Bark and grapes in a hot, dry land


LifestyleWineVer2-Image-1Workmen tamed the steep slopes of the Douro valley by constructing dry stone walls and then backfilling them with soil to create stable terraces where vines could be planted.
LifestyleWineVer2-Image-2The Castle of Valongo near Évora in the Alentejo region, surrounded by vineyards of José Paulo Barahona Cruz e Silva.

Cork. What a wonderful substance! It’s sustainable (it grows on trees) and versatile. Impermeable, buoyant, elastic, and with fire retardant properties, cork can be used to make all manner of products—everything from classy flooring to cladding for buildings. Best of all, it can be used to seal bottles to keep our wine safe.

Cork stoppers of various sorts have been used to protect wine for millennia, but the material really came into its own in the 17th century, when winemakers began storing their wine in bottles. Slender cylinders of cork made perfect closures for the new glass containers.

Cork is the outer bark of Quercus suber, a tree that grows in southwest Europe and northwest Africa. Bark can be harvested once the trees reach an age of 25 years. It regenerates and can be harvested again every nine years or so over the trees’ 200-year life-span.

Portugal is the leading source of cork, providing about half of world production. The cork oak has been Portugal’s national tree since 2011. The country’s soil, temperature, rainfall and altitude are ideal for growing it. This is a very good thing. Portugal produces lots of wine, and we must keep our wine safe. Cork does the trick.



Portuguese wine is both familiar and unfamiliar in America. Wine fans here have heard of Port. (See CS&D’s fall 2010 issue.) Most enophiles are familiar with Vinho Verde, too. (See CS&D’s summer 2015 issue.) But these famously flavorful wines are only the beginning.

There are 26 major Portuguese wine regions—not counting numerous subregions. They produce excellent white, pink and red wines as well as beverages like Port and Madeira. P

ortuguese grape varietals mostly are unfamiliar to foreigners. And no wonder. Ben Howkins, an expert on Port, writes that there “are no fewer than 113 different grape varieties used in the Douro valley.” Portuguese viticulturists grow as many as 250 grape varieties altogether.

Portuguese winemakers are keen to increase sales in the United States. They created a website—winesofportugal.com /us—and they have been holding amazing events here to promote their products. Meanwhile, American wine drinkers are eager to identify good wines selling for reasonable prices. The confluence of these commercial and culinary interests encouraged me to undertake a modest research project.

I obtained samples of 24 Portuguese red wines. My wife and I tasted them over a period of several weeks. The study was highly fulfilling. We liked all the wines a lot. Here are notes on three that stood out.

José Maria da Fonseca Domini DOC Douro 2013 ($16)
José Maria da Fonseca (jmf.pt) is “a southern company with family roots in the Setúbal Peninsula and Alentejo.” Fonseca also operates in the Douro, “home of Port and exquisite red wines.”

Domini is one of those exquisite Douro reds. It comprises 52 percent Touriga Nacional, 31 percent Tinta Roriz (known as Tempranillo in Spain) and 17 percent Touriga Franca. Aged three months in barrels of new French and American oak, it is very dark in color—essentially opaque—and has an opulent bouquet of dark fruit and vanilla. The flavor is intense and complex. We identified elements of plums and blackberries as well as hints of vanilla, graphite, charcoal, tobacco and black tea. Curiously, there seemed to be a touch of peaches in the finish. This is a memorable wine that we hope to enjoy again soon.

Herdade do Esporão Reserva DOC Alentejo 2013 ($28)
Herdade do Esporão lies about 100 miles southeast of Lisbon in the Reguengos DOC, a subregion of Alentejo. Although the Douro probably is Portugal’s best-known wine region, Alentejo (ah-len-TAY-zhoo) seems to be the largest, covering about a third of the country. Its climate is intensely hot with limited rainfall. In addition to vineyards, Alentejo is home to roughly one-third of the world’s cork tree forests. Sources say that cork trees, sheep and, possibly, pigs traditionally have outnumbered people in the region.

Each year since 1985 Esporão has sought to combine “the universal cultures of wine and art” by reproducing an original work of art on the label of its reserve wine. The 2013 label is the work of João Queiroz, a native of Lisbon who says that he wanted his label to depict the vineyard’s “complex relationship with the atmosphere, light, earth and water … and, primarily, the memory of the wild vine and its natural behavior.”

This wine is a blend of 40 percent Aragonês (the grape called Tinta Roriz in the Douro and Tempranillo in Spain), 20 percent Trincadeira, 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 30 percent Alicante Bouschet. It was aged for 12 months in French and American oak barrels, onethird of them new. The wine is very dark in color—dense purple with subdued ruby highlights. Its lush, fruity bouquet introduces flavors of figs, black raspberries, currants, molasses, dark chocolate, espresso, pepper and even a fleeting bit of rhubarb. This is a powerful and enchanting wine.

Herdade da Pimenta 2013 ($18)
Alexandre Relvas purchased land in the Redondo area of Alentejo in 1997 to plant vineyards and start a forest of cork trees. He planted a first estate in 2001. A second, called Herdade da Pimenta, followed in 2011.

The Herdade da Pimenta is a blend of 50 percent Alicante Bouschet, 25 percent Touriga Franca and 25 percent Touriga Nacional. It was fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged for nine months in used French and American oak barrels. A deep ruby color, it exudes an edifying bouquet of dark fruit and oak. Intense but not over the top, its dark, elegant fruitiness is framed by complementary acidity and austere oak. Subtle herbs and eucalyptus vie with tobacco essences in the background. The wine’s minerality makes one think of dark stones in a castle wall. What a wonderful wine this is.

Summing Up

Portuguese red wines tend to be blends of several grape varietals, and the grapes involved mostly are unfamiliar to Americans. This sounds daunting, but it’s not. As you taste Portuguese wines, take a moment to read their labels, which generally identify grapes used in the blend. The names will become familiar in short order. If you notice that the wines you like best contain a particular grape—Tinta Roriz or Alicante Bouschet, for example—you can search out other wines with similar blends at the wine shop.

Robert Calvert drinks and writes in Chicago. Questions or comments? Email Robert: RBCalvert@att.net.

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