Vinha do Altar is a poem without words. Its authors, Jorge Serôdio Borges and Sandra Tavares da Silva, are two enologists known for masterpieces like the unforgettable white Guru and the iconic red Pintas.
Their new wine is elegant and fresh, delightful to drink now, and sure to improve with age. Its grapes come from vines planted in a north-facing plateau that overlooks the Douro valley. Jorge’s great grand uncle purchased the land in 1939, and it became part of Casa Quintães, an estate where Jorge spent stretches of his youth. The land produced wine until the 1990s, but then the vineyard was abandoned.
Jorge’s uncle dreamed of replanting the vineyard, but he died, and the land remained fallow. A few years ago, his widow, Márcia, asked Jorge and Sandra whether they could make the dream come true. The couple meticulously prepared the land and planted a new vineyard, called Altar, with a virtuoso trio of white grapes: Arinto, Gouveio, and Viosinho.
The first harvest was in 2019, and now we can drink this wine that speaks without words about ties of family, memories of youth, and the magic of winemaking.
“White grapes come from a rare mutation of red grapes that probably occurred in Egypt in the 3rd millennium BC. Because of their rarity and the intense aromas of varietals like Muscat and Malvasia, white wines quickly gained the preference of rulers and aristocrats. In ancient times, old white wines were particularly prized. If a white wine survived the passage of time and was still drinkable, it was a great wine,” said Manuel Malfeito, a professor of enology, as a way of introduction.
Manuel insists on always tasting blind. “Tasting wine is tricky because our brain is an analogy machine, it starts asking: where did I try a wine like this one? And that is when we get in trouble. It is best to taste blind so we have no preconceptions.”
After dispensing these instructions, Manuel retreated to fill our glasses in the kitchen, so we had no chance of getting a glimpse of the bottles that guarded the precious nectars about to be served. He brought the glasses to the table and our sensorial work began.
The first wine had a pale-yellow color and a seductive citrus flavor. “Is it a high-altitude wine from the Douro region?” one of the friends asked. Manuel revealed nothing. Later, we learned that this wine was relatively young: it was a 2018 Serenada produced by Jacinta Sobral in Alentejo. It has a mature taste because it staged in the bottle for 9 months, 15 meters deep in the ocean near Sines. After the identity of the wine was revealed, we tasted it again and detected salty notes. Our brain is easily influenced by the information we feed it!
The second wine had a bright, luminous yellow color. Its aroma was discreet, almost imperceptible. But its taste was sumptuous, reminding us that wines are made to be drunk, not to be described. Yes, we can talk about the wine’s minerality and flint stone aroma. But words pale in comparison with the liquid radiance of this wine. It turned out to be everybody’s favorite. Later, we learned that this crowd-pleaser was a 2008 Quinta de Chocapalha magnum made by Sandra Tavares da Silva in her family estate near Lisbon.
The third wine was an elegant mineral wine that has great acidity and persistence in the mouth. This joyous nectar turned out to be the 2015 D. Graça produced by Manuel Malfeito and Virgilio Loureiro in the Douro valley.
The fourth wine tasted like an old sherry or Madeira; it was dry and evolved. It turned out to be a wine produced by Mário Sérgioat Quinta das Bageiras in 1989!
The fifth wine was a vivacious old wine with aromas of dried fruit and beeswax. It was dried and had a pleasant acidity. Where was it made? We would never guess. It was a 1996 Tapada dos Coelheiros, a famous estate in Alentejo, a warm region that is not expected to produce this type of wine.
The tasting ended with another outstanding wine: a 1995 Poço dos Lobos made from Arinto, a grape that is famous for producing wines that age well. This wine was no exception. It has a long, seductive finish and a bright freshness with notes of orange peel.
What did we learn from another master class with Manuel Malfeito? That we should taste wines without preconceptions in order to better discover and appreciate their qualities. And that the occasion makes the wine. The best wines are always those we share with friends!
People in the Douro valley say that babies and port wines are often born at night. Port producers let the grape juice ferment for about three days. They choose the perfect moment to add a neutral grape spirit (aguardente) that stops the fermentation before the yeast eats all the grape sugar. This moment often comes in the middle of the third night.
Most of the Douro grapes are used to produce ruby ports. These inexpensive ports are first stored in cement or stainless steel vats to prevent oxidation and then bottled. The result is a wine that retains a dark ruby color and fresh fruit flavors.
When the quality of the grapes is exceptional, port-wine producers declare a vintage year. These ports are stored in wood casks for one or two years and then bottled. With little exposure to air, the wine is dark red. Aging brings out complex flavors, such as notes of vanilla, chocolate, and blackberry.
The best grapes are also used to produce tawnies. These ports are aged for many years in casks made of Portuguese chestnut and oak. This aging process creates complex flavors and gives the wine a silky mouthfeel. The small amount of air that circulates through the tiny pores of the wood oxidizes the wine slightly, changing its color from red to amber.
It is wonderful to share a glass of ruby port with new friends. But there’s nothing like drinking old vintages and tawnies with old friends.
We happened to be the first to arrive at a friend’s dinner party. He suggested it would be fun to decant the bottle of wine we had brought to do a blind tasting.
When the other guests arrived, our host asked everybody to guess the provenance of this very special wine. Glasses were filled and moments of silence ensued while everybody focused on taste and smell. Many highly appreciative comments followed. Some guests thought that the wine was from the old world, probably from France, perhaps from Côtes du Rhône. Others thought it was a wine from the new world, possibly from Australia. The wine was Terras d’Alter, Outeiro, 2008.
Terras d’Alter has impeccable old-world credentials. The grapes come from old quintas in Alentejo. But the wine is made by an Australian enologist, Peter Bright, who eschews traditional wine-making methods in favor of new-world technology. The result is the best of the old and new worlds.
When we drink Terras d’Alter, we feel transported to a sun-drenched day in Alentejo, our body soaking in the warmth, our mind relaxed by the endless vistas. How can other wines compete with this feeling?
During the Napoleonic wars, the Duke of Wellington stationed his troops in the Bucelas region, north of Lisbon. There, he drank a white wine made with Arinto, an indigenous varietal. He enjoyed it so much that, after the war, he imported large quantities back to England. Wellington offered some bottles of Bucelas to King George III, who claimed that they cured him of a troublesome kidney disease. The wine continued to gather fame during the Victorian era. German Rieslings were known in England as “Hock,” so London wine merchants called Bucelas “Portuguese Hock.”
When the British publisher Henry Vizetelly arrived in Portugal in 1877 to work on a book about wine, his first stop was Bucelas. He writes that the young wines are “remarkably fresh in flavor,” and the older wines are “rounder and more aromatic” with a “soft, almondy after taste.” He concludes that: “Certainly purer wines than these are not easily met with.”
Bucelas was enjoyed by Thomas Jefferson and Charles Dicken, but its fame dwindled over time. If you’re in Portugal, make sure to try this inexpensive, wonderful wine. Wine fashions come and go, but the remarkable freshness of Bucelas is here to stay.
Eça de Queiroz (pronounced essa de kaeroz) is a great 19th century writer whose novels cast a critical eye on Portuguese society. Eça loved wine from the Colares region, and so do his characters. Here are the words of Teodoro, the protagonist of Eça’s novel, The Mandarin: “What a day! I dined in selfish solitude in a private room at Hotel Central with the table full of bottles of wine from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, and the Rhine, as well as liqueurs from every conceivable religious community, as if I were trying to quench a thirty-year-old thirst. But the only wine I drank, until I was satiated, was from Colares.”
Colares wine is made with a unique varietal called Ramisco. Farmers plant this vine on sand, digging a deep hole until they find a layer of clay to attach the roots. All this hard work paid off during the phylloxera epidemic because Ramisco was one of the few varietals to survive the disease.
If you’re in Sintra and you’re interested in wine, visit the nearby town of Colares to drink a glass of Ramisco at the local cooperative. It’s not everyday that you can taste a wine unscathed by both the phylloxera plague and the criticism of Eça de Queiros.
Adega Regional de Colares, Alameda Coronel Linhares de Lima, 32, Colares, tel. 219291210, email: email@example.com. Wine tastings by appointment. Click here for the Adega web site.
The excellence of the wine region near Lisbon remains a closely guarded secret. This area has perfect soil, gracious slopes, a climate blessed by the Atlantic breeze, producers that learned the secrets of the vine from their forefathers, and a new generation of enologists that can turn great grapes into unique wines.
One of the top producers of the Lisbon region is Quinta de Chocapalha, which is owned and operated by the family of star enologist Sandra Tavares da Silva.
If you are interested in wine, drive to Quinta de Chocapalha for a wine tasting. You’ll see beautiful wine country and enjoy the rare privilege of learning about wine from the people who produce it. You’ll come away with a new appreciation for the different varietals, styles, cultivation methods, and production techniques. But, most of all, you’ll learn that it takes great passion to produce great wine.
Quinta de Chocapalha is located in Aldeia Galega in the region of Alenquer, 50 km from Lisbon. You can schedule a wine tasting by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is a Portuguese saying, “muita parra, pouca uva,” (leafs are many but grapes are few) that applies to Touriga nacional. This varietal has very small grapes. But they burst with flavor through a thick skin that gives the wine an intense red color. Touriga has been planted for centuries in the Dão region but has little name recognition outside of Portugal.
If you are a wine lover, it is worthwhile to learn how to say Touriga nacional (toereega nacional), because this grape is destined for stardom. So, when the Touriga frenzy takes over the world, you’ll be able to say: I drank those fantastic Touriga wines when they were great buys because almost no one outside Portugal knew about them.
When we have something great to celebrate, we do not drink French Champagne or Italian Prosecco. We much prefer to get our sparkles sipping Espumante from Bairrada, a region that has produced wine since the 10th century. Our favorite Espumante is made by Luís Pato with a white varietal known in Bairrada as Maria Gomes and elsewhere as Fernão Pires.
We just heard from Luís Pato that his newest creation is a red wine made with this white grape. The wine marks the birth in 2011 of his new grandson, Fernão. And it celebrates the future of Bairrada as one of the world’s premier wine regions. Cheers!
Do any of these names ring a bell? Touriga nacional, trincadeira, baga, tinta roriz, tinta miúda, ramisco, bastardo? What about alvarinho, arinto, esgana cão, Fernão Pires, sercial? They are all grape varietals unique to Portugal (the first is a list of red grapes and the second a list of white grapes). A few French commodity grapes, such as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, currently dominate the international wine market. Portugal has a treasure trove of native grape varietals, developed over centuries of wine production. These varietals have unique flavors and aromas that are waiting to be discovered. So, if you are tired of the same old wines from the same old French grapes, try the wines of Portugal’s growing number of top producers.