Most familiar for production of its fortified darlings, Port and Madeira, and for its unutterably pedestrian Mateus Rosé, Portugal also produces a huge amount of red and wine table wines. In fact, the fortified wines only make up around 15% of Portugal's total wine production, but account for over 70% of the exports.
Our wine club has overlooked Portugal as a wine-producing country until now - excepting a Port tasting from a while back - so, since Portugal actually ranks 6th in world wine production, it was definitely time to check out the serious table wines.
Portugal is unusual in that most wine is made from indigenous grape varietals, with few of the noble varieties, such as Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon being grown. This makes the resultant wines somewhat harder to market in North America, which is very name-recognition driven. One of the more recognisible wine types produced is Vinho Verde - "Green Wine." While some of them do in fact have a slightly greenish cast, the verde (green) refers to the youth of the wine rather than its colour. Vinho Verde has something in common with Beaujolais Nouveau, in that it is drunk very young and embraces the characteristics of young, mild wines. What I didn't know until researching this tasting, is that Vinho Verde is made in both white and red styles, but that only the white is exported.
We tried two Vinho Verdes - the oh-so-present Gazela (2004), which was very watery in appearance, had a green apple nose and a cidery, apple and lemon flavour with a creamy hint of dairy in the background. At 9% alcohol - typical for a Verde - it was light and refreshing and pronounced suitable for hot days and patio lazing. The second Verde, Casal Garcia Vinho Verde Branco (2004), there was an overall golden tone to the wine that showed in the appearance, on the nose, and on the palate. The scent of dried pears and freshly ground white pepper gave way to a smooth, golden-apple and olive oil palate, again with a sort of cidery feel to it. There was something slightly tropical about it that made everyone speculate about an appetizer of melons wrapped in prosciutto. While everyone enjoyed both wines, it was roundly decided that this slightly smoother wine had the edge over the two.
The one white wine that we tried was the Vallado Vinho Branco (2002), from the Douro region. In my prep notes, the final comment on Douro was that it is not known for its whites. I now know why, if this was anything to go by. Its yellowish color yielded warm tropical fruit on the nose, but it was a closed and relatively difficult scent to extract. The flavours were a catalogue of unpleasant chardonnay-like characteristics: bland, watery, oily and with little fruit. This was the thumbs-down wine of the night.
The reds were a mixed bag. The José Maria de Fonseca, José de Sousa (2000) had an interesting nose of rocks - pyrite, to be more specific, and damp lichen. Its earthy smell could somewhat be attributed to the clay-pot fermentation that is still used in the Alentejo region, but its thin flavours of red plums and cherry pits led us to suspect that the grapes were squeezed for extra yield, to its detriment. It wasn't awful, but it wasn't interesting past the unique fermentation method.
Somewhat better, the Montes Seis Reis Boa Memoria (2003) had an interesting floral quality about it, although it was closed enough that I had to work at the nose. There was a dusty quality and a hint of leather that usually bodes well. The palate was less well developed, with an underripe quality to the fruit flavours, and massive acidity. The flavours were nice, but it was universally agreed that it needed some food to bring out its charms. Going back, at the end of the tasting, I thought that the wine had opened up more, which brought out a nice, dried fig roundness to the taste. At the end of the tasting, this was one of two contenders for Best Wine.
I was quite looking forward to the Quinta de Chocapalha (2002), the only wine we had from the Estremadura region. I had read a favourable review of a previous year, and was curious how it would fare. It showed beautiful colour, garnet, and big, fat legs. The nose brought something I've never encountered in a wine before: bacon. There was a smoky note, which is not uncommon but usually a good sign (in my experience), but the overwhelming scent was that of raw bacon, specifically the fat. I moved on to the palate with literally no expectations, being unsure what that sort of nose could possibly translate to, and was pleased to find a very balanced wine with mixed red fruits and herbs - fresh thyme was mentioned - and a very drinkable easiness to it. This became the other contender for Best Wine.
The final wine of the evening was the Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas Vinho Tinto (2000), from the Douro region. It had a nice dark colour to it, but the nose was oddly metallic. While the José de Sousa had a hint of pyrite in its rocky nose, this wine smelled like freshly scraped copper wiring. The palate was weak on flavour, with a sour tinny quality that was quite off-putting. I would say that this was the least popular of the reds.
In the final analysis, four of the seven wines were rated well - the two Vinho Verdes, in a class of their own, but both enjoyable, and the Boa Memoria and Quinta de Chocapalha were both well regarded. None of the wines cost more than $20, which suggests that Portugal may be the last bastion (next to Sicily) of affordable, tasty wines in Europe.
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