Sunday, March 23, 2014


Esporao


The Gentle Ecological & Viticultural Giant

Reguengos de Monsaraz

Alentejo, Portugal


Vineyards and the estuary at Herdade Esporao


     Our last appointment of the day was deep in the far south east section of the Alentejo region at the enormous Herdade Esporao. We were only miles from the border with Spain, so many of the villages and Herdade in this region have a historical and architectural feel of battle fortifications like castles and stone forts for protection from the invading forces from Spain. The Romans settled here before those days and hints of the empire’s presence still stand, especially in the town of Evora where a Roman temple still stands about 40% intact in the center of the village. In the 20th century when Portugal was ruled by whom they still just call “The Dictator” and not by his name, Alentejo was deemed cattle country by dictator Salazar and where the country’s beef was sourced. Grapes were not much of a factor, if at all, in the middle 20th century. The land has a similar look and feel to California, with rolling golden hills, oak trees and grape vines. The major crop is still not grapes, in Alentejo it is cork. In fact most of the world’s cork come from the ancient oak trees that dot the landscape or grow in randomly patched of groves. The major difference to many other wine regions though is the extreme heat and dryness. In the summer, the heat is downright scorching with temperatures frequently rising above 100 °F.

California?  Nah, just Alentejo, Portugal



More California like landscape in Alentejo.

     From the highway, it was about a 25 minute drive to the Herdade at Esporao, and most of that was on their property. I have never seen a wine estate this large in all of my travels to wine regions. At 
1,860 hectares (4,600 acres!) the estate is roughly equal to the size of 2.5 Central Parks (New York City).  With 450 hectares under vine, there are 189 varietals planted.  The remainder of the property is mostly a protected biological ecosystem miraculously balancing and sustaining wildlife and agriculture simultaneously. 


     We were to taste the current portfolio of wines, enjoy a 4 course lunch paired with wine and then get a tour of this enormous facility. Bruno was our caretaker and took us to an outdoor seating to start the portfolio tasting. Now, of all the wines from Portugal I had tasted before our visit after Port wines the Esporao wines are those that I had the most recent experience with drinking. The Reserve and Private Selection wines are widely available and are great values from a pricing to quality ratio. The mono-varietals were my favorite group of wines, The Alicante Bouschet from that group was the top wine I tasted in the portfolio that day and one of the best wines of our trip (the Torre was down to the last few bottles so I was not able to try it). The Syrah was well made, reminding me more of a new world style than old world Rhone; while the wonderfully aromatic Verdehlo white wine could easily replace a summer white wine drinker’s favorite sauvignon blanc. The Douro wines from Quinta Dos Murcas were solid, with the Reserve bottling leading the way and a great value Douro blend called Assobio.

All 9 wines in the lineup!
     We moved on to lunch on a spectacular veranda overlooking the property with a wide view of the estuary in front of us. The setting was serene as the sun hung lazily overhead and friendly clouds passed by over the huge landscape. We chose some of the wines we had with the tasting to have with our meal, creating a wine pairing lunch that was one of the best we had on the trip. We also did a comparative olive oil tasting of the different varieties of estate grown olives found at Esporao. Unfortunately a thunderhead rolled in at the end of lunch but we had already finished moved on to the tour of the Herdade. 

Lunch on the veranda, what a view!

Olive oil tasting
Miguel Leal, tour guide and driver extraordinaire!
The main entree, Cod of course.
      We made our way with Bruno and Miguel to an SUV that Esporao took visitors in see the vineyards which at the time were being picked or were just about ready to be picked. We saw the last few baskets of Aragonez being picked in one vineyard and made or way to their experimental vineyard that had one row each dedicated to many of the grape varieties that dominate the world market currently. We saw Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese to name a few. On our way back to the Herdade we stopped at the Herdade’s symbol, the castle like structure that stood watch over the land for hundreds of years. Nearby was the oldest living thing I have ever seen, an olive tree more than 2,000 years old. Its origin has been scientifically dated to a date in BC terms, meaning it was planted before the time of Jesus (AD), talk about a religious experience!


Bruno!


 

  


The Jesus tree, dates to the last few decades BC

     Back at the Herdade we made our way to the fermentation tanks where there was juice and must fermenting in many of the tanks as the picking had already started. Next we made our way inside to the rest of the tanks and bottle processing. The barrel rooms were huge and full of barrels of all types of toast and origin. The caves were deep underground and house the barrels and the wines in bottle that were resting before their eventual distribution around the world. Out back there were massive blending tanks stories high that were used to ensure proper consistency of the large volume blends Monte Velho and Defesa.

Red wine going through an initial soak, that is the must floating on top made of seeds and skins.


The bottling line at Esporao

Part of the barrel room below ground at Esporao.

The library of older back vintage Esporao wines

The caves below ground at Esporao, yes I tore that steel door off its hinges to get to the good stuff!

A sea of wine, yes, that is me next to the blending tanks for scale.

     As we finished up the tour, we thanked the wonderful people like Bruno at Esporao that made our visit and our tour spectacular and unforgettable.  


Farmers and producers of Alentejo wine, PLEASE grow more of this grape for your red wines, this very well could be THE grape that puts you on the map like Malbec did for Argentina.

I would like to finish here to ask the Portuguese in the Alentejo to seriously think about making Alicante Bouschet their main grape and to continue to plant and experiment with this grape that seems to be in complete harmony in this region.  When I look for an Alentejo wine in stores or in restaurants I look for one made exclusively or with a good majority of the Alicante Bouschet grape in the blend.  So should you wine reader!

A bientot!

-Tom


Here my notes on the wines we tasted that day at Esporao.


Duas Castas White 2012

Wet rocks, lime leaf, tropical and citrus fruits, medium bodied, medium + acids, 40% is aged in oak barrels for a few months; the grapes are a blend of Viosinho and Semillon 



Reserva White 2012
Medium oak impression in the nose, large and generous nose of sweet oak, apples and spicy pears, medium bodied, the palate shows brighter tropical notes and a touch of cream. Juicy and fruit filled finish. 6 months combined new French and American oak barrels



Private Selection 
White 2012
The most obvious oak of the group, but with a dry and long finish, complex and structured, good acidity and elegance on the tapering finish.  I would like to see this is 5-7 years.  95% Semillon, 5% Marsanne & Roussane.  This spends 6 months in new French oak


Assobio Douro Red, Quinta Dos Murcas
Douro sappy red fruit, gets the mouth watering, tobacco, cranberry and spice, simple and easy going; Douro blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, and Touriga Franca


Quatro Castas Red
Licorice, violets, pepper and spice, some green pepper notes, medium bodied with med + tannins; this is a blend of the following grapes: Touriga Franca, Tinta Miúda, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Alicante Bouschet


Quinta Dos Murcas Douro Reserva
Made in traditional foot tread lagares; aromas of blueberry, blackberry, black cherry, some teeny bits of smoke and leather, the palate has 
blood orange, juicy cherry and blackberries. A long and silky finish. Lovely and fine wine.


Syrah 2010
Juicy and floral, purple notes, chocolate even, med + tannins, medium to full bodied with good acidity, different Syrah like character, but meaty and juicy, lots of elegant purple notes.

Alicante Bouschet 2010
Solid wine of balance and depth, blueberry, boysenberry, a touch of mocha, cigar rapper and sweet tobacco. The blueberry and spice stretches through to a long and persistent finish. Easily the most unique and strong wine of the bunch.


Private Selection 2009 Red
Opulent, young, tight and complex.  An elegant nose of red and blue fruits, roasted herbs, a smidge of eucalyptus, black and blue fruits. Medium to full bodied, the finish sails on in bursts of fruit, silky and supple tannins. Well balanced for its size. 
18 month in new French oak barrel and 18 months in bottle.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Cartuxa: Our First Wine Estate in the Alentejo Region of Portugal

Cartuxa
Alentejo: Evora, Portugal
"Cartuxa: The Charitable Wine Company"

Herdade Cartuxa in Evora, Alentejo
As we drove south from the Douro Valley we made our way on a highway that wound through the hilly northern part of Portugal to lower rolling and golden yellow hills in Alentejo.  We stopped half way for lunch and a brief tourist stop in Fatima to see the enormous site the Roman Catholic Church has built to recognize one of the few places the Virgin Mary has shown herself.  We had a fantastic lunch at Tia Alice where we had a fantastic Acorda meal that is the rustic traditional country dish of this region.  Tia Alice is the best restaurant in that region and the food backed that up.


Tia Alice in Fatima, a great restaurant to savor the regional cuisine
The main circle in Fatima where a monument dedicted to the children that saw the Virgin Mary
Pope John Paul II brass statue in Fatima
As we started to enter the outskirts of the Alentejo region, we started to see the crop the region is most famous for.  No, they were not grape vines but cork trees in many different stages of harvest.  Some were ordinary looking trees, many others were in different color ranges of red and brown, they look rust colored after the cork is peeled away and harvested.


Cork trees in the Alentejo
L'and, our home while in the Alentejo
Our headquarters in the Alentejo was at the great hotel L'And that was a well appointed hotel with fantastic amenities a short drive west of the historical city of Evora: an excellent restaurant, infinity pool, huge rooms, their own wine production, spa and our favorite part was the retractable skylight over the bed.  The skylight could be retracted to where it was just a screen and you could see all of the starts at night as you nodded off to never never land.


Skylight over your bed?  Yes please! 
Welcome to Cartuxa! 
Inside the old Herdade where wine is no longer made but some of the wines age here in tank.
On our first full day in Alentejo we had 2 appointments, with the first one at Cartuxa near Evora.  We watched a video about the winery, its rich history and its impressive charity work for the poor children within Portugal.  The winery itself was in a labrinth built in stages over time as separate parts of the structures are of varying styles and the current materials from the time they were created.  


Angela showing us how to use the aroma stations.
A unique part of the tour took us to an aroma station where the 4 most prominent grapes in Alentejo where described and the aroma simulated with the typical scents of the wines.  I thought this was a great way for people, novice or experienced, to better understand the grapes and what they offer in flavor and aroma.

As we concluded the tour, we headed into the tasting room to sample the wines.  We had 3 different olive oils 4 wines to waiting for us to try.  Our guide Angela Fernandes was an excellent guide telling us the stories of the estate and the production methods to make these fantastic quality wines.


Angela and I concluding the olive oil and wine tasting.
The three olive oils were the EA label to which the basic introductory wines also are labeled as EA.  The Cartuxa label was a smooth and fruity olive oil with a butter texture, while the Alamos was spicy, peppery, floral and fruity with a vibrant green color.

Here are our tasting notes from the wines:

Floral de Evora Branco Colheita 2010
Grape variety: Assario
Fresh lemons, pineapple, tropical with good acids, some minerality, super mid palate full of nice texture, a clean and mineral driven finish
Steel fermentation and only on the yeasts, the battonage adds a nice medium bodied texture to what would be a steely, leaner feeling wine if not for the sur lie.

EA Reserva Tinto 2011
Half of this wine sees 4-6 months of oak aging; 2/3 new French oak the remaining 1/3 are neutral oak barrels
Grape varieties:  Aragones, Syrah, Alicante Bouschet
Fresh and bright red fruits, supple tannin, decent acidity

Cartuxa Tinto Evora Colheita 2010
Grape varieties: Alicante Bouschet, Trincadera, Aragonez (aka Tempranillo)
Elegant, but spicy red fruits like raspberry and black cherry; very dusty medium grain tannin, mocha and subtle spice too.  A long and fresh finish, very nice wine.
Cold soak maceration, 1/2 the wine is aged in large 5k tanks for 12 months while the other 1/2 is aged in new French oak barrels for 12 months.

A biento!
-Tom



The sun setting on another beautiful Portugal day!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Quinta Vale Dona Maria & Lemos Van Zeller

Quinta Vale Dona Maria & 
Van Zeller

A Drive Through The Torto River Valley

Douro Valley
Portugal

Arriving at the front gate of Quinta Vale D. Maria
  As we rode the twisting and winding road through the Torto River Valley to our next Quinta, the narrow and mostly guard rail free path hugged the steep hillsides and offered picturesque views across the valley to other Quinta literally hugging the hillsides with their steep and terraced vineyards. A common site in the Douro, it was very different for some reason to see the vineyards from this perspective. Maybe it was the different light, exposure or grade of the hillsides, but I quickly realized it really did not matter so I just sat back and took in the views. Somewhere 15 minutes down the winding road was our next visit to Quinta Vale Dona Maria in the Torto River Valley which runs south and east from the Douro River. The Torto River is a tributary of the Douro River that carved out the valley that carries its name many centuries ago.

Douro Valley terroir cross section, this is schist rock, not so much soil.
     
     At the gated entrance we drove by more cross sections of schist earth that are home to the vines of the Douro Valley. Finger sized roots were jutting out and penetrating back into the solid earthen rock ever in search of its life source hidden deep in pockets of the frail, but solid rock. The gates opened and we switch-backed our way up the bumpy and dusty road to the Quinta and its production facilities. Joana Pinhao greeted us with a warm smile and a firm handshake, a great start to a visit I was very much looking forward to. Mark Squires of the Wine Advocate had highly recommended we visit this Quinta so I had high expectations of the wines and was looking forward to understanding the vineyard sources, production methods and then of course tasting the wines.

The entrance to the Quinta Vale D. Maria facilities
      Joana gave us an overview of the vineyards that make up the estate property in the Torto River Valley. East of the Quinta, on a steep hillside facing us and then below us on what looked like a mound of earth, were prime vineyards that were some of the 60+ old vineyard sources for what I thought was the best wine I tasted that day, the Tinto Quinta Vale D Maria.

The dark green vertical vineyard on the far ridge is part of the source for Quinta Vale D. Maria

The main vineyard source of the Quinta Vale D. Maria and some of their oldest vines at about 65 years old.
     Cristiano van Zeller (married to Joana) is the rejuvenating founder and director of all businesses of the 200+ year old brand name that carries his family’s name and Vale Dona Maria. He was away on business during our visit so we did not get to meet him. The winemaker for most of the earlier vintages and current consultant was our friend from Wine & Soul Sandra Tavares da Silva. On this day though it was obvious that Joana was running the show, and she was busy making sure the Quinta is on schedule for the looming harvest that was just days away.

Lagares for foot treading of the grapes, the best wines in the Douro all receive this treatment.

     We got to see the entire production run, which was busting at the seams with barrels and tanks taking up much of the production space. 4 granite lagares were present, making sure the best grapes for the best wines were crushed traditionally in them by foot tread. We slinked by hoses and past rows of barrels stacked 4 high. The fermentation tanks were holding court and waiting for the first drops of juice for the 2013 harvest. The tour was fairly standard, but very informative and telling of the professionalism of the team that Joana manages. She knew every aspect of the property inside and out and shot back answers to my questions faster than I could ask. Joana is obviously someone that is passionate about what she does and works very hard at running two major wine labels under one roof.

Fermentation tanks and barrels busting at the seams.

Joana Pinhao explaining the wine making process at Quinta Vale D. Maria

Barrels racked 4 high.

     The history of the name van Zeller in the wine business goes back to the roots of the Port shippers in the late 18th century, 1780 to be exact. Though it has not been in consistent family hands all of this time, the history of this family operation is a little complicated. The important thing is that it made its way back to family hands in the 1930s and then later in direct family hands being acquired by Cristiano in 2006.

The four red wines we tasted at Quinta Vale D. Maria.

     The van Zeller and Vale Dona Maria wines are all quite good. We tasted 6 of their wines, a mix of Van Zeller and Vale Dona Maria. The wine that excited me the most was a Port wine, but the one that captured my spirit was the Quinta tinto from Vale Dona Maria. Hitting all of my buttons, the 2010 was impeccably balanced, with an amazing palate presence that you could taste, but barely felt was there, quite an achievement. This is a wine that deserves to be on the world stage as there are not many like it, but does have similar attributes of power, harmony and grace like many of the other top wines in the world. The CV (as in Curriculum Vitae or “Resume” for us non-Latin folks) was sold out and the new vintage was not yet ready for tasting so I would need to wait on that one. The most exciting wine was the Reserve Port Lot #11, 2011. Lot #11 was youthful, electric, engaging, multi-layered, full of depth, had solid persistence, with an amazingly silky and long finish. Clean and fresh, you would barely know you just imbibed a Port wine. The VZ white was also quite charming and for about $12 a steal, especially for Sauvignon Blanc drinkers.

Picture time at Quinta Vale D. Maria, what a view!

     We took a few more pictures of the property and posed for a few with the beautiful backdrop. This was the first place I left with a handful of wines to haul back to the US as the wines are thinly available in the US. Even though I could find it, I was not going to risk not having this wine in my collection. I currently have the 2007, 2008, 2009 tinto Quinta Vale D. Maria and will be adding the 2010 and 2011. Additionally the Reserve Port Lot #11 should be available soon for about $20-25 and is a steal compared to many of the vintage 2011 vintage ports that cost 3-4 times as much. Buy a few and stash them away, I know I will.



A bientot,

Tom



Tasting Notes from
Quinta Vale Dona Maria & Lemos Van Zeller

Van Zellers Blanco 2011

Van Zellers Douro Blanco (White) 2011 Fresh, with a little leesiness that adds roundness to the texture; mango, pineapple, some minerality and fresh citrus with a long, clean finish. 100% steel. 6,000 bottles produced

Rufo Douro Tinto 2010

2010 Hufu Douro Tinto (Red)
(Rufu translates to the sound of a drum in Portuguese & Red in Latin)
60/40 blend of Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca
Aged 12 months in neutral oak barrels
Bright red flavors, juicy and exuberant, crushed raspberries, black cherry, very accessible and easy to drink. 40,000 bottles produced.

Van Zellers Tinto 2010

2010 Van Zellers Tinto (Red)
7 grape varieties, with the majority being Touriga France and Touriga Nacional. 20% comes from older 35 year old vineyards, 18 months neutral oak
20,000 bottles in 2009/11,000 in 2011
Notes of black cherry, tobacco, licorice, blueberries, with supple tannins and good acidity.

Quinta Vale D. Maria Douro Tinto 2010

2010 Quinta Vale D. Maria Douro Tinto (Red)
Made of 40+ different Portuguese grape varieties from vines averaging 60 years old. Dark ruby red in color with vibrant red edges. A beautiful and persistent nose, full bodied but seem like it is medium to full because it is so well balanced. Elegant red fruits like cherry, plum and currants abound. Suave and ripe tannins mesh well with ample acidity, a long and persistent finish. Well balanced and very classic in terms of well made old world red wines from Europe, a very classy wine.
20,000 bottles production; 21 months in oak, of which I am told 60% was new and the rest neutral barrel.

The electric 2011 Reserva Port Lot #11

2010 Reserva Port Lot #10 
Technically a non-vintage port, this is a small production Port of 6,000 bottles.
A juicy, drier style, in the glass as it settles down. A small streak of fine grilled herbs, black cherry, oodles of blue berries. The finish sails on, long and easy. 


2011 Reserva Port Lot #11
Dense, intense, yet elegant and crazy long, persistent and clean, fresh on the palate weight wise and on the finish. Oodles of blackberry, creamy blueberry, cherry and roasted herbs, this is a case buy for sure!


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