Wine of the Week – a delicious & great value Priorat

Beautiful vineyards in priorat.

Beautiful vineyards in priorat.

The other week I was wandering around the Three Wine Men event in London and I found myself trying the wines on the Lidl stand.

Many of you will know that I have a lot of time for Lidl. They offer very interesting products and, like Aldi, they seem to be able to put some excellent wines on the market at very good prices. Whether or not these great prices survive our leaving the EU remains to be seen, but right now they offer some staggering value.

The beautiful Priorat landscape. Photo courtesy of Oficina de Turisme del Priorat.

The beautiful Priorat landscape. Photo courtesy of Oficina de Turisme del Priorat.

All the Lidl wines I tried that day were pretty good, but the star was something that absolutely astonished me. It was a red wine from Priorat, one of the very best wine regions in Spain, which normally produces some of Spain’s most expensive wines, but this one is an absolute bargain.

Wine map of Spain, see Montsant in the north east - click for a larger view

Wine map of Spain, see Priorat in the north east – click for a larger view

The beautifully rugged Priorat landscape.

The beautifully rugged Priorat landscape.

vinya_carles2011 Vinya Carles Crianza
Bodegas Reserva de la Tierra
DOCa / DOQ / PDO Priorat
Catalunya, Spain

Priorat – Priorato in Castellano, or proper Spanish – is one of Spain’s great regions and it produces many of Spain’s most famous, most expensive and sought after wines. Indeed Priorat is one of only two Spanish regions – the other being Rioja – that is labelled with the prestigious PDO status of Denominación de Origen Calificada / DOCa – Denominació d’Origen Qualificada or DOQ in Catalan. This is a rank above most other Spanish wine regions, which are labelled as Denominación de Origen or DO, and the regulations are more stringent.

It is a wonderful place, beautifully rugged and mountainous with an amazing backdrop of the Montsant Mountains. It is most famous for the fine, spicy reds made from blends of Garnacha and Cariñena, often together with Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, although some fascinating, rich and herbal white wines are made too.

I am afraid that I know nothing about the wine, not definitely anyway, as the technical sheet I was sent says that it is a 50/50 blend of Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon, while the back label on the bottle says it is a Grenache, Carignan / Garnacha, Cariñena blend. I think I believe the back label, as it doesn’t feel as though there is any Cabernet or Tempranillo here.

The colour is a deep, opaque, vibrant purple. The aromas are of warming, spicy, herbs and rich berry fruit; blueberry, mulberry and cooked strawberry together with rich pear and wafts of sweet liquorice and sweet coconut and vanilla from the oak – presumably American oak.

The palate is very juicy and supple, with plump fruit, smooth, ripe tannins and a twist of spice. It is nicely concentrated, richly fruity and very enjoyable indeed. It isn’t very complex, but it is delicious and pretty full-bodied. I cannot imagine anyone failing to be seduced by its charms. This wine over delivers for anything like the money, it was terrific just tasting on its own, but with a venison burger and a salad it gave me a huge amount of pleasure – 87/100 points, I originally gave it 85, but as the bottle went on, I marked it up for the pleasure it gave me.

Available in the UK from Lidl for £5.99 per bottle.

Wine of the Week 69 – a sumptuous red for winter

Winter seems to be in the air, so my thoughts are turning to red wine again.  I am still hoping for a late Indian Summer though, which would give me a chance to get out some of the mouthwatering white wines that are sitting in the rack looking up at me expectantly.

Regular readers will know of my love and fascination with all things Iberian and Spanish – especially the wines. Recently I presented a tasting of the less usual wines of Spain and everything I showed went down very well. Indeed a couple of the wines have already been Wines of the Week and they are really good – click here and here.

Many of you will know about Priorat, one of Spain’s – and the world’s – greatest wine region and certainly one of the most expensive. This amazing, rugged landscape specialises in producing richly mineral red wines that are usually made from blends based on Grenache, or Garnacha as the Spanish call it and Garnatxa as the Catalans call it. A few of the red wines are Carignan  / Cariñena / Samsó dominated blends, while a small number of producers craft superb white wines from grapes like Garnacha Blanca and Macabeo, as well as Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier.

Wine map of Spain, see Montsant in the north east - click for a larger view

Wine map of Spain, see Montsant in the north east – click for a larger view

Priorat is one of only two regions to hold Spain’s highest classification, Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) – it is Denominació d’Origen Qualificada or DOQ in Catalan. The only other region to have this so far is Rioja.

Priorat is tiny and the wines expensive, but luckily for us it is almost completely surrounded by another wonderful wine region – Montsant. This region is only a relatively humble DO or Denominación de Origen – but then so is Ribera del Duero – but it can produce wines of real quality. Recently I tasted a superb Montsant, that was so good I showed it at my tasting and everyone loved it so much that I decided to make it my Wine of the Week.

Montsant's rugged, but beautiful landscape.

The Joan d’Anguera estate in Montsant’s rugged, but beautiful landscape.

Joan and Josep Anguera.

Joan and Josep Anguera.

Planella2012 Planella Montsant
Joan d’Anguera
D.O. Montsant
Catalunya, Spain

The story here is an old and familiar one, the d’Anguera family have farmed these wild hillsides for centuries, scratching a living by providing grapes for the cooperative. However in the 1970s Josep d’Anguera decided to get more ambitious, perhaps he was influenced by the Priorate pioneers, or perhaps he just realised the potential of his land, but he planted Syrah and that had a really positive effect on his wines. It certainly made them easier to sell, but also tamed and softened the more rustic grapes in the blends, although now they are reducing the amount of Syrah in their blends in favour of the traditional local grapes. Today the estate is run by Josep’s sons, Josep and Joan and they too are forward thinking and ambitious and from 2008 to 2012 they were in conversion to biodynamic viticulture – 2012 was their first biodynamic vintage.

50% Cariñena / Samsó / Carignan, 45% Syrah and 5% Garnacha / Garnatxa / Grenache. Fermentation in concrete vats using indigenous yeasts. Aged for 12 months in old French oak barrels.

The colour is rich and opaque, while the nose gives lifted aromas of sweet dark fruit, warming spice, wild herbs and smoke. The palate is mouth filling, mouth coating and wondrously smooth. The texture is very seductive, as is the intense ripe fruit, blackberry, mulberry and nuggets of raspberry and cherry.  Savoury, spicy, smoky characters balance the fruit, together with a light touch of spicy oak and a seam of slatey minerality. The tannins are very smooth and ripe, adding to that seductive, sumptuous feel. This is a terrific wine that will wow anyone who tastes it – 91/100 points.

This is a lovely food friendly style, try it with anything meaty or hearty, especially cassoulet, pot roasts or slow roast garlicky lamb.

Available in the UK for around £13-£16 per bottle, from James Nicholson (NI), Forest Wines, Harvey Nichols, L’Art du Vin, No 2 Pound Street, Prohibition Wines, Salusbury Wine Store, St Andrews Wine Company.
For US stockists, click here.

Wine of the Week 65 – a delicious, fresh tasting Grenache

My Wine of the Week this week is a really exciting red Grenache, or as it comes from Spain I should say Garnacha. Grenache is a Spanish grape and so should really have the Spanish name of Garnacha.

I have come to Grenache relatively late, but am making up for it as I am now tasting many delicious and exciting examples. Of course the grape is largely responsible for the famous wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in France’s southern Rhône, but Spain makes a lot of very fine examples too. The most famous and widely praised must be from Priorat in Catalunya, but regular readers of these pages might be familiar with he sublime wines of Domaine Lupier in Navarra.

Anyway I have recently tasted a Garnacha that is actually not produced in any recognised wine region, so it is simply labelled as a Vino de la Tierra, similar to Vin de Pays in France – my second Spanish Vino de la Tierra Wine of the Week in a row. Don’t let that lowly classification put you off though, the wine is superb.

Map of Spain showing approximate position of the Moncayo Massif - click for a larger view.

Map of Spain showing approximate position of the Moncayo Massif – click for a larger view.

Moncayo2014 La Garnacha Salvaje del Moncayo
Vino de la Tierra Ribera de Queiles
Garnachas de España
Aragon, Spain

This wine is part of the Garnachas de España project which is attempting to reclaim garnet as Spain’s noble grape, to popularise it and to also bring Spain’s unused old Garnacha vines – the wild (salvaje) vineyards – back to productive life. Many vineyards were abandoned after phylloxera, some were considered too difficult to farm once tractors and other automative advances came in, in some cases families simply left the land and moved to the city. Whatever the reason, and there are many, old unused vines can be found all over most wine producing areas. This project is seeks to use this wonderful resource, just as Domaine Lupier did in Navarra.

The vineyards are grown on the north facing slopes of the Moncayo massif which is located between the Zaragoza in Aragon and Soria in Castilla y León – it straddles the Castile/Aragon border. The vineyards are high on infertile rocky soils that contain a lot of slate. So conditions are relatively cool with big temperature drops between night and day, even at the height of summer.

The grapes were handpicked and fermented in stainless steel tanks to retain freshness and fruit. The wine then ages in new French oak for 5 months, which smooths out the wine and softens the tannins.

The colour is relatively light and a vibrant crushed raspberry and blackberry colour. The nose is dominated by the fruit, bright fresh raspberry and cherry notes together with a twist of orange and soft spices. The palate is soft and lively with lots of freshness and crunchy red fruit. The tannins are soft and smooth with just a gentle smear of chalkiness on the finish and there is a little touch of minerality too. This is a happy, happy wine, soft, joyous and utterly delicious – 88/100 points.

Serve lightly chilled with almost any Mediterranean style food and you will have a very good time. I think it would be wonderful with Turkish lamb kebabs, it would even be nice to drink on its own.

Available in the UK from £6.95 to £10.49 a bottle from The Wine Society and Majestic Wine Warehouse.
US stockist information is available here.

 

 

Wine of the Week 57 – a delicious Priorat that will not break the bank

The beautiful landscape of Priorat.

The beautiful landscape of Priorat. Photo courtesy of Oficina de Turisme del Priorat.

As many of my regular readers know, I love Priorat wines. It is without question Catalunya’s most prestigious wine region and apart from Rioja is the only area to be granted Spain’s highest wine classification; D.O.Ca or D.O.Q. in Catalan – Denominación de Origen Calificada.

Everything about this tiny region appeals to me. It feels very wild and isolated when you are there, it’s quite a journey just getting to it in fact. There is only one road and as it winds up into the mountains the terrain is ruggedly beautiful and the views are staggering. Miguel Torres once told me that it was completely different world in Priorat, and he was quite right.

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Once you are up in this amazing place, the air is clear and it feels very peaceful – I would urge anyone to visit, even if you are not that keen on wine. The villages are all lovely – there are no towns exactly – and while there are no hotels, there are some superb restaurants.

What really sets this lovely region apart though is the wine. Priorat specialises in blends, usually based on Garnatxa / Garnacha / Grenache, but they can include Samsó – Cariñena / Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. The land is made up of licorella soil, which is decayed slate. It seems that this sort of soil is the same one that creates the great wines of the Douro in Portugal and simply rises to the surface again all the way over here.

Priorat has a great history dating back to the early middle ages when the land was given to the Carthusian monks of the Monastery of Scala Dei. The Abbot ran the region as the feudal lord until the early nineteenth century when the locals rose up and sacked the monastery, its ruins can still be seen. The land was then nationalised and parcelled out to smallholders.

Oficina de Turisme del Priorat

The beautiful landscape of Priorat. Photo courtesy of Oficina de Turisme del Priorat.

The wines of the area fell in to decline then until well into the twentieth century and it was not really until the 1970s when a group calling themselves the Priorat Pioneers started trying to create fine wines worthy of the local terroir. They enjoyed quick success and Priorat has gone on to be regarded as one of the great wine regions of the world. In fact so rosy has the view of Priorat become that the only problem, for most of us, is the eye watering prices that many of the wines fetch.

Normally I would say that the best way to try the wines without spending a fortune is to drink the wines of the equally tiny and very similar Montsant region which surrounds Priorat, but recently I tasted an excellent and great value Priorat itself, so I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Priorat2013 Noster Nobilis Priorat
DOQ Priorat
Catalunya, Spain

A typical blend of 65% Garnatxa, 20% Samsó and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon aged in French oak barrels for 6 months.

The colour is a deep garnet, while the nose gives off rich brambely fruit and spice. You can almost smell the heat, with richer raisin and liquorice notes. There is a wild herb note too, similar to the French garrigue.
The palate is rich, smooth and warming with wild herbs, dry peppery spices and rich red fruit, fresh, dried and cooked. there is also the distinctive local minerality that tastes like the licorella slate. This is an excellent introduction to the delights of Priorat that over performs for the price – 89/100 points
Available in the UK from Asda and Asda Wine Shop for £7.98 – it is not an own label and does not mention Asda at all.
I cannot find any US stockists, but as Wallmart own Asda that may be a good place to start. If they do not have it, they certainly have this wonderful looking book on Priorat.

Try this wine with slow roast lamb with garlic and rosemary, or even a barbecue and do not be afraid to stick it in an ice bucket on a hot day – the Spanish would.

I hope some of you try this, it is an amazing wine for the money, let me know what you think.

Wine of the Week 56 – a delicious and refreshing Godello

I know that Albariño gets all the fame and much of the plaudits, but in the general run of things I am much happier drinking that other great white grape from Galicia, Godello.

Albariño is a wonderful grape, but I often find that it disappoints unless it is very fine and costly. For a grape variety whose reputation is for high acidity, poise, elegance and being crisp, the cheaper versions can frequently be a bit soft and nondescript. Godello however is much more reliable and produces attractive wines at many different price points. I have always been drawn to Godello, but at the moment I seem to be liking it more and more.

What’s more, we are fortunate to have the grape at all, as Godello very nearly went extinct as a consequence of Franco’s agricultural policies – his government guaranteed prices for agricultural goods, wine amongst them. One result of this policy is that as vineyards were replanted they replaced quality grapes with grapes that produced quantity more than anything else. I assume that Rioja and Tempranillo avoided this potential fate as it already had an international market.

Godello is principally grown in the Valdeorras region of Galicia and Bierzo in Castilia y León – the 2 regions were historically both in Galicia and use the same grape varieties and have broadly the same conditions. Godello is also grown in Monterrei and Ribera Sacra to great effect.

Given that it has survived and we can now enjoy Godello, I would love for it to be more popular – and Spanish white wines in general actually, which are often very good quality indeed.

Anyway recently I tasted an excellent Godello that was delicious and great value for money, so I made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of the Wine Regions of North West Spain including Galica – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Map of the Wine Regions of North West Spain including Galica – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Las Médulas

Las Médulas, a World Heritage Site in Bierzo that was once the most important gold mine in the Roman Empire. Valdeorras, the Valley of Gold, gets its name form these gold mines.

bolo2014 Bolo Mountain Wine Godello
DO Valdeorras
Galicia, Spain 

This wine is made by the great Rafael Palacios, whose brother Alvaro is one of the movers and shakers in Spain’s great Priorat region. Rafael fell in love with Godello in 1996, when it was incredibly rare – I think I am right that there were only 7 producers of it in the world by that time – and went on to piece together a 21 hectare estate of Godello grapes in the beautiful Val do Bibei high in the mountains near the village of Bolo. What he fell in love with was the bright, cool Atlantic influence, but also the extra depth and weight that Godello has over the region’s other grape varieties. He was also fortunate in that the vines he managed to get his hands on include some seriously old material, some of it nearly 100 years old. The Bolo Mountain Wine is his straightforward , unoaked take on Godello, he makes 2 more serious examples, but I still think it is a lovely wine.
A supremely fresh and lively dry white. It is light and easy to drink, even with a slight petillance on the palate, which I find very enticing.
The nose is honeysuckle and gentle peach, while the palate is soft and fresh and reminded me of some of the Swiss wines I was tasting near Montreux the other day. The acidity doesn’t dominate, so there is a softness and creaminess, but it is still very fresh with a core of minerality that gives the wine real poise and elegance. Overall the wine has a real mountain feel, there is a purity about it that I love and what’s more is is sinfully drinkable – 89/100 points.
Available in the UK for around £10 a bottle from The Wine Society. More stockist information is available from Indigo Wine.
Available in the US for around $12 a bottle, stockist information is available here.
I would urge you to try this wine, it is superb quality, great value and very versatile indeed. It is lovely as an aperitif, but equally good with fish, poultry, pork, creamy cheeses and spicy food. I think that I will drink a fair amount of it this Summer.

Wine of the Week 41 – an approachable and attractive Aglianico

Firstly, my apologies for not publishing a Wine of the Week last week, I was in Italy’s Campania region and I just could not make the internet work. I was a guest of the wonderful Campania Stories event that aims to immerse wine writers and wine educators in the wines of the Campania. Naples is the local capital, so as you might imagine, it is a beautiful and fascinating place and I was able to taste a great many terrific wines while I was there. I will write about it at some length soon, but by way of a teaser, my Wine of the Week is made from Campania’s classic black grape – Aglianico.

wine map of southern Italy - click for a larger view

wine map of southern Italy – click for a larger view

Aglianico can produce all manner of wines from rustic and earthy, through bright and enjoyable to classy, serious and elegant. If you have never tried an Aglianico – the g is silent by the way – then you have a treat in store. Be warned though, Aglianico can pack quite a punch of tannins and has equally high acidity, so is almost never a wine to drink without food. At its best I think the wines made from it, which include Taurasi and Falerno del Massico, as well as Aglianico del Vulture in the nearby Basilicata region, are among the most delicious and exciting in the world. They are usually pretty big wines, think Priorat or the red wines of Douro, what’s more they have very hard edges in their youth, so need a fair amount of ageing to soften the tannin and to let their complexity show. The effort is worth it and I will be writing more about some of the region’s fine wines soon. However, luckily for us some producers are also now making more approachable examples of Aglianico, so we can enjoy this exciting grape without waiting for them to soften.

Here is one that’s juicy, drinkable, widely available and great value for money, so I made it my Wine of the Week.

P1120129

Marco Giulioli, the talented and engaging winemaker at La Guardiense.

Aglianico

2013 Marks & Spencers Aglianico
IGT Beneventano
La Guardiense
Benevento
Campania, Italy
This wine is not a DOCG, or even a DOC, but a more humble IGT which means it is made in a less classic wine region with fewer rules and regulations about how it can be made. Benevento is quite a large IGT production area in the east of Campania, north east of Naples and near the border with Puglia. The first winery visit I made in Campania was to the superb La Guardiense cooperative who make this as well as their own higher quality and more serious wines under the Janare label, one of which was my first ever Wine of the Week.

The nose gives off lovely red plum fruit, soft spice and herbs with a note of rich red earth that lends it an attractive savoury character, it smells very Mediterranean in fact. The palate is smooth, with firm, yet supple tannins and refreshing acidity that makes it perfect with food. It tastes of plum and blackberry together with black pepper and a smoky, earthy flavour. The fruit dominates this Aglianico and there is no oak here, which makes it a perfect example for beginners to this extraordinary grape. It’s drinkable and delicious, yet gives a pointer to what this grape can do. 86/100 points.

Try it with charcuterie and all manner of pastas, the acidity makes it very good with tomato based dishes, as well as barbecues, shepherd’s pie or bangers and mash, actually any informal meal.

Available in the UK from Marks and Spencer for £6.50 per bottle.

Aglianico can be a difficult grape to grow, that can produce wines that are difficult for some palates to enjoy as they are often very serious wines, very dry, tannic and savoury. They need food frankly, which is how the locals enjoy them. This wine from Marks and Spencers though shows the grape’s softer, gentler side and will make a perfect starting point in any discovery of Campanian reds.

Do try an Aglianico soon, anyone whole loves red wines would find them worthwhile.

 

Hardscrabble & Feasts in the Douro

The Americans have a genius for words that describe exactly what they mean, so that you can understand it even if you have never heard it before.

Hardscrabble is just such a word and means that the land is so difficult to farm and so poor in nutrients that all you can do is to scratch a subsistence living. I first came across the expression at Linden Vineyards, where Jim Law had bought an abandoned “hardscrabble” farm and turned it into one of Virginia’s most exciting wineries. The place was so steep and stoney that Jim even named the vineyard and the wines produced from it “hardscrabble”.

Rugged, unforgiving vineyards are very often the best place for wine grape growing though, as they force the vine to work hard at surviving and so produce a small crop of tiny grapes with concentrated flavours and depth. In fact land like that, steep, stoney, inhospitable, inaccessible and harsh is perfect for wine grapes, but almost useless for any other marketable crop, which is why so many of these places have become famous as vineyard regions. These hard landscapes tend to be a feature of European wine making more than anywhere else and seem to be most frequently found in the Mediterranean world. RoussillonCinque Terre, Santorini, Pantelleria, Rapsani and Priorat could all be regarded as “hardscrabble” wine regions.

Portugal and Galicia do not actually have Mediterranean coasts, but surely they are culturally part of that world too, so I would add the astonishing Ribera Sacra to that list and perhaps the most wild and romantic wine landscape of them all – Portugal’s Douro Valley.

P1070099

The Douro – vineyards and cruise ship.

Terraced vineyards in the beautiful Douro Valley.

Terraced vineyards in the beautiful Douro Valley.

Untended vineyards are a common sight in the Douro.

Untended vineyards are a common sight in the Douro.

P1070110

The terraces soften the landscape and look very appealing.

The Douro is the 3rd longest river in Iberia, after the Tagus and the Ebro. In Spain – where it is called the Duero – it flows through Castilla y León, home to Ribera del Duero and Toro. The countryside here is beautiful, but not rugged or particularly harsh, that comes later once we are within sight of Portugal.  Arribes (del Duero) – where the river marks the frontier – is where the dramatic landscapes start, from here to Vila Nova de Gaia, near Porto, major centres of population are scarce and the wild, rugged, steep, hardscrabble hillsides dominate. In Portugal’s Douro Valley these slopes are home to the vineyards that create Port wines and the still / table wines of  D.O.C. Douro.

The Douro is one of the world’s great wine regions, but I had never managed to visit the place for myself until just the other week as a guest of the Discover the Origin campaign. What I saw fascinated me and educated me about the wines from this beautiful place.

P1070101

New terraces side by side with rubbed out vineyards.

The region is renowned today for the rich, sweet, fortified Ports, but of course it wasn’t always like that. In the middle ages – and before – this valley made normal wine, probably quite ordinary stuff as far as we can make out from the sparse records. It is even possible that the first wines known as Ports to the outside world were more akin to red Vinho Verde – light-bodied, low in alcohol and very acidic. We certainly know that even though Cromwell favoured them these wines did not catch on with English consumers until the early eighteenth century.

In those days the spirit was only added as the wine was being shipped, this was to protect it from turning bad on the voyage, so that ‘Port’ would most certainly have been dry – as long as the alcoholic fermentation was complete. It seems that until well into the 1820s there was no set time to add the spirit and no set amount of spirit either, so wines labelled Port could have varied enormously from dry red wines to something like the Port we know today. From what I have read it would appear that adding the spirit before the fermentation was complete – and creating a sweet wine – was not universal practice until the 1850s.

Even then not everyone approved, the influential Joseph James Forrester – created Baron Forrester in 1855 in recognition of his important work in mapping the Douro wine region – was campaigning against fortification and trying to persuade Port makers to return to making normal, but high quality, red wines.

Looking at the vineyards it really struck me just how much Port some people must drink! I like Port, very much but just cannot drink very much of it and yet, looking at the vast expanse of vineyards, someone must drink it all. Looking at those intensively planted slopes it is astonishing that is took so long for table wine production to catch on here. It was not until 1952 that a serious attempt was made to produce a fine red table wine from the region, the legendary Barca Velha made by Ferreira. It was slow to catch on at first, but gained in reputation until eventually the tide turned and more and more growers started making table wines in the Douro region. Finally in 1979 the Douro Denominacão de Origem Controlada / D.O.C. was created for the dry, still / table wines of the region – Port had already had its production zone defined by charter in 1756, making it probably the earliest such official wine region in the world.

Even today though the wines of this valley remain less famous than Port, which is a shame because many of the wines that I tasted were really good, but then so were the Ports themselves.

I have often wondered why the ‘Port’ region is so far away from the city whose name it takes. Well the reason is simple, near the coast the weather is wetter and more humid, so the grapes are grown further East and inland where they are sheltered from the Atlantic rains and winds by the Marão and Montemuro mountains. This gives the Douro a more continental climate with extremely hot summers and harsh winters – there are some pockets of a Mediterranean climate too the closer you get to the Spanish border.

Map of the Douro – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of the Douro – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Baixo Corgo – the original area where it all began. This westernmost subregion is wetter than the others and is widely regarded as most suitable for the production of the simpler Ruby and Tawny Ports. However, some of the wines that I tried from this area were superb.

Cima Corgo – the heartland of Port production, this is where the majority of the famous Quintas, or grape farms, are located.

Douro Superior / Upper Douro – this is the hottest and driest zone and extends all the way to the Spanish border. Because it is so cut off it is the most recent zone to be cultivated and so is not intensively planted. Much of this zone is used for table wines rather than Ports.

Large terraces at Quinta do Noval.

Large terraces at Quinta do Noval.

Classically the vineyards for Port production are on the well drained schist soils – decayed slate – and are terraced to make them easier to farm and to counter soil erosion. The traditional terraces look lovely, either the socalcos – the original type that look like dry stone wall steps, or the bigger nineteenth century type terrace that is a gentle slope contained by a dry stone wall that allows use of horses and mules.

Patamares at front right.

Patamares at front right, terraces behind.

The more modern patamares, with their big earth banks and very low density planting are not nearly so attractive or in keeping with the landscape and I understand they are now out of favour again.

Everywhere you look in the Douro there is a feast for your eyes, it truly is beautiful and you can clearly see why the wines are like they are. It is a place that draws in the heat and almost abuses the vines that grow here by denying them water and nutrients – all so they can produce tiny amounts of deeply flavoured juice that always has a deep mineral character to it. When drinking the wines you can almost imagine that you are tasting these hillsides.

I will write more about some of the wineries I visited and some of the wines I tasted, but here are some of the highlights of my trip, the first of which had nothing to do with wine:

Trainspotting in the Douro
It has long been a dream of mine to travel on the Douro railway, the wonderful meandering train track that opened up this inaccessible valley in the mid to late nineteenth century. Sadly this was a short visit, so that ambition is still to be fulfilled. However, I was able to se the famous railway station in the delightful town of Pinhão. It’s a famous tourist attraction in its own right because of the beautiful tile decorations, which really are worth seeing.

Pinhão Railway Station.

Pinhão Railway Station.

Pinhão Railway Station.

Pinhão Railway Station.

And now for some wine highlights:

Alves de Sousa, Quinta da Gaviosa
The first stop on my visit was at Alves de Sousa, this turned into a real highlight because they made us feel so at home – oh and the wines were really very good indeed.

P1060900

Tiago Alves de Sousa telling us about his 80 year old Abandonado vineyard.

This is a true family concern run by Domingos Alves de Sousa and his son Tiago. The impression I got was of a really good balance between Domingos, who seemed traditional and old fashioned in all the good ways and Tiago, who clearly loves his land, but would have been equally at home in a New York bar or an architects practice. The family have long owned some superb vineyards, but have only been producing and bottling their own Ports and table wines since 1987.

They own several Quintas, but we were at the beautiful Quinta da Gaviosa near Régua in the Baixo Corgo, which is the hub of their operation and the family home. The slopes are steep and the deep schist soils clearly visible through the thin ground cover.

The 80-100 year old vines in their Ambonada vineyard. It was abandoned and has been brought back to productive life.

The 80-100 year old vines in their Abandonado vineyard. It was abandoned and has been nurtured back to productive life.

The Alves de Sousa were among the pioneers of table wine production in the Douro and I thought all their wines were fascinating. Good though their reds and Ports are – and they  are very good – it was a couple of whites that really fired my imagination here.

For their white wines they use traditional white Douro grapes – a mixture of Malvasia Fina, Gouveio, Viosinho and Arinto – from a mixture of very old vines – 60 years old or so – and newer carefully planted vineyards very high up on north facing slopes where the air is cooler and so the grape’s acids are better preserved.

The 2009 Alves de Sousa Branco de Gaivosa Reserva is a beautifully complex, textured, richly fruity, herbal and flavoursome wine, full of flavour and all balanced by a wonderfully crisp acidity – 88/100 points.

Alves de Sousa Reserva Pessoal BrancoThe 2007 Alves de Sousa Reserva Pessoal Branco  is an altogether more individualistic sort of wine, full of character and depth. For this dry white they decided to make a wine with some of the personality and intensity of a white Port. To achieve this it was fermented (on the skins for the first 48 hours) in new French oak with hyper-oxidation and hard pumping over and a further 6 months in new French oak. The result is extraordinary, full flavoured, concentrated and quirky with barley sugar, caramelised orange, rich apricot, spices and honey, in fact it sort of tastes like a very rich Sauternes, but is bone dry. It put me in mind of those new wave amphora aged wines and orange wines, but unlike most of those it is utterly delicious  – 93/100 points.

The entrance to Quinta do Noval.

The entrance to Quinta do Noval.

Quinta do Noval.

Quinta do Noval.

Quinta do Noval
A wonderful highlight was staying at the beautiful Quinta do Noval, whose Ports and table wines are justifiably famous. It was tremendously exciting to spend a night at this wonderful place surrounded by the neatly ordered terraced vineyards. A comprehensive tasting of their range followed by a stroll around these terraces gave spectacular views – mind you the one from my bedroom took a lot of beating too – and helped get an overview of this amazing place.

The view from my bedroom, the building centre right is Noval's winery.

The view from my bedroom, the building bottom right is Noval’s winery.

The beautiful terrace at Quinta do Noval.

The beautiful terrace at Quinta do Noval.

Later a civilised aperitif of Noval Extra Dry White Port and tonic prepared our palates for a fabulously traditional dinner of roast goat that paired perfectly with the superb Quinta do Noval red table wines. My favourites were:

Touriga Nacional2009 Quinta do Noval Touriga Nacional
D.O.C. Douro

 

This had a deep and beautiful colour, while the nose was scented, aromatic and herbal with heather, oregano and rosemary, spices and an earthy, rocky, granite minerality.
The palate was savoury and rich with deep sugar plum fruit, earthy and granitic savoury characters, round tannins with just a touch of bite and great length – 89/100 points.
quinta_do_noval_2007_douro_doc_3__39102_big2009 Quinta do Noval
D.O.C. Douro

 

If anything this blend of 80% Touriga Nacional; 20% Touriga Franca was even more exciting, more intense and vibrant.
The colour was a lovely opaque and intense cassis, while the very rich nose offered liquorice, earthy mineral notes, wild herbs, mocha and a hint of spice.
The palate was very smooth and supple with fine grain tannins, fleshy black fruit to the fore, a supple texture and touches of warm granite, clean earth, leather and eucalyptus. I really loved this wine, it was rich, concentrated and pretty full-bodied, but still had plenty of freshness and elegance – 93/100 points

As I say it was only a short trip of a few days, but I was able to visit some wonderful places and try some superb Ports and wines that really made me aware of the great quality and wonderful things that are produced in this astonishingly beautiful valley. It may be a hard place to grow grapes, but the results do seem to make all the hard work worthwhile.

Other delights
I will tell you about some of my other experiences another time, but I will leave you this time with one of the great simple pleasures of Portugal – the coffee.

Coffee is everywhere in Portugal and the bars all announce who their coffee supplier is on their signs, much as pubs here used to indicate their brewery. The coffee in Portugal always seems very high quality to me and much hotter than the strangely cold coffee they serve in Italy. My favoured style is the Café Pingo or sometimes Pingado, the local term for a cortado, noisette or macchiato. I have been told that the same coffee in Lisbon and southern Portugal is a Café Garoto, but some people describe that as a weaker version as well, so order with care.

As well as coffee the Portuguese like their cakes too, and what cakes they have too. My favourite and the signature cake of Portugal is the scrummy pastel de nata – or if you are greedy (yes, yes, like me) the plural is pastéis de nata. Some people translate these as custard tarts, but that is to do them an injustice. Made properly the pastry has a crisp and flaky texture that makes these tarts irresistible when partnered with the rich creamy, eggy custard-like filling.

Pasteis de nata really are delicious...

Pasteis de nata really are delicious…

The lovely city of Porto / Oporto – I can never work out whether it starts with an O or a P! –  has a vibrant café culture and boasts a handful of wonderful cafés from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, all are worth a visit. So far my favourite is the beautiful fin de siècle Café Majestic.

The beautiful Café Majestic.

The beautiful Café Majestic.

A café Pingu.

A café Pingu.

So, you see the Douro is an amazing place, beautiful, a joy to visit and full of delights. I will tell you a bit more about my trip there and to Porto very soon.