When I first started tasting wine seriously I visited the Hunter Valley in Australia. At the time the most popular red grape was shiraz, and locals maintained the best shiraz wines had a “sweaty saddle” nose.
That was 1982. Since then I have come to appreciate that “sweaty saddle” was actually a fault known as brettanomyces, often abbreviated as “brett”. The French use the term “dekkera”. The worst kind of brett, the result of a microbiological fault caused by yeast, makes a wine smell like mouse droppings or the artificial “plastic” aroma of a band-aid. Brett is often a sign of poor hygiene in the winery, indicating that measures have not been taken to kill off bad yeasts.
But small amounts of brett can improve the flavour of wine. The Oxford Companion to Wine says “a low level has been known to beguile some tasters in some wines”.
The Herdade do Arrepiado Velho vineyard from the Alto Alentejo region of Portugal produces a wine called Brett, in homage to the best aspects of dekkera. The 2009 Brett is made entirely from syrah, a synonym for shiraz, and is aged for 16 months in a combination of new and old French oak. Fermentation occurs naturally from the yeast on the skins.
Winemaker António Maçanita aged part of the wine in barrels used in earlier vintages. The result is a wine with multiple layers of complexity, with a strong ruby-violet colour and aromas of leather – that saddle sensation we began with – combined with spices and blackberries.
The aromas are more like wet earth and mushrooms than “sweaty saddle”. Aromas of violets, often associated with the touriga nacional grape in the Douro region in Portugal’s north, give this wine elegance. It is like listening to a sad but refined song, like a fado. The tannins are ripe and firm, which means the wine needs several years in the cellar before it can be fully appreciated.
The Herdade do Arrepiado Velho (HAV) vineyard was founded in 2002 and has 33 hectares of vines. Its red varietals include touriga nacional, syrah, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot. The white varietals are antão vaz, chardonnay, viogner, verdelho and riesling. All grapes are harvested by hand.
I tried the three entry-level HAV wines. The 2012 HAV rose is a charming pink colour in the glass. In the mouth it offers pleasant acidity with just enough tannin to give the wine texture. It is a blend of touriga nacional (80 per cent) and syrah.
Winemaker António Maçanita said this rose combines the floral aromas of touriga nacional with the berry smells of syrah and his words are apt. It would match well with sushi.
The 2012 HAV white is made mainly from antão vaz (70 per cent) with 10 per cent each of viognier, verdelho and riesling. It is aged in stainless steel tanks. Antão vaz grows well in Portugal though it does not perform so well in neighbouring countries, which shows how grapes produce different results in different terroir.
This wine was made by gentle whole-bunch pressing that helped avoid any harsh phenolic compounds. The result is a soft wine, pale lemon in colour, with pleasant minerality. It has aromas of ripe fruit such as pineapple with refreshing acidity.
The HAV 2012 red is 100 per cent touriga nacional, aged in French oak barrels after fermentation in stainless steel tanks. It is deep purple, the result of a post-fermentation maceration of 21 days, with aromas of black fruits. In the mouth it feels full and rich. I tasted the wine a week after it was opened and the smooth tannins and good length persisted, suggesting a wine that has potential for ageing.
The 2012 HAV riesling showed typicity for this grape variety with a slight touch of honey on the nose. In the mouth it offered lemon-lime acids and flavours, plus the kerosene flavours usually associated with aged riesling. It did not have much length but the flavours appealed and it improved when chilled (the first tasting was at room temperature). This felt half way in style between wines made from this grape in Alsace and Germany.
My favourite wine was the 2008 HAV red blend, a combination of touriga nacional (65 per cent) and petit verdot (15 per cent) with 10 per cent each of cabernet sauvignon and syrah. It receives expensive oak treatment – 16 months in new French oak – and this shows in the mouth and on the nose.
Intense aromas of blackberries, balsamic and violets flood one’s senses. In the mouth the wine feels full and ripe. Firm tannins from the oak give the wine excellent structure and feel. The acidity is just right and the wine finishes with a sustained flourish. The expensive and heavy bottle tell me this is a wine meant to be taken seriously.
More about HAV can be found at its web site at http://www.arrepiadovelho.com/