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
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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
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.
The arrival of summer heralds the chance to do many pleasurable things, one being the opportunity to sip a chilled glass of wine in the garden as the swallows and swifts swoop.
It used to be a relatively easy choice for my white: something sauvignon blanc based, whether the mineral freshness of the Loire, the tropical fruit of New Zealand or the perfumed examples from Bordeaux.However, recently I have found that more wines now jockey for position of summer sipper and none more so than those of Spain and Portugal.
Albariño led this charge and now is firm favourite; not just for a bowl of whitebait but a worthy tipple in the warmer weather with its citrus backbone allowing the delicate fruit to brought to the fore, such as Pazo de Villarei 2014 (£8.50).
My interest in Iberia only intensified on a recent trip to northern Spain. I was able to see first-hand how a modern approach, assisted by investment in technology, concentrating on cooler areas and allowing the Atlantic freshness to prevail had helped expose the latent charm of indigenous grapes and has brought the wines of Iberia to the attention of those like myself, seeking lively thirst-quenching wines with well-defined fruit and an aromatic touch.
The current Summer Whites from Spain and Portugal offer mirrors my newfound interest in these wines and showcases many favourites.
Spain’s Gaba do Xil Godello Valdeorras 2014 (£8.75) offers up a clean cut of unoaked freshness tempered by a roundness on the palate typical of the godello grape. Add to this the invigorating peachiness of Finca Lallana (£7.50), a certified 100% organic verdejo which I was fortunate to witness being blended.
With a surname like Braganza you might expect leanings to Portuguese whites. Vinho verdes, as the name alludes to (‘green wine’), used to deliver freshness but sometimes in an unripe fashion. However, times have changed: try Anselmo Mendes’ ‘Muros Antigos’ Loureiro (£7.95) or Soalheiro’s Alvarino (£14.50), which still provide a bright background but with a floral fragrance that raises the wine – both are great for grilled mackerel.
For an easy drinker try Quinta da Espiga, Lisboa 2014 (£6.50) which uses a smidgen of sauvignon blanc and a host of indigenous grapes to create a zesty, lower-alcohol wine that makes a great lunchtime drink. Another favourite is Alvaro Castro Dão Branco 2014 (£7.95), which introduces a contemporary take on the Dão style.
Lastly, Spain’s Ermita del Conde Albillo, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León 2013 (£10.95) and Portugal’s popular Adega de Pegões Colheita Seleccionada, Setúbal 2014 (£6.75) reveal how Iberia can deliver wines with a difference (the former offering beguiling fruit underpinned by subtle spice from oak, the latter a smooth full-flavoured white), both offering culinary companionship aplenty.
Hopefully the above illustrates Iberia’s credentials for good summer whites.
All we need now is a good summer…!
The Cellar Showroom
I love an underdog. It’s very much an English thing, I guess – that built-in desire to root for that which offers the path of most resistance. A few years ago in Portugal this trait surfaced quite prominently.
I had heard The Society’s buyer for Portugal, Jo Locke MW, complain for about the fifth time that morning how underrated Portuguese whites were in comparison to their Spanish counterparts and how they didn’t get the recognition that they deserved.
I must admit that while it seemed like a great idea standing in a Portuguese vineyard bathed in sunshine, when back in Society HQ on a damp, grey Stevenage morning the sales figures for the two regions looked all a bit one-sided.
Spanish whites outsell those from Portugal in volume and value. it could be the biggest mismatch since Frank Bruno vs Chuck Gardner back in 1987.
Perhaps a little market research might be in order.
One great thing about working at The Society is that there is never a shortage of people willing to try wine, at the pop of a cork or twist of a screwcap they are heading towards you, glass in hand and a glint in the eye.
I figured that a quick Spanish albariño vs Portuguese alvarihno blind tasting would be a good starting point: the same grape and a similar bottle shape (an important point when you want the wine judged on what’s in the glass rather that what they have deduced is in the glass!). With both wines bagged and with strict instructions not to cheat, staff put a tally mark on a piece of paper next to each bottle.
The end result was very close: Portugal by a nose!
However, the main result of this impromptu blind tasting was the realisation that I was approaching this all wrong. Why did there have to be a winner or loser here? Without wishing to sound like a primary school teacher on sports day, surely they were all winners here?
The truth of the matter is the both regions produce great-value, refreshing wines with a style all of their own; and after speaking with Jo and Pierre (Mansour, Society buyer for Spain), who were busy selecting wines from their respective regions, I realised that they felt the same – although they’d reached this conclusion a long time ago and with considerably less fuss!
So here we have it: summer whites from Spain and Portugal. Vibrant fresh and individual wines, and all the better for losing my original ‘battle of the bottles’ slant.
I hope if you regularly drink Spanish whites that you’ll tiptoe over the border to try some Portuguese examples; or if you thought heavily oaked white Rioja is all that Spain has to offer you’ll take another look and see just how far these amazingly bright and fresh wines have come.
Either way, I hope that you’ll see how both regions can make a fine addition to any wine rack this summer… but if you did have a favourite I’d love to know!
Marketing Campaign Manager
It was a huge pleasure to join my colleagues Liz and Mark and our super group of members and their guests in Portugal back in October.
There is such a wealth of history here, as these old journals at Taylor’s illustrate, and the small ‘museum’ at Graham’s lodge portrays so vividly. Both are well worth the detour for tasting as well as a history lesson, with the added bonuses of Graham’s restaurant Vinum and Taylor’s top-notch hotel to hand if you’d like to linger longer.
Our first-ever Exhibition Douro red is available now with introductory savings until 8th February)
Jo Locke MW
Sadly my dwindling stock of mature vintage port is not readily available this Christmas, so I decided to opt for a 20-year-old tawny port comparison.
Port because the gathered assembly regard it as essential to Christmas as it is traditional, perfect with nuts, cheese and those splendid preserved fruits that sit in the sideboard and taste even better at leisure on Boxing Day or the day after.
Indeed, my colleague Janet Wynne Evans has also pointed out in the video below that tawny port is often a better match than vintage for cheese.
20-year-old because it is the perfect age for tawny port. A comparison because there will be several of us and one bottle would simply not have been enough – and besides which some of us need little if any excuse to compare different wines.
They will be served cellar cool to an eager audience, and my guess is that Taylor’s (£34) may win for finesse and class. Graham’s (£37) will score well on account of its depth and rich fruit, and that Noval (£40) will seduce us with its charm.
I look forward to finding out.
Sebastian Payne MW
After visiting Taylor’s Port Lodge, we wound our way up the Douro Valley and arrived at Quinta do Vesuvio – at its very own railway station!The property is set amidst orange and olive groves, orchards and, of course, vines, and we were welcomed to this beautiful setting by Johnny Symington and João Vasconcelos.
Johnny is one of the five Symington cousins who share the responsibility for all aspects of the company. The Symington family has owned Quinta do Vesuvio since 1989 and has been directly involved in port for five generations, since 1882 in fact, when the first Symington, Andrew James, moved from Scotland to Portugal to work for W & J Graham’s.
Johnny hosted our tour of this impressive quinta which boasts the largest house and some of the biggest traditional stone lagares (time-honoured fermentation vessels) in the Douro. It was exciting to find that they had only just finished foot-treading the grapes the night before our visit so the lagares were full of the grapes that would become the 2014 vintage.
After our tour, we tasted Quinta do Vesuvio’s range of Douro DOC red wines, including Pombal do Vesuvio 2011 and Quinta do Vesuvio 2010 and 2009, and the intensely rich Quinta do Vesuvio single-quinta vintage ports from 2009, 2011 and 2012. The Wine Society currently lists Quinta do Vesuvio 2004 (£36 per bottle).
Following a wonderful lunch of a delicious Portuguese speciality Bacalhau Fornado (a fish pie made with dry, salt-cured cod) and local cheeseboard accompanied by an exclusive 1992 Quinta do Vesuvio tawny port, taken direct from cask at the Quinta, we were in for another treat.
It was time for my ‘James Bond moment’: a speedboat trip with Johnny at the helm down the Douro river with wonderful 360-degree views of the surrounding terraced vineyards.
Thank you to Johnny, João and the Symingtons for such a wonderful day in this idyllic part of the world; great company, setting and wines – life couldn’t get much better.
To find out more about Quinta do Vesuvio and the Symington Family estates visit their excellent website.
Recruitment & Retention Manager
Our whirlwind prize-winners’ Portugal trip started with a private tour and extensive tasting at Taylor’s Port wine cellars in the heart of the historic area of Vila Nova de Gaia.
Established over three centuries ago, in 1692, Taylor’s is one of the oldest of the founding port houses – The Society being a mere baby in comparison!
Set in beautiful gardens with views across the Douro River, Taylor’s Port lodge is in a stunning location. Although we arrived in the rain, we were soon given a very warm welcome from our host Chris Forbes, Taylor’s marketing projects manager. We started with a refreshing glass of ‘Chip Dry’, usually served as an aperitif in the Douro, ‘Chip Dry’ is a mixture of one part of white port with two parts of chilled tonic water served in a tall glass, with lemon and ice. Delicious.
Chris showed us Taylor’s long cool, dark cellars which house the casks and vats where the ports age, giving us a history of Taylor’s along the way (to read more about Taylor’s history visit their excellent website). The cellars’ thick granite walls and high ceilings keep the port casks at an even temperature, particularly important during the hot summer months but not such an issue on a rainy October afternoon!
Taylor’s wines come from their three quintas in the Douro valley, each with their own unique character: Quinta de Vargellas, Quinta de Terra Feita and Quinta do Junco.
It was clear that Taylor’s still embrace the traditional methods of making port from the hand-picking and selection of grapes in the vineyard through to foot treading the grapes in lagars (wide thigh-deep granite tanks) in the quinta.
Prior to visiting the Douro, foot treading conjured up visions of fun and frivolity. However, in reality it is a very physical, laborious process lasting between 2-3 hours. Taylor’s still see this as the best way to achieve the gentle yet complete extraction of juice and pulp from the grapes without crushing the pips that would release bitter tastes into the wine.
Following our tour, Chris treated us to an extensive tasting of some outstanding ports. Chris explained the differences between what makes a Vintage, Crusted and Tawny port (Mark Buckenham, The Society’s port buyer gives a guide to different ports in our How To Buy Port guide).
Alongside tasting our very own Exhibition Crusted Port and Exhibition Tawny Port, 10 years old made for us by Taylor’s, highlights included the Fonseca Guimareans 1998 Vintage Port, Taylor’s 1985 Vintage port, Taylor’s 20-Year-Old Tawny and the fine, silky Taylor’s 1964 Single Harvest Port.
It was a wonderful start to our Douro trip. Thank you, Taylor’s!
Recruitment & Retention Manager