SERIOUS VALUE RED? JUST SAY SUL

We spoken over the years about the South African enigma and why, after all this time, does the category only move when there is some promotion.  It seems any kind of continuous market traction is fleeting.  We realized the same could be said about Portugal to some extent.  Sure, in the 60s and 70s everyone was drinking fizzy rosés, then there was Periquita, followed by dry Duoros sometime later.  But, other than the tried and true dessert areas of Port and Madeira, there seems to be little lasting interest. 

There are the occasional hits.  We have done well with certain Vinho Verdes and upscale versions like those from Soalheiro.  They sell and people like them.  But in the end people don’t come in and ask where the Portuguese section is.  Granted, historically, overall quality has been, um, sporadic. Unfamiliar varietals and regions don’t make it any easier.  The Portuguese government has gotten involved in raising the quality levels overall, and the ‘hit’ ratio has definitely increased.  But the prices of some of the potential ‘game changers’ severely limits their potential audience. With all due respect to Bruno Prats, wines like an $80 Chryseia aren’t likely to get a lot of new wine drinkers to take a flyer on it for the sake of learning. 

For our part, the door is always open.  Bring us your Alentejos, Daos, Bairradas and dry Douros and, if they excite, we will deliver the message.  Touriga Nacional, Tinto Roriz, Sausao, Baga, Trincadeira,are not household names, but they can make compelling wine under the right circumstances.  To carry the message, there needs to be something that those people will want to give a whirl.  Something that is character-filled, delicious, and laughably inexpensive has a much better chance of turning heads towards Portugal.  We have found one of those. 

Heredade de Sao Miguel is owned by the  Relvas family who purchased it in 1997.  It is located in Alentejo, an appellation southeast of Lisbon almost to the Spanish border, and within the subregion of Redondo at the northeastern end of the appellation.  The estate it self covers 175 hectares, 35 of which are planted to vines setting soils of loam and schist, with 97h/a planted to cork trees.  They also dedicated part of the property to reviving and breeding of near extinct local species, the ‘Mirandela’ donkey and the ‘Garrano’ horses of Gerês.

The story isn’t complicated.  The family farms sustainably and makes the wine in an efficient ‘minimalist’ facility they built in the middle of the vineyard.  They state that all of the fruit in Sul (Portuguese for ‘south’) comes from the estate.  These folks are all about the land and their aim with all of their wines (they make 10 different bottlings) is to showcase the unique terroir of this far-from-the-crowd region.  We were presented with a number of their wines a few weeks back. We kept coming back to this one for its plush texture, unabashed purity, and honest flavors.  We asked the question, “how much did you say this was?” more than once. 

If there are wines that can carry the banner for Portugal and make a lasting impression, this is certainly one of them.  The blend here is 50 % Aragonez (the local name for Tempranillo), 30% Alicante Bouschet, 15% Trincadeira (indigenous varietal also known as Tinta Amarela in the Douro…yeah this part can get a little complicated), and 5% good old Cabernet Sauvignon.  The wine is cold-soaked then vacuum pressed and fermented in stainless steel where it sees some exposure to staves plus 10% in 400L barrels.  Sure we can do the geek-speak, but that is not the story here.

The unfettered juice is the star, and the Herdad de Sao Miguel delivers well above its station with a mouthful of dark red fruit tinged with spice and dusty notes, relatively low acidity and modest ripe tannins.  The pleasing mid-palate lots of inviting fruit and it’s very Portuguese in that it’s a delicious wine on the table alongside some grilled meats and some lively conversation.  In short order, you’ll wonder where that bottle went and, at $10, there are few financial consequences.  It’s a fine ambassador for Alentejo, and Portugal, and a great choice for a go-to value ‘house red’ without qualification. 

Vinho Verde a Cut Above

If you have ever been to Portugal, the whole idea of Vinho Verde (literally the term means ‘green wine’) is completely ingrained in the culture.  The genre essentially exists to ‘serve,’ delivering a crisp, clean, vibrant wine to drink on the patio, along the shore, or with a plate of seafood.  In most of its manifestations it is typically a functional wine, made more to wash down nibbles and not necessarily to be contemplated to any great degree.  All of that works fine in Portugal.  But when you get back here and aren’t sitting in a café at the beach, most of the wines come off as simple, one-dimensional, and yeoman.  While we love the concept of that all-purpose, crisp, vibrant white to go with all manner of fare, there has to be more.

Ambience, and the fact that most vinho verdes are laughably cheap in Portugal, do a lot to contribute to the Vinho Verde experience.   It is simply ‘happy wine’ to be quaffed with gusto.  On this side of the pond there needs to be some separation.  Only a few examples are any more than just ‘functional white wine’.  But a few rise to the next level and raise the bar for the entire genre.

Those are good enough to make people take them seriously because they not only provide that clean counterpoint to a wide variety of nibbles, but they have something to say on their own.  That is a small group of wines, but those best examples take you beyond something functional and forgettable into something that has broader applications.

Some years ago we ran across Soalheiro from the northernmost point of Portugal, quite near Galicia in fact, clearly a winery that took their business a lot more seriously than most.  It was evident they were working to infuse much more character in their wines.  Our first experience with them was an Alvarinho (what the Portuguese call Albarino) some years ago.  It was one of the best ‘Alvarinhos’ we had ever had outside of Spain.

By comparison, and we’re presuming it has something to do with the more inland vineyard location, the Portuguese model shows a little less salinity but a touch more of a floral and honeyed aspect.  Absolutely delicious and lifted, the Soalheiro Alvarinho Vinho Verde 2017 functions like a deluxe version of the genre and takes it to a new level.

Wine Advocate says of this perennial winner, “The 2017 Alvarinho is dry…colloquially known as the “classico,” the flagship unoaked Alvarinho, is typically one of the finest values in Vinho Verde. It ages effortlessly. It’s concentrated and structured. Plus, with 100,000 bottles produced, there’s enough of it to make it a little easier to acquire than some specialty bottlings. Sourced from 25-year-old vines, this shows off that bit of “Soalheiro Green,” as I like to call it, then adds a big finish and a concentrated mid-palate to accompany the herbs. Ripe, fruity and surprisingly accessible this year, this shows very well from the get-go… 92 Points!

We were also quite excited with this new (to us anyway) value offering from Soalheiro, both made and priced like other Vinho Verdes.  This one is a blend of Alvarinho and Louriero grown in granite soils and harvested by hand into small crates.  Cold nights, slow fermentation in stainless steel, this is a lively, crisp, perhaps more casual offering but, again, a joy in the glass.  Good notes from Advocate on the Soalheiro Allo Vinho Verde 2017 as well, “This is another punch-above-your-weight wine from Vinho Verde in general and Soalheiro in particular. It’s not quite as deep as the monovarietal Alvarinho, but it has fine concentration for an inexpensive blend nonetheless. Plus, there’s that little bit extra in those other areas—flavor and aromatics. Then, there’s the acidity… 91 Points.”

The category provides an outstanding choice for aperitif and lighter cuisine (particularly shellfish) during the warmer times of the year.  The Soalheiro has been a star around here for some time, the ‘Allo’ clearly destined to be one.

 

PORT REPORT: 2016s SHOWING STYLE

It has been a few vintages since we had a widely declared vintage in Oporto.  But the 2016s are coming to market by the end of the year and we had the opportunity to taste a good cross-section of top labels.  As to the vintage profile, every vintage is unique and doesn’t necessarily directly compare to other vintages.  In the case of 2016, there is one similarity to 2011 in that the crop was very small, even a little smaller than ’11.

Our first question was what vintages does 2016 compare to, specifically to our modern benchmarks in 2011 and 1994?  The answer from is that 1994 was bigger and more powerful and 2011 was softer and more overtly fruit-driven.  The 2016s have plenty of punch, by all measures.  But they have uncommon purity and more lift than either of the aforementioned vintages.  Penetrating without being cumbersome, we don’t recall a vintage where the personalities of the various vineyards were more on display and where the stylistic differences between them were so easily discerned.

A little more restrained out of the gate than most of the modern vintages we can recall, the wines have a certain freshness and bounce on the palate and we don’t recall making the comment about any of them being too ‘spirity’.  It is definitely a vintage for Port aficionados to pay attention to as they are not only distinctive but definitely different from anything you have.  We will be making prearrival offers as they become available but this is a vintage to pay attention too.  Below are some quick notes on what we tasted.

QUINTA DO RORIZ 2016: This one demonstrated that Port doesn’t have to be ponderous or super sweet to make an impression.  We’ll guess the media reviews from the usual Port ‘scrum’ tasting will not favor the more delicate style, but one-on-one it is a delightful, elegant, very precise rendition of the  genre.  Blueberries, notes of spice, this can be best described as the prettier side of Oporto, full of true fruit flavors but also sleek and elegant.   

 SMITH WOODHOUSE 2016: This often gets overlooked because the name doesn’t carry the same weight as some of the other houses in the marketplace.  There is plenty of stuffing here in a more compact style that accents black raspberry and lifted spice notes.  Neal Martin in the review of the 2011 called Smith Woodhouse ‘perpetually underrated’ which helps keep it as one of the better values in top-tier vintage Port.

GRAHAM’S 2016:  This is Graham’s.  Expressive, crowd pleasing, on the plusher end of the spectrum and overtly fruit driven and suppler on the palate among the usual suspects.  Arguably the easiest to drink among this outstanding group, that is merely the Graham profile.  It will likely be among the declared stars of the vintage for its gushing display of blackberry, clove, spice and dark cherry.

COCKBURN’S 2016: The 1983 Cockburn was a benchmark among the greatest Ports we sold over the last three decades, after which you didn’t really hear much about them.  While we didn’t get much of an opportunity to explore the highly reviewed 2011, our first impression of this one was, “wow, this calls to mind that 1983.”  People remarked with the 2011 that ‘Cockburn is back’, and it certainly seems to be.  This has size but also elegance and sits nicely on the palate with loads of pleasing berry, date and spice character remaining light on its feet at all times.

DOW’S 2016: We would not be surprised if this one was once again the ‘critics choice’ among this admirable assortment.  The 2011 was Spectator wine of the year and, stylistically, probably is closest to what most people’s ideal Port is supposed to taste like. Big dark fruits, perhaps more exotic spice notes in the profile, maybe even a little blood, this is impressive for both its power and harmony. Like Cockburn, Dow seems at the top of their game.

QUINTA DO VESUVIO 2016:  This has been a house favorite since the beginning and, even though it didn’t necessarily get the biggest reviews, the 1994 was a legend in our minds.  This single vineyard bottling has a different program that your more famous labels because it is a single quinta. So they bottle something in most vintages rather than 2-3 times per decade like a typical vintage Port. Moderately weighty, super pure, penetrating blueberry fruit with flecks of minerality and a whiff of pepper, this isn’t the biggest or the ripest port on the list but it is one of the most distinctive.

GRAHAM’S THE STONE TERRACES 2016: Given our experience in Chateauneuf where many of the ‘reserve’ bottling were created at the expense of the ‘traditional’ cuvees.  Doesn’t seem to be the case here as the regular Graham’s is quite good.  The Stone Terraces was started in 2011 as a specific cuvee sourced from two hillside terraced plots that dated to the 18th Century.  A bit more reticent than the ‘regular’ cuvee with deep, polished fruit tones, lovely texture and an almost haunting purity, you’ve got black fruits, mineral, and a violet component that bring the drama.  Very limited.

 QUINTA DO VESUVIO CAPELA 2016: Same idea as the ‘Terraces’, Capela is a special cuvee created primarily from a single parcel in the ‘Vale de Escola’ part of the Vesuvio holdings.  This cuvee dates all the way back to 2007, making this one the third installment of this Touriga Nacional dominated wine.  They only make this in top vintages.  There is plenty of authority to the intense blackberry fruit and a finishing kick of citrus and mineral, and we suspect the press will hurl a lot of superlatives at this one, particularly since the production is so minuscule.