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.
Most 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.
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.
The 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!
What starts with prologue, should end with epilogue, right? What was supposed to be may be one or two posts, became a whole series. In case you missed any of the posts, here is a full list for the study of Port series:
What else can I tell you? We had a great week in Portugal. Very short conclusion can be “great people, great food, great wines, great scenery, great time”.
All people we came across were very nice and helpful. Language barrier was never an issue (I also have to mention that a lot of people speak very good English) – one way or the other we were always able to understand each other. Hotel, restaurants, port houses, stores, our numerous walking tours will only stay in memory with great people encounters.
The food? Very good quality, very reasonably priced. Memorable moments? Bacalhau, Francesinha, lots of fresh fish and shellfish of all kinds. Tuna fish spread is served in almost all restaurants with the bread (you need to ask for butter). Port is available at the buffet breakfast in the hotel, next to the orange juice. Below is the best representation for you (sorry if I make you hungry):
But probably the most important part about the food in Portugal is the fact that Portugal practically doesn’t import any agricultural products – everything is either produced, caught or raised locally, and you can taste it.
When it comes to wines, the story becomes interesting. First, there are about 80 grape varieties growing in Portugal, most of them are indigenous grapes. Here is a glimpse for you, as captured in the picture below:
By the way, these unique grapes are a great find for all aspiring Wine Centurions – I personally added 5 new grapes to my list – here they are:
Codega do Larinho – 2011 Castello D’Alba from Douro
Rabigato – 2011 Castello D’Alba from Douro
Moscatel Galego Branco – 2012 Portal Colheita Branco Douro DOC
Antão Vaz – 2010 Herdade Dos Grous Branco Vinho Regional Alentejano
Donzelinho – 2011 Niepoort Tiara Douro Branco
Outside of Port, very few of the Portuguese wines make it to US, and out of those few, there is even lesser number of wines of notice. Meanwhile, if you will make it to Portugal, you will be literally astonished by the availability of very inexpensive and absolutely delicious wines, both in the stores and in the restaurants. I already gave you my account of great wine encounters in the previous posts (Quinta do Cardo, Niepoort Tiara, Quevedo Vintage Port), but I actually saved the best for last – 2009 Casa Burmester Reserva Douro DOC (blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinto Roriz) was an absolute highlight of the red wines I tasted during the Porto trip.
I don’t want to even describe this wine in terms of berries, chocolate, coffee, spices – it had everything, but the major thing about this wine was an absolute balance of fruit, structure, power, acidity, tannins – all the elements which make you go “wow” after the first sip where perfectly there. I can’t give you one to one analogy for the way this wine tasted, but to give you an idea of how impressed I was, I would safely put it in one line with 2000 Chateau Margaux, Vega Sicilia Unico and Vintage Krug Champagne. In case you are curious about my rating, this wine gets Drinkability: 9.
I believe I sufficiently inundated you with the pictures of the beautiful scenery, but let me still add a few more:
Time to finally conclude the series. I don’t know what you think, but I really enjoyed writing all these posts. I also saw a lot of happy comments, including those where people said that they will definitely go and visit Portugal (which will be very smart, if you ask me). If you will actually travel to Porto, I hope you will find some useful information here. And in any case, thanks for reading and cheers!
I have to break the tradition today – there will be no wine quiz for you to solve. Instead, I’m going to share the experience with you.
As you know, my day time work had nothing to do with wine. But – because of that work, I’m spending this week, in Portugal – hence the title of this blog post. I’m not just in Portugal, I’m actually in the city called Porto – and this is where the Port was born. Over the next few days, I plan to learn as much as I can about Port – and share that with you. But, considering that I’m still jet-lagged, there is not much I can share at the moment – besides a few pictures. Rest assured – more pictures and notes are coming soon!
That’s all I have for you for today, folks. Don’t worry – the wine quizzes will be back, just after we will talk a bit about Port. Cheers!
It’s been a while since I talked about wine stores in this blog, so may be it is time to tell you about another one of my favorite wine stores (here you can read about other stores from that same “wine stores to love” list – Cost Less Wine and PJ Wine). Today I want to bring to your attention a store in New Jersey called Bottle King – well, actually it is a group of 14 wine stores, all located in New Jersey, plus the online store called The Wine Buyer, so even if New Jersey is far away for you, you can enjoy great values.
The store I usually shop at is located in the town of Glen Rock in northern New Jersey, so this is the store I’m writing about. Bottle King sells everything from beer to wine and to all kinds of liquors, plus stores have a section called The Vineyard Market, where cheeses and such are sold. Interestingly [sadly] enough, wine stores in Connecticut are prohibited from selling of any of the food items – one day I will write a big rant blog post about stupidity of the laws and regulations we have around alcohol… one day. Anyway, let’s go back to the Bottle King wine stores. For me the major feature of the store is wine – but liquors section shouldn’t be ignored, as while it is on the smaller side, the selection, variety and prices are quite good (not that you can really see it in the photo below, but I tried).
The whole store can be essentially described in one word – value. In any department, there are always lots of great values to be found. Also the concept of “value” is delivered on multiple levels.
First, Bottle King runs loyalty program called “BK Club”. The program is free and easy to sign up for. Once you have a BK Club membership, all you need to do is to look for the special prices advertised for BK Club customers:
In addition to BK Club deals, there are always many wines on sale, and certain items might be even on “super-sale” which in a lot of cases represents really great buying opportunity. Last but not least, every time you buy a case of wine, there is 20% discount applied to all non-sale and non-club items (but those count towards the case).
Wine is mostly organized by the country, and then by the grape (depending on the size of the country’s section). If you are looking for the value, the section you want to be heading to is Portugal – it is one of the closest to the entrance and it is the section where I usually start my walk around.
Here is a look at the shelf in that Portugal section:
Just to explain in more practical terms what I mean by value, here is an example of the wines you can find in that Portuguese section.
These two wines, made by Fado, cost $4.99 each. 2011 Fado White (13% ABV) has very nice nose with the hint of fresh-cut grass and fresh lemon – just a hint, it is not “in your face” wine. This continues on the palate, with light herbs and citrus notes, perfect acidity, round and balanced (Drinkability: 7+).
2010 Fado Red (13.5% ABV) has medium body, nice red fruit on the nose, more red fruit and again some herbaceous notes with some plums on the palate, soft tannins and good balancing acidity (Drinkability: 7+). Would either of these wines carry a label of France or California, you would gladly pay $20+ for them and still consider it to be a good value.
In addition to Portugal, the same shelf is shared by sparkling wines (not a bad selection, but mostly focused on mainstream France and Italy, lacking growers’ champagne, some of the artisan US sparklers, and also limited in Cava options). You can also find a few wines from South Africa and Greece, but literally only a few different bottles.
There is a decent choice of New Zealand and Australian wines. Spanish wines are underrepresented to my taste, but still have some good values from Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Priorat and so on.
California takes a very significant part of the store, sorted by variety, and of course having a lot of great values in every category.
France is really comes second after California in the amount of the shelf space it is occupying:
And there are plenty of values to be found in the French section:
France is focused on Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone, with addition of Languedoc and Loire – if you are looking for obscure Jura wine, this most likely will not be the place for you. Italy is closely trailing France in the amount of shelf space it is occupying, and has good representation of all main regions.
You will also have no problems finding wines from Chile and Argentina, as well as Port (lots of great selections, including super-discounted vintage port from time to time).
I can’t really comment on effectiveness of the service, as I had been offered help a few times, but always declined, as my strong preference is to browse the selection on my own terms, and I don’t really know sometimes what exactly I’m looking for (well, okay, I’m looking for the signs of super-sale and overall the amazingly priced wines, but please keep it a secret). I would love to see people at the cash register a bit more smiling and welcoming (send them for training to the Trader Joe’s, may be?), but hey, value can’t come without some expense, can it?
All in all, Bottle King stores are definitely worth a visit, even if you have to take a special trip – by the way, they are open tomorrow, July 4th, in case you got some time…
That’s all, folks. Cheers!