Portugese Wine Gems: Obrigado Vinhos

Summertime is in full swing in Chicago. People are out and about, al fresco spaces at restaurants are packed and there is an abundance of things to do. Last Tuesday, at the last minute my dinner plans got cancelled. I happened to look at Instagram and saw Obrigadovinhos‘ who I was following (don’t ask me how that came about) post that he was doing a tasting at Perman Wines that night. As much as my mind and palate has been focused on Italian Wines in preparation for the Italian Wine Specialist exam which, yikes, is this coming weekend, I thought if I am going to do a tasting of Portugese wines, Perman is the place to do it.

Craig Perman has visited Portugal many times, he has been, probably, one of the strongest supporters (Liz Mendez of Vera is the other one) of Portugese still, unfortified wines in Chicago and the midwest, if not the country. He has this ability and radar to connect with small family, talented, authentic wine makers who craft beautiful wines.  I called the store because most of the tastings are always sold out, but Craig had space so I cabbed it downtown.

I got there late but who do I sit next to but Andy from Cream Wines, who I figured must be Obrigada‘s distributor , since Cream focuses on small producers, quality and authenticity. Chef Abe Conlon of Fat Rice was across from me. He is Macau focused in his food and Macau cuisine is such a blend of its Portuguese heritage and its Chinese government now. Already, from the people present, I had a good feeling about the wines I was going to taste.

Rui Abecassis, of Obrigada had already started his talk.  I am going to highlight a few of the wines that I tasted. Each wine Rui showed us had its individual story, I have linked to his website for details on the individual wines. They were all great but for me there were a few standouts. Let’s look at a map of Portugal.

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It amazes me that the country of Portugal is a little smaller than the state of Indiana yet looking at the map above, has so many different wine regions because of the changing topology from the ocean to mountains to rivers.  In the Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding, Richard Mayson who contributed to the Portugal entry writes, “for such a small country, Portugal produces a remarkable diversity of wines”. From having a wine culture based on cooperatives that was encouraged by the dictatorship from the early 1900’s to the 1970s,  after Portugal’s entry into the EU (for Portugal, joining the EU was definitely a good thing), small wine growers and makers began to spring up and were encouraged. Rui pointed out, that for the most part, Portugal is made up of small family wine growers and makers so it is harder for them to pull together to market their wines as a group and harder for people to embrace them and get to know the wines. Mayson writes, “most vineyards evolved in isolation and indigenous varities thrived” .

Our opening wine was Nortico 2015 Alvarinho, Vinho Regional Minho.  It was 100% Alvarinho, crisp and refreshing from tiny vineyard plots in Moncao and Melgaco, on the northern border with Spain’s Galicia province. Then we moved onto wines from the Azores.

The Azores, are volcanic islands that are an autonomous region of Portugal and a 2 1/2 hour plane ride from Lisbon. Where grapes are grown, the soils are volcanic.

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We tasted 2 wines, the first a white wine of 100% Verdelho, Azores Wine Co. 2015, Verdelho o Original, Pico DO and The Azore Wine Company, 2015 Aristo dos Acores, Pico Do. The Azores are lush and beautiful, a mini Hawaii yet at the same time they are in the middle of the cold, harsh North Atlantic so those grapes have to be pretty hearty. The crisp wine had very intense minerality with unmistakable notes of salinity.

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The village of Madalena at the western base of Mount Pico

In the day when sailing ships were the vehicle of choice, the Azores were a refueling/storm stop of the shipping routes along the coast of Spain and Portugal to the Mediterranean. Grapes are the only plant that will grow in the black basalt of Pico Island. In the 15th century, individual corrals were built to protect each vine from the wind. Now that terroir is a World Heritage site. Further information about Azores Wine Company, its history and its wines can be found in this article that was published November ’15 online in Blend Magazine.

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Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture

The wine that won me over with its taste and story was Casal Figueira 2015 ‘Antonio’ Branco VR. 

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First off, the story behind the wine is so heartfelt, the label gives you a hint. Yet again, the online wine publication, Blend, did an indepth interview and reveals the full story behind the wine. So here is the short of it, the wine maker Marta Soares is an artist and she met her husband, Antonio, when she rented a studio on a vineyard he was managing.  They eventually connected with a mutual appreciation of the way each approached their work, her’s in the studio and his in the vineyard. Then the long and short of it, they got married and focused their wine making on indigenous grape varieties. They found plots of the native Vital grape growing on the Serra de Montejunto, a mountain in the area where they lived. In Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, Antonio Carvalho is cited as the winemaker who has been able to bring out the best of this very finicky varietal. Now the sad part comes, Antonio passed away in 2009 and Marta has carried on making the wine, biodynamic and 100% Vital. The rabbit on the label is drawn at the end of the night at a party held in a neighboring town and holds significance for the towns people. Tasting the wine, it had a delicate white flower aroma, some salinity, mineral, citrus and when I mentioned to Rui I noticed pear, he said trees grow in the area. It was a beautiful wine.

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Vineyards Serra de Montejunto

The rest of the lovely wines we tasted were from the Dao, Bairrada, Alentejano and the Douro.(see map above)

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Caves S. Joao, as Sarah Ahmed writes on The Wine Detective,  is the only winery in Portugal offering library releases of still wines commercially, with vintages going back to the 1950’s. We had an opportunity to taste a perfectly aged, mature Caves San Joao 1995 ‘ Poco do Lobo’ Arinto, Bairrada DOC, showcasing the capacity for longevity this region is known for.

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This was a library release from the winery itself, with the bottles kept in pristine conditions for decades. Arinto is a high acid varietal well suited to long cellaring.

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This Caves San Joao 1985 “Frei Joao” Tinto, Bairrada DOC, was 100% Baga. Baga is a late ripening, tannic, high acidity grape, a finicky grower but Portugal’s most age-worthy varietal. There still was vibrant acidity in the wine, minerality, forest, tobacco, and was reflective of the cool climatic influence from the Atlantic. But it is always a pleasure to taste an old wine.

Rui brought another interesting gem which I did not take a picture of, Fitapreta 2014 Branco da Talha (Amphora), Alentejano VR.  which is aged in talha, an amphora, the traditional clay pots utilized by the Romans. 70% Roupeiro, 30% Aristo Vaz. Spontaneously fermented with indigenous yeasts using whole clusters in stainless steel, then racked using the amphora for 28 days, then transferred to stainless steel for another 6 months. The result was a very fresh wine, with honey, lemon and mineral.

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We tasted one intriguing, delicious wine after another. The M.J.C. 2009 Branco Colares DOC Malvasia/Arinto and M.J. C. 1997 Tinto, Colares DOC 100% Ramisco produced by Quinta Das Vinhas De Areia were two other wines with a lot of character. The area of Colares has a long history of grape growing but being so close to Lisbon and near the surfing beaches land has gone from farms to condos.

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The surfing beach of Guincho

For the Branco, the wine is made from vines planted in 2004-2005 and grown in sandy soil. It is aged in oak barrels and only 1000 cases are produced. I will get better at taking wine notes over time but when I looked at my sheet, I had scratched 3 stars next to the Branco, so I think I really liked it! For the Ramisco, the vines planted are ungrafted, on their own roots, deep into the sand (the phylloxera bug cannot survive in sand). The Ramisco grape produces wine with hard tannins and high acidity, capable of long aging in the bottle.

The biggest thing that stood out to me at this tasting was the uniqueness of each wine that I tried. When I looked at the price versus the winemaking that went into the wines, value became very apparent!

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Bairrada vineyard

I have not visited Portugal directly other than through my glass. But the more I look at photos of the vineyards, it is much greener than I expected. Whether it be the Bairrada, the Dao, the Douro, Lisboa, or the Alejanto, there are many wine nooks and crannies to be visited!

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