Two things happened over the past year that made me realize that Portugal is making some of the most fantastic table wines around — and that here in Canada we seem to be ignoring them.
The first was a Douro Valley tasting in Toronto. The Douro is best known for Port, and there was plenty of that at the tasting … But each producer also had at least one blend, and I don’t mean your typical Cabernet/Merlot or Shiraz/Cabernet. I’m talking field blends. (I’ll explain in a minute.)
The second thing that happened was I went directly to the source. I toured around the Douro and the Dão regions — I saw the amazing vineyards, the soils, the slopes. The stony ground, the winding river. And I heard the stories of how these vineyards were planted and how the “field blend” came to be.
Back in the early 1900s, when the reason and remedy for phylloxera was found, the Portuguese had to get new vines in the ground. So they replanted whatever they could put their hands on, not caring about the variety; they just needed grapes to continue making wine. Many years later, during DNA testing, it was discovered that in some vineyards they had up to 60 different varieties growing — maybe more. Some have started to separate them out, but others realize they have a historical gold mine in their midst. These vines, in some cases, are now over 80 years old, and it would be a shame to see them ripped out. So they decided to put certain plots of grapes in a bottle. Said many a winemaker, “It’s just like cooking. Each grape adds a little seasoning to the blend, no matter how minute the amount.” These blends are the backbone of regional wines, and each has a character all its own. And in many cases, the more grapes the better. If you can put your hands on any of these bottles, I highly recommend it.
Quinta da Pellada Primus 2009, Dão ($35)
A field blend that is made up of 80% Encruzado, which is double fermented, first in stainless steel then in wood. Buttery with exotic fruit and a great mouthfeel, and an acidity that keeps it so fresh, with a great long finish.
Quinta da Pellada 2007, Dão ($30)
I named this “the devil’s blend” not only ’cause it’s devilishly delicious but because it is made from 60-plus grape varieties that are over 60 years old, and they make a maximum 6,000 bottles annually. This wine shows great finesse and complexity: dark fruit, cocoa, vanilla, smoky, with hints of spice. Absolutely stunning.
Duorum Reserva Old Vines 2009, Douro ($35)
A wine made up of four major grapes, but also 10% of it is 30 other varieties (that’s the “seasoning”), all from 70- to 80-year-old vines. Then it’s all aged in oak, 70% of which is new oak. Chocolate, vanilla, black cherry and plum all congregate on the nose and palate. Big fruit and big tannins.
Quinta do Vale Meão 2009, Douro ($65)
This 84-hectare property was first planted in 1887, and the average age of the vines are about 42 years old. The blend starts with the usual suspects, Touriga Nacional (57%) and Touriga Franca (35%), but the rest is anybody’s guess. Silky smooth and complex with chocolate, plum, black cherry, cassis and vanilla, and plenty of toastiness.
Lemos and Van Zeller Curriculum Vitae 2009, Douro ($70)
A plot-specific wine taken from only four hectares of land; vine age is between 75 to 85 years old, and there are some 20-plus varieties that go into the blend. Intense raspberry, chocolate, plum, cocoa powder with a sweet fruit finish, probably from the 15.5% alcohol — though extremely well balanced.
Quinta do Crasto Vinha Maria Teresa 2009, Douro ($90)
A vineyard planted in 1903 with just over 50 grape varieties already identified in the 5.5-hectare plot. The wine is made biodynamically and organically; it is also foot trodden for five hours, and spends 20 to 30 months in French oak. The root depth of vines has been measured at between 25 to 30 metres. This wine is outstanding, the minerality incredible. Vanilla, caramel, lush red-fruit core with intense acidity and well-integrated tannins.
Quinta do Vallado Reserva Field Blend 2009, Douro ($65)
A wine that counts over 42 varieties in its mix from 80- to 100-year-old vines; 60% to 80% of the wine is aged in new oak. Lovely red fruit, mainly raspberry, with nice tannins.
Quinta da Manoella VV (Vinhas Velhas) 2009, Douro ($80)
Made from a seven-hectare post-phylloxera vineyard that has been dated at over 100 years old. The blend of grapes is unknown but numerous. Dark fruit, spice, herbs with nice minerality and acidity; the finish is spiced brambly fruit that lingers long on the tongue.
Palacios Mateus Três Bagos 2008, Grande Escolha, Douro ($50)
Not to be confused with pink Mateus, though the “castle” that houses this winery is the one on the label of the famed rosé. Over-60-year-old vines and six different varieties make up this blend with its nice fruit and intense oak from 18 months of age in wood.
Jose Maria da Fonseca Hexagon 2007, Setubal ($45)
This wine will admit to six varieties in the blend with only the Syrah recognizable to most North Americans. A complex wine of spices and herbal notes with great black fruit. Smooth and elegant.
J. Portugal Ramos Vila Santa Reserva 2010, Alentejo ($20)
Five varieties, which include Cabernet Sauvignon somewhere in the mix. Sweet black cherry that’s bold yet elegant at the same time.
Jorge Manuel Nobre Moreira Poeira 2008, Douro ($50)
A blend made up of 23 varieties, though the winemaker admits to losing count, with some vines being over 80 years old. Nice fruit yet with earthy notes that keep it well grounded.
*Photo of Maria Castro and Alvaro Castro at Quinta da Pellada