 Tawny Port set aside by António’s great grandfather, José Vasques de Carvalho).  António’s old friend Luis Vale of Kurtpace SA, a construction company, injected the capital, enabling Vasques de Carvalho (the Port House) to increase its stock to the requisite 150,000 litres.  Additionally, the pair have started re-building the winery and barrel cellar at Régua (over which António sleeps, since the cellar is located below his house).  The company has also acquired another cellar in Pinhão which already has 75,000 litres aging in small balseiros and toneis and four 40,000 litre capacity toneis.

Winemaker Jaime Costa is in charge of the portfolio.  Having worked for 16 years at Burmester, the former Revista de Vinhos Fortified Winemaker of the Year 2005 is plainly thrilled once again to have such fine and rare aged Port wines at his disposal.  And his timing is good.  The recent spate of headline grabbing, luxury-priced Very Old Tawny Ports means that Tawny Ports are, at last, having their day in the sun.

In addition to the Tawny Ports – the jewel in Vasques de Carvalho’s crown – the portfolio includes an old White Port, 2013 Vintage Port and Douro wines (Oxum, X Bardos, Velhos Bardos Reserva).  Next year the company will release a 2012 Late Bottled Vintage Port 2012, 880 bottles of 1880 Very Old Tawny Port and the first Douro DOC wine spirit, Aguardente Vinica.  Though Douro reds Oxum and X Bardos (both 2012 vintage) did not impress me, the Tawny Ports (the only Vasques de Carvalho Ports I have tasted) most certainly did, especially the 40 Year Old.  Its wonderful concentration and complexity is doubtless attributable to a judicious splash of the 1880 vintage, of which the company holds a remarkable stash – one toneis of 6,000 litres plus two casks of 400 litres (the latter presumably for next year’s Very Old Tawny release).  Costa told me that all four Tawnies are 90% sourced from the Vasques de Carvalho’s old stocks, with 10% from other wines that the company bought between 2012 and 2014.

Blend-All-About-Wine-Vasques de Carvalho-Tasting vasques de carvalho A Royal Flush From Vasques de Carvalho Blend All About Wine Vasques de Carvalho Tasting

On tasting Vasques de Carvalho Tawny Ports – 10, 20, 30 & 40 Year Old, left to right – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

Aged in the Douro (as opposed to in the cooler, more humid climes of Vila Nova de Gaia), I found the flavour spectrum of Vasques de Carvalho Tawnies to be rich and dark, with a touch of bake.  Yet I was intrigued by their refinement – an elegant balance, persistence (good acidity) and silky smooth spirit integration.  I asked Costa if this perhaps derived from the principal fruit source (the Baixo Corgo is relatively cool and wet).  He agreed, replying “I think [it] had a great influence, because the temperatures aren´t so high like in upper Douro for aging, and the wines gets much more acidity, that will be important during the aging and also to balance the sugar level in the wines.  That way, you get consistent tawnies, without cloying your senses while you are drinking old Ports, because as you know, many times, old tawnies, because of sugar level, could get that way.”

Here are my notes on Vasques de Carvalho’s Tawny range:

Vasques de Carvalho 10 Years Old Tawny Port – a ruddy, conker hue with rich dried plum, fig, toffeed dates and frangipane notes to the nose, which follow through on a beautifully balanced, silky palate with deep nutty resonance.  Lovely freshness to the finish – not a trace of heaviness despite the richness of the flavour profile.  A classy, concentrated 10 Year Old comprised of wines between 7 and 14 years’ old.  136g/l Residual Sugar. 20%

Vasques de Carvalho 20 Years Old Tawny Port – a deep but very bright tawny hue, quite reddish at the core, with a tawnier/yellower penumbra.  With caramelised oranges to the nose and citrusy palate, it’s still fruity and elegant with toasted almonds, apricot jam and bourbon vanilla layers. Again, very silky with cassia bark and a burnish of nutty oak to the back palate.  It is comprised of wines between 12- 25 years’ old.  138g/l Residual Sugar. 20%

Vasques de Carvalho 30 Years Old Tawny Port – deep amber hue, very bright, with a nuttier nose than the 20 Year Old, yet still with no shortage of dried fruits – apricot, dried fig, dates, marmalade, honeycake, marzipan and hints of clove and cassia bark.  In the mouth it reveals dense, concentrated panforte layers of dried fig, nuts, spice and citrus peel, as well as milk chocolate orange and thick cut marmalade.  Attractive wood notes (that burnish of nutty oak, here less almondy, more walnut) are well-integrated, as is its super-smooth spirit, making for a long, smooth, intense but well balanced finish.  Comprised of wines between 18- 40 years’ old.  131g/l Residual Sugar. 20%

Vasques de Carvalho 40 Years Old Tawny Port – comprised of wines aged between 25 and 135 years’ old and boy does it show!  The “40 Year Old” is a deep amber core with a rim of saffron fading to olive green.  High class patisserie notes abound on a super-complex nose and palate, rich with honey, buttery, egg-yolk rich Madeleine, almond financier and denser panforte.  Subtly attenuating iodine and vinagrinho notes bring tension, pace and lift – lovely energy.  With no sign of drying out, the finish is wonderfully persistent, very nutty and very citrusy with marmalade, candied orange peel, even caramelised oranges (a testament to its freshness).  A cognac fine finish lingers for the longest time. Delicious.  144g/l Residual Sugar. 20%

Contacts
Vasques Carvalho
Av. Dr. Antão de Carvalho n. 43
5050-224 Peso da Régua
Douro, PORTUGAL
Mobile: (+351) 915 815 830
Tel: (+351) 254 324  263
Fax: (+351) 254 324 263
E-mail: vasquescarvalho43@gmail.com
Website: vasquesdecarvalho.com

When Blend met Sip & Savour & Fire met Water

Text Sarah Ahmed

Blend is a brilliant name for a Portuguese wine magazine. Why? Because the Portuguese are the masters of blending – whether it’s different grape varieties or vintages. It helps that, with 250 plus native grape varieties, these vinous artists have a rich palette of aromas, flavours and textures from which to draw.

Blend-All-About-Wine-Sip-and-Savour-Menu blend When Blend met Sip & Savour & Fire met Water Blend All About Wine Sip and Savour Menu

Sixtyone Menu for the Event – Photo by Sip & Savour | All Rights Reserved

Of course another variable is terroir, a topic which I enjoyed placing under the microscope at a Sip & Savour tasting earlier this month focused on the Douro and Vinho Verde. When you think about classic Vinho Verde wine – fresh, white, light, low alcohol – it is remarkable to think that this region’s neighbor, the Douro, produces one of the world’s most famous fortified wines – rich, red and robust Ports! Fire to the Vinho Verde’s water.

I had fun contrasting six benchmark examples from these northern regions. As you might expect, the Vinho Verdes were white and the Douro duo were (at least intended both to be) red – no surprises there. But I also played around with perceptions as I took the chance to highlight not just the freshness but also the intensity of top Vinho Verde and the elegance of the Douro reds, even if they came from the Douro Superior, theoretically its hottest, driest sub-region. The surprises continued with our dessert wine, a Moscatel do Douro, which proved that the Douro can do elegant fortifieds too.

Returning to my fire and water analogy, water is a big fat clue to a major point of difference between these two neighbouring regions. Located alongside the Atlantic and criss-crossed by rivers which funnel the Atlantic influence inland, Vinho Verde is wetter and cooler than the land-locked Douro. You have to travel some 100km inland from Oporto to reach the Douro region, which then stretches another 100km further inland, snaking along the Douro river, right up to the Spanish border.

While Vinho Verde has a maritime influenced climate (especially those parts nearest the coast), the Douro is shielded from the brunt of Atlantic weather by the Marão mountain range. Located betwixt the Douro and Vinho Verde and rising to 1,415m above sea level, the Marão is Portugal’s sixth highest mountain range. Its sheer height and mass has a rain-shadow effect and helps the Douro to keep the Atlantic storms at bay.

The Douro’s inland location also results in a continental climate which is characterized by extremes of temperature. As one winemaker vividly expressed it, the Douro has ‘nine months of winter and three months of hell.’ Hell, we’re back to fire, but not hell, fire and damnation! Autumn temperatures may soar to 40 degrees plus (which is perfect for Port and red winemaking), but the good news is that those temperature extremes occur on a daily and not just seasonal basis. In the autumn, even if it’s 40 degrees in the daytime, the temperature drops significantly at night.

What’s more, elevation comes into play. Remember, we’ve ascended the Marão mountain range into the Douro – some might say into heaven, not hell! And because the Douro is itself mountainous, grapes are grown at altitudes ranging between 100m (by the river) to up to 900m above sea level and facing every which way – north, south, east and west. Given that temperatures can drop by up to one degree centigrade for every 100m you climb, plus aspect affects exposure to sunshine and wind which in turn impact on the ripening process, the Douro can make elegant red and white wines, as well as robust Ports and red wines. It was to elegance that I looked for this Sip & Savour tasting in the height of summer.

Blend-All-About-Wine-Sip-and-Savour-Lunch-Sixtyone-Restaurant blend When Blend met Sip & Savour & Fire met Water Blend All About Wine Sip and Savour Lunch Sixtyone Restaurant

Sixtyone Restaurant – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

Naturally, food writer Sip & Savour’s Amber Dalton came up with a fine foodie foil for the wines in the shape of Sixtyone Restaurant. Chef/Patron Arnaud Stevens tempers big bold flavours with his elegant touch. He told us his menu for this tasting was very much informed by matching the acidity – the freshness – of the Portuguese wines.

Which brings me to our first example, our refreshing, intensely mineral aperitif, Quinta do Ameal Loureiro 2013. I had deliberately selected single varietal, sub-regional Vinho Verdes because they brilliantly kick into touch any lingering stereo-types about Vinho Verde being dilute and too acidic. Based in Nogueira in the heart of the sub-region of Lima where the Loureiro grape thrives, Quinta do Ameal has long produced the region’s benchmark example.

Blend-All-About-Wine-Sip-and-Savour-Lunch-Quinta-do-Ameal blend When Blend met Sip & Savour & Fire met Water Blend All About Wine Sip and Savour Lunch Quinta do Ameal

Quinta do Ameal – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

The secret to Ameal’s success? Aside from being in the right spot (Lima, on south-facing slopes), vaulting ambition helps. Owner Pedro Aruajo is descended from Adriano Ramos Pinto of Port fame and has plainly brought his great grand-father’s magic touch to Ameal. So when it comes to the raw material, Aruajo has slashed yields in order to ensure that his organically grown grapes are healthy and concentrated in aroma and flavour. In the winery, he has employed none other than Vinho Verde guru Anselmo Mendes to ensure that the grapes’ lively lime and celery salt aromas and flavours and cool minerality are preserved in the glass. Well received, it was the perfect tonic on such a hot and humid London day.

Blend-All-About-Wine-Sip-and-Savour-Lunch-Octupus-Carpaccio blend When Blend met Sip & Savour & Fire met Water Blend All About Wine Sip and Savour Lunch Octupus Carpaccio

Octopus Carpaccio – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

For the Vinho Verde pair which we enjoyed with this stunning starter of octopus carpaccio, red pepper, wood sorrel, sesame, I looked for even more intensity and concentration. So it made sense to show off Vinho Verde’s warmest, driest sub-region, Monção e Melgaço, the epicentre of Portugal’s flagship white grape, Alvarinho. What’s more, two of its greatest exponents, Quinta do Soalheiro and Anselmo Mendes.

Though you might expect it to be cooler than Lima to the south, Monção e Melgaço is located well inland, where the land starts to rise and the topography helps to shelter the vineyards from Atlantic influence. So the climate is a little more continental, which explains why the grapes attain good ripeness (hotter days), yet also have good acidity (nights are significantly cooler). It makes for Vinho Verde’s most powerfully fruity yet fresh, long-lived wines; my audience was struck by the relative delicacy and minerality of the Loureiro compared with the two Alvarinhos.

As for which of the pair most caught their fancy, at Sip & Savour events we always ask which wine people most preferred on its own and which with the food. In this case, the answer was the same. Quinta do Soalheiro Primeiras Vinhas Alvarinho 2013 just pipped Anselmo Mendes Contacto Alvarinho 2014 on both counts. Made from the oldest vines at the Cerdeira family’s organically cultivated estate (planted in 1974, they were Melgaço’s first) and with a barrel-fermented component (15%), Quinta do Soalheiro Primeiras Vinhas 2013 had greater complexity. Its subtle savoury nuances chimed brilliantly well with the sherry vinegar, sesame oil and pine nuts in the octopus’ marinade. But it was a close call. I also loved the honeysuckle perfume and bounteous peach and apricot fruit of the bolder Contacto from lower vineyards closer to the Minho river in Monção. (Incidentally, this wine takes its name from the fact that the crushed grapes stay in contact with skins for a short period prior to fermentation. Why? Because the skins harbour the most aroma and flavor compounds and can add a touch of texture to the wine too).

Blend-All-About-Wine-Sip-and-Savour-Lunch-Main-Course blend When Blend met Sip & Savour & Fire met Water Blend All About Wine Sip and Savour Lunch Main Course

Roasted Guinea Fowl – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

For our main course of roasted guinea fowl, coco beans, tomatoes, peas, black olive, lime, I’d selected two Douro reds, Casa Ferreirinha Vinha Grande Tinto and Conceito Contraste Vinho Tinto. Both were from the elegant 2012 vintage and made by winemakers who place great emphasis on freshness and balance.

At Casa Ferreirinha (which makes iconic Douro red Barca Velha) Luis Sottomayor follows the tradition of sourcing grapes from different altitudes for elegant balance. It helps that Sogrape (Casa Ferreirinha’s owner) has two Douro Superior estates – Quinta da Leda at 150m-400m and Quinta do Sairrão which rises to over 600m. As for Rita Ferreira Marques, she contends that the freshness of Conceito’s wines stems from the Teja Valley being the Douro’s coolest spot. Not just because of elevation (her vineyards are located at 300-450m), but also because of the Teja Valley’s distance from the tempering influence of the Douro river. It was a quality (freshness) that I was able to demonstrate more emphatically than I’d originally intended when it transpired that her importer had sent Contraste Branco (white), not the red!

The inadvertent pairing of the main course with a white and red wine brought to mind João Pires’ wise words about taking your cue from the colour of the dish. Not for nothing is he a Master Sommelier! Like many Portuguese whites, Conceito Contraste Branco is not overtly fruity and, with its vegetal notes, it performed a harmonious duet with the thyme, rosemary and tomato notes in the dish as well as the protein; its acidity cut through the creamy saucing too. Most preferred it with the guinea fowl. On the other hand, with its bright still very primary fruit, most people preferred the Casa Ferreirinha Vinha Grande Tinto on its own. The fruit was a little too overwhelming for the delicate flavours and creamy texture of this dish.

Blend-All-About-Wine-Sip-and-Savour-Lunch-Desert blend When Blend met Sip & Savour & Fire met Water Blend All About Wine Sip and Savour Lunch Desert

The Dessert – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

You need only look at this dessert to put on weight! Suffice to say, it would be difficult to find a wine to overwhelm salt caramel chocolate tart with caramel marshmallow and salt caramel ice cream. Rather, the challenge might be to find a wine to stand up to it, so a fortified wine made sense. But if the dessert and dessert wine were to be pronounced the perfect match (as indeed they were), then the wine had to have sufficient freshness to cut through the richness of the dish and cleanse the palate after each (heavenly) mouthful. Step forward Moscatel do Douro, the Douro’s lesser known fortified wine, not to mention Portugal’s lesser known fortified Moscatel (Moscatel de Setubal being of higher profile).

Blend-All-About-Wine-Sip-and-Savour-Quinta-do-Portal blend When Blend met Sip & Savour & Fire met Water Blend All About Wine Sip and Savour Quinta do Portal

Quinta do Portal – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

The Douro’s Moscatels are made from Moscatel Galego, a.k.a. Muscat à Petits Grains, a different, more delicate variety to Moscatel de Setubal. Our example, Quinta do Portal Moscatel do Douro Reserva 2004, also comes from the Mansilha Branco family’s much higher, cooler, acidity preserving vineyards in Favaios at 600m at the northern end of the Pinhão Valley. Not only did it have the freshness to bring balance to the ensemble (especially when served chilled) but, having been aged for several years in wood (none new), it also had the depth of flavor and complexity to marry with the chocolate tart and all its intricate, textural accompaniments. So well that the restaurant was bathed in a reverential silence for minutes! What a perfect ending.

When Blend met Sip & Savour & Fire met Water

Text Sarah Ahmed

Blend is a brilliant name for a Portuguese wine magazine. Why? Because the Portuguese are the masters of blending – whether it’s different grape varieties or vintages. It helps that, with 250 plus native grape varieties, these vinous artists have a rich palette of aromas, flavours and textures from which to draw.

Blend-All-About-Wine-Sip-and-Savour-Menu blend When Blend met Sip & Savour & Fire met Water Blend All About Wine Sip and Savour Menu

Sixtyone Menu for the Event – Photo by Sip & Savour | All Rights Reserved

Of course another variable is terroir, a topic which I enjoyed placing under the microscope at a Sip & Savour tasting earlier this month focused on the Douro and Vinho Verde. When you think about classic Vinho Verde wine – fresh, white, light, low alcohol – it is remarkable to think that this region’s neighbor, the Douro, produces one of the world’s most famous fortified wines – rich, red and robust Ports! Fire to the Vinho Verde’s water.

I had fun contrasting six benchmark examples from these northern regions. As you might expect, the Vinho Verdes were white and the Douro duo were (at least intended both to be) red – no surprises there. But I also played around with perceptions as I took the chance to highlight not just the freshness but also the intensity of top Vinho Verde and the elegance of the Douro reds, even if they came from the Douro Superior, theoretically its hottest, driest sub-region. The surprises continued with our dessert wine, a Moscatel do Douro, which proved that the Douro can do elegant fortifieds too.

Returning to my fire and water analogy, water is a big fat clue to a major point of difference between these two neighbouring regions. Located alongside the Atlantic and criss-crossed by rivers which funnel the Atlantic influence inland, Vinho Verde is wetter and cooler than the land-locked Douro. You have to travel some 100km inland from Oporto to reach the Douro region, which then stretches another 100km further inland, snaking along the Douro river, right up to the Spanish border.

While Vinho Verde has a maritime influenced climate (especially those parts nearest the coast), the Douro is shielded from the brunt of Atlantic weather by the Marão mountain range. Located betwixt the Douro and Vinho Verde and rising to 1,415m above sea level, the Marão is Portugal’s sixth highest mountain range. Its sheer height and mass has a rain-shadow effect and helps the Douro to keep the Atlantic storms at bay.

The Douro’s inland location also results in a continental climate which is characterized by extremes of temperature. As one winemaker vividly expressed it, the Douro has ‘nine months of winter and three months of hell.’ Hell, we’re back to fire, but not hell, fire and damnation! Autumn temperatures may soar to 40 degrees plus (which is perfect for Port and red winemaking), but the good news is that those temperature extremes occur on a daily and not just seasonal basis. In the autumn, even if it’s 40 degrees in the daytime, the temperature drops significantly at night.

What’s more, elevation comes into play. Remember, we’ve ascended the Marão mountain range into the Douro – some might say into heaven, not hell! And because the Douro is itself mountainous, grapes are grown at altitudes ranging between 100m (by the river) to up to 900m above sea level and facing every which way – north, south, east and west. Given that temperatures can drop by up to one degree centigrade for every 100m you climb, plus aspect affects exposure to sunshine and wind which in turn impact on the ripening process, the Douro can make elegant red and white wines, as well as robust Ports and red wines. It was to elegance that I looked for this Sip & Savour tasting in the height of summer.

Blend-All-About-Wine-Sip-and-Savour-Lunch-Sixtyone-Restaurant blend When Blend met Sip & Savour & Fire met Water Blend All About Wine Sip and Savour Lunch Sixtyone Restaurant

Sixtyone Restaurant – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

Naturally, food writer Sip & Savour’s Amber Dalton came up with a fine foodie foil for the wines in the shape of Sixtyone Restaurant. Chef/Patron Arnaud Stevens tempers big bold flavours with his elegant touch. He told us his menu for this tasting was very much informed by matching the acidity – the freshness – of the Portuguese wines.

Which brings me to our first example, our refreshing, intensely mineral aperitif, Quinta do Ameal Loureiro 2013. I had deliberately selected single varietal, sub-regional Vinho Verdes because they brilliantly kick into touch any lingering stereo-types about Vinho Verde being dilute and too acidic. Based in Nogueira in the heart of the sub-region of Lima where the Loureiro grape thrives, Quinta do Ameal has long produced the region’s benchmark example.

Blend-All-About-Wine-Sip-and-Savour-Lunch-Quinta-do-Ameal blend When Blend met Sip & Savour & Fire met Water Blend All About Wine Sip and Savour Lunch Quinta do Ameal

Quinta do Ameal – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

The secret to Ameal’s success? Aside from being in the right spot (Lima, on south-facing slopes), vaulting ambition helps. Owner Pedro Aruajo is descended from Adriano Ramos Pinto of Port fame and has plainly brought his great grand-father’s magic touch to Ameal. So when it comes to the raw material, Aruajo has slashed yields in order to ensure that his organically grown grapes are healthy and concentrated in aroma and flavour. In the winery, he has employed none other than Vinho Verde guru Anselmo Mendes to ensure that the grapes’ lively lime and celery salt aromas and flavours and cool minerality are preserved in the glass. Well received, it was the perfect tonic on such a hot and humid London day.

Blend-All-About-Wine-Sip-and-Savour-Lunch-Octupus-Carpaccio blend When Blend met Sip & Savour & Fire met Water Blend All About Wine Sip and Savour Lunch Octupus Carpaccio

Octopus Carpaccio – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

For the Vinho Verde pair which we enjoyed with this stunning starter of octopus carpaccio, red pepper, wood sorrel, sesame, I looked for even more intensity and concentration. So it made sense to show off Vinho Verde’s warmest, driest sub-region, Monção e Melgaço, the epicentre of Portugal’s flagship white grape, Alvarinho. What’s more, two of its greatest exponents, Quinta do Soalheiro and Anselmo Mendes.

Though you might expect it to be cooler than Lima to the south, Monção e Melgaço is located well inland, where the land starts to rise and the topography helps to shelter the vineyards from Atlantic influence. So the climate is a little more continental, which explains why the grapes attain good ripeness (hotter days), yet also have good acidity (nights are significantly cooler). It makes for Vinho Verde’s most powerfully fruity yet fresh, long-lived wines; my audience was struck by the relative delicacy and minerality of the Loureiro compared with the two Alvarinhos.

As for which of the pair most caught their fancy, at Sip & Savour events we always ask which wine people most preferred on its own and which with the food. In this case, the answer was the same. Quinta do Soalheiro Primeiras Vinhas Alvarinho 2013 just pipped Anselmo Mendes Contacto Alvarinho 2014 on both counts. Made from the oldest vines at the Cerdeira family’s organically cultivated estate (planted in 1974, they were Melgaço’s first) and with a barrel-fermented component (15%), Quinta do Soalheiro Primeiras Vinhas 2013 had greater complexity. Its subtle savoury nuances chimed brilliantly well with the sherry vinegar, sesame oil and pine nuts in the octopus’ marinade. But it was a close call. I also loved the honeysuckle perfume and bounteous peach and apricot fruit of the bolder Contacto from lower vineyards closer to the Minho river in Monção. (Incidentally, this wine takes its name from the fact that the crushed grapes stay in contact with skins for a short period prior to fermentation. Why? Because the skins harbour the most aroma and flavor compounds and can add a touch of texture to the wine too).

Blend-All-About-Wine-Sip-and-Savour-Lunch-Main-Course blend When Blend met Sip & Savour & Fire met Water Blend All About Wine Sip and Savour Lunch Main Course

Roasted Guinea Fowl – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

For our main course of roasted guinea fowl, coco beans, tomatoes, peas, black olive, lime, I’d selected two Douro reds, Casa Ferreirinha Vinha Grande Tinto and Conceito Contraste Vinho Tinto. Both were from the elegant 2012 vintage and made by winemakers who place great emphasis on freshness and balance.

At Casa Ferreirinha (which makes iconic Douro red Barca Velha) Luis Sottomayor follows the tradition of sourcing grapes from different altitudes for elegant balance. It helps that Sogrape (Casa Ferreirinha’s owner) has two Douro Superior estates – Quinta da Leda at 150m-400m and Quinta do Sairrão which rises to over 600m. As for Rita Ferreira Marques, she contends that the freshness of Conceito’s wines stems from the Teja Valley being the Douro’s coolest spot. Not just because of elevation (her vineyards are located at 300-450m), but also because of the Teja Valley’s distance from the tempering influence of the Douro river. It was a quality (freshness) that I was able to demonstrate more emphatically than I’d originally intended when it transpired that her importer had sent Contraste Branco (white), not the red!

The inadvertent pairing of the main course with a white and red wine brought to mind João Pires’ wise words about taking your cue from the colour of the dish. Not for nothing is he a Master Sommelier! Like many Portuguese whites, Conceito Contraste Branco is not overtly fruity and, with its vegetal notes, it performed a harmonious duet with the thyme, rosemary and tomato notes in the dish as well as the protein; its acidity cut through the creamy saucing too. Most preferred it with the guinea fowl. On the other hand, with its bright still very primary fruit, most people preferred the Casa Ferreirinha Vinha Grande Tinto on its own. The fruit was a little too overwhelming for the delicate flavours and creamy texture of this dish.

Blend-All-About-Wine-Sip-and-Savour-Lunch-Desert blend When Blend met Sip & Savour & Fire met Water Blend All About Wine Sip and Savour Lunch Desert

The Dessert – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

You need only look at this dessert to put on weight! Suffice to say, it would be difficult to find a wine to overwhelm salt caramel chocolate tart with caramel marshmallow and salt caramel ice cream. Rather, the challenge might be to find a wine to stand up to it, so a fortified wine made sense. But if the dessert and dessert wine were to be pronounced the perfect match (as indeed they were), then the wine had to have sufficient freshness to cut through the richness of the dish and cleanse the palate after each (heavenly) mouthful. Step forward Moscatel do Douro, the Douro’s lesser known fortified wine, not to mention Portugal’s lesser known fortified Moscatel (Moscatel de Setubal being of higher profile).

Blend-All-About-Wine-Sip-and-Savour-Quinta-do-Portal blend When Blend met Sip & Savour & Fire met Water Blend All About Wine Sip and Savour Quinta do Portal

Quinta do Portal – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

The Douro’s Moscatels are made from Moscatel Galego, a.k.a. Muscat à Petits Grains, a different, more delicate variety to Moscatel de Setubal. Our example, Quinta do Portal Moscatel do Douro Reserva 2004, also comes from the Mansilha Branco family’s much higher, cooler, acidity preserving vineyards in Favaios at 600m at the northern end of the Pinhão Valley. Not only did it have the freshness to bring balance to the ensemble (especially when served chilled) but, having been aged for several years in wood (none new), it also had the depth of flavor and complexity to marry with the chocolate tart and all its intricate, textural accompaniments. So well that the restaurant was bathed in a reverential silence for minutes! What a perfect ending.

A Taste of Alentejo at London’s New Portal to Portugal

Text Sarah Ahmed

It was a thrill to present a tasting on behalf of the Alentejo Wine Commission at one of London’s hottest new restaurants, Taberna do Mercado.  And even more exciting that, not only is its chef/patron Portuguese, so is the food and wine. Which may sound a strange thing to say but, thus far, Nuno Mendes’ renown has rested on the eclectic, highly innovative dishes of his previous restaurant, Michelin-starred Viajante, now his American accented menu at celeb hang out Chiltern Firehouse (where he is Head Chef).

Blend-All-About-Wine-Taberna-do-Mercado-Tasting-Nuno-Mendes alentejo A Taste of Alentejo at London's New Portal to Portugal Blend All About Wine Taberna do Mercado Tasting Nuno Mendes

Nuno Mendes – Photo by Charmaine Grieger | All Rights Reserved

In an interview with Mendes a couple of years ago, he let slip about his plans to open “a very casual, fun, modern but rustic Portuguese restaurant in London.” But there was a problem.  He explained, despite Portugal’s “wealth of amazing unique products,” it was hard to source them,  Why?  He said because, “production is very limited in quantity and second very few artisan producers see the potential outside the local market to expand their project.”

Fully expecting him to have overcome these challenges, I asked him what had changed since we last spoke. Mendes asked, “did I want the nice answer or the true answer?”  Naturally, I said the truth!  Admitting “it makes me sad,” Mendes remains palpably frustrated that, in the UK, sourcing the very best Portuguese products of which he can be “super-proud” has still proved elusive. He observed, UK-based Portuguese-owned importers are “mostly used to supplying the local ex-pat community” (as opposed to high-end restaurants with demanding ‘foodie’ customers).  It reminds me of a point he made when we first met and emphasised how important it was in his field “to be aware of what’s happening in the food and wine world and to find a way to fit it in other people’s realities.” It’s why, he adds, “I had to walk away” from Portugal when he opened Viajante – the range of products did not fit with his Michelin-starred reality. It was “not amazing,” nor could he count on consistency of supply.

Blend-All-About-Wine-Taberna-do-Mercado-Tasting alentejo A Taste of Alentejo at London's New Portal to Portugal Blend All About Wine Taberna do Mercado Tasting

Taberna do Mercado – Photo by Charmaine Grieger | All Rights Reserved

The good news?  Where he sees Taberna do Mercado as “the portal to tap into Portugal’s great resources,” he tells me “I’m not giving up.”   He may be softly spoken and modest of demeanour, but there’s a steely determination in Mendes’ eyes when he reveals his solution. Pointing out “I have many more connections than the importers based here,” (not to mention a Michelin-starred chef’s fastidiousness about sourcing the very best), he plans to set up his own export/import business. After all, his reputation depends on it. And the stakes are high where, given supply issues, he believes it’s premature for Portuguese food to be touted as the next big thing as The Daily Telegraph recently suggested. It is why he asserts, “now is where the research comes in…we can’t relax, we have to push ourselves and bring in the best…we have to evolve”. There is no room for complacency.

Shortly after the tasting, I paused to reflect on Mendes’ comments in relation to Portuguese wine when a journalist asked me why it has yet to really hit the big time. I am pleased to report that the UK has been rather better served by its wine importers, especially Portuguese specialists Raymond Reynolds and Oakley Wine Agencies who have helped their producer clients navigate the highly competitive UK market with aplomb. But if, like Mendes, I am to be Portugal’s critical friend, the truth is that far too many Portuguese producers have yet to find a way to fit into the realities of the UK market, which is widely acknowledged as the most competitive in the world. What’s more, ‘cellar palate’ (becoming too habituated to your own wines, including flaws) can be a problem. It’s why the most successful Portuguese winemakers themselves keep visiting the UK to understand where their wines best fit (and to benchmark them against the competition). It also helps to ensure that they are still seen and heard in our crowded, noisy marketplace.

Happily, all eight producers whose wines I showed in my master-classes at Taberna do Mercado are represented in the UK. But there is still work to be done where Alentejo has forged it reputation in the UK on a bedrock of great value, fruity, approachable reds.  The next step is to raise the profile and appreciation of its premium, terroir-driven red and white wines among fine wine lovers (white wines now represent around 20% of wines from Alentejo). It was a challenge to which I gladly rose.

Blend-All-About-Wine-Taberna-do-Mercado-Tasting-Nuno-Mendes-Sarah-Ahmed Alentejo alentejo A Taste of Alentejo at London's New Portal to Portugal Blend All About Wine Taberna do Mercado Tasting Nuno Mendes Sarah Ahmed

Me and Nuno Mendes talk Alentejo wine & food – Photo by Charmaine Grieger | All Rights Reserved

My selection of wines was accompanied by Mendes’ contemporary take on petiscos (how’s that for fitting them into the realities of the UK market) and followed by an excellent tasting of Alentejo olive oils presented by Teresa Zacarias of Casa do Azeite. Here are my notes on the wines, together with some background on what individuates this diverse selection in terms of terroir and winemaking.  As you’ll see, the Alentejo is not as flat or unremittingly hot as regional stereo-types would have you believe. What’s more, all the grapes were hand-picked.

Herdade do Rocim Olho de Mocho Reserva Branco 2013 (VR Alentejano)

Terroir: this single varietal Antão Vaz comes from Vidigueira, one of Alentejo’s eight DOC sub-regions.  Despite being the southernmost, it has a long tradition of producing white wines. Why?  It’s all to do with the lie of the land, specifically, the Vidigueira fault, a 50km west-facing escarpment known as the Serra do Mendro which marks the border between the Upper and Lower Alentejo.  Rising to 420m it traps cool and humid Atlantic winds which cool the region with overnight fogs.  Cold air also descends from the Serra do Mendro at night.  What’s more, when southern winds bring clouds, the escarpment causes a cloudburst (rainfall). For winemaker Catarina Vieira, this is what accounts for Vidigueira’s “very mineral, elegant and fresh wines that can age very well.” She believes that the sandy soils also enhance the minerality of her Antão Vaz, which is sourced from her best, dry grown, low cropping 24 year old vines.

Winemaking: Hand-picked early (on 3rd & 4th September) to preserve freshness (no acidification is required), the wine fermented in new 300 litre French oak barrels for around 20 days.  It was then taken off lees and aged in barrel for five months. Meanwhile, the fine lees were aged for two months in second use barrels with daily batonnage for a month or so, then added back to the wine.  For Vieira, this work with the fine lees is very important for the minerality, freshness and for the aging potential of this wine.”

Tasting note: thanks to the work with the lees it exhibits struck match/flinty notes to nose and lemony palate, with hints of green olive, under-ripe pineapple and dried pear as it opens up. A long, firm, mineral finish with racy, grapefruity acidity sustained my sample bottle of this wine well into day three. 13.5%

Blend-All-About-Wine-Taberna-do-Mercado-Tasting-House-Canned-Fish alentejo A Taste of Alentejo at London's New Portal to Portugal Blend All About Wine Taberna do Mercado Tasting House Canned Fish

House-canned fish Nuno Mendes style – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

Cartuxa Pêra Manca Branco 2012 (DOC Alentejo)

Terroir: this blend of 62% Antão Vaz and 38% Arinto comes from Évora, another DOC sub-region, this time in the Alto/upper Alentejo.  The fruit was sourced from three parcels of Cartuxa’s oldest vineyards on slopes which rise to 300 metres above sea level. Planted in 1980 on brown granitic soils, the vines were dry grown.

Winemaking: for this fuller-bodied, more traditionally-styled white, the fruit was hand-picked later and in three stages for complexity (12, 18 & 19 September). Following de-stemming and crushing, a portion of the grapes was left in contact with the skins prior to fermentation.  Sixty-seven percent of the wine was fermented and aged on the lees for 12 months in French oak barrels (60% new) with batonnage for body, complexity and ageing potential. The balance was aged in stainless steel (to enhance fruitiness) with lots of batonnage (for body).  There was no acidification.

Tasting note: a rich, beeswaxy nose with stone fruits, especially apricot close to the kernel, which notes follow through on a palate with a pronounced nuttiness (fresh marzipan/calisson) and vanillin oak. Though weighty, a ripe but zesty backbone of citrus acidity brings balance and teases out a long, leesy, savoury finish with lemon and orange peel nuances. A powerful wine, which often puts me in mind of an Hermitage from the Northern Rhône, France.  13.5%

Monte da Ravasqueira MR Premium Rosé 2013(VR Alentejano)

Terroir: this rosé made from 100% Touriga Nacional is from Arraiolos in the Évora district of Alto Alentejo.  For winemaker Pedro Pereira, the key to the freshness of Monte da Ravasqueira’s range lies in the estate’s very pronounced diurnal temperature variation.  Even in the hottest months of July and August when temperatures might hit 40 degrees centigrade, at night the temperature can fall below 10 degrees. Cool nights help the grapes to retain acidity better; it’s good for aromatics and structure too. Gonçalves attributes this strong diurnal to the amphitheatre-like topography of the vineyard (all 45 hectares are planted on slopes rising to 270m), together with the surrounding forest and dams. Though supplemental irrigation is required, clay-limestone soils have good moisture retention while granite outcrops seem to enhance minerality/freshness, as in the Dão.

Winemaking: where Gonçalves’ style revolves around “freshness + complexity (a matrix of flavours) + varietal character + intensity + concentration,” he sourced fruit from five different parcels (by row orientation-exposure, soil type and canopy management) and hand-harvested the grapes on different days, ranging from 8 September to 27 September. The grapes were kept in refrigerated containers between two to 20 days at two degrees for concentration and to enhance aromatic potential and fruit. Two parcels were pressed directly to new French oak barrels and naturally fermented with batonnage on full solids.  The other three were first settled and inoculated with yeast prior to transfer to new French oak barrels on the second day of fermentation. All five parcels were aged in barrel on the lees for six months with light batonnage for the first 2 months.

Tasting note: Touriga Nacional seems to lend itself well to rosé wines and this is an unusual example, savoury yet fruity, round, yet fresh. It’s thoroughly delicious with savoury, creamy lees, delicate wild strawberries, strawberry shortbread and refreshing peach tea. Mineral acidity brings freshness and persistence to its lingering finish.  13%

Susana Esteban Aventura Tinto 2013 (VR Alentejano)

Terroir: this, my first red, is from the Alto/Upper Alentejo but is a blend of DOC sub-regions.  Esteban sources the Aragonês and Touriga Nacional (40% and 20% of the blend respectively) from a dry grown 15 year old vineyard in Évora at 300m on clay/limestone soils. The balance is a mix of varieties from a dry grown 30 year old field blend vineyard in Portalegre, the Alto Alentejo’s northernmost sub-region. It’s not just the northerly location which accounts for Portalegre being Alentejo’s coolest, wettest area. The Serra de São Mamede mountain – at over 1000m, the highest point in southern Portugal – provides serious elevation (up to 800m) and poor granitic soils. Where Esteban’s aim is “to make a fresh wine, with character but appealing at the same time,” she looks to Portalegre for freshness and austerity, while Évora provides the heat which the winemaker believes Touriga Nacional and Aragones need to show their potential (though she emphasises “I have attention to pick with only 13 or 13% alcohol).

Winemaking: the grapes are hand-picked and naturally fermented (with no acidification) in small stainless steel temperature controlled lagares. I very much like the fact that Esteban has put the emphasis squarely on the fruit and freshness – this wine is unoaked.

Tasting note: wonderful vibrancy and texture (think crushed velvet) to its pure, freshly picked and puréed (so it feels) fruits of the forest. Smooth tannins and sappy acidity reinforce the charming immediacy of this youthful red. Lovely.  13.5%

Blend-All-About-Wine-Taberna-do-Mercado-Tasting-Casa-do-Porco-Preto alentejo A Taste of Alentejo at London's New Portal to Portugal Blend All About Wine Taberna do Mercado Tasting Casa do Porco Preto

Casa do Porco Preto, Alentejo at Taberna do Mercado – Photo by Charmaine Grieger | All Rights Reserved

Herdade de São  Miguel Reserva 2012 (VR Alentejano)

Terroir: Herdade de São  Miguel is located in the Redondo sub-region (a DOC) of the Alto/Upper Alentejo. For Alexandre Relvas junior the Serra d’Ossa hills (which rise to 650 metres) shelter Redondo’s vineyards from northerly and easterly winds and furnish cold, dry winters to offset the hot, sun-drenched summers.  His vineyard is located at 400m on low yielding clay/schist soils which produce concentrated, small berries. This wine is a blend of 80% Alicante Bouschet, 15% Aragonez and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon from 13 year old vines.

Winemaking: hand harvested fruit is totally de-stemmed and undergoes a 48 hour cold soak prior to fermentation in open stainless steel lagares with automatic pigeurs for softer extraction, a bit of natural oxidation too “to help fix colour and tannins from the beginning” says Relvas. It was aged for 12 months in 400 litre French oak barrels (50% new).

Tasting note: an intense nose of blackcurrant and bramble fruit with a touch of vanillin oak and dusty schist undertones, which follow through on a succulent palate with lovely freshness. Though only five percent of the blend, the Cabernet is quite evident in flavour profile (blackcurrant with a hint of mint) and fine, gravelly, mineral tannins. It does not have the concentration or complexity of the (more expensive) wines which followed, but it’s well balanced and persistent. Very well made, indeed wears its 15% abv lightly.

Quinta do Mouro Touriga Nacional 2010 (VR Alentejano)

Terroir: This single varietal Touriga Nacional is from Estremoz in the Borba sub-region (a DOC) of the Alto/Upper Alentejo.  It is north of Redondo and just north of the Serra d’Ossa, which offers a little protection from the warm south winds.  Where Quinta do Mouro is at 420m, elevation also tempers the climate, as do plunging night-time temperatures which, says winemaker Luis Louro, can be 20 degrees lower than in the day “especially at the later stages of maturation, and fogs are common.” Schist soils and dry-farmed vineyards also account for the very structured, ageworthy and characterful style of Mouro’s reds. Sourced from “a very good” Douro vineyard in 1998, the Touriga Nacional was grafted onto Castelão vines which had been planted in 1989.

Winemaking: hand-harvested fruit was partially de-stemmed, leaving around 10% whole bunch for a bit more structure and fresher flavours.  The grapes were foot-trodden in lagares and underwent a two day cold soak prior to starting fermentation. It finished fermenting in stainless steel tanks with temperature control and, after pressing, was aged for 12 months in new 300 litre French oak barrels.

Tasting note: a deep, opaque plum hue with an exotic bergamot perfume which provides lift to a concentrated raspberry and plum, vanillin-edged palate together with lively peppery whole bunch notes, dried sage and mint. Textured suede-like tannins cleave the flavours to the palate, amplifying its intensity and back palate resonance.  Powerful, a little wild even, yet balanced. A charismatic single varietal Touriga. 14%

João Portugal Ramos Marquês de Borba Reserva 2012 (DOC Alentejo)

Terroir: also from Estremoz, this blend of 30% Trincadeira, 30% Aragones, 25% Alicante Bouschet and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon comes from João Portugal Ramos’ original vineyard.  The vines, planted in 1989, are located around his house and have  been the source of this wine since it was first made in 1997. Located at 350m on very old schist

Winemaking: hand harvested grapes are picking grapes at night and early in the morning.  The grapes are partially de-stemmed (50% whole bunch) and start co-fermenting (naturally) in marble lagares with foot treading. For Ramos the advantages of the lagares include a higher area of contact between the liquid and the solid part of the must, gentle homogenisation of the must (because a thinner cap is formed compared to the normal tanks) and the aesthetics of the local marble (which, incidentally Mendes has used for his table tops at Taberna do Mercado). The final third of the fermentation is completed in stainless steel vats with the benefit of temperature control.  The post-ferment maceration usually lasts about two weeks. The wine is then matured for 18 months in French 225 litre oak barrels (two thirds of which are new).

Tasting note: a very polished red with tobacco and cigar box to nose and palate. Red fruits dominate the attack while the Cabernet becomes more assertive going through, bringing well-defined blackcurrant fruit and a spray coating of fine but plentiful powdery tannins which build in the mouth. Dry, firm, focused and very fine with excellent balancing freshness. The tightest of the reds, it has great ageing potential. 14.5%

Herdade do Mouchão 2010 (VR Alentejano)

Terroir: this blend of around 70% Alicante Bouschet and 30% Trincadeira comes from one of the region’s most established players, Herdade do Mouchão, which has belonged to the same family since 1874. Mouchão was the first vineyard to be planted to Alicante Bouschet and the current vines trace their genetic origin back to this original 19th century stock. Mouchão is in Sousel to the north of Borba in the Alto/Upper Alentejo.  The Alicante Bouschet is sourced from several parcels near the winery at around 230m and ranging between 10 and 30 years old. Located on a delta between two small rivers, the sandy topsoil is well-drained but the deep clay beneath retains the humidity which allows for a balanced maturation, freshness and good acidity. The hallmarks of Mouchão’s great ageing potential. The thinner skinned Trincadeira benefits from being planted on higher, well-drained ground at around 400m.

Winemaking: this most traditional of wines is hand picked and fermented in the old winery’s original stone lagares with 100% stems.  It is then aged in large old 5,000 litre toneis for two to three years. It spends a further two to three years in bottle before being released.

Tasting note: a very deep hue with a rich, very complex nose and palate – almost a meal in itself – but a balanced one.  Mouchão 2010 has savoury layers of mellow dried fig, black olive and incipient leather with inky floral, tobacco, berber whisky (stewed mint tea) and eucalyptus top notes.  Sturdy, spicy, grape-driven tannins build in the mouth, yet are very well integrated – not in the least aggressive.  A very long, involving finish has this estate’s warm earth, slightly bloody, ironstone tang. Terrific sense of place. 14%

A Taste of Alentejo at London's New Portal to Portugal

Text Sarah Ahmed

It was a thrill to present a tasting on behalf of the Alentejo Wine Commission at one of London’s hottest new restaurants, Taberna do Mercado.  And even more exciting that, not only is its chef/patron Portuguese, so is the food and wine. Which may sound a strange thing to say but, thus far, Nuno Mendes’ renown has rested on the eclectic, highly innovative dishes of his previous restaurant, Michelin-starred Viajante, now his American accented menu at celeb hang out Chiltern Firehouse (where he is Head Chef).

Blend-All-About-Wine-Taberna-do-Mercado-Tasting-Nuno-Mendes alentejo A Taste of Alentejo at London's New Portal to Portugal Blend All About Wine Taberna do Mercado Tasting Nuno Mendes

Nuno Mendes – Photo by Charmaine Grieger | All Rights Reserved

In an interview with Mendes a couple of years ago, he let slip about his plans to open “a very casual, fun, modern but rustic Portuguese restaurant in London.” But there was a problem.  He explained, despite Portugal’s “wealth of amazing unique products,” it was hard to source them,  Why?  He said because, “production is very limited in quantity and second very few artisan producers see the potential outside the local market to expand their project.”

Fully expecting him to have overcome these challenges, I asked him what had changed since we last spoke. Mendes asked, “did I want the nice answer or the true answer?”  Naturally, I said the truth!  Admitting “it makes me sad,” Mendes remains palpably frustrated that, in the UK, sourcing the very best Portuguese products of which he can be “super-proud” has still proved elusive. He observed, UK-based Portuguese-owned importers are “mostly used to supplying the local ex-pat community” (as opposed to high-end restaurants with demanding ‘foodie’ customers).  It reminds me of a point he made when we first met and emphasised how important it was in his field “to be aware of what’s happening in the food and wine world and to find a way to fit it in other people’s realities.” It’s why, he adds, “I had to walk away” from Portugal when he opened Viajante – the range of products did not fit with his Michelin-starred reality. It was “not amazing,” nor could he count on consistency of supply.

Blend-All-About-Wine-Taberna-do-Mercado-Tasting alentejo A Taste of Alentejo at London's New Portal to Portugal Blend All About Wine Taberna do Mercado Tasting

Taberna do Mercado – Photo by Charmaine Grieger | All Rights Reserved

The good news?  Where he sees Taberna do Mercado as “the portal to tap into Portugal’s great resources,” he tells me “I’m not giving up.”   He may be softly spoken and modest of demeanour, but there’s a steely determination in Mendes’ eyes when he reveals his solution. Pointing out “I have many more connections than the importers based here,” (not to mention a Michelin-starred chef’s fastidiousness about sourcing the very best), he plans to set up his own export/import business. After all, his reputation depends on it. And the stakes are high where, given supply issues, he believes it’s premature for Portuguese food to be touted as the next big thing as The Daily Telegraph recently suggested. It is why he asserts, “now is where the research comes in…we can’t relax, we have to push ourselves and bring in the best…we have to evolve”. There is no room for complacency.

Shortly after the tasting, I paused to reflect on Mendes’ comments in relation to Portuguese wine when a journalist asked me why it has yet to really hit the big time. I am pleased to report that the UK has been rather better served by its wine importers, especially Portuguese specialists Raymond Reynolds and Oakley Wine Agencies who have helped their producer clients navigate the highly competitive UK market with aplomb. But if, like Mendes, I am to be Portugal’s critical friend, the truth is that far too many Portuguese producers have yet to find a way to fit into the realities of the UK market, which is widely acknowledged as the most competitive in the world. What’s more, ‘cellar palate’ (becoming too habituated to your own wines, including flaws) can be a problem. It’s why the most successful Portuguese winemakers themselves keep visiting the UK to understand where their wines best fit (and to benchmark them against the competition). It also helps to ensure that they are still seen and heard in our crowded, noisy marketplace.

Happily, all eight producers whose wines I showed in my master-classes at Taberna do Mercado are represented in the UK. But there is still work to be done where Alentejo has forged it reputation in the UK on a bedrock of great value, fruity, approachable reds.  The next step is to raise the profile and appreciation of its premium, terroir-driven red and white wines among fine wine lovers (white wines now represent around 20% of wines from Alentejo). It was a challenge to which I gladly rose.

Blend-All-About-Wine-Taberna-do-Mercado-Tasting-Nuno-Mendes-Sarah-Ahmed Alentejo alentejo A Taste of Alentejo at London's New Portal to Portugal Blend All About Wine Taberna do Mercado Tasting Nuno Mendes Sarah Ahmed

Me and Nuno Mendes talk Alentejo wine & food – Photo by Charmaine Grieger | All Rights Reserved

My selection of wines was accompanied by Mendes’ contemporary take on petiscos (how’s that for fitting them into the realities of the UK market) and followed by an excellent tasting of Alentejo olive oils presented by Teresa Zacarias of Casa do Azeite. Here are my notes on the wines, together with some background on what individuates this diverse selection in terms of terroir and winemaking.  As you’ll see, the Alentejo is not as flat or unremittingly hot as regional stereo-types would have you believe. What’s more, all the grapes were hand-picked.

Herdade do Rocim Olho de Mocho Reserva Branco 2013 (VR Alentejano)

Terroir: this single varietal Antão Vaz comes from Vidigueira, one of Alentejo’s eight DOC sub-regions.  Despite being the southernmost, it has a long tradition of producing white wines. Why?  It’s all to do with the lie of the land, specifically, the Vidigueira fault, a 50km west-facing escarpment known as the Serra do Mendro which marks the border between the Upper and Lower Alentejo.  Rising to 420m it traps cool and humid Atlantic winds which cool the region with overnight fogs.  Cold air also descends from the Serra do Mendro at night.  What’s more, when southern winds bring clouds, the escarpment causes a cloudburst (rainfall). For winemaker Catarina Vieira, this is what accounts for Vidigueira’s “very mineral, elegant and fresh wines that can age very well.” She believes that the sandy soils also enhance the minerality of her Antão Vaz, which is sourced from her best, dry grown, low cropping 24 year old vines.

Winemaking: Hand-picked early (on 3rd & 4th September) to preserve freshness (no acidification is required), the wine fermented in new 300 litre French oak barrels for around 20 days.  It was then taken off lees and aged in barrel for five months. Meanwhile, the fine lees were aged for two months in second use barrels with daily batonnage for a month or so, then added back to the wine.  For Vieira, this work with the fine lees is very important for the minerality, freshness and for the aging potential of this wine.”

Tasting note: thanks to the work with the lees it exhibits struck match/flinty notes to nose and lemony palate, with hints of green olive, under-ripe pineapple and dried pear as it opens up. A long, firm, mineral finish with racy, grapefruity acidity sustained my sample bottle of this wine well into day three. 13.5%

Blend-All-About-Wine-Taberna-do-Mercado-Tasting-House-Canned-Fish alentejo A Taste of Alentejo at London's New Portal to Portugal Blend All About Wine Taberna do Mercado Tasting House Canned Fish

House-canned fish Nuno Mendes style – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

Cartuxa Pêra Manca Branco 2012 (DOC Alentejo)

Terroir: this blend of 62% Antão Vaz and 38% Arinto comes from Évora, another DOC sub-region, this time in the Alto/upper Alentejo.  The fruit was sourced from three parcels of Cartuxa’s oldest vineyards on slopes which rise to 300 metres above sea level. Planted in 1980 on brown granitic soils, the vines were dry grown.

Winemaking: for this fuller-bodied, more traditionally-styled white, the fruit was hand-picked later and in three stages for complexity (12, 18 & 19 September). Following de-stemming and crushing, a portion of the grapes was left in contact with the skins prior to fermentation.  Sixty-seven percent of the wine was fermented and aged on the lees for 12 months in French oak barrels (60% new) with batonnage for body, complexity and ageing potential. The balance was aged in stainless steel (to enhance fruitiness) with lots of batonnage (for body).  There was no acidification.

Tasting note: a rich, beeswaxy nose with stone fruits, especially apricot close to the kernel, which notes follow through on a palate with a pronounced nuttiness (fresh marzipan/calisson) and vanillin oak. Though weighty, a ripe but zesty backbone of citrus acidity brings balance and teases out a long, leesy, savoury finish with lemon and orange peel nuances. A powerful wine, which often puts me in mind of an Hermitage from the Northern Rhône, France.  13.5%

Monte da Ravasqueira MR Premium Rosé 2013(VR Alentejano)

Terroir: this rosé made from 100% Touriga Nacional is from Arraiolos in the Évora district of Alto Alentejo.  For winemaker Pedro Pereira, the key to the freshness of Monte da Ravasqueira’s range lies in the estate’s very pronounced diurnal temperature variation.  Even in the hottest months of July and August when temperatures might hit 40 degrees centigrade, at night the temperature can fall below 10 degrees. Cool nights help the grapes to retain acidity better; it’s good for aromatics and structure too. Gonçalves attributes this strong diurnal to the amphitheatre-like topography of the vineyard (all 45 hectares are planted on slopes rising to 270m), together with the surrounding forest and dams. Though supplemental irrigation is required, clay-limestone soils have good moisture retention while granite outcrops seem to enhance minerality/freshness, as in the Dão.

Winemaking: where Gonçalves’ style revolves around “freshness + complexity (a matrix of flavours) + varietal character + intensity + concentration,” he sourced fruit from five different parcels (by row orientation-exposure, soil type and canopy management) and hand-harvested the grapes on different days, ranging from 8 September to 27 September. The grapes were kept in refrigerated containers between two to 20 days at two degrees for concentration and to enhance aromatic potential and fruit. Two parcels were pressed directly to new French oak barrels and naturally fermented with batonnage on full solids.  The other three were first settled and inoculated with yeast prior to transfer to new French oak barrels on the second day of fermentation. All five parcels were aged in barrel on the lees for six months with light batonnage for the first 2 months.

Tasting note: Touriga Nacional seems to lend itself well to rosé wines and this is an unusual example, savoury yet fruity, round, yet fresh. It’s thoroughly delicious with savoury, creamy lees, delicate wild strawberries, strawberry shortbread and refreshing peach tea. Mineral acidity brings freshness and persistence to its lingering finish.  13%

Susana Esteban Aventura Tinto 2013 (VR Alentejano)

Terroir: this, my first red, is from the Alto/Upper Alentejo but is a blend of DOC sub-regions.  Esteban sources the Aragonês and Touriga Nacional (40% and 20% of the blend respectively) from a dry grown 15 year old vineyard in Évora at 300m on clay/limestone soils. The balance is a mix of varieties from a dry grown 30 year old field blend vineyard in Portalegre, the Alto Alentejo’s northernmost sub-region. It’s not just the northerly location which accounts for Portalegre being Alentejo’s coolest, wettest area. The Serra de São Mamede mountain – at over 1000m, the highest point in southern Portugal – provides serious elevation (up to 800m) and poor granitic soils. Where Esteban’s aim is “to make a fresh wine, with character but appealing at the same time,” she looks to Portalegre for freshness and austerity, while Évora provides the heat which the winemaker believes Touriga Nacional and Aragones need to show their potential (though she emphasises “I have attention to pick with only 13 or 13% alcohol).

Winemaking: the grapes are hand-picked and naturally fermented (with no acidification) in small stainless steel temperature controlled lagares. I very much like the fact that Esteban has put the emphasis squarely on the fruit and freshness – this wine is unoaked.

Tasting note: wonderful vibrancy and texture (think crushed velvet) to its pure, freshly picked and puréed (so it feels) fruits of the forest. Smooth tannins and sappy acidity reinforce the charming immediacy of this youthful red. Lovely.  13.5%

Blend-All-About-Wine-Taberna-do-Mercado-Tasting-Casa-do-Porco-Preto alentejo A Taste of Alentejo at London's New Portal to Portugal Blend All About Wine Taberna do Mercado Tasting Casa do Porco Preto

Casa do Porco Preto, Alentejo at Taberna do Mercado – Photo by Charmaine Grieger | All Rights Reserved

Herdade de São  Miguel Reserva 2012 (VR Alentejano)

Terroir: Herdade de São  Miguel is located in the Redondo sub-region (a DOC) of the Alto/Upper Alentejo. For Alexandre Relvas junior the Serra d’Ossa hills (which rise to 650 metres) shelter Redondo’s vineyards from northerly and easterly winds and furnish cold, dry winters to offset the hot, sun-drenched summers.  His vineyard is located at 400m on low yielding clay/schist soils which produce concentrated, small berries. This wine is a blend of 80% Alicante Bouschet, 15% Aragonez and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon from 13 year old vines.

Winemaking: hand harvested fruit is totally de-stemmed and undergoes a 48 hour cold soak prior to fermentation in open stainless steel lagares with automatic pigeurs for softer extraction, a bit of natural oxidation too “to help fix colour and tannins from the beginning” says Relvas. It was aged for 12 months in 400 litre French oak barrels (50% new).

Tasting note: an intense nose of blackcurrant and bramble fruit with a touch of vanillin oak and dusty schist undertones, which follow through on a succulent palate with lovely freshness. Though only five percent of the blend, the Cabernet is quite evident in flavour profile (blackcurrant with a hint of mint) and fine, gravelly, mineral tannins. It does not have the concentration or complexity of the (more expensive) wines which followed, but it’s well balanced and persistent. Very well made, indeed wears its 15% abv lightly.

Quinta do Mouro Touriga Nacional 2010 (VR Alentejano)

Terroir: This single varietal Touriga Nacional is from Estremoz in the Borba sub-region (a DOC) of the Alto/Upper Alentejo.  It is north of Redondo and just north of the Serra d’Ossa, which offers a little protection from the warm south winds.  Where Quinta do Mouro is at 420m, elevation also tempers the climate, as do plunging night-time temperatures which, says winemaker Luis Louro, can be 20 degrees lower than in the day “especially at the later stages of maturation, and fogs are common.” Schist soils and dry-farmed vineyards also account for the very structured, ageworthy and characterful style of Mouro’s reds. Sourced from “a very good” Douro vineyard in 1998, the Touriga Nacional was grafted onto Castelão vines which had been planted in 1989.

Winemaking: hand-harvested fruit was partially de-stemmed, leaving around 10% whole bunch for a bit more structure and fresher flavours.  The grapes were foot-trodden in lagares and underwent a two day cold soak prior to starting fermentation. It finished fermenting in stainless steel tanks with temperature control and, after pressing, was aged for 12 months in new 300 litre French oak barrels.

Tasting note: a deep, opaque plum hue with an exotic bergamot perfume which provides lift to a concentrated raspberry and plum, vanillin-edged palate together with lively peppery whole bunch notes, dried sage and mint. Textured suede-like tannins cleave the flavours to the palate, amplifying its intensity and back palate resonance.  Powerful, a little wild even, yet balanced. A charismatic single varietal Touriga. 14%

João Portugal Ramos Marquês de Borba Reserva 2012 (DOC Alentejo)

Terroir: also from Estremoz, this blend of 30% Trincadeira, 30% Aragones, 25% Alicante Bouschet and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon comes from João Portugal Ramos’ original vineyard.  The vines, planted in 1989, are located around his house and have  been the source of this wine since it was first made in 1997. Located at 350m on very old schist

Winemaking: hand harvested grapes are picking grapes at night and early in the morning.  The grapes are partially de-stemmed (50% whole bunch) and start co-fermenting (naturally) in marble lagares with foot treading. For Ramos the advantages of the lagares include a higher area of contact between the liquid and the solid part of the must, gentle homogenisation of the must (because a thinner cap is formed compared to the normal tanks) and the aesthetics of the local marble (which, incidentally Mendes has used for his table tops at Taberna do Mercado). The final third of the fermentation is completed in stainless steel vats with the benefit of temperature control.  The post-ferment maceration usually lasts about two weeks. The wine is then matured for 18 months in French 225 litre oak barrels (two thirds of which are new).

Tasting note: a very polished red with tobacco and cigar box to nose and palate. Red fruits dominate the attack while the Cabernet becomes more assertive going through, bringing well-defined blackcurrant fruit and a spray coating of fine but plentiful powdery tannins which build in the mouth. Dry, firm, focused and very fine with excellent balancing freshness. The tightest of the reds, it has great ageing potential. 14.5%

Herdade do Mouchão 2010 (VR Alentejano)

Terroir: this blend of around 70% Alicante Bouschet and 30% Trincadeira comes from one of the region’s most established players, Herdade do Mouchão, which has belonged to the same family since 1874. Mouchão was the first vineyard to be planted to Alicante Bouschet and the current vines trace their genetic origin back to this original 19th century stock. Mouchão is in Sousel to the north of Borba in the Alto/Upper Alentejo.  The Alicante Bouschet is sourced from several parcels near the winery at around 230m and ranging between 10 and 30 years old. Located on a delta between two small rivers, the sandy topsoil is well-drained but the deep clay beneath retains the humidity which allows for a balanced maturation, freshness and good acidity. The hallmarks of Mouchão’s great ageing potential. The thinner skinned Trincadeira benefits from being planted on higher, well-drained ground at around 400m.

Winemaking: this most traditional of wines is hand picked and fermented in the old winery’s original stone lagares with 100% stems.  It is then aged in large old 5,000 litre toneis for two to three years. It spends a further two to three years in bottle before being released.

Tasting note: a very deep hue with a rich, very complex nose and palate – almost a meal in itself – but a balanced one.  Mouchão 2010 has savoury layers of mellow dried fig, black olive and incipient leather with inky floral, tobacco, berber whisky (stewed mint tea) and eucalyptus top notes.  Sturdy, spicy, grape-driven tannins build in the mouth, yet are very well integrated – not in the least aggressive.  A very long, involving finish has this estate’s warm earth, slightly bloody, ironstone tang. Terrific sense of place. 14%

Drink Like a King: Moscatel de Setúbal, Península de Setúbal’s Liquid Gold

Text Sarah Ahmed

Is there any better litmus test of what’s delicious and great value than what members of the wine trade themselves buy? Stocking up at Lisbon airport, the group of London-based sommeliers whom I lead on a tour of southern Portugal splashed their cash on Moscatel de Setúbal. I really hope that their enthusiasm translates onto their wine lists back home. While Port sells itself, this fortified Moscatel could do with more fine wining and dining ambassadors to sing its much deserved praises.

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Take your pick of Moscatel de Setúbal at José Maria da Fonseca’s popular cellar door – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

At Decanter World Wine Awards, my panel is similarly enamoured of its charms – there’s no better way to finish a day’s judging than to linger over a moreish flight of Moscatel de Setúbal. As the gold medals we regularly award them attest (not to mention their regular spot in the limelight at the Muscat du Monde awards), they are pure gold in every sense of the word. And royalty knew it. Apparently Moscatel de Setúbal was the toast of the courts of Richard II of England and Louis XIV of France. I suspect it was rather less good value in those days, so aren’t we the lucky ones – today you can drink like a king and pay like a pauper!

You’ll find my pick of those wines I tasted on last month’s visit to Setúbal Peninsula below. First, it’s worth taking a moment to explore what makes Moscatel de Setúbal so special. The natural place to start is the raw material – the Moscatel de Setúbal grape (a.k.a. Muscat of Alexandria), which must comprise at least 67% of the wine (85% for Moscatel Roxo). Though it’s generally considered to be inferior to its more famous parent, Muscat à Petits Grains, Setúbal producers cleverly extract the maximum aroma and flavour from Moscatel de Setúbal by macerating the fermented, fortified wine on skins for up to six months. What better way to release its heady perfume of mint, floral, citrus peel and ginger; peach tea in the case of the rare pink tinted Moscatel Roxo grape.

Blend-All-About-Wine-Moscatel De Setubal-Gold-Under-torna-viagem moscatel de setúbal Drink Like a King: Moscatel de Setúbal, Península de Setúbal's Liquid Gold Blend All About Wine Moscatel De Setubal Gold Under torna viagem

A return to Torna-Viagem at José Maria da Fonseca – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

As for sheer deliciousness, top wines are barrel-aged to allow grape sugars to caramelise, also to concentrate the resulting nectars by evaporation. In the past, barrels were lashed to the deck of tall ships and despatched across the equator for optimum mouthfeel and character. António Soares Franco, CEO of José Maria da Fonseca, told us that, as a result of sea spray, the motion of the waves and widely fluctuating temperatures on deck, these so-called “Torna-Viagem” Moscatels are particularly balanced, soft and a little salty. I had the great good fortune to taste a 19th century example a few years ago and, though I recall no saltiness, I can vividly recall its remarkable balance and silky, mellow mouthfeel. It seemed remarkably young for all its adventures at sea!

Thrillingly, since 2000, José Maria da Fonseca have been trialling the Torna-Viagem technique with the Portuguese Navy and, as you can see, those barrels which have been at sea appear to have aged faster (the Torna-Viagem samples on the left are darker). At Bacalhôa Vinhos de Portugal, the region’s other big producer of Moscatel de Setúbal, fortified winemaker Filipa Tomaz da Costa told me that they had developed special storage conditions “to create the environment of a ship.” In other words, “with no temperature, humidity or dryness control.” During summer, the wine inside the barrels can reach up to 28ºC! Though evaporation is consequently high, Tomaz da Costa doesn’t top up the barrels because more headspace (oxygen in the barrel) in combination with the heat helps to enhance the complex, rich rancio characters of her wines; perhaps a light touch of “vinagrinho” (volatile acidity) too.

Blend-All-About-Wine-Moscatel-De-Setubal-Gold-Baclhoa-Makers-of-exotic moscatel de setúbal Drink Like a King: Moscatel de Setúbal, Península de Setúbal's Liquid Gold Blend All About Wine Moscatel De Setubal Gold Baclhoa Makers of exotic

Bacalhôa Vinhos de Portugal, makers of exotic Moscatel – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

These characters are part and parcel of Moscatel de Setúbal’s sheer deliciousness, but the very best wines are distinguished by their balance and finesse. Which is why they are sourced from the clay and limestone soils of the region’s hills, especially the cooler north-facing slopes of the Serra da Arrábida (which used to be an island many years ago). These wines are markedly fresher and more detailed than those from the region’s sandy plains.

Blend-All-About-Wine-Moscatel-De-Setubal-Gold-Queijo-Azeitao moscatel de setúbal Drink Like a King: Moscatel de Setúbal, Península de Setúbal's Liquid Gold Blend All About Wine Moscatel De Setubal Gold Queijo Azeitao

Also from the hills a perfect match for Moscatel de Setúbal – Azeitão sheeps milk cheese – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

Adega de Pegões Moscatel de Setúbal 2012 – made from 100% Moscatel grown on sandy soils and aged in old French and American oak barrels for around 3 years. This is a lighter easy-going style with lifted buttermint, barley sugar, soft, round peachy fruit and caramelised oranges. Good perfume and freshness. 17.5%

Casa Ermelinda Freitas Moscatel de Setúbal 2010 – like the Pegões Moscatel this is from sandy soils, but it’s a good deal more complex. It’s aged for at least two years, normally four to five years in used oak barrels in a warehouse with no temperature control. And I suspect that this is what makes the difference, because it is more concentrated and complex on nose and palate, with delicious nutty rancio notes and a touch of malty oak to its caramelised orange palate; pithier maramalade notes (together with the nuttiness) balance the sweetness. Though generous, there’s good freshness to balance. Let’s just say this was particularly popular at the airport! 17.5%

José Maria da Fonseca Alambre Moscatel de Setúbal 2010 – this great value entry level Moscatel de Setúbal topped off most evenings during my holiday in the Costa Vicentina a couple of years ago. For approachability, the fruit is sourced from a sunny south-facing site and sandy as well as clay/limestone soils. Unlike some entry level wines, it was aged in old casks, which gives a delicious nutty edge to its toothsome caramelised orange palate; nice balance and length. 127g/l residual sugar; 17.5% abv.

José Maria da Fonseca Colecção Privada Moscatel de Setúbal 2004 – this wine is the direct outcome of brandy spirit trials. Winemaker Domingos Soares Franco discovered he liked using Armagnac best and Colecção Privada has lovely drive (good acidity) and persistence to its ripe, sweet citrus and rounder peach fruit. With lovely integration of spirit the finish goes on and on, revealing lightly toasted almonds, caramel, nougat and a touch of lifted (menthol) buttermint. The grapes are sourced only from clay and limestone soils. 106g/l residual sugar; 17.5% abv

Blend-All-About-Wine-Moscatel-De-Setubal-Gold-Under-lock-and-key moscatel de setúbal Drink Like a King: Moscatel de Setúbal, Península de Setúbal's Liquid Gold Blend All About Wine Moscatel De Setubal Gold Under lock and key

Stored under lock and key at Adega dos Teares Velhos José Maria da Fonseca’s oldest Moscatels – Photo by Sarah Ahmed | All Rights Reserved

José Maria da Fonseca 20 Year Old Moscatel de Setúbal – Portugal’s oldest wine producer has a massive trump card when it comes to making concentrated and complex Moscatel de Setúbal – many back vintages of Moscatel. They are stored in the atmospheric Adega dos Teares Velhos where the oldest wines, more than 100 years old, are under lock and key! António Soares Franco tells us that the youngest wines in this 20 Year Old non-vintage blend are 21-22 yrs old, while the oldest is 60 years old. He reckons it is a blend of “perhaps 13-14 different vintages.” It shows on the long, persistent, very complex, concentrated palate which reveals sweet candied orange peel, pithier, spicier marmalade notes and a bitter (balancing) hint of marmalade which has just caught in the pan. Very refined, with a lively, grapefruity cut of balancing acidity to the finish. 182g/l of residual sugar; 18.4% abv

José Maria da Fonseca Roxo 20 Year Old Moscatel de Setúbal – made from the much rarer pink-tinted Moscatel Roxo this is a significantly deeper hue than its predecessor and, despite having quite a bit more residual sugar, seems fresher, drier (well less toothsome) and lighter on its feet. Sweet, sharp but exotic flavours of mandarin, pink grapefruit and peach tea mingle in the mouth; great line and length. My pick of the JMF four (though I should declare that I’m a huge Roxo fan). 217.8g/l residual sugar; 18% abv.

SIVIPA Moscatel de Setúbal 1996 – from clay/limestone soils, this wine was aged for around 10 years in old French oak barrels. It is a complex, concentrated wine, just a touch spirity on the finish but mellifluous going through, with syrupy, peachy fruit, more concentrated dried apricot, toasted almonds and caramel. 180g/l residual sugar; 17% abv

Blend-All-About-Wine-Moscatel-De-Setubal-Gold-Horacio-Simoes moscatel de setúbal Drink Like a King: Moscatel de Setúbal, Península de Setúbal's Liquid Gold Blend All About Wine Moscatel De Setubal Gold Horacio Simoes

Horácio Simões Roxo Moscatel de Setúbal 2009

Casa Agrícola Horácio Simões Roxo Moscatel de Setúbal 2009 – I’m a big fan of Horácio Simões, a boutique third generation family producer. This long lingering Roxo shows why. Silkily textured with richly concentrated caramelised oranges and peach tea, it shows a hint of malty wood and delicious creamy praline notes to the finish (it is aged in seasoned French oak barriques). Terrific generosity and mouthfeel with balance.

Bacalhôa Vinhos de Portugal Moscatel Roxo Superior 2002 – my panel at Decanter World Wine Awards awarded this gorgeous Roxo a Gold Medal and Regional Trophy. I’d have awarded it the regional trophy all over again in this line up! Grapes are sourced from the cooler north clay/limestone slopes of the Serra da Arrábida. Still, aged for at least 10 years in small 200l French oak whisky barrels (which benefit from really clean pores) and in ship-like conditions with great thermal variation, it has surprising freshness, purity and lift. Referring to “the shocks of temperature, evaporation and concentration of acid and sugar and release of aromas connected with sugar,” Chief Winemaker Vasco Penha Garcia observes “it’s incredible when you age wines in these conditions that they get fresher, more floral.” Sure enough, Bacalhôa Roxo Superior 2002 has great intensity, lift and layer with rose water, buttermint and peach tea aromatics which follow through in the mouth together with a lovely purity of caramelised oranges, juicy mandarin, pink grapefruit peel and delicately toasted almonds and richer marzipan notes. Though luscious, it’s very persistent (good acid drive) and fine, the finish controlled, very balanced. 190.2g/l residual sugar; 19%.