Travel Guide to Portugal

10 Portuguese Wine Experiences from 2014: An unforgettable year!

By Ryan Opaz

New Year Portugal sunsetThe headline is a bit more ambitious than I plan to be. This past year has seen a lot of changes at Catavino HQ, not least of all is trying to find a balance in life with a little guy nipping at your heels. At night, Gabriella and I often find ourselves falling asleep to a random movie with bags under our eyes and half full glasses of wine on the table in front of us. The quality of the wine is often the last thing we’re worried about as we struggle into bed while discussing whose turn it is to wake up early with our cute little monster. That said, there have been a lot of fine wines passing before me this year as we settle into our new home here in Porto. There is no need to say that this leans heavily towards Port wines, but it was not all that I tasted, far from it! What’s key in this article is to highlight the Portuguese wines that I was fortunate enough to taste, while addressing a bit about their counterpoints which may at times be easier to find in your neck of the woods. Of course, your thoughts are always welcome.

So without further adieu:

Circa1950’s Ramos Pinto Quinado

Historically produced in the colonies to help fight Malaria, Quinado is a Port based wine that’s infused with spices and quinine. The closest thing Portugal has to a Vermouth that is not only under appreciated, but completely unknown. Currently, there are two producers that are still commercializing it (Poças and Ramos Pinto); but finding old bottles is near to impossible. This is a unicorn in Portugal, mythic and magical. My very first Quinado was served to me blind this past year. It was an incredible experience, and one that I almost guessed as Quinado, but as I’d never tasted one prior, I had zero confidence in calling it out. This old version was perfumed and delicate with an ethereal nature that drew my nose inside the glass for the rest of the evening. You can find a few bottles on the market from time to time, which are absolutely worthy of buying. Careful though! We may instigate a stampede of hipster bartenders if they hear about a new historic beverage on the market!  A fresh version will not be as strong as a Vermouth but it does have a pleasant blend of Port wine and something more rustic.

Component tasting at Vale de Meão with Xito

More of an experience than a wine, per se. The man behind Vale De Meão, Francisco Olazabal, led me and a small group of wine geeks through a component tasting (individually fermented monovarietal pre-blends) at his winery. To say it was enlightening is an understatement. To focus on each individual grape was memorable, but to then taste the final wines at his historic estate was amazing. Recently, Vale de Meão’s 2011 was listed on Wine Spectator’s top 100 wine list, instigating a mass buying spree from the wine curious. If you are fortunate enough to find a bottle of their Vale de Meão 2011, their Vintage Port or their second still wine Meandro, do it. Located in the Cima Corgo, they make some of the best wines in the Douro, not to mention the world. No one will argue with this statement. The only reason why they are not internationally known is because Portugal is still undiscovered territory yet discovered by the larger wine geek community.

Dona Berta Sousão Reserva Especial 2011

Some grapes have bad names. Often this bad rap comes after years of producing crap swill sold as cheap table wine. Sousão is one of those grapes, also known as Vinhão when used in the hard to love, yet charming, red vinho verdes. To be honest, it’s not an easy grape to fall for. However, when handled with care, and in the right conditions, this rustic grape can be graceful. The Dona Berta Reserva Especial 2011 is one such wine with a meaty character filled with spice and everything nice. This is a wine to contemplate the worlds problems with while dining with close friends. Rich and unapologetic, Dona Berta Reserva Especial shows varietal character valued above the winemaker’s slight of hand.

The Young Winemakers

Sometimes wine is best when enjoyed with friends. But it’s even better when it’s made by friends! The Young Winemakers are a group of youngish (the oldest just turned 40, which I still consider young) who have come together to work as a team to promote their various wines. This summer, Gabriella and I were honored to accept an invitation from the viticulturist at Vale Meao, Pedro Barbosa, to visit his estate and taste through the Young Winemaker’s porfolio. It was the first time we tasted the breadth of their wines boasting from the Douro, Alentejo, Vinho Verde, Bairrada and more. It was a phenomenal experience, especially because the winemakers consciously leave a mark on each of their individual wines, primarily focused on showcasing the beautiful characteristics of Portugal’s many terroirs. Luis Patrão and Eduarda Dias from Vadio make stunning intense wines, full of stuffing, from the Bairrada. These are perfect wines for someone with patience and a good cellar. Rita Marques produces Conceito, a favorite to show off the other side of Portugal. Made from Bastardo (Trousseau), this wine is elegant, delicate and long lived. Pedro Barbosa is making Clip (a reference to the eucalyptus trees surrounding the estate), a fresh and lively Loureiro that I would happily accept as a versatile meal companion. Camaleão, made by João Maria Cabral, is bottling two wines (Alvarinho and Sauvignon Blanc) with a temperature sensitive label. The SB is fine, but the Alvarinho shines! These are great examples of Vinho Verde’s ability to make wines worth aging. And last but not least, Pedro Pinhão and Diogo Campilho are the innovators behind Hobby. These wines contain lots of fruit, and if you like, a fatter wine for your grilled meat. Each of these wines are unique, and all are worthy of exploring.

Quinta das Bageiras

Quinta das Bageiras was by far one of the more enlightening wine discoveries in the past year. Founded in 1989 by Mário Sérgio Alves Nuno, the wines are stunning and long lived. Granted, they still have a long time to prove the second point, but even the oldest wines I’ve tasted have a long life in front of them. Primarily made with Baga, the reds are structured and full of body but lack any harshness. The label features a campfire, and I would happily find myself in front of any hearth, or outdoor fire pit ,with good friends and a case of these treasures. I’ve known these wines prior to 2014, but it wasn’t until this past year that I fell in love. Look for Bágeiras Branco Garrafeira made from Mario Gomes and Bical. I love this white wine and seek it out every chance I get. You should too!

Reserva Branco Collares69 Viúva Gomes Colares

I’ve mentioned that Portugal is the land of old wines at silly prices. This is a prime example. From the producer Viúva Gomes, this is a wine lost in time. What I’m about to say is both tragically sad and exciting for wine geeks. I bought cases of this for 13€’s/bottle last year.  From a political and social perspective, the 1969 Viuva Gomes is from one of the most exciting decades in the past century. With something this old, and did I mention white, you are bound to get bottle variation, but rarely are the variations not fun to explore. The wines have ranged from lemon and mineral youthfulness to caramel and perfumed honey aromas showing a distinct sherry like quality. Come to Portugal and give me a ring. This is one wine I love to share with others. If you don’t know the region of Colares, do get to know it. Here’s a nice write up from my friend Ilkka.

Niepoort’s wines

Not really an experience, but this year gave me many experiences where these wines were fundamental in lubricating the occasion. Dirk Niepoort is widely respected and loved throughout Portugal, but there are many who are jealous of his success. My sense is that they fail to understand who he truly is. Wine is a commodity, and the ones who succeed are most often the ones who treat it like a business not a romantic beverage. Somehow Dirk does both. I, personally, appreciate his curiosity for flavor. Currently, he and his girlfriend are planting tea plants in mainland Portugal. Why? Because he loves tea and he sees the similarities between the two beverages. Not to speak for him, but I believe he sees flavor first and medium second. For him, life is an exploration of flavor be it in food, wine or tea. It doesn’t matter. Curiosity has led to his portfolio of wines growing to regions not only throughout Portugal, but the world. I’ve been tasting his wines for a long time, but it was only this year that I really had a chance to try a wider breadth and have decided that it’s one of the most important wine portfolios in Portugal today. Also, and I say this after much searching of my memory banks, I rarely taste a Niepoort wine I don’t like. Even at the low end, Dialogo is fresh and fun to drink. I include him here only because I have recently come to learn that there are people who still have not tried his wines. If you are one of them, fix that. No need to list all the many wines he makes, I hope to do that in 2015, but if you see the Niepoort logo, pick up a bottle and give it a whirl. If you truly love wine, I’m sure you won’t regret it.

Ana Gomes Master Wine BlenderBlended tawny tasting at Ramos Pinto‘s Bom Retiro with Ana Rosas

Tawny port, probably the most amazing value in wine today. 10yr, 20yr and beyond all offer the best value for money on the market and are too often overlooked.  The only amazing fact that rivals their value is the ability of the Port wine blenders to create them. This year, on our #douro14 press trip, I had the amazing opportunity to sit with Ana Rosas, the only female master blender existing today, to receive a lesson on what it takes to make a blend with a consistent flavour profile year in and year out. We tasted both new and old tawnies, while discussing the hundreds of hours of barrel sampling that goes into creating the consistently unique profile you find in your glass. The Ramos Pinto 30 year tawny stood out as extraordinary when we compared blends, but to say anything poured that day was inferior would be an insult to her wines. Every one is worthy of falling in love with.

1938 Barros Colheita

You can buy this wine…NOW! And for a price that is pretty obscene. Obscene that there are wines released today that are sold at a fraction of the price of what’s contained in the bottle. I found it for prices around 400€’s online. Compare that to a 2011 Mouton Rothschild which is about the same if not more. The difference is that this ’38 is still alive and kicking after almost 90 years! And I’d be happy drink it 30 years from now if not later. Seriously, this is a beauty that a random assembly of adjectives would only do harm in trying to explain the experience of drinking it. If you need to know if this is worth  the money, the answer is yes. History in a glass with an elegance that lingers for a lifetime. Fun fact, 1938 was the year Sleeping Beauty was first released on film. Coincidence?

Cockburns Vintage Port 19041904 Cockburns

On any random night in Porto you may find yourself in front of an unexpected wine that was waiting to be opened by someone born only part way through its own lifetime. Porto is full of these treasures and often they show up at the most random times like a Wednesday evening when invited to a friend’s home. We were lucky to be in the right place at the right time to taste this piece of history, and I will say it was as fresh and lively as they come. When you come to Portugal be prepared to be surprised, amazed and dumbstruck. This country has more old wine available at fair prices than any place I have ever visited before. We love it here. Why wouldn’t we.

Here’s to a wonderful 2015 and may all your wines be special ones.


Ryan Opaz

Photos by Ryan Opaz

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Since 2005, Catavino has been exploring the Iberian Peninsula
looking for the very best food and wine experiences.

Since 2005, Catavino has been exploring the Iberian Peninsula looking for the very best food and wine experiences.

Catavino is the best place to learn about travel, food
and wine in Portugal and Spain.

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