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.