Of the worlds' major wine producing countries, Portugal is the most mysterious. We all know something about Port, less about Madeira, and we mostly acknowledge that they make pretty good table whites out of grapes nobody else uses.
But they do some stuff that seems downright weird in the increasingly homogenous wine world, like growing grapevines on trees and selling white wine that may or may not be fizzy.
Wines of Portugal brought 38 producers to San Francisco last week for a trade tasting. A few general observations:
* Portuguese whites are mostly thirst-quenching, simple and good value. I found only one that I adored (more on that later), but very few I disliked. Most would be great quaffers on a hot day.
* Alvarinho (better known as Albarino in Spain) seems clearly the best white wine grape. I also liked wines made from Arinto, which makes crisp, fresh-tasting whites.
* All the best red wines are field blends; that's how they do it there. Mostly they are made of the same grapes that make up Port -- Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca.
* New World winemaking has hit Portugal, but not yet with complete success. I'm sure there are a few fine blockbuster reds available, but I didn't taste them.
* Red wines that have labels clearly designed for export tended to be very simple. The reds I liked best tended to have non-flashy labels, essentially focusing on the name of the wine.
* Madeira is a fabulous value in a dessert wine. As with Port, it's not necessary to overspend on vintage Madeira because the 10-year-aged Madeiras are often just as delicious.
While I tended to prefer the non-New World wines, my favorite white wine from this tasting was very modern: Quinta Lagoalva de Cima Ribatejano Arinto & Chardonnay 2008 ($14).
Winemaker Diogo de Braganca Campilho was at the event, and he told me of a very unusual technique for this wine: He keeps Chardonnay lees frozen for two years to add to the barrels during malolactic fermentation. In other words, this wine is made from 2008 grapes with 2006 Chardonnay lees.
The grapes are all from the Ribatejo district near Lisbon, a wealthy area because the soil is so fertile (not the case all over the country). That said, the district has not generally been considered one of the best for wine for the same reason: yields are high, and lots of sun leads to relatively high alcohol levels. Campilho felt the need to innovate -- Chardonnay is still unusual in Portugal -- and to me, his experiment really paid off.
His Arino-Chardonnay mix is a full-flavored wine, well-balanced and interesting, with lots of fruit, and you don't notice the 100% malolactic fermentation except in the smooth mouthfeel. I tasted white peach and also red apple and floral notes. At $14, this wine is a steal. Downside: It's not currently available in California.
If you want something more traditional, check out the delicious Aveleda Alvarinho Vinho Verde 2007, which tastes green and fresh, like its Spanish cousin. Vinho Verdes that say "Alvarinho" tend to taste more like the grape than the style.
This post is getting long so I'll get to reds and Madeiras tomorrow. Below are my unedited tasting notes for the whites. No picking on me for typos!
Loios Alentejano (white) 2008
Made from Rabo de Ovelha, Roupeiro. Tastes very green, fresh and bright. Aromas and flavors of green mango, green plum, some green apple. Refreshing. 88
Marques de Borba Alentejo (white) 2008
Made from Arinto, Roabo de Ovelha, Roupeiro. Fresh and crisp, minerally, white peach and pear notes. 87
Aveleda Alvarinho Vinho Verde 2007
Very green aroma: green plum, Granny Smith apple. Medium body, full-flavored. Refreshing, closer to its Spanish cousin Albarino than to traditional VInho Verde. 89
Casal Garcia Vinho Verde NV
Made from Pederna, Loureiro, Trajadura and Azal. Crisp, refreshing: Peachy and simple, with a light fizz. 87
Quinta da Aveleda Vinho Verde 2007
Made from Loureiro, Trajadura and Alvarinho. An estate wine. Bright, light and peachy: larger on the palate than the NV. Very slightly fizzy. 87
EA Alentejano (white) 2008, Foral de Evora Alentejo (white) 2007, Cartuxa Alentejo (white) 2007
All from the same company, I tasted an unpleasant cementy note on each. Pass.
Herdade dos Grous White Alentejano 2008
Antao Vaz, Arinto, Roupeiro. Crisp and simple, refresing: pear with lemon juice. Medium body. 87
Herdade dos Grous White Reserve Alentejano 2007
Antao Vaz, Verdelho, Viognier. I can taste an oak board in this. Pass.
Campolargo Arinto Bairrada 2008.
Barrel-fermented. Like drinking Sherry -- salty, sea air, a little crusty wood. Interesting, might be a good oyster wine. 87
Campolargo Entre Il Santos Branco Bairrada 2008
Sauvignon Blanc, Bical. Crisp, simple -- a mouth rinse, nothing more. 85
Grilos Dao 2008 white
Malvasia Fina, Cerceal, Encruzado. LIght and simple -- a mouth rinse, but OK for that. 85
Quinta da Alorna Arintho 2008
Arinto. Good acidity, a fresh green apple taste with hint of lychee. Lightly fizzy. 86
Castello d'Alba Vinhas Velhas Douro 2006 (white)
Made from Codega. Barrel-fermented. Fresh up front, then toasty. Peach and even red berries. Lite-medium body. Long finish that's a little woody. 89
Herdade da Malhadinha Nova Antao Vaz Alentejano 2008
Tastes barrel-fermented, but indistinctive. A little golden apple, woody finish. 85
Monte da Peceguina Alentejano (white) 2007
Salty. Charmless. Pass.
Espirito Lagoalva Ribatejano (white) 2008
Alvarinho, Arinto, Fernao Pires, Sauvignon Blanc, Verdelho. Decent fruit and minerality, but bitter on finish. Pass
Quinta Lagoalva de Cima Arinto & Chardonnay 2008
50% Arinto, 50% Chardonnay. Full-flavored wine: white peach, sweet red apple, floral notes, good minerality, balance and mouthfeel. Interesting, lots of fruit, don't notice the malo. 92
Porca de Murca Reserva Douro (white) 2007
Boal, Verdelho, Cerceal, Moscatel. Medium-full body but all fruit: super-ripe peach and pair, some minerality. 89