Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Exploring Portuguese Wines: They're the Next Big Thing

I'm a novice when it comes to Portuguese wine. Until recently I'd never had anything other than port from this region. WBW #38 really opened my eyes to the wonderful variety and stunning value of Portuguese wines, and so it was especially exciting for me to attend yesterday's "Wines and Portos of Portugal" tasting in Los Angeles at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Ray. Sponsored by the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto and ViniPortugal, I learned so much from this tasting.

Yesterday's event was one of a series of tastings that are being held throughout the country to introduce folks to Portuguese wine, and if you are living in Portland, Seattle, or Boston I highly recommend that you attend one of the public tasting events that is happening over the next few days and weeks. More than seventeen different producers were there, pouring both ports and table wines. The cost is only $25-$30 and the proceeds benefit local humane societies (the cover image from the program celebrating another indigenous Portuguese beauty, the water dog, is to the right).

So what did I learn from my tasting?

1. Portuguese wines are food friendly. I sampled dozens of wines and I can say in truth that I didn't taste a single one that didn't make me think, "oh, this would be so great with X food." The real revelation for me here was Trincadeira, a native varietal that has all the silky and fruity qualities of pinot noir, with aromas of summer flowers and fields. The 2006 Vila Santa Trincadeira made by Joao Portugal Ramos was silky, and tasted like blackberries and cream. It would have been perfect with any food that you normally pair with pinot noir. I was so keen on Trinacadeira by the time I left the tasting that I went home and opened up a bottle that was in my cellar!

2. Portuguese wines represent insanely good value. Many of the wines I tasted are not yet available in the States (see #5) but of those that were, I was taken aback at how inexpensive they were compared to other US and European bottlings. Most were well under $20. And they had complexity and finesse, to boot.

3. Portugal produces aromatic reds and crisp whites. Portuguese wines will clear all the cobwebs out of your palate. These whites were crisp, clean and lively, especially wines such as the NV Aveleda Vinho Verde, which retails in most places for around $5. Some tasted like champagne without bubbles, like the 2006 Quinta da Aveleda Vinho Verde which retails for around $6. On the red side, the table wines had amazing, evocative aromas of flowers, herbs, and stone. The 2003 Herdade do Meio Garrafeira from Alentejo smelled of violets, and had flavors of blackberry and cherry. The 2006 Marques de Borba had aromas of cherry blossom and raspberry. And the 2003 Conde de Vimiosa Reserva exploded in your mouth with eucalyptus, cherry, and an intriguing note of grilled meat.

4. Portuguese wine makers are experimenting with the newer "international style" of wines, but they haven't forgotten their wine-making roots. Trinacadeira, Touriga, and Maria Gomes are just some of the varietals that I tasted yesterday, and they are featured in the blends that so many Portuguese wine makers favor. There is cabernet sauvignon, too, and Aragonese (as the Portuguese call Tempranillo), as well as Alicante Bouschet. Portuguese wine makers are clearly dabbling in the more international style of wines made with more oak and heavier body. One of the standouts of this style for me was the 2004 Bacalhoa Palacio da Bacalhoa, with its blend of Touriga, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. This was smooth, silky, and aromatic with dry black cherry flavors and a sophisticated use of oak to lend it some grip and smokiness. But they are not leaving their native varietals, relatively low alcohol levels, and traditional flavor profiles entirely behind, either.

5. Portuguese wines need wider distribution to US consumers. These are fantastic, fantastic wines. Yet many of them are not available in the US. If you are a store owner, distributor or sales rep and you are reading this, what are you waiting for? I found 1 bottle of Portuguese wine in my area of LA last month after 3 weeks of searching and visits to nearly a half dozen stores. US consumers are thirsty for more great value wines, and they are more willing to try new varietals than ever before. Help us out, and bring these wines into our stores. If you are skeptical, I assure you that one Saturday tasting is all it will take to get them flying off the shelves.

After this tasting, I am fully convinced that Portuguese wines are the next big thing. Spanish wines have primed us for all that the Iberian peninsula has to offer. And what a fun trip it will be to explore this region and its wines! I'll have some more specific notes on wines and producers in upcoming posts, but until then start asking your local merchants to stock some Portuguese wines.

I sure hope that this will become an annual event here in LA, because I ran out of time before I tasted a drop of the ports that were being poured! And they were pouring some that were 40-years old.


Gabriella Opaz said...

Fantastic post! Granted, I'm a little biased on the topic, but I sincerely enjoyed both the way you defended Portuguese wine and how you related it to your experience. One who can combine theory and practice is a sign of great teacher ;-)

However, I have one more point I would like to add that I think is extremely important: the Portuguese producers want to be seen. Sure, all producers around the world want to be seen and heard, but having been in Lisbon in a room chalk full of producers, you couldn't find one who wouldn't have painted himself red, white and blue to have someone pay attention to him. So, what gives? If Portugal has quality wines that or both unique and of great value, why aren't we paying attention?

Richard Auffrey said...

I should be attending the Boston wine tasting and your review certainly made me more excited to go. I too don't have much experience with Portuguese wines, though I have enjoyed a few over the past few years. I do look forward to the wide variety of wines that will be available at the tasting.

I know there are a couple local wine stores that sell Portuguese wines. They are located generally in neighborhoods with a high Portuguese/Brazilian population. Though I really did not know which wines to buy.

Jeff said...

I am amazed every time I taste a Portuguese wine at the complexity of flavors they provide - even the inexpensive bottles. I also appreciate their food-friendliness. While I can't say I've had a lot, I can say I've never had a Portuguese wine that I didn't really enjoy.

Dr. Debs said...

Jeff, I can but agree--not had a bad bottle yet. And Richard, you will definitely know which wines (or at least which varietals) to buy after attending this tasting.

Gabriella, I think we aren't paying attention here in the US because we can't find the wine. 1/2 of the producers at the tasting were looking for US representation--and this was some amazing wine. All of us want recognition for what we do. Some get it and some don't. I just want to see more Portuguese producers getting it.

To do so, I think these tastings are crucial. I told people I was going to a Portuguese tasting and they said, "Oh, I don't like sweet wines." It's like riesling was a few years ago. But it will change, if people can just get their hands on the stuff.