Portugal Tasting Report 2018 - It's not just about the Port!
Portugal is not just about the Port, and that is what I learned after spending a week tasting dozens of wines both in Porto and the Douro. I arrived in Portugal excited about the 2016 Port vintage, that had been released only a few months earlier. I heard reports it was the Port of the century. However knowing that only 15% of Portuguese wine makes it to Port, something told me there was something else, to this small country, apart from the wonderful Fortified sweet wine, which has been drunk by the British for centuries.
My tasting trip to Portugal had two parts, tasting through the vineyards in the Douro, followed by a tasting in Port houses in Porto. Both parts were important since both places told a different story on Portuguese wine. The trip started in the Douro, this is probably the most beautiful setting for vineyards in the world. I cannot think of a place more picturesque than the Douro. I could just drive around this region for hours admiring the view and trying to keep all 4 wheels on the road! The two vineyards I visited were Quinta do Vallado and Quinta Vale Dona Maria. Both of these vineyards are the benchmark, for top quality Portuguese wine, and so I was excited to see what they had on offer.
Quinta Do Vallado offers both white and red wine from entry level to top end wines at over $200 USD. They buy most grapes for their entry level, however, grow and bottle their medium to top end range. I was taken around by Ricardo, who explained how the vineyard was also trying to go Organic or at least sustainable. It is a long-term project, however significant progress has already been made. It was an exciting time to be at the vineyard since harvest was in full swing. One of the first questions I had, was whether they picked by hand and if they picked the grapes at night. Ricardo told me it was impossible to pick at night or by machine due to the steep slopes. Well, I think I won the dumb question of the day award! Hand picking allows for a better product. Nighttime harvest is more or less impossible, so they try to pick early in the morning to ensure they do not damage the berries. In terms of the 2018 vintage, he was not over-optimistic, after three good vintages, 2018 was a challenging year, with too much rain early in the summer and then a very hot July, August. Mildrew was difficult to control and the grapes struggled in the heat not to over-heat and whither. Yields would be low, however, he hoped that the quality would be good. Only time will tell.
I tried through the majority of what Quinta do Vallado sold to the market. I was incredibly impressed with the quality of what was on offer. The entry-level wines were lean, simple yet enjoyable. The highlights were the Quinta do Vallado Rosé, 100% Touriga Nacional(91 points), with notes of fresh raspberries, strawberries, with a simple but elegant finish. Moving on the to the mid-range end, I was blown away by the Quinta do Vallado Douro Branco Reserva 2017 (92 points), a blend of Rabigato, Gouveio, Arinto, and Viosinho. This wine showed aromas of tropical fruit and pear, the palate was full of pear, pineapple, white pepper with great minerality and seductive finish. Finally, the Quinta do Vallado Touriga Nacional Douro 2016 (92 points), was a 100% Touriga Nacional. This wine showed the full potential of the Touriga Nacional grape and how it is has a bright future, not just in Portugal but potentially outside of the country. This wine was elegant and floral, with notes of blackberry jam, pepper, and spice. We also tried some of their Port which I will cover in a separate post. The quality of Quinta do Vallado wines really surprised, their mid-range wines really showed very well. They were easy to drink, well made and affordable.
Holding Touriga Nactional grapes at Quinta do Vallado
For lunch, I then headed an hour along the Douro to Quinta Vale Dona Maria. I was met by Cristiano van Zeller. Cristiano's history is worth writing a book about. He has previously worked or owned Quinta do Noval, Quinta do Crasto and Quinta do Vallado. So pretty much the most famous vineyards in Portugal. Cristiano then set up his own vineyard Quinta Vale Dona Maria(1996), and recently extended his vineyards by acquiring Van Zeller's from his cousins, João and Pedroin in 2006. It was previously managed by Cristiano when he was in charge at Quinta do Noval. I found Cristiano to be one of the most interesting, humble and knowledgeable gentlemen in the world of wine, that I have come across. I refer to him as the godfather of the wine of Portugal, he is the face of Portuguese wine, and I am convinced the transformation in Portuguese wine in the last 20 years is partly due to Cristiano.
Quinta Vale Dona Maria has incorporated all of Cristiano's knowledge, lessons learned and passion towards making wine over his career. He explained to me, that the last 20 years the quality of winemaking in Portugal has exploded. These gains are especially significant in the dry Douro wine space. 20 years ago, the focus was solely on Port. This meant the harvesting focused solely on the perfect time to pick the grapes for Port wine.
Wine of the tasting, you will have to wait for my report on Port to find out, which bottle it is!
By law there is only a certain amount of Port which can be made, this left a lot of overripe grapes hanging in the vineyard, once the Port harvest was completed. So the remainder of the grapes were fermented and made in to dry (but sweet) still wine. This was not a great success. The tables started to turn, and with the popularity of the dry Douro wine increasing, grapes were picked prior to the Port grapes and not after. These not so overripe grapes produced excellent quality wine, and the resurgence began.
Back at the house at Quinta Vale Dona Maria, and the lunch was set up looking over the Douro and Cristiano's vineyard. You could sense a certain level of pride he had towards what he built. Maybe he knew, maybe not, but we were about to taste through the best wines on offer from Portugal. Winemaking at the Quinta was very traditional, all red grapes went through a foot crush (similar to Port winemaking), this allows for a slow extraction of color, tannins, and flavors. The lunch can be seen below and was as good as what it looked!
I started with the white's from both the Van Zellars vineyard and Quinta Vale Dona Maria's vineyards. The two highlights for me were the Quinta Vale D. Maria Douro Vinha de Martim 2016 (95 points), this was highly layered and rich on the nose, with notes of stone fruit and apple, the palate I found round and full with layers of fruit, little spice, and a slightly buttery but elegant finish. I was also impressed by the 2016 Quinta Vale D. Maria Douro C.V. ("Curriculum Vitae") 2016 (94 points), this had sweet citrus fruit, peaches, and a wonderfully balanced mid-palate with an acidity which kept you on the edge of your seat. On to the red's; The Quinta Vale D. Maria Douro Vinha da Francisca 2015 (96 points) was the highlight of the tasting, I could see the vineyard from our lunch spot! This wine showed a wonderful bouquet of dark red fruits, the palate showed blackberries, raspberry, and some baking spice, there was a fantastic purity of fruit alongside seducing soft tannins which had a finish which never ended. The other red which stood out for me was the Quinta Vale D. Maria Douro C.V. ("Curriculum Vitae") 2015 (95 points), this was rich, lush and full of fresh fruit. I found secondary notes of fresh earth and spice box, however, the smooth tannins and purity of the fruit really stood out again. This is one of these wines which you can enjoy today, but keep knowing it will just improve over the next 10-15 years. The Port I tried will be published in a separate post.
Cristiano pointing to the Francisca vineyard! The wine of the tasting