SommSelect In Portugal
Our Editorial Director shares his key takeaways from a recent grand tour of Portugal hosted by Wines of Portugal US Ambassador Eugenio Jardim.
Portuguese wine has become an obsession of mine, not least because the scene in Portugal today reminds me of the scene in Italy 20 years ago: there’s a renaissance afoot, led by an ambitious new generation of winemakers, but because these wines have yet to find a broader audience in the US, pricing remains remarkably low (in most instances).
Thanks to several importers we do business with, we’ve managed to stay abreast of all this newness, as reflected not just in our Daily Discoveries but in our assorted monthly clubs as well. The wines of Colares, grown in actual sand dunes on the Atlantic coast outside Lisbon, have found an enthusiastic audience with our subscribers, as have the powerful red table wines of the Douro Valley; the Nebbiolo-like reds from the Bairrada region; and the increasingly nuanced and substantial whites of Vinho Verde.
When my friend and colleague Eugenio Jardim—the US Ambassador for the Wines of Portugal trade association—invited me on a trip to Portugal this past May, I jumped at the chance to deepen my knowledge of this resurgent wine nation. Along with six other sommeliers from across the country, I got to travel the length of Portugal over the course of six days. Here are some of my takeaways from a jam-packed week of tastings!
Vinho Verde is The Real Deal
I can’t think of a wine whose modern interpretations are so dramatically better than the stereotype than Vinho Verde. Yes, there is still plenty of watery, spritzy Vinho Verde out there, but there’s also some seriously layered, mineral, serious white wine coming out of the Vinho Verde region (yes, the name “Vinho Verde” isn’t just a reference to the style of wine, but to an Atlantic-influenced geographic area in northwestern-most Portugal).
Traversed by a network of rivers making their way to the Atlantic, including the Douro at its southern end, the Vinho Verde DOC is effectively an extension of Galicia’s famed Rías Baixas. Only the Miño River, which is also the national border, separates them. Perhaps you knew all this, but my point is that many wine experts wouldn’t put Vinho Verde and Rías Baixas whites in the same class. I didn’t used to, but with increasing frequency, I do now.
And, as it turned out, our first outing upon landing in Lisbon was a dinner and tasting with António Luís Cerdeira, third-generation proprietor and winemaker at Soalheiro, whose Vinho Verde wines are among the very best out there. Headquartered in Melgaço, the northernmost municipality in Portugal, Soalheiro was founded by João António Cerdeira in the mid-1970s, with the first branded wines released in 1982—making them one of the first to bottle under the “Monção e Melgaço” designation. They are Alvarinho specialists and produce a wide array of organically farmed still and sparkling whites from the variety. Soalheiro’s “Granit” bottling (so named for the granite sand soils in its source vineyard, may have been the best white I tasted the entire trip. Another standout was the Soalheiro “Reserva” 2020—an elite Alvarinho that’ll stand up to the best of Rías Baixas. (Oh, and by the way, the next time you’re in Lisbon be sure to get dinner at the excellent Via Graça (http://www.vgraca.pt/). The view is as good as the food, and the wine list runs deep.)
We didn’t return to Vinho Verde again for a week, but when we did, we encountered some other delicious options—most from the Alvarinho grape but a few that featured Vinho Verde’s “other” white grape, Loureiro. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing the whites of Quinta do Montinho (quintadomontinho.pt) in our market soon, but, in the meantime, seek out the Vinho Verde whites of Adega Ponte da Barça, Quinta de Santa Cristina, and FALUA Wines, whose Quinta do Hospital is in Monçao & Melgaço—the place to be where Vinho Verde is concerned (IMHO).
The Dão Takes a Well-Deserved Bow
The Dão appellation, like Vinho Verde, has mostly granitic soils, but it is further inland, with altitudes climbing past 1,000 meters in the Serra da Estrela, the highest mainland mountain range in Portugal. It’s only about 50 kilometers south of the heart of the Douro, and is one of Portugal’s oldest “delimited” wine regions, but its international recognition remains low. But for my money—and this comes from someone who was blown away by the Douro (see below)—the Dão is the region we all need to get to know better.
For one thing, the region has a more “continental” climate, with wider diurnal temperature swings than one might expect given the blazing heat of the nearby Douro. Combine this with the granite soils underlying the vineyards—just like in Beaujolais—and you’ve got a recipe for wines that combine old-vine intensity with cool climate snap. And this goes for whites and reds alike: The local Encruzado grape is a white poised for international superstardom, and the region’s reds—the best ones usually based on Touriga Nacional—are deeply mineral and impressively finessed.
Let’s start with Encruzado—a white that many compare to Chardonnay in terms of its structure and ability to communicate terroir. I’ll go ahead and say it: Dão Encruzado is Portugal’s answer to white Burgundy. Having only tasted a few examples prior to my visit (including those of the great Luis Seabra), I was like a kid in a candy store when we arrived at the Comissão Vitivinicola Regional do Dão—a one-stop-shop for all things Dão. Right up there with the Soalheiro whites mentioned above is the Quinta do Saes Dão Encruzado 2020, a taut, focused, structured white redolent of wildflower honey and yellow apple that epitomizes what Encruzado is capable of. Quinta do Saes is one of two family properties overseen by legendary Dão winemaker Alvaro Castro (the other is Quinta da Pellada), and what impressed me the most was that everything I tasted felt like a “cool-climate” wine—the reds, too. Quinta de Saes’ 2016 Touriga Nacional was a whole new look at the variety for me: it’s a spicy, herbal, dark-fruited style reminiscent of something from the coolest reaches of the Northern Rhône.
But back to Encruzado for a second. Our visit to the multi-label Global Wines, which is based in the Dão but has properties all over Portugal, bore some nice fruit—most notably their Dão Encruzado “Vinho dos Amores” 2017, a single-vineyard wine from their Casa de Santar property. The hits kept coming, meanwhile, with Encruzados from Casa de Mouraz, Parras (look for their “Evidência” Reserva) and Artemis, the latter bottled under the name Dom Vicente.
Because it was newer to me, Encruzado was the star of the Dão show, but all the above-mentioned producers had some savory, lip-smacking reds on offer—most were driven by Touriga Nacional but there were some old-vine field blends incorporating other native reds such as Alfrocheiro, Tinta Roriz (a.k.a. Tempranillo), and Jaen (Mencía). As I write, we’re actively trying to get some of these wines into the SommSelect warehouse and up on the site!
The Douro is Worth the Price of Admission
I knew I was going to be impressed upon seeing the Douro Valley for the first time, but suffice it to say it exceeds even the highest expectations. The sheer scale of the vineyards, the networks of stone terraces (and stone staircases built to access those terraces), the groves of stripped-bare cork trees, the muscularity of the river…the power of the landscape is reflected in the wines. I forget who said it, but one of our hosts described the climate of the Douro as “nine months of winter and three months of hell.”
That said, one of my biggest takeaways from our time in the Douro is how taut and focused the white wines are. To their credit, the producers of the region have mostly stuck with local varieties that are clearly well-adapted to the terroir, rather than opting for “international” grapes like Chardonnay. I was expecting rich, tropical, “hot climate” whites with low acid and was mostly met with the exact opposite, especially during our visit to Wine & Soul, a boutique Douro property run by wife/husband team Sandra Tavares da Silva and Jorge Serôdio Borges. Both proprietors hail from winemaking families and have been curating a collection of prime vineyard holdings throughout the valley. Their spectacular Quinta da Manoella (site of one of the most epic wine lunches of my life) is a highlight, although we also tasted some blockbuster reds from their Pintas property, which totals just 2.5 hectares of field-blended vineyards exceeding 80 years of age. Their Manoella Branco 2021, a blend of local whites such as Rabigato and Viosinho from 60- to 90-year-old plantings, is a densely structured, citrusy white very much in the Burgundy mold. I also loved the Grande Reserva Branco from Quinta do Portal, another small-scale Douro producer.
On the red side, the Manoella Tinto 2019 (60% Touriga Nacional) is one of the best price-to-quality bottlings I’ve ever seen from the Douro, as is Quinta do Portal’s plummy, graphite-dusted Colheita Tinto (Tinta Roriz-Touriga Nacional-Touriga Franca blend).
The Many Faces of Antonio Maçanita
Although we met up with him in the Alentejo region at his Fitapreta estate, Antonio Maçanita is what’s known these days as a “flying winemaker,” managing wine projects not just in Alentejo but the Douro, the Azores, and beyond. Fitapreta is becoming a reference point in the Alentejo, a region previously known as a bit of a “wine lake,” not unlike the Languedoc in France. Maçanita is doing a little bit of everything here, with a focus on native varieties from organically farmed vineyards. Among the many noteworthy Fitapreta bottlings we tasted are the sleek and citrusy Branco Ancestral (a blend of local varieties) and its red sibling, the Fitapreta Tinto. His Tinta de Castelão, from the intriguingly lightweight Castelão variety, was another standout.
Beyond Alentejo, Maçanitas’ bottlings from his Azores Wine Company (some of which we’ve featured here on SommSelect) are the ultimate in mineral, sea-kissed refreshment. Grown in black volcanic basalt of Pico, one of the Azores Islands, the lineup includes a salty, electrifying white from the Arinto grape (called Arinto dos Açores); a mineral-rich rosé (Rosé Vulcânico); and a spicy red (Tinto Vulcânico).
His Douro wines, too, are authentic and delicious, with a laser focus on native grapes—Sousão, Touriga Nacional, you name it. His Letra F Douro Tinto “As Olgas” is sourced from a field-blended site containing n 11 different native grapes, with some vines exceeding 100 years of age.
But wait! There’s more! Another lighter-weight red grape that wowed the sommeliers in attendance was Negra Mole, a specialty of the Algarve—Portugal’s southern-most growing zone. Morgado do Quintão’s “Clarete” (from Negra Mole) was one of the most interesting reds I tasted on the entire trip—it got me thinking about peppery, lightweight Italian reds like Schiava from Alto Adige and Pelaverga from Piedmont. We all loved the incongruity of such a light, bright red from such a hot, dry place. Ditto for the amphora-aged wines from the Alentejo’s Herdade do Rocim, which we’ve featured here on SommSelect.
My final takeaway? That we were there for a week, tasted several hundred wines, and barely scratched the surface. Stay tuned to SommSelect for lots more Portuguese deliciousness to come! Saúde!