Wine fairs, useful as they are, are usually hard to get too excited about. Essência do Vinho is a stunning exception – it is actually a very exciting event! It is the most important Portuguese Wine Show for both trade and public and is held in early spring in Oporto. Everyone who is anyone in the Portuguese wine trade seems to be there. Even those producers who have not managed to get a space inside the show make their presence felt by attending a smaller, alternative event, with a supposedly more edgy group of winemakers, just around the corner.
So if you want to get a snapshot of what is going on in Portuguese Wine, this is definitely the place to be. Essência Do Vinho (EDV) was started 10 years ago in 2004 by Nuno Guedes Vaz Pires and Nuno Botelho, two Portuguese entrepreneurs, and since then it has gone from strength to strength.
In February, I was invited to judge in the Top 10 Portuguese Wines competition where 50 leading Portuguese wines were tasted blind by a panel of experts. The wines included 13 dry whites, 27 red wines and 10 young vintage 2011 Ports. The judging took place in the very glamorous setting of the Arabian Room in the Palácio da Bolsa, in Oporto.
If that wasn’t enough, there were some special tastings surrounding this event: an amazing Madeira tasting hosted by leading Portuguese Madeira expert, Rui Falcão, set intriguingly in a real courtroom; a wonderfully educational tasting, led by Charles and Paul Symington, where we tasted the component parts and individual Quintas which went into the exceptional 2011 Graham’s Vintage port; and a thought-provoking talk and tasting with Dirk Niepoort entitled “The Wines Of My Life” showing some of his light wines as well as the famous aged tawny ports. Just one of these events alone would have been worth the trip but here were three wonderful tastings.
I managed to fit in a tour around the cellars and a delightful lunch at Cálem port house in Vila Nova de Gaia. Here I discovered just how good very young vintage port is with a powerful local sheep’s cheese (apparently the Portuguese often drink vintage ports young). The approachable Burmester 2011 vintage port packed with ripe, blackberries and spicy fruit contrasted beautifully with the strongly flavoured, runny and delicious sheep’s cheese called Queijo da Serra.
I attended two Madeira tastings. The first was on the night before EDV, at Porto Cruz, where among the Madeiras tasted were Henriques & Henriques Sercial 1971, and their Malvasia 1954 and from Justino’s there was a Boal 1964 and Verdelho 1954. Porto Cruz is a big port producer who sell a lot of ports to France but are perhaps less well known in the UK but we tasted some of their rarer wines. Henriques & Henriques’ winemaker and CEO, Humberto Jardim, rates the very rare Madeira variety Terrantez above all others. It is because of its beautifully seamless texture and the way it moves from front to back palate effortlessly without any jarring tannins, even more so than the other noble Madeira varieties. Terrantez is tiny in terms of production – two years ago the total production on the island of Madeira was 500 kg; Porto Cruz own 10 ha of vines with this variety. Only two other producers – Barbeito and The Madeira Wine Company make Terrantez.
One of the highlights of EDV itself was Vintage Madeira tasting held in the courtroom at Palâcio Da Bolsa and led by Rui Falcão. This tasting put the idea of a wine’s life expectancy into a whole new realm.
Barbeito Sercial 1898. Orange gold hue, honey, caramel, smoke and invigorating sea salt aromas and flavours, feisty acidity and a very, very long, savoury and lingering finish. Wow!
Blandy’s Verdelho 1887. Dark bronze appearance, coppery tones. Incisive nose, heady, caramel toffee and salt with a hint of curry leaf. Round, creamy textured, salted caramel flavours soft and sweet, offset by incisive, nervy, acidity. Burnt toffee and smoke flavours on the finish.
Perira d’Oliveiras Verdelho 1850. The very first one they made. Their style is a little wild, dramatic and quirky. It shouldn’t work but somehow it does. Colour between orange-toned tawny and bronze. Very heady, nutty base note, sea breeze, treacle toffee and orange peel aromas and flavours. Rich, creamy, warm, with contrasting butter toffee and treacle toffee flavours and orange rind, all beautifully balanced by a core of nervy acidity.
Justino’s Boal 1934. Dark bronze. Burnt sugar, roasted nuts and dried fruits lead. So silky, soft melting butter texture, vibrant acidity, orange peel and coffee flavours provide the balance to this creamy-textured style.
Henriques & Henriques Century Malmsey Solera 1900. Slightly cloudy, dark bronze appearance. Marmite, savoury, tarry notes on nose. Lovely silky texture with rich butter toffee flavours and bitter orange notes to balance sweetness. Acidity is balanced and fresh but less incisive than many in this magnificent line up.
The second magnificent tasting event was with Paul and Charles Symington. The Symington’s are such a big name in the world of Port that I was surprised to learn that in 1979 they had just one vineyard, Quinta do Bomfim. Now they have 986 ha of vineyards in 26 different locations in the Douro and they are now reaping the benefits of the work they did in the 80’s. All of their vintage ports are made in lagars and and the grapes are sourced totally from their own vineyards. This tasting showed their portfolio of vintage 2011 ports, including Warre’s, Dow’s, Cockburns, Quinta Do Vesuvio and Capela Do Vesuvio together with their flagship Graham’s Vintage 2011.
Not only that, but we also tasted the component Quintas (single vineyards or farms) that make up Graham’s 2011 Vintage Port: Quinta do Tua (16%), Quinta dos Malvedos (35%), Quinta das Lages (12%), Quinta da Vila Velha (18%), Quinta do Vale de Malhades (19%). What an exciting event! It was held in the glamorous and ornately decorated Arabian rooms which seemed to be perfectly in keeping with the magnificence of the vintage.
The 2011 has been hailed by many as the port vintage of the century, better even than 1994 which was exceptional, because the weather leading up to the vintage combined to create the optimum conditions for perfect ripening of both colour, sugar, acidity, flavours and tannins.
A wet winter meant water reserves in the Douro were good; a damp spring reduced crop size; a relatively cool summer (35 degrees C as opposed to the usual 40) kept ripening moving along; then 15mm of rain fell on the 15th of August, then a little more in early September, followed by a very dry, sunny, September/October.
All of which combined to produce the stunning 2011 vintage.
Vintage Ports represent only 2-3% of their production. “These wines define our careers” proclaims Paul, adding that he has made probably only 9 vintages in his lifetime. Jancis Robinson MW described the Vintage 2011 Ports as some of the best red wines ever and after tasting them, I think they really do live up to this accolade. I also like Sarah Abbot’s description of 2011 Vintage Ports as ‘modern classics’.
I agree – they are classic in their potential to age but modern in their approachability when young; their velvety textured, yet powerful tannins just make you want to forget about the rules about ageing vintage port and start drinking them now! In fact tasting them now they offer so much hedonistic pleasure.
I want to rush out and buy a case and drink just one or two now while leaving the rest to mature for 15-20 years or so. Who would have thought that young vintage port could be so approachable and enjoyable within just a couple of years of the vintage? Of course they will really develop complexity and come into their own if you have the time, patience and storage conditions to age them properly, say at least for 20 years but up to 50 or more in many cases.
The following morning at the EDV tasting we tasted ten 2011 vintage ports blind. All of these ports were exceptional in their own way with huge concentration and the structure to match, but to my surprise my two absolutely stunning stand-out wines were both from Quinta Do Vesuvio. Although I also loved both Taylor’s and the slightly drier style Dow, the Quinta do Vesuvio wines stood out for me with their exuberance, richly exotic style and very seductive texture.
Quinta do Vesuvio 2011 (40% Touriga Nacional, 45% Touriga Franca, 10% Tinta Barroca 5% Tinta Amarela, the average age of the vines is 30 years). This had very pure aromatics with a sweet violet perfume and dark chocolate notes, blueberries, cherry and spicy, peppery flavours, beautifully, round, rich and silky on the palate. Flamboyant, exotic and sumptuous in style but plenty of tannins for the long haul just swathed in a velvet shrug. 19/20
Capela da Quinta do Vesuvio 2011 – only the 2nd Capela to be made from a low-lying special parcel near the river. Made from Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Sousão with for the first time ever a small parcel of Alicante Bouschet. This Port was so appealing aromatically with a little green spice, mint and ginger note adding intrigue, and compact, velvety tannins. 19/20
Both wines have great power and concentration but also incredible finesse and balance while being richly exotic at the same time. They are lavish in style, with luxuriant, velvety textured tannins, and huge concentration balanced by great purity and precision of flavour. Both are available from Farr Vintners and Berry Bros & Rudd.
Paul Symington remarked that Quinta do Vesuvio, which they bought in 1989, was the best purchase they had ever made, but that it was only in 1994 that they really understood the terroir. My second ever visit to a wine region was to the Douro in 1994 as I had won a WSET scholarship to stay with the Symington’s and the Taylor’s.
At the time I had an almost obsessive desire to visit Quinta do Vesuvio as it had somehow captured my imagination. I remember that it seemed a fairly isolated place and the last part of the journey to the Quinta was by boat. It felt like we were going back in time and the place had quite a magical feel about it.
So because of that connection it somehow seems right that I should like these wines so much. I enjoy these little twists of fate. Young vintage port is such a difficult thing to judge because it is hard to penetrate all the sweetness, tannins and alcohol when they are young and get to the heart of what they will become.
The ports tasted blind were:
- Dow 2011
- Graham’s 2011
- Quinta do Noval 2011
- Taylor’s 2011
- Graham’s Stone Terraces 2011
- Nieport Bioma “Vinha Velha”
- Nieport vintage 2011
- Quinta Do Vesuvio 2011
- Quinta Do Vesuvio Capela 2011
- Sandeman’s 2011
In the end, when all of the judge’s ratings were averaged out, Graham’s Stone Terraces 2011 won the top slot. It was a wonderful Port and I had marked it 18/20.
Aside from the amazing Ports and Madeiras I was very impressed by the quality of some of the red and white Portuguese wines. Many were excellent, interesting and individual and no one single wine region seemed to dominate the quality stakes. My top wines came from Vinho Verde, Dão, Douro, Lisbon and the Alentejo.
Out of 13 white wines tasted I have chosen 6 that were at least very good, some outstanding, and out of 27 reds at least 10 were special and some were exceptional so that is a pretty high average rate.
Voted best white was the Quinta De Soalheiro Reserva 2011 Vinho Verde (available from The Wine Society).
I had the honour of awarding the owner, Luís Cerdeira, his prize at the Symington’s magnificent Vinum restaurant (do try and visit if you find yourself in Oporto, partly for the bird’s eye view of Oporto but also because they have a lovely tapas bar and a smart restaurant). The Best Red award was also well deserved and went to Wine & Soul’s Pintas 2011 (available from Corney & Barrow) from the Douro. Brief tasting notes below on those and a handful of other wines that were my pick of the competition.
2011 Pera Manica, Fundação Eugénio De Almeida, Alentejo. Round, oily, unctuous nose, interesting creamy, leesy texture, fruity finish with little bitter grapefruit pith twist on finish 15.5/20
2012 Esporão Private Selection, Esporão, Alentejo. Oily, resinous nose, lots of sweet, vanilla oak, a little oak dominant at present for my taste but still young. Saved by juicy acidity and a long finish. 16/20
2011 Julia Kemper Reserva, Cesce Soc. Agricola Exploração, Dão. A blend of Encruzado and Malvasia. Clean, fresh, delicate interesting, waxy, resinous notes on nose, lively palate, young and vivacious wine, crisp acidity. 17/20
2012 Quinta De Sant’Ana Alvarinho, Sant’Ana Do Gradil, Regional Lisboa. Very clean and pure, apple blossom nose with a taut, leesy, creamy, mid palate, Chablis-like texture. Followed by a savoury, juicy, long finish. 17.5/20
2012 Guru, Wine & Soul, Douro. A field blend of old Douro white varieties, Viosinho, Rabigato, Codega & Gouveio, from a 50 year-old vineyard in the Douro. Broad nutty style on nose, a little oak dominant at present. An ambitious wine, very young now. It has the structure and concentration to develop. Impressive. 18/20
2011 Quinta De Soalheiro Reserva Vinho Verde, Vinusoalheiro. Deep lemon, broad, ripe peach, creamy, soft, mouth-filling mid palate. Lovely ripe fruit. Stylish and elegant. 18/20
2009 Ex-Aequo, José Bento Dos Santos, Quinta Do Monte Oiro, Regional Lisboa. Sweet, creamy, vanilla ice cream nose, big, robust, with firm tannins, bold, modernist style. 16/20
2009 Vale Da Mata Reserva, Rocim, Regional Lisboa. Sweet spice & cream aromas of oak. Firm, bold style, concentrated. 16.5/20
2010 Pera Manca, Fundação Eugénio De Almeida, Alentejo. Very modern. Sweet, exotic spice of new oak aromas, incense-like . A little over oaked at present but still tastes very young and lively, has the concentration to stand up to the oak. 16/20
2010 Julia Kemper Touriga Nacional, Cesce, Dão. Wonderful nose with heady, exotic rose petal & violet notes, very aromatic, very enticing. Lively palate if a little light and fragile in style. 16/20
2011 Curriculum Vitae, Lemos & Van Zeller, Douro. Sweet vanilla, coconut and resinous notes of some smart new oak on nose, very smooth, round and satisfying on palate with rounded, oak tannins. A little oak dominant at present, needs more time to integrate. 16.5/20
2011 Mirabilis Grande Reserva, Quinta Nova De Nossa Senhora Do Carmo, Douro. Sweet new oak nose but creamy, more subtle and better integrated, powerful, spicy, concentrated, a little heavy handed on palate, but still good. 16/20
2010 CH by Chocapalha Vinhas Velhas, Touriga Nacional, Regional Lisboa. Slight sweet, ripe black fruits and perfumed, violet notes. Compact, taut, very clean and precise, beautifully balanced fruit and oak, if a little closed at present. Compact & fine tannins, good length. 17.5 /20
2011 Chryseia, Prats & Symington, Douro. Sweet open nose of brambles, and dark fruit. This is a very fruit focused but also very structured wine, with firm tannins although a little hard edged at present. There is something very honest and unpretentious about this wine – it has not been covered up with lots of sweet oak. 17/20
2011 Procura, Susana Esteban, Unipessoal, Alentejo. The name means something along the lines of ‘difficult to find’ and refers to old vineyards in cooler locations. Sweet-savoury aromas, heady and not overly oaked, hooray! Cool fruit, elegant with refined texture to tannins. 17.5/20
2011 Pintas, Wine & Soul, Douro. Sweet coconut and vanilla notes on nose supported by ripe, dark fruit – very immediate and appealing. Smooth, concentrated, powerful, lovely balance with refined textured tannins. Still very young. 18/20
I have rediscovered Portuguese wines on this trip and have come back with renewed enthusiasm and excitement for the wines and, because of the very warm welcome they gave me, for the Portuguese themselves.
Many thanks go to Essência do Vinho, Nuno and his team and my lovely fellow judges Rui Falcão, Alexandre Lalas and their wives Susanna Estaban & Luciana Plaas for making it all so enjoyable and to the producers for their generosity in sharing these wines.
Text © Susan Hulme MW 2014
Photos © Susan Hulme MW 2014 except photo of Arab Room by Rui Falcão.
© 2014, Susan Hulme MW. All rights reserved.