Reflecting on Portugal
Our vigorous exploration of Portugal started in early 2021. Initially for a Leon Circle release focused on Portugal, which turned into deep dives on Bairrada and the Azores. We got excited and could not stop exploring.
Last week I was actually in Portugal and this excitement was validated repeatedly. I went from sun-soaked Porto, to the northernmost territory just shy of rugged Galicia –stopping practically everywhere in between to visit small producers and take in the country's beautiful, diverse landscape.
There is a lot to report below but, if you don't have the time (I get it!): the trip confirmed what I've been tasting the last couple of years: there has never been a better time to explore the wines of Portugal.
Below are some of my key takeaways and a few of my favorite wines. Worth noting, a region very important to the quality revolution in Portugal is missing from this recap: Alentejo. But, there's a fresh look coming soon ;)
IT'S A GOLDEN AGE
A new quality-driven wine culture in Portugal is in its infancy.
Not unlike Spain, Portugal was governed under a dictatorship until the '70s which (amongst many other problematic areas) did nothing to foster independent production. Let alone support thoughtful agriculture. The arc of expertise and experimentation has been consistent across Iberia; what's happening now is exciting, but it's also just the beginning.
SOIL IS THE WORD
My biggest takeaway was how loudly soil comes through in Portugese wine.
Time and again producers spoke to their soil before anything else. The plate of granite that Portugal sits on drives much of the terroir: noble bottles of Alvarinho from Vinho Verde, Encruzado from Dão. I also noticed that the very best white wines had a very savvy reduction, a quality amplified by granite.
To understand a region in Portugal, before grapes know the soil:
SCHIST → Douro
LIMESTONE → Bairrada (with clay)
VOLCANIC → Azores
SAND → Colares
ALVARINHO (and more) in VINHO VERDE
Vinho Verde means very little to wine pros: most of the wines usually amount to fizzy, cheap bottles. But when you zoom in to the zone’s (which is massive, everything north of Porto) top areas, the wines read more like serious Galician stars rather than cheap value buys. Especially in whites from Monção e Melgaço, the northernmost territory.
I didn’t realize that one of my longtime favorite whites was already from this exact place. But upon visiting Quinta de Santiago there was a real connection between pedigreed Alvarinho and the area's serious soils. Carved out by the nearby Minho river, the valley's bedrock of granite is overlaid with clay. This equals firm, powerful wines – the opposite of spritzy Vinho Verde.
ENCRUZADO FOR THE BURG HOUNDS
PORMENOR'S GARAGE WINERY ♡
What comes out of this large tin building is riveting. Among so many incredible white wines tasted on this trip, Pedro's were a major highlight. From his own farmed land and rented plots of old vines thorughout Duoro, most of the wines are blends (the region's classic style). The Rabigato-based wines are world-class and should have any lover of dry Chenin running in his direction.
BAGA IS SO SO GOOD
Reading like Nebbiolo lost in fog, this should be on everyone's list. The cellar-worthy bottle I had from Nuno comes from 100+ year old vines: it's the intensity of old vine fruit and the snap of limestone.
If you want to experience how beautifully Baga ages, it's worth seeing it in the hands of OG legend Luis Pato.
"Consulting Winemaker" might conjure negative images for some; a commercial recipe applied to any client who comes knocking. But, that's not fair or true.
Like Cristiano Garella in Alto Piemonte, this application of institutional knowledge can push along a burgeoning scene that needs guidance. In Portugal, a country of 10 million, three major talents have their fingerprints throughout the country's quality revolution:
LUIS SEABRA: Outside of his own highly notable label, Luis has a hand in helping several impressive wineries in Dão and Duoro, including Marcelo Araujo's benchmark winery Textura, Muxagat and the young (24 years old!) winemaker of Javali.
NUNO MIRA DO Ó: Nuno is an exceptional talent who personally makes wine from Bairrada and Dão. But, his talent extends to Vinho Verde's Quinta de Santiago and other small projects across the country.
ANTONI MANCANITA: one of the more visible winemakers based in Alentejo, he’s helped refocus the area's attention back to talha (amphora). But he also help market the wines from the Azores and has brought international attention to Portugal.