Until recently, German wine had an image problem.
Not for those in the know of course; savvy drinkers have been stashing their cellars full of fragrant riesling and pinot noir for decades, while many of us had been too busy having new world love affairs to notice.
And that’s the problem; to the average supermarket-buying booze-hound, the region continues to conjure images of weissbeer, pilsner and, less deliciously, Blue Nun. Fruity, full-on New Zealand sauvignons and Italian pinot grigios have been filling our baskets while Germany’s gems have been left languishing on the shelves.
One man who knows this all-too-well is Konstantin Guntrum, owner of legendary winemaking dynasty, Louis Guntrum. His family have been growing grapes on the left bank of the Rhein since 1648, before marauding French catholic occupying forces compelled them to flee to the Left side of the Rhein in 1792. It took nearly a century for the Guntrum family to get back to their homeland, buying up vineyards and wineries in Nierstein and Oppenheim where they remain to this day. Today, and 11 winemaking generations on, the dynasty continues to thrive, making award-winning riesling, pinot noirs and sweet wines. The next challenge? Switching today’s discerning young wine-lovers onto the aromatic delights of Germany’s sweeter wines.
Konstantin dropped by The Society to give us a quick lesson in history, food matching and to share his phenomenal German wines.
1. German sweet wine is great for tough-to-match food Cheese and German sweet wines go together like Bogart and Bacall, the nectar-like qualities of Auslese or Kabinett perfectly offsetting sharp, savoury cheeses. Fiery foods also make a great match. As Konstantin says ‘eat something hot and try to wash it down with a fruity red and…well, have fun with that! It’s like putting fuel on the flames’. Sweet wines however counteract spiciness, in turn knocking any over-sweet edges from the wine. Puddings also apply here, so try a ‘riesling Kabinett’ which is made without additional sugar to perfectly balance the sweetness.
2. Grauburgunder is known as pinot grigio in Italy and pinot gris in France. The 2015 vintage of grauburgunder is especially delicious, a combination of baking summer days which add a tropical fragrance and cool nights which lend refreshing acidity to the fruit. This acidity also acts as a natural preserving agent, so the wine will get even better with age.
3. Weissburgunder is better known as pinot blanc and German examples display lively floral flavours. This slightly sweet style fell out of favour in the latter-half of the 1980s following its 1970s heyday but is gaining in popularity again. Modern examples show perfectly balanced sweetness and freshness, so give it a try if you’re looking for a delicious conversation-starter.
4. Chilled German reds such as dornfelder make great summer barbecue wines. With cherry, cranberry and herbal notes, dornfelder is light and fresh but has enough body to take on boldly savoury flavours of bangers, burgers and other British summertime staples.
Having spent my wine budget rather lustily during the Christmas period, I’m looking for maximum bang for buck from any New Year indulgences.
Thankfully, this under-£7 Portuguese white ticks all the boxes. It was one of the stars of my visit to Portugal with Society buyer Jo Locke MW last year; and it’s a testament to its quality that it can shine every bit as brightly in a grey Hertfordshire January as it did in front of the sun-soaked vista of Esporão’s tasting room!
Esporão Monte Velho, Alentejo 2015
This blend of local grapes (roupeiro, antão vaz and perrum) is the top seller in its price bracket on the Portuguese market, and winemaker David Baverstock hit the nail on the head at our tasting when he said it offers ‘a lot of sophistication for a big-blend wine from a hot climate’.
The ripe 2015 vintage offers a little extra generosity of body, citrus fruit and even some leafy complexity too, making this the perfect opportunity to try it.
This is no one-dimensional summer quaffer, but really quite a refined foodie white that will work well for wintry sipping too, and I hope you like it as much as I do!
£6.95 – Bottle
£41.50 – Case of six
View Wine Details
Annegret Reh-Gartner, who died this October aged 61, will be sorely missed by all who knew her. Her sense of responsibility, hard work ethic and determination may have been inherited from her father, but I shall chiefly remember her warmth, sense of humour and disarming honesty.
Tasting the new vintage in her company at the von Kesselstatt winery in Morscheid was always a joy. The wines were nearly always exciting and beautifully made, but she was the first to admit with humility if one was not a complete success.
Gunther Reh, her father, had bought the historic von Kesselstatt estate and vineyards (with the help of profits from his Sekt business) when it was an almost unmanageable 100 and more hectares with vines and cellars scattered throughout the Mosel and its tributaries. It was Annegret, who had the vision to concentrate her efforts on 36 hectares of its top Mosel-Saar-Ruwer sites, determined only to make top-quality wines.
These include Josephshöfer in Graach, a good chunk of the heart of the great Piesporter Goldtröpfchen amphitheatre, Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenühr, Scharzhofberger, Ockfener Bockstein and Wiltinger Braunfels in the Saar, and Kaseler Nies’chen in the Ruwer. Each has its own distinct personality and stamp of real quality which made those tastings such a pleasure.
We were able to draw on these Saar vineyards and also the excellent underrated Niedermenniger Herrenberg for The Society’s Saar Riesling.
Though she and her Michelin-starred chef husband Gerhard had no children of their own, Annegret, as the eldest of Gunther Reh’s children was the one all the others often turned to. Her care and concern for her family, the people who worked for her and her customers was deeply felt and evident.
Her last vintage, 2015, is looking wonderful and will be a living testament to her work that we shall continue to enjoy for many years, because rieslings of this calibre age so well. But when I drink them I shall specially remember Annegret herself, her infectious laugh and warm heart.
Sebastian Payne MW
Conrad Braganza invites us to do lunch with his favourite warm-weather white wines from our Cellar Showroom.
There is something decadent and delightful about drinking wine with lunch on a summer’s day. But to negate the necessity for an afternoon nap when chores still demand my attention, I tend to choose a lighter style of white wine with a modest alcohol level.
Here are some of my favourite lunchtime liveners from around the world. Do feel free to suggest your own in the comments!
• Austrian grüner veltliner can offer fruit and spice in a food-friendly package.
The Society’s Grüner Veltliner (£7.50) has been welcomed with open arms by our members and sailed through the 2016 Wine Champions tastings. Pepp Wienviertel Grüner Veltliner 2015 (£7.25) hits the spot well too.
• Australian semillon can work wonders on its own or with food.
The exclusive 88 Growers (£7.25) clocks in at just 11% alcohol and brings a zesty note to the grape’s classic greengage flavours.
• England offers a wealth of lower-alcohol choices thanks to our cooler climate.
For a floral, lychee-infused tipple that’d be perfect with chilli chicken skewers, try Three Choirs Stone Brook 2014 (£7.95). For something a little drier, Chapel Down Bacchus 2014 (11.50) is well worth the extra outlay, offering a flinty, mineral and crisp style with some sauvignon-esque flavours that would stand up very well to a goat’s cheese tart.
• Germany’s lower alcohol levels are well known, and the wines are as versatile as they are delicious.
The off-dry Ruppertsberger Hoheburg Riesling Kabinett 2015 (£6.50) is a great sipper but is also suitable for spicier food. Alternatively there is von Kesselstatt’s charming and appealing Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Spätlese 2013 (£16), which comes from a great producer and a world-class vineyard.
• Greece is a source of delicate, clean and crisp wines that go brilliantly with (dare I say it) Greek salad.
A great-value current favourite is the dry and gentle Ionos (£6.50).
• Vinho Verde is a wine made for lunch!
Fashionable again, and for good reason, these wines are fresh and dry but also aromatic and spot-hitting (and perfect with a bowl of prawns, as I found out on a recent trip to Portugal!). In the 2015 vintage, The Society’s Vinho Verde (£5.95) has never looked better, whilst Muros Antigos (£7.95) from Anselmo Mendes proves why he’s one of the region’s top growers at a friendly price.
The Cellar Showroom
Every two years, the winemakers of Austria descend on Vienna’s spectacular Hofburg Imperial Palace to host the country’s largest wine fair, VieVinum.
Superbly managed by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, this biannual event sees a convergence of the world’s wine trade, packing out the hotels, the wine fair and the local watering holes!
This year’s highlights included a tasting that showcased the ageing potential of Austrian wines. This line-up proved in some style that fine grüner veltliner, while precise and fresh when young, can age and develop complex layers (such as honeyed almond, peach and flint). Less surprisingly, but nonetheless also often overlooked, were wonderful older examples of Austrian riesling and blaufränkisch on show. A seminar devoted to Austria’s ‘elements of uniqueness’ reminded us of the wide range of native grape varieties, the diversity of appropriate landscapes and the food-friendly nature of the wines.
Proving too that the Austrians know how to party, a get-together for all the international visitors was held on the Saturday in another distinctive Viennese venue, this time in the Museum Quarter, showcasing local food and wine pairings and introducing us all to the new sustainability programme that the Austrian wine sector are now committed to.
VieVinum is without doubt one of the best-run and most focused international tastings, educating, entertaining and enabling buyers from across the world in equal measure.
I was spoilt for choice with the universally high quality and wide diversity of the wines on show.
I hope you enjoy a few of my favourites in the upcoming Austrian Shortlist and in future Fine Wine selections.
Sarah Knowles MW
Visit Travels In Wine for more news from Austria
Janet Wynne Evans gets into hock without breaking the bank…
What could be better than a classy bottle and a meal that cost next to nothing – apart perhaps from the sterling advice that it doesn’t really work the other way round?
Should you be tempted by our current crop of German wines, here’s a recipe to bring some joy to plate, palate and domestic balance of payments.
It involves that most Germanic of ingredients, ham, a riesling soulmate if ever there was one. The racy acidity of the grape offsets saturated fat while the roundness underlying even in the trockens soothes salinity. And the nobility of the fruit counters the pigsty so elegantly.
But let it also be said that a supple German pinot noir with a thick slice of baked ham is an Ode to Joy in itself.
A ham hock weighing a generous kilo will set you back little more than a couple of your hard-earned sovereigns. Slowly baked in the oven on a rhythm-section of onions, herbs and spices, it will feed four people adequately, or two very generously, with scrumptious leftovers. The cooking juices and not-quite-spent veggies make a superb sauce or can be blended into soup fit for a king, with shreds of the ham and a few pulses thrown in. The meat itself makes hearty terrines and well as peerless sandwiches.
When meat is this cheap, some other kind of investment is needed. Here, it’s time and, by extension, the cost of a longish tour of duty, albeit at low wattage, for your trusty oven. Even so, this meal is belting good value. It’s a much better destination than a food waste bin for unprepossessing bits of vegetable: the unglamorous outer leaves of fennel bulbs, slightly elderly celery sticks, the too-green bits of leek you’re always advised to discard. Any superannuated wine, cider or ale you happen to have around can be pressed into service too.
You can boil ham hocks for lipsmacking flavour and pleasing, pull-apart texture, though not photogenic beauty, which this baked version has in abundance. During the cooking, the flavoursome fat renders into the meat, rather than being lost in cooking water. A final blast of hot air gives them a beautiful burnished glow, and – praise be! – crackling!
Don’t try to make the recipe below on impulse. Snap up your hocks, vacuum-packed for extra shelf-life, or store them in the freezer. ready for a call to action. The impending arrival of a Wine Society van, for instance.
Janet Wynne Evans
Fine Wine Editor
BAKED AND ROASTED HAM HOCK WITH BEANS AND ONION SAUCE
One hock will serve 4 – but why not cook two for safety and leftovers?
• 1 or 2 unsmoked ham hocks, skin on about 1.2kg each
• 3-4 onions, or a combination of onions, fennel and leeks, roughly wedged or chunked, enough to cover the base of the dish
• A small bunch of sage leaves, washed and dried
• 2 bay leaves, fresh or dried
• 2-3 star anise
• 1 teaspoon of whole white peppercorns
• 100ml dry or medium cider or white wine
• 2 x 400g cans or jars white, butter or cannellini beans or flageolets, drained
• Salt and freshly ground pepper, white or black
• A small bunch of fresh parsley, leaves only, not too finely chopped (put the stalks under the ham before it goes into the oven).
• A pinch of mustard powder (optional)
Ideally, soak your ham in cold water the night before to remove excess salt. If you are seized by impulsiveness, a quick cheat is to cover your joint with cold water in a large pan and bring slowly to the boil. Once the water begins to bubble gently, pour it away and rinse the joint thoroughly in fresh water. In both cases, dry it thoroughly with kitchen paper.
Now score the rind all over with fine lines, close together. This is a simple task provided you have a Stanley knife, the point of which does the job admirably without cutting too deeply into the fat.
Preheat the oven to 150C/Gas 2 and choose a deepish roasting tin or ovenproof dish that comes with a lid.
Line the bottom of the tin with the vegetables, herbs and spices.
Stand the ham on top, and pour over the wine or cider. Grind in a generous amount of black pepper. Cover and bake for between three and four hours, or until really tender, basting from time to time with the juices. Add a little more liquid if necessary.
Remove from the oven and increase the temperature to 220C/Gas 7.
Transfer the ham onto a platter and carefully pour the juices and vegetables into a clean pan. Fish out the bay leaves and star anise. If you have a stick blender, use this to puree the vegetables into a thickish sauce. If not, cool them slightly and use a blender or food processor. A mouli, or vegetable sieve will also work and if none of these is to hand, simply chop the vegetables for a pleasantly chunky effect. Season and add a judicious pinch of your favourite mustard if you like.
Put the ham back in the tin, scored side up. Rub a little salt into the skin and return to the oven for about 25 minutes or a little longer if the crackling is elusive.
Add the drained beans to the onion sauce and heat through gently on the hob. Sprinkle abundantly with the parsley and keep warm.
Transfer the ham to a board and carve into thick slices or let it fall into shreds.
Serve in rustic fashion with the beans and provide contrast with a short, sharp, crunchy salad, dressed with mustard vinaigrette.
Prowein, the three-day wine fair, held in Düsseldorf annually in March, has become an invaluable meeting place of wine producers and buyers from all over the world.
This year Marcel Orford-Williams takes back the Society’s German wine buying, but I could not resist spending a morning with him and producers I had introduced in the last five years and looking at the wonderfully promising 2015 vintage wines with several growers we have both known over many years.
Where else can one meet in one well-organised place so many producers from every German wine-producing region, catch up with their news and taste so many of their wines to make a selection?
I was there principally, however, to talk to growers from further east: Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Moldova, Romania and beyond.
While there is no substitute for visiting producers on their home patch (my first visit to Georgia last year was an education) this fair is a fantastic way to narrow the field and find growers whose wines will appeal to Wine Society members, while saving money on travel expenses.
The Turks have been hard hit by a massive drop in tourism, following bombs in Istanbul and hostility with Russia but, in spite of unhelpful politics and a predominantly teetotal population, people are making inspiring wines of character and high quality. Vinkara’s Öküzgözü (£7.75) is just one example. My wife and I visited New York and Washington shortly after 9/11 in a half-empty plane to a warm welcome from American friends. This is surely an excellent time to visit Turkey.
Our Greek suppliers, a dynamic motivated group, mostly youthful, who export most of what they make are similarly inspiring making great, original wines.
We began last year to import from Moldova. Château Vartely makes some lovely wines, wants and needs to sell to us, so offers good prices.
What is not to like?
Let us give these movers and shakers, who rise above difficult times, our support.
Sebastian Payne MW
We received the sad news from Bulgaria this week that Dr Ognyan ‘Ogy’ Tzvetanov, winemaker at Society suppliers Borovitza, passed away suddenly on Sunday.
We have been listing Borovitza wines for a few years, and Ogy came to the wine Society to show his wines at our ’50 years at Stevenage’ celebration. Our PR manager, Ewan Murray, and I also visited Ogy just three months ago. As my own write-up of the trip hopefully conveys, he was a fiercely passionate and highly talented winemaker, not to mention fantastic company, and I learned a great deal from him.
His partner in wine Adriana will, we are told, be carrying on Ogy’s work, and our thoughts and best wishes are with her and indeed all who were close to Ogy. He will be greatly missed.
Few if any members of the British wine trade were closer to him than Caroline Gilby MW, and we publish an edited version of her lovely blog post remembering him below with her permission.
I actually had glass of wine called “Carpe Diem” in my hand when I got the news. One of my dearest friends in wine died suddenly yesterday and I’m still in shock that he’s gone.
Another cruel reminder about living the life you have to the full and not putting things off. Last year, I had promised to take my husband to meet Ogy and see his winery at Borovitza in the far north west of Bulgaria, but then work got in the way, winter closed in and I put it off. I was hoping that Easter this year would work, but now it will never happen, something I will always regret.
I’ve known Dr Ognyan Tzvetanov for at least 15 years, first as a winemaker, academic and consultant to the Bulgarian industry, when he was always happy to answer my endless questions about the real picture and politics (always a huge topic) in Bulgaria. Gradually this developed into real friendship. I recall one trip when Ogy took me for walking tour of Sofia back in around 2005. My shoes may have been pretty but quickly reduced my feet to bleeding blisters, but it didn’t matter because it was so fascinating uncovering layers of history in Bulgaria’s capital city. And he always took the time to meet me at the airport for a quick coffee or to squeeze in beer somewhere even if my busy schedule didn’t allow time for anything more (and to hand over a bottle of unlabelled “party special” brandy for my husband as he knew where the good stuff was hidden). Always imported beer at that, as Ogy had no time for what he saw as lax standards of microbiology in Bulgaria’s national breweries.(He had been head of winemicrobiology at Bulgaria’s National Wine Research and Control Institute).
There were often surprises on trips to Bulgaria with Ogy – the ancient Thracian tomb of Dionysios, the stunning golden treasures of Panagyurishte, the Magura cave (where some of Europe’s oldest human remains have been found and last spring a visit to the idyllic mountain village of Koprivshtitsa (where Ogy’s partner-in-wine Adriana had been born).
One of the most valuable tastings I ever did with Ogy was on our way to see the potential winery he had just bought in northwest Bulgaria in 2007. On the way, we stopped to do a tasting in a rather boarded-up hotel so we sneaked in via the kitchen – as ever Ogy had a friend there. The tasting that greeted me was a line up of odd-looking liquids in a random selection of reused water and soft drink bottles. These had been bought from roadside stalls and the local market. I can’t say it was the most fun tasting I ever did as the “wines” showed every wine fault you have ever heard of, plus some randomly weird aromas from use of hybrid grapes too. But the point was well made and has stuck with me ever since. Ogy wanted to show me what local people understood to be the most genuine wines and therefore the huge gulf of understanding that had to be bridged when trying to persuade them what would be required to make quality wine as we might understand it in the west. It was dark by now and after a snack of cheesy chips (a great Bulgarian dish and perfect after wine tasting) we headed onto our hotel for the night. I had no idea what sight would greet me in the morning when I opened my curtains and looked out over one of the most stunning landscapes in the world. Even Bulgarians mostly don’t know what a treasure they have in the Belogradchik rocks – though it was nominated as one of seven natural wonders of the modern world a few years back.
Ogy and his winemaking partner Adriana had finally found a way to really make their wine dreams reality. At that time, you couldn’t just open a new winery but had to find a property with an existing licence, which was proving tricky. Both had been renting space in other wineries or even using a warehouse to make their wines to this point, travelling around the country sourcing plots of the best grapes wherever they could find them. North west Bulgaria was not well regarded by the big players of the industry, especially for the rich and super-ripe reds that were their mainstay. However, Ogy and Adriana had found that there were some amazing old plots of vines in this virtually abandoned corner of the country, producing fantastically intense fruit. And because this area is relatively cooler than the rest of the country (especially at night), but with long sunshine hours, ancient soils and good sloping sites, the wines have great potential for elegance, complexity and long life. Bulgaria’s first true terroir wine Sensum was launched by Ogy from the 2003 vintage and came from one such plot of 48 year old vines.
A chance conversation one day led them to an abandoned and utterly derelict winery at the foot of the Belogradchik rocks – and importantly still with the right licence.
Financing the project brought the next headache. There were number of EU funds available to wineries around the time of Bulgaria’s accession in 2007. In theory these were designed to support rural development and provide local jobs, but in reality the burden of bureaucracy and financial restrictions meant it was mostly already well-funded companies who benefited. The rules required that applicants were financially stable, debt-free and could fund any project upfront, then you could reclaim 50% back on completion. In practice, this made money difficult to obtain by exactly the sort of companies who needed the help – but somehow Ogy and Adriana managed it.
In their own place, Ogy and Adriana had total freedom to do what they wanted and adapt their methods to every parcel of fruit. And it helped them get away from some of the unexpected issues with rented tanks – I recall one story about an amazing Sauvignon they had made, but every time they went back to check it, it seemed somehow more dilute and they wondered what had gone wrong. Finally the truth emerged. The winery staff had spotted that this was the best wine in the place and had been quietly siphoning off wine to drink and topping up with whatever else they could find in the winery. At Borovitza, some batches were just a few bottles (they even had special tiny barrels coopered if necessary – below a 67 litre barrel for their first MRV, a Marsanne, Rousanne Viognier white blend).
Not every wine always worked – but everything was interesting, and many wines were truly fantastic. Among my favourites are the winery’s flagship Dux, Vox Dei Pinot Noir (matured in barrel with a piece of meteorite found in the vineyard), Sensum, Bouquet (a rare Bulgarian speciality), Cuvée Bella Rada (a surprise for me as I normally hate Rkatsiteli) and the ever fascinating Gamzas (including Black Pack, Granny’s and others – all of which had some great story about obtaining the grapes).
Ogy was often opinionated about the rest of the Bulgarian wine industry, but in spite of this he frequently took time to arrange visits for me so I would understand the bigger picture. He found it frustrating that industry lobbying influenced dividing the country into just two regions for wines with Protected Geographical Indication status. He firmly believed that this was about making life easier for big companies to source wherever they wanted. He felt the old five regions had been based on clearly identifiable differences in soil and climate. In the end, it meant he went his own way, feeling unrecognised by the industry and wine press in Bulgaria, and let his wines speak for themselves.
And so they did – quietly gaining listings in Berry Bros and The Wine Society, among the very few Bulgarian wines to break out of the trap of “ultra-cheap only fit for supermarket bottom shelf” status. Recognition came in from critics like Jancis Robinson, Robert Parker and others. When I showed him that Jancis had highlighted Dux in the World Atlas of Wine, his face was picture of surprise, disbelief and joy. Just a few months ago, he got to show his wines at the historic Five Kings House in the heart of London alongside the likes of Bollinger, Chateau Yquem, Jadot and Schloss Vollrads. He definitely had an air of “I can’t quite believe I’m here, in this company, and in a hall that has been the heart of the wine trade for centuries.” I’m told he kept the text I sent him afterwards, to tell him that his Gamza had been singled out as a highlight of the tasting by the chair of the Institute of Masters of Wine. I only wish he could have had time to fulfil the rest of his ambitions, but his generous heart let him down in the end.
Rest in peace Ogy.
Caroline Gilby MW
I am reminded on my latest visit in glorious winter sunshine how Porto would make a wonderful destination for a grown-up city break, not least as it is so steeped in the history of port production (with plenty of tasting opportunities too).
The old lodges across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia, where port wines have been stored and matured for generations, have all been spruced up to receive visitors, none more so than Graham’s.
Jo Locke MW
When thinking of the Douro Valley, most will picture the steep walled vineyards and famous port quintas perched precariously above the meandering river below.
But a surprise to me was the extent of this wine region; I hadn’t realised that as well as the principal valley with its terraces, there are so many tributaries and side valleys with high plateaux and rolling hills, and vines seemingly everywhere.
This region is vast. The Douro vineyard area is divided into three sub-zones, Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior and there are more than 40,000 hectares in total. Compare this, say, to the whole of the northern Rhône, made up of just 2,700 hectares.
Buyer Joanna Locke MW and I had just two nights and three days in December last year to travel the length and breadth of the valley and beyond. The main aim of the visit was to go and see our Exhibition Douro suppliers, Quinta do Vale Meão at Vila Nova de Foz Côa in the Upper Douro (read more about this here), but we were also going to make a side-trip to the rather forgotten region of Beira Interior to visit Rui Madeira, catch up Rita Ferreira Marquès of Conceito and visit some prospective suppliers in an area known as the Douro Verde – vinho verde’s southernmost enclave, and we were to discover, the home of the avesso grape.
Douro – no longer just about port
Despite the region’s long history of making wines, port has dominated the trade until relatively recently, but the Douro is building a reputation for its table wines, with estates like Vale Meão at the vanguard.
Douro table wine now accounts for 30% of sales from the region, compared to just 3% ten years ago. This proportion is growing all the time and with winemakers gaining better insight into the best grapes to grow where, quality is bound to improve, as Francisco Olazabal, winemaker and owner at Vale Meão says: ‘The best vintages are the most recent. Styles are changing, partly because of vintage differences and changes in weather patterns but also because we are getting to know our vineyards better and learning how to control alcohol levels better.’
Perhaps somewhat ironically it is the knowledge gained from site selection for table wines which is now feeding back into the production of port too.
Rui Madeira at Beyra Wines in the Beira Interior, on the other hand, wouldn’t change his field blends. His vineyards, some of Portugal’s highest, just 30kms from the Spanish border on the start of the meseta, are made up of very old vines, crucial for getting flavour and complexity into the wines.
The Beira Interior area is known for its whites. In the past the wine from this region was sent in bulk west to Bairrada – the high natural acidity made it perfect for use as the base for sparkling wine production. But Rui, whose family is originally from this region, could see the potential for making high-quality wines from the old vines grown on schist, granite, clay and quartz soils.
Rui was brought up in Lisbon but had a bad accident while at university and came back to the family home to recuperate. While he was convalescing he helped to make wine at his friend’s winery and became smitten with the idea of becoming a winemaker and realising the potential of his home turf. He made his first wine here in 1987. In 2011, after travelling and gaining experience in wineries around the world, he was drawn back and bought the Vermiosa winery from his friend, completely refurbishing it.
This area is quite desolate. Many have left and those that are left are poor so there is no market locally for the wine, neither is there workforce for the winery. Rui is the main winemaker but lives in Porto (like many we met), and his cellarmaster commutes over from the Douro.
Because this region is little known, Rui has made a point of putting a map showing exactly where they are on his labels. It was also his way of making the point that this region still has a connection with the mighty Douro river.
But it is the altitude and old vines (some as much as 120 years old) which make his wines really special. The freshness captured in the wines means that it isn’t just the whites that work well with fish as we were to discover when we retreated to a local rustic restaurant for lunch.
Presenting a different face to the world
A common theme that came up with all those we spoke to was the need to make their mark on what is an already crowded market place. This is something that Rita Marques of Conceito has undoubtedly achieved with her dramatic-looking labels (Conceito means ‘concept’).
Rita is one of the new generation of winemakers. A protogée of Dirk Niepoort, she came back to the Douro in 2005 after travelling as far afield as South Africa and New Zealand learning her craft. After finishing her studies, Rita built a winery with the intention of making wines from vineyards owned by her mother and grandfather. Previously the grapes were sold on to producers so Rita is the first winemaker of the family.
Rita’s winemaking philosophy is quite straightforward: ‘You should always make wines that you like to drink.’ She then goes on to admit rather candidly that, at first, she didn’t like the Douro table wines finding them too heavy and powerful! But now she says that she loves them: ‘Wines are becoming more elegant… more people are making table wines in the Douro so we’re all getting to understand our region better and there’s more competition, so everyone’s improving.’
Returning to the theme at the start of this post, the land here is not what you’d immediately picture when thinking of the Douro. Despite the high altitude (300-400m), this is a land of gentle hills rolling down to the Teja valley, a tributary of the Douro. The mild micro-climate here means that grapes ripen more slowly here bringing freshness to the wines (her entry-level red Contraste, £11.95 per bottle and designed for early drinking, exemplifies this beautifully). And Rita is lucky enough to have access to some really old parcels of vines (the oldest around 80 years old with two hectares of pre-phylloxera vines at 600m).
From the Douro’s upland vineyards to the valley floor
Winding your way down from Rita’s winery to the valley floor of the Douro is an ear-popping, stomach-churning descent – even by night and despite the considerate driving!
Our next destination was in the southernmost vinho verde subzone of Baião, in what is called the Douro Verde and a stopover at Quinta de Guimarães to taste the fresh, nervy Cazas Novas wines based on the avesso grape.
Anyone for avesso?
I have to admit that I hadn’t heard of this grape before or realised that the vinho verde region came down as far as the Douro or this far inland. But as we were to discover, avesso is the grape of this area where it is increasingly bottled as a single varietal.
Quite unlike the other vinho verde grapes, avesso is low in acidity but is relatively high in potential alcohol and can have almost tropical-fruit like aromatics and a roundness to the flavour. To distinguish these wines from the more traditional vinhos verdes, the wines are often bottled in Burgundy bottles. Avesso in Portuguese, by the way, means ‘opposite’.
The avesso grape thrives in the warmer and drier climate here, planted as it is on south-facing slopes that run down to the Douro. Here the granite soils are also less fertile than those of the vinho verde subzones further north and west.
There’s a real excitement about this grape – and you can see why – it offers something a bit different while retaining that enticing freshness that makes all vinho verde attractive. Buyer Joanna Locke MW has shipped the 2014 vintage for members to try (£6.95 per bottle).
Cazas Novas has been in the hands of the Mourinho family for seven generations. Carlos Mouinho makes the wine in collaboration with Diogo Fonseca Lopes and winemaking super-stars Anselmo Mendes, and Vasco Magalhães. Carlos tells us that like many other families, they used to sell their grapes but noticed that the wines were winning awards and his father thought, ‘why not have a go ourselves?’
Much to the delight of his father, Carlos has stepped up to the plate. His father meanwhile, looks after renting out their beautiful old manor house Quinta de Guimarães. The house, built in 1720 and with its own chapel (which Carlos informs us is typical of this style of property), is used for weddings, holiday lets and bed and breakfast. ‘It’s one way we can continue to keep these old houses going,’ says Carlos and it would make a lovely first spot to stay on a wine tour up the Douro.
More and more quintas are opening up their doors to visitors, so if you’re thinking of taking a trip up the Douro, I’d recommend spending more than three days and researching the possibilities of staying where the wine is made.