Portugal is creating highly individual white wines with its indigenous grapes. For publication week starting Monday 14 March 2016.
With the exception of Luis Pato’s high-end Vinha Formal, which has garnered highly complimentary comments from Jancis Robinson MW over the years, Portugal’s white wines have rarely been associated with quality. How things have been changing in the past five years.
The country’s traditional white-wine growing region of Vinho Verde DOP is well known but has been largely associated with cheap-and-cheerful wine. But now, with particular emphasis on the excellent Alvarinho grape, some labels are so good they deserve to be appreciated as wine in their own right, not just as Vinho Verde. Many attract prices in excess of US$50.
Soalheiro Primeiras Vinhas 2014, as an example, has just been placed in the top 10 wines from the whole of Portugal. How has that been achieved? “Family – and passion!” explains oenologist Luis Cerdeira, whose sister is the estate’s viticulturalist. “It is about a clear focus on quality.” In this case, the focus is on elegance and minerality; on subtlety over fruitiness. Quinta das Arcas Conde Villar Alvarinho 2014 is a similarly long and complex wine, with some intriguing savoury notes to it. The wines of Anselmo Mendes are also terrific: Anselmo Mendes Expressoes 2014 shows such restraint in the fruit handling.
Good vintages help, too. Carlos Teixeira, winemaker at Quinta da Lixa, who regularly scoops up awards for his wines, described 2015 as “fantastic”. “We had almost everything that we wanted for a good vintage.” High day-time temperatures were balanced with cool nights, with the result that residual sugars are down, and aromas highly polished.
Where else in Portugal is particularly suited to white wine? Bairrada-based Luis Pato is regarded as one of Portugal’s top winemakers, particularly known for his ability to tame the difficult Baga grape. But he was ahead of the curve with his Vinha Formal, made with another quality white grape, Bical. “Bairrada is very good for white wine and sparkling,” he says. “With reds, you really need to take a lot of care”. Pato is now also, at the suggestion of winemaker daughter Filipa, making Vinha Formal with Cercial, a thickly textured wine with deep, earthy notes.
Find the right spot, and select the right grape (“we have amazing grapes that you can only find in Portugal”), and you can make great white wine almost anywhere in Portugal, says Spanish winemaker Susana Esteban, who has lived in Portugal for many years. “Plant in the hills, in a fresh place,” she says. Her latest project is in Alentejo, in the Portalegre hills at an altitude of 700 metres. Her Procura is a field blend from a traditional vineyard; and the mineral-laden Susana Esteban Aventura 2014 is a 30-year-old field blend.
This kind of innovation using white grapes from old vineyards is not restricted to Esteban. Alves de Sousa has only just launched Pessoal Branco 2008, believing that it needed bottle age before release to tame the tannins: it is made with grapes from an old white port vineyard. A blend of Malvasia Fina, Viosinho and Gouveio, it is drinking perfectly and what a revelation. Only 2,000 bottles are made and it is priced around US$40.
Nick Delaforce, winemaker at Niepoort, says it is all too easy to make white wines high in alcohol. “White wine production is about getting the balance: fresh white wine not too high in alcohol. That is the challenge.” Niepoort Redoma Branco remains a benchmark for Portuguese whites, and Redoma Reserva Branco has now been added to the portfolio. Where “reserve” would normally suggest a wine made from only the best barrels, in this case it is made from a single, 80-year-old white port vineyard. Highly mineral, it does not go through malolactic fermentation.
CAV 2013 is a new project from Quinta da Mariposa in the Dao region, a Burgundian style wine made with extremely low-yielding 80-year-old vines. This wine shows the intensity and earthiness that can be achieved when working with old vines. Also from the Dao is the elegantly linear Casa Americo Encruzado 2014, thick with green fruits and citrus and showing off the exuberance of this grape.
Vineyards in the Tras-os-Montes, just 5 kilometres from Spain, are more than 1,000 metres above sea level where it might snow in November, or even in March. Mont’ (Subs: apostrophe is correct) Alegre Classico 2015 is a new project, a blend of Rabigato, Boal Branco and Gouveio – all grapes which develop sugars faster to allow for a shorter growing season up there. This is a wonderfully expressive wine defined by fruit and spice: white pepper and cinnamon are powerfully evoked on the nose.