Tasting Fifty Great Wines of Portugal

Meg Houston Maker reviews fifty Portuguese wines selected by a panel of master sommeliers.

Fifty Great Wines of Portugal

Not Fifty Greatest Wines. Just Fifty Great Wines.

But only fifty. Over the course of one week, a panel of three master sommeliers had labored to winnow a lineup of four hundred candidate wines to that target number. I can imagine the polite kvetching. Maybe it wasn’t always polite.

But it worked, and in the end there were fifty, and the three sommeliers gathered March 29, 2016, at Manhattan’s High Line hotel to unveil the chosen wines to members of the trade.

Evan Goldstein, MS, emceed the proceedings, which he and his team had expertly organized. The panel—master sommeliers Peter Granoff, Dennis Kelly, and Madeline Triffon—sat upon a dais at the head of the room while Goldstein danced around. Together they tasted us through the wines, one by one.

We kicked off with whites, which Triffon declared “Exciting, stylish, not monochromatic.” Alvarinho made a consistent appearance in these blends and varietal wines, along with Loureiro and a smattering of other native grapes. Alvarinho can produce rich wines, with medium to high alcohol, and its opulence even allows it to take some oak. But the wines overall were fresh and citrusy, the best gleaming with a bright mineral streak.

Next up was a flight of Touriga-centric blends. Granoff made an analogy to Bordeaux: Think of Touriga Nacional as Cabernet Sauvignon—“structured and robust,” he said—and Touriga Franca as the high-toned Cabernet Franc. “Franca is a team player,” Triffon added, while “Touriga tends to dominate a bit. But Franca has very strong granitic minerality and also strong floral elements: violets, lavender, fresh and dried herbs. Really pretty. It gently pulls your attention.”

Two more red flights followed, mostly blends (mono-varietal wines are still uncommon in Portugal). The first of these, poured at lunch, included vintage Ports, and there was one exquisite Madeira. The final flight showcased field blends, some very old-vine, from Alentejo and Douro. My notes are full of words like cherries and plums, velvet and earthbitterness and refinement.

The thread uniting these fifty great Portuguese wines? Quality, value, and deliciousness—but also complexity. Native Portuguese grapes dominate, and their names are likely mysterious to many American wine lovers. They should become better known.

That complexity, though, is part of their allure. Peter Granoff, after having been introduced, took the mic from Goldstein. “Whenever I hear myself described as ‘Master Sommelier,’ I think, Really—Nobody ever masters this,” he said. “And Portuguese wines are one reason why.”

Evan Goldstein and Panelists Peter Granoff, Dennis Kelly, and Madeline Triffon

Evan Goldstein, MS, introducing panelists and fellow Master Sommeliers Peter Granoff, Dennis Kelly, and Madeline Triffon.

 

TASTING NOTES

Below are my notes on the fifty wines poured at the tasting. Wines I found particularly compelling are marked with an asterisk (*). Most are imported into the U.S., and I have additional information on each wine, including the importer, so please leave a comment if you wish to know more. Enjoy.

 

White Wines

2014 Soc. Agrícola Casal de Ventozela Loureiro Vinho Verde
Wildly aromatic, with orange blossoms, honey, and yellow peach. It’s silky textured, owing in part to some bâtonnage, but also offers a crackly, zesty finish. This varietal Loureiro was grown in granite soils in a region of Vinho Verde that receives cooling Atlantic influences, which keep it fresh. $15

 

2014 Vinusoalleirus Alvarinho Soalheiro Primeiras Vinhas Vinho Verde
Primeiras Vinhas means “first vines,” or, roughly, “old vines.” This Alvarinho was grown in granite soils under a mountain rain shadow. It’s briny, with tart lemon peel aromas and big grapefruit flavors. The body is lemony-fresh, steeped in laurel and lime peel, and delivers a shock of mineral zest. $22

 

2015 Quinta da Lixa Aromas das Castas Vinho Verde
All stainless, no malolactic, no lees stirring—nothing in the way. A blend of Alvarinho and Trajadura with a fragrance that’s white flowered and demure but with flavors of crisp white peach, tart green pear, and bay laurel. A wine with both good ripeness and sharp focus. $13

 

2015 Fiuza & Bright Fiuza Alvarinho Tejo
The Alvarinho was grown in limestone and clay, and the wine feels quiet and linear, with a blade of lemon and lemon-peel essence and a minerally, austere finish. $14

 

2012 Muxagat Vinhos Xistos Altos Douro
A varietal wine made from Rabigato grapes (the name means cat tail in Portuguese), grown in schist and harvested at yields of merely 2.2 tons per acre. The winemaker, Luis Seabra, was present at the tasting. The winery uses a vertical press dating to the 1940s, and the fruit was fermented partly in concrete egg and partly in 2,000-liter foudres new in 2012. The wine is held without racking for two winters before bottling as a form of cold stabilization. It’s slatey on the nose, oily and stony, with floral and fruit aromas only as back note. The flavors suggest apricot and yellow peach, and there’s a salty finish. No U.S. importer.

 

* 2014 Lavradores de Feitoria Douro
A blend of Malvasia Fina, Síria, and Gouveio, fermented and aged in stainless steel. It’s lightly floral, offering jasmine and citrus flowers, and while it’s light-textured and lemony, it has serious mineral snap and pine air freshness. The winery is a project of the Niepoort family. This wine is a superlative bargain. $9

 

* 2014 Carm Reserva Douro
This blend of Rabigato, Códega de Larinho, Vionsinho, and Outras was fermented in stainless steel, then aged in oak, half new. The presentation is complicated, richly embroidered with white petals and citrus fruits, pine and rosemary, grapefruit pith and salt. A big, interesting wine with gravitas. $18

 

2013 Rui Reguinga Terrenus Alentejo
Dark, smoky, earthy, and minerally—a curiosity given the others in the lineup—and its soft texture has a bitter finish. The winery works with eighteen local varieties, all from 80-year-old vines, very low yielding. This wine is a blend of seven grapes—Arinto, Fernão Pires, Bical, Roupeiro, Malvasia, Tamarez, and Boal—that together seem to form a direct vector to the earth. $15

 

2014 Monte da Ravasqueira Branco Alentejo
International varieties Viognier and Sémillon mingle here with Alvarinho and Arinto, this last grape adding zesty acid spine. The wine’s fragrance of salted flowers, yellow apple, and citrus peel blooms above big, juicy stone fruits. Succulent and pretty. $12

 

2014 Passarella Sociedade de Vinhos Casa da Passarella A Descoberta Branco Dão
Tropical fruits and flowers and snappy, almost bitter vibrancy—all in balance. A blend of Malvisia Fina, Verdelho, and Encruzado (which adds age-worthiness). Don’t over-chill it, said the somms. $15

 

2014 Goanvi Evidencia Dão
Grown in shale and aged in stainless, this varietal Encruzado is musky, with green melon and crisp refreshment. Not consequential, but for the price very well done. $9

 

2014 Pedra Cancela Vinhos Reserva Malvasia Encruzado Dão
Mostly Encruzado with a portion of Malvasia Fina, the wine was partially treated to barrique, including new French, as well as stainless. It has a lovely, honeyed sweetness and feels silky but not big, with good persistence. $17

Portuguese White Wines

Red Wines Dominated by Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca

2011 Quinta da Ponte Pedrinha Reserva Dão
A blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Alfrocheiro, and other old vines, wildly aromatic, suggesting violets, candied orange peel, anise, lavender flowers, and dried herbs. Dark black fruits complement its bitter cherrystone tannins. $22

 

2011 Quinta dos Roques Reserva Dão
Touriga Nacional is blended with Jaen (also known as Mencía), Alfrocheiro, Tinta Roriz, and Tinto Cão, aged 15 months in three- to five-year French oak. The wine is utterly opaque but has a ripe and fruity countenance: red, black, almost tropical. $33

 

* 2012 Quinta do Escudial Touriga Nacional Dão
A varietal Touriga Nacional, all stainless; only 450 cases were produced. It’s meaty, mingling red fruits, black fruits, candied violets, sweet lavender, and crushed herbs. Firm tannins complement a finish that’s savory and coffee-bitter. This wine clearly does not need oak to shine. $22

 

2012 Global Wines Casa de Santar Reserva Dão
Assertive tannins and pronounced wood notes dominate this blend of Touriga Nacional, Alfrocheiro, and Tinta Roriz. It’s smoky, too, offering smoked and cured meats and very black fruits. It feels like it needs time in bottle to calm down. $25

 

2013 Boas Quintas Barão de Vilar Dão
A light-textured wine with lilting red fruits and a scent of crushed fennel seed. It’s a blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, and Jaen, and an exceptional value. $12

 

* 2011 Quinta do Romeu Douro
An inter-planted field blend, organically farmed, of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Sousão, and Tinta Roriz. Winemaker João Menéres was present at the tasting, and noted that his vineyards lie at 320 meters elevation in the farthest eastern reaches of the Douro, very cold, with harvest three to for weeks later than in sites down-river. This helps preserves his wines’ acidity. This one is bright and juicy, offering raspberries and zesty cranberries, with firm tannins. “We want it to be clean and elegant and fresh,” said Menéres. They succeed. $20

 

2011 Quinta do Portal Quinta do Portal Grande Reserva Douro
An assertive, richly extracted wine—Madeline Triffon dubbed it “heroic”—with lavish black fruit and ample graphite-like tannins. Mostly Touriga Nacional with Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca, it’s tailored for those who love a richer New World style. $55

 

2013 Quinta da Sequeira Ecos da Sequeira Tinto Douro
The Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Susão, Tinta Roriz, and Tinta Barroca in this Tinto were grown in schist soils in the Douro Superior, un-oaked. It’s floridly aromatic, mingling purple flowers with rosemary and thyme. The palate is quieter, smooth and even-textured, with a lively drying cranberry finish. A delicious, light-hearted wine at a good price. $12

 

2013 Quinta das Bandeiras Vinhos Passagem Reserva Douro
I got a mix of scents and impressions in this wine: washed linen, lavender, violets, spring flowers, strawberries, but also bullion and macerated plums. Complex, ripe, and smiling, it’s a Touriga Nacional-dominant blend with some Franca and Sousão. $30

 

2013 Quinta do Passadouro Touriga Nacional Douro
This varietal Touriga Nacional was foot-tread in traditional granite lagares and treated to 40 percent new French oak. It’s elegant and silky, with spiced and black fruits and a flame of acidity at the finish. Only 500 cases were made. $40

 

2013 João Brito e Cunha Quinta de S. José Reserva Douro
An old-vine Touriga Nacional that smells like spring but tastes like autumn, with tulip flowers on the front and spiced red and black fruits on the finish. $38

 

2013 Quinta do Vallado Quinta do Vallado Touriga Nacional Douro
A spicy, vivacious wine redolent of black pepper, crushed anise seed, dark plum skin. It’s 100 percent Touriga Nacional, treated to 16 months in 60 percent new French oak. Generous and showy, it offers ample fruits and a drying, savory finish. Dennis Kelly praised its “flashy aromatics.” $65

Peter Granoff, MS

Peter Granoff, MS, checks bottles while Evan Goldstein, Dennis Kelly, and fellow sommeliers fill glasses for the next flight.

 

Assorted Tintos

2010 Companhia Agrícola do Sanguinhal Quinta S. Francisco Lisboa
A wine dominated by the Castelão grape, blended with Touriga Nacional and Aragonês. It’s dark and smoky—smoked meats, smoked dried cherries—with a cherry-soaked body and medium tannins. A resinous mintiness at the finish feels pleasantly cleansing. $10

 

2013 Rui Roboredo Madeira Beyra Reserva Beira Interior
Silky and succulent, the wine offers black cherry fruit, medium tannins, and a glittery finish. A blend of Tinta Roriz and Jaen grown on 40-year vines, it was treated to 100 percent new French and American oak. $15

 

2012 Caves São João Quinta do Poço do Lobo Reserva Bairrada
Grippy, aggressive tannins and chocolaty body balance candied red fruits. A blaze of acid at the end somehow ties it all together. A blend of Baga—a grape native to the Bairrada region within the province of Beira—with Touriga Nacional and Cabernet Sauvignon. $33

 

2011 Luís Pato Vinhas Velhas Tinto Bairrada
A varietal wine made from 100 percent Baga. The vineyards sit close to the Atlantic, so receive marine influences. The wine is somehow both candied and grippy, very tannic and a bit obvious, but it’s rescued by a curious, mouth-numbing fresh fennel note at the finish. $26

 

2012 Quinta do Casal Monteiro Clavis Aurea Reserva Tejo
This wine reads like a chocolate cherry cordial, with herbal top notes and a blaze of juicy pomegranate at the finish. Plush, lush, stylish, a blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Tinta Roriz, treated to 100 percent new oak. It will be popular with those who love an ample style. $20

 

2013 Casa Ermelinda Freitas Dona Ermelinda Reserva Península de Setúbal
Bitter chocolate and mint aromas lead to a body that’s richly fruity, with black cherries, black plums, and resinous herbs. Castelão is blended here with Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira, and Cabernet Sauvignon, then treated to 100 percent new French oak for 12 months. Stylish, modern, and supremely affordable. $15

 

2013 Symington Family Estates Vale do Bomfim Douro
The wine offered a slight wet wool aroma, and, despite being a blend dominated by black grapes Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional, also suggested apricots, stone fruit, tart strawberries, and bitter tea. $12.50

 

2013 Esporão Quinta dos Murças Assobio Douro
An opulent, plummy wine with ripe black raspberry fruit and a velvety texture. This wine blends equal parts Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional, and Touriga Franca into a crowd-pleasing style, especially at this price. $15

 

2013 Barão de Vilar Feuerheerds Douro
The blend commingles Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, and Touriga Nacional. It’s slightly volatile, which makes it seem lifted and floral, and its light body blooms with red stone fruit, flowers, and herbs. $14

 

Fortified Wines

* NV Madeira Wine Company Blandy’s 10 Year Old Sercial Madeira
Fermented with ambient yeast and aged in 50-year American oak, the finished wine has 48 g/L of sugar. Its texture is like a veil, sparkled with glittery acidity and notes of nut, almond extract, dried orange peel, and cherry stone. It’s spicy, too, like an orange pomander, like orange-colored silk. It’s a gorgeous wine for the price. I wanted it with a cheese course and a smattering of roasted nuts. $29

 

1997 Adriano Ramos Pinto Vinhos Ramos Pinto Vintage Port
A huge, opulent, complicated wine with pomander, spiced cherries, black chocolate, and red and dark raisin fruits. The Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, and Tinta Barroca were treated to two-thirds French and one-third Portuguese oak, in 600 to 10,000 liter tank, before the vintage bottling. Age has burnished it and added tawny tea-sweetness, but it still has miles to go. $139

 

2003 Symington Family Estates Dow’s Vintage Port
A fruit-forward Port made from old-vine Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, and Tinta Roriz, aged in casks fifty and more years old. It suggests candied red plums, spiced cherries, and licorice. Still a child. $105

 

2011 Quinta do Crasto LBV Port
An LBV made from an old-school, old-vine mixed planting of more than 35 native varieties. Shimmery cherry flavors hit the high note, while black cherries and earthy herbs take the bass. Tasty and a good value. $22

 

2011 Sogrape Vinhos Sandeman Vintage Port
Lots happening here. Inky, concentrated, with bitter chocolate and chewy red cherries, but it glows alight at the finish. The fruit—Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinto Cão, and Sousão—was worked in granite lagares and aged in oak vats. So dense it needs perhaps ten years. $90

Portuguese Red Wines

Red Wines from Alentejo and Douro

2009 Roquevale Grande Reserva Alentejo
A blend of Aragonez, Alicante Bouschet, and Tinta Caiada, dry-farmed in red shale. The wine offers freshness and abundant blue fruit notes, including tart blueberries, black plums, and blueberry jam. Vitalizing. $20

 

2010 Azamor Wines Azamor Selected Vines Alentejo
Earthy and very tannic, this blend of Syrah, Touriga Franca, and Alicante Bouschet was grown in schist and clay soils at 350 meters elevation. The body is deep velvet red with a rim like blue flame, and the flavors skew savory, not fruity. $29

 

2011 Adega de Borba Grande Reserva Alentejo
Dense and chewy, with black fruits, dried fruits, peppercorn, peppermint, and a wall of drying tannins. A fifty-fifty blend of Trincadeira and Alicante Bouschet treated to new oak, a mix of French, American, and Portuguese. It will profit from a year or two to settle down. $32

 

2011 Adega Mayor Reserva do Comendador Alentejo
A fragrance of purple flowers and mint wafts over a body of chocolate, pepper, and red cherry fruits (it sounds un-integrated but it works). The blend is dominated by Alicante Bouschet, with Syrah and Touriga Nacional, fermented in stainless and oak vat and aged in new French oak for 18 months. It wears its oak well. $34

 

2012 Cortes de Cima Alentejo
Ample and concentrated, with opulent red and black fruits but also a nice bitter snap. Blue and lavender flowers add delicate high notes. A blend of Aragonez, Syrah, Touriga Nacional, and Petit Verdot. $23

 

* 2014 Casa Agricola Alexandre Relvas Art Terra by Herdade São Miguel Alentejo
Aromatically I find rose hip, pepper, cranberries, resinous flowers, but the body is all about black raspberries and bitter blackberries. Cooling mint breezes through at the end. A fifty-fifty blend of Touriga Nacional and Syrah, organically grown and un-oaked. This is a very pretty wine—and what a price! Tragically, fewer than 700 cases were made. $15

 

2014 Herdade da Candeeira Pera Doce Premium Alentejo
A wine with a candied, almost honeyed character on the nose, and while it smells ripe its texture is coarse and drying. A blend of Syrah, Trincadeira, Aragonez, Alicante Bouschet, aged nine months in a stainless tank with oak staves or chips added. It’s rambunctious now, but perhaps six months in bottle will smooth it. $12

 

* 2001 Maria Doroteia P. de G. Serôdio de S. Borges Vinha do Fojo Douro
Note the vintage: 2001. The winery occasionally holds vintages for later release, and tasting this wine afforded an excellent opportunity to see how old-vine field blends fare with bottle age. The wine is earthy, with a slightly Bretty character that is seamless with the oxidative aging notes and suggestions of leather, tobacco, and tea. Gorgeous acidity and smooth tannins suggest there is life in the wine. Made from 80-year-old vines, principally Tinta Roriz and Tinta Barroca, foot-trodden and aged in French barrique, partly new. Lovely. $60

 

2013 Quinta do Crasto Reserva Vinhas Velhas Douro
Lavish cassis and black fruit spread deeply into the wine’s opulent, concentrated core. Made from more than 35 native varieties grown in mixed plots in an ultra-dense planting of 6,000 vines per hectare. The wine was vinified in granite lagares. Youthful, but its polish makes it enjoyable now while its spine will allow it to age. $43

 

2013 Niepoort Redoma Tinto Douro
A wine redolent of black and red licorice, smoky tobacco, and gunflint. There are red and blue fruits, here, but also a strong bitter kick that makes the wine feel unyielding. A blend of many native grapes, processed half in granite lagares and half in stainless before being moved into oak vats. The winery adds some stems to the lagares, they say, “to emphasize the harsh aspects of the Douro.” I can taste that. $42

 

2013 Quinta do Vallado Reserva Field Blend Douro
Seamless, smooth, and muscular, the wine hits lovely high notes of tea, spice, and sweet herbs, while its tea-stained body suggests red and black fruits. A blend of thirty varieties from old vineyards, aged in French oak, 60 percent new and 40 percent second use. Stylish and opulent. $60

 

2013 Sogrape Vinhos Casa Ferreirinha Quinta da Leda Douro
A blend of Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cão, and Tinta Roriz, aged 18 months in French oak, half new. The fragrance of vanilla and cherry cordial tops its juicy body, ripe with cherries and cranberry fruit. $70

Of that final wine, Madeline Triffon offered: “Lift, delicacy, and integration, even in its youth”—a fitting peroration for this terrific tasting.

 

 

All wines were media samples for review. Wines of Portugal sponsored my travel and attendance at this tasting.
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