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Notes To Self – Portuguese Wines

May 30, 2015 5 comments

Well, yes, you got me – if I would really try to write a note for myself to remember, I could easily write it in my paper journal and keep it to myself. Thus it is pointless to pretend that these are really the “notes to self”, which are typically starting with “next time, remember that …”. Nevertheless, what I would like to stress that this post is simply an attempt to share my understanding of a few elements of the Portuguese wines, based on the trips to Portugal, drinking Portuguese wines and talking to both people who make them and people who serve them. I will not be producing the map and talking about all the Portuguese wine regions and all the styles of wines; I will not be talking about terroir, soils or climate – there are many sources for that. You can simply look at this writing as a collection of facts and thoughts about Portuguese wines, heavily slated towards the wines of Douro – some are just for fun, and some that might have a practical value.

Portuguese Wine BlendsMost of the Portuguese wines (white, red, Port) are blends. Moreover, they are not the traditional blends, but instead they are the field blends. If you will look at the bottle of Bordeaux or California wine, there is a good chance you will see the exact proportions of the different grapes in that wine – 35% Grenache, 25% Syrah, etc. What you would typically see on the bottle of Portuguese wine are the names of the grapes (Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, etc), but not the associated percentages. This is due to the fact that the different grapes are growing together in the vineyard, they are harvested together and vinified together, without any ability to identify the amount of the particular grape in the blend. In some cases even the exact grapes in the vineyard are unknown. and you might see on the label “and other local grapes”. This information is more of a fun fact – there is nothing for you to deduce about taste, quality or age-worthiness of the wine – but it is something which is “interesting to know”. Besides, nowadays people became obsessed with wine factoids, so somehow when wine consumers see that wine contains 25% of Grenache and not 35% of Grenache, they feel better. And they definitely feel a lot better  when they see a percentage of that Grenache listed instead just the name of the grape. But when it comes to the traditional Portuguese wines, those percentages are impossible to obtain, so you can simply save yourself time and just accept it for what it is.

Portuguese Reserva Wines Now, here is more practical tidbit of information for you. The word “Reserva” matters on the label of the wine from Douro. You are laughing and having a “duh  moment”? Totally fine with me, but let me proceed here anyway. I remember a very interesting experience from my previous trip to Portugal. We ordered a wine in the restaurant, and it was outstanding – deep, concentrated, absolutely delicious. I loved it so much that I even bought a few bottles for home, right there at the restaurant. I came back to exact same restaurant and ordered exact same wine a few days later – and couldn’t believe I liked it last time so much. No, it was not bad, but it was very simplistic, drinkable but quite average. Later on I realized that the only difference between the wines was the word Reserva on the label. Similar story took place in conversation with our waiter at the hotel. During the first visit, we had one of most stunning red wines ever, Casa Burmester Red from Douro (it was a #3 wine in my Top List from 2013). During the last visit, when I asked our waiter about the Casa Burmester red, he made face and pretty much asked me “why do you want to drink that? that is not a good wine”. Only after I added the word Reserva I was able to get an agreeing nod “ah, Reserva, sure”.

Yes, the word Reserva is regulated and appears on many of the wine bottles from the different regions. However, from the wines I tasted, it makes the biggest difference in the wines of Douro, by a wide margin. Talking about the same producers, Chianti Reserva would be a bit more concentrated than a regular Chianti, the same would be true for Brunello Reserva versus regular Brunello. Rioja Reserva would appear quite different from the Crianza, but typically both wines would be delicious in their own right and will share common traits. At the same time, if you will taste both regular and Reserva wines from the same producer in Douro, you would think there is no relationship between the wines whatsoever, and the regular wines will show as quite simplistic, at the best qualified as so called “BBQ reds”. The word Reserva puts those same wines on the world stage and immediately lines them up with the best of the best, usually at a fraction of a price (a $30 Reserva from Douro would easily beat lots of $100+ wines – of course I’m speaking for myself).

Whats makes such a huge difference? I don’t know (and if you do, I would greatly appreciate the comment). The only regulated difference I’m aware of between regular and Reserva wines in Douro is that Reserva wines have to spend at least 1 year in the oak. Could it be that better grapes are going into Reserva? Of course. Another interesting factor might be Douro Institute (IVDP), the governing body of the Douro wines. What is important to understand is that IVDP not only regulates the yield, the grapes, the irrigation and so on – all the wines (pay attention here – ALL the wines) are sent to and blind tasted by IVDP to approve or deny the winery designation for the particular wine. The rejection rate at IVDP is quite high at 17% – thus it is well possible that IVDP becomes a significant factor in making the Reserva wines so different. Bottom line is simple – if you can find a Reserva wine from Douro, go for it, there is a good chance you might really like it.

Broken OpenerThe realization of the dare importance of Reserva was probably my most significant wine discovery of the last trip. I was actually planning to mention a few more things, but I’m not sure how important those are. Here is one – which is rather a curious observation. Don’t know about you, but as I live in the US, I’m used to seeing many wines, especially the simple ones, to be closed with the screw top rather than the cork. This is not the case in the Portugal, the land of the cork trees – even the simplest, 80 cents wines from the supermarket, are still closed with the nice cork. Remember that if you will get thirsty all of a sudden in Portugal, there is no such thing as “twist and pour”. This can lead to the curious moment – see the wine opener in my hotel room been broken … by the cork.

I’m almost done here, I promise – just one more note. Vintage Port is definitely a flagship of the Portuguese wine industry, and of course we would love to drink that whenever possible. As a flagship, the Vintage Port is also costs appropriately (pushing a $70/bottle boundary across many producers). What you need to remember is that Vintage Port is essentially a regular wine – fortified, yes, but still a regular wine, which didn’t go through all the barrel ageing and oxidation – therefore, you should treat it exactly as a regular bottle of wine. Slightly chill before serving, and most importantly, consume within 2-3 days. Unlike Tawny Port, which can be kept around for a month or so after opening, Vintage Port will lose all of its beauty in 2-3 days. Also, considering the price of the Vintage Port, don’t ignore the LBV, Late Bottled Vintage port – it has the same vintage designation as a Vintage port, but will cost a lot less (typically under $30), and will last a little longer once opened, compare to the Vintage Port. You can look at LBV as the second label of the Vintage Port, if you will.

And we are done here. I hope you will find my notes to self (and to you) useful. Enjoy your weekend and cheers!

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