Next time you find yourself in your local wine store, do a little experiment: ask where you can find the Portuguese section. Chances are, they’ll guide you over to a display rack full of Port, the fortified dessert wine of which any liquor or grocery store will usually have a healthy supply. If that’s what happens, explain very nicely that you’re looking for still Portuguese wine — white or red wines, not tawny ones. Your store may have a decent selection… or, just as likely, it may not.
The wines of Portugal represent a huge value these days, particularly because so many people haven’t realized yet that Portuguese wine is anything more than the Port that Pop-Pop likes to drink on Christmas Eve. That’s why the Young Winos were so excited to recently be visited by the winemaker of an excellent Portuguese label, who tasted us through her lineup on a recent Saturday in Los Angeles.
Azamor, a winery producing estate-grown “vinho” in Alentejo, Portugal, was started by Alison Luiz-Gomes and her husband Joaquim in 1998. The label came to the Winos’ attention via Tempe Reichardt, founder of Bibola.com, an online wine store specializing in “great value, hard-to-find imported wine.” Bibola’s slogan, for the uninhibited palate, embodies their devotion to offering wines from a diverse list of some of the great value regions in today’s wine world, including Portugal. Tempe and Alison stopped by the Winos’ abode for an evening of food, fun, and good ol’ edutoxication.
Per Tempe’s suggestion, we bookended the tasting of the three Azamor reds with three additional Portuguese wines: two bottles of Vinho Verde and one Port. First up was the non-vintage Famega Vinho Verde (Portugal), a bottle familiar to any Winos who were with us a year ago. The nose was tropical fruit and pear, although Jessica also picked out some “cat pee.” Like most Vinho Verde, this one was slightly effervescent on the mouthfeel, although the bubbles faded pretty quickly. The palate was acidic and slightly tart, offering grapefruit notes; Lauren picked up some “mineral and lime,” and said it wasn’t as “green” as some Vinho Verde she’s had. Alison, who’s used to drinking her V.V. straight from the source, called it “clean and fresh,” but said it wasn’t a wine she’d likely drink without food. For $8, though, it was a bottle we could all swallow pretty easily.
Next up was another double-v, the non-vintage Broadbent Vinho Verde (Portugal). The nose on this one was brighter and more floral — Leah H. picked up some pronounced honeysuckle. On the palate, the wine was slightly more effervescent than the Famega, and also a bit sweeter; several Winos observed a “Riesling” character to it (Alison thought it might’ve had some residual sugar). The room was divided on which V.V. was the favorite: Jordan called this one “more interesting,” while others complained that this finish was too short. Lauren opined that this was a Vinho Verde to drink on its own, while the Famega was the better choice for a meal. We called it a truce and moved on to the headlining act: the three bottles from Azamor.
Raised in England, Alison embraced the Iberian lifestyle when she “married a Portuguese” and moved to Alentejo. The Azamor estate, situated in south-eastern Portugal on the Spanish border, was originally planted with cork and pine, but Alison eventually realized how much more interesting wine is than either of those things, and set out to train as a winemaker (a process which included stops at UC Davis and some post-grad enology study at the University of Porto). Azamor was established in 1998 and produced its first vintage in 2003. All the grapes are harvested exclusively from the Azamor estate; these varietals include Syrah, Merlot, Mourvèdre, and Petit Verdot, as well as Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, and Trincadeira.
Our first entry was the 2004 Azamor Red Wine (Alentejo), a tongue-twisting blend of Syrah, Merlot, Touriga Nacional, Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Franca and Trincadera (in order of percentage included). Dark fruit and smoke dominated the nose; Lauren got “damp earth, but with blueberry overtones.” Andrew picked up green pepper, which Alison said was courtesy of the Trincadeira. Also present was some of that coffee grounds action…
…which came back in full force on the tart and earthy palate. Notes of bitter dark chocolate and forest floor were supported by a shot of acidity. This was a unique and beguiling wine to be sure; several Winos observed a certain “smokiness,” but not really a Rhone-type smokiness, because it wasn’t tobacco as much as it was peat and burning leaves. At $19 on Bibola.com, we found this bottle an impressive and encouraging entry into the Azamor world.
Next up was the 2004 Azamor “Selected Vines” (Alentejo), which precipitated a minor riot within the Winos assembly when half the group smelled “serious blue cheese,” and the other half smelled no such animal. Whether or not we found ourselves on board the Stilton express, we all could agree with Jessica’s observation of “cedar and dark chocolate.” I picked up some pine forest and some juniper berry, and someone said they smelled “crumbling concrete.” Alison called this a “very Portuguese wine,” pointing out that the only grape varietal in the blend not originally hailing from Portugal was Syrah (it also included Touriga Franca, Alicante Bouschet, and Trincadeira).
On the palate, this blend read like the previous wine’s older brother: a little bigger, a little brawnier, and a little more well-developed. Nate called it “jammy and fruity,” while Leah H. found it “fruity up front, but then the tannins come in and clean it.” “It does clean up nicely,” agreed Jordan, who applauded the big raspberry notes. Andrew got caramel, and several other Winos picked up cedar and leather on the finish — even a touch of subtle black pepper as well. At $35, this wine was a big winner among the Winos, with Lauren as the sole holdout; she preferred the first bottle, finding this one “too tannic.” Jessica encapsulated the group’s consensus, however, by stating that “the first one was a little less complex,” and reminded her of a Malbec, while this one reminded her of a Petite Sirah. A broad comparison, perhaps, but a worthy one — we LA Winos love our Petite Sirah, and the Azamor “Selected Vines” proved a really enjoyable old-world take on that dark, juicy style.
Wrapping up the lineup of three was the 2005 Azamor Petit Verdot (Alentejo), a bottle which provoked some foreboding premonitions from Andrew. A self-admitted Verdotphobe, our resident cheesehead has never tasted a Petit Verdot that he enjoyed even remotely. He was a good sport about this bottle, however, and gave himself a full pour… and, after taking a tentative sniff, he happily reported that he smelled some delicious brown sugar “like craaaaazy.” The rest of us got black cherry, smoke, plum, raisin and cola.
The palate was dark and rooty, if you’ll allow me to make up a word — basically, it had a distinct hint of “rooty” things like root beer, soil, maybe birch beer (is that a stretch?), birch roots (that’s definitely a stretch), and even aromatic bitters… the kind I shake into my cheap whisky to give it complexity. This bottle, however, had no shortage of complexity; dark and inky, it boasted notes of licorice, dried fruit, and leather. David called it “hearty,” and others applauded its “spicy yet smooth” character. Andrew, the most biased judge of them all, was considerably pleased to finally have his Petit Verdot curse reversed. “Vindication!” he cried. “Vini-dication?” I offered, in inspired fashion… but Jessica was the only one who laughed. The other Winos were too busy talking about how the $30 price tag was a fair one, and asking where they could buy a bottle. (The answer, as before, remained Bibola.com.)
We capped off our Portuguese tasting with a bottle of the Winos’ favorite Port, the 2003 Quarles Harris Late-Bottled Vintage (Porto). This was a bottle that had been well-received at our tasting of Portuguese Wines for Holiday Cheer in December, largely due to its approachable, fruit-forward nature. The nose provoked a chorus of “all Ports smell the same,” but my guess is that all Ports smell the same only when you’ve already had five bottles of wine. Unencumbered by our ever-fading perceptive abilities, we decided to drink it.
The palate was as we remembered it: friendly and fruity, with notes of almond extract, cherries, and some raspberry jam. Several Winos picked up some complex berry action and tried to figure out what it was: boysenberry, maybe, or perhaps even pomegranate? A bit tart, the Harris managed to be “dark and brooding” at the same time, and was once again a hit. At $15, it represented a tremendous value in the world of entry-level Ports, and was probably a lot more palatable than whatever Pop-pop was drinking last Christmas Eve.
Azamor’s biggest sales are currently achieved in the UK, although their US presence is constantly growing. Bibola, which began operations in 2008, is one of Azamor’s newest and more innovative retailers. A case in point, Alison pointed out, was that this was her first time tasting through her wines with a group of young consumers. “It’s refreshing,” she told me, to pour for a group that’s “young, interested,” and has a “thirst for knowledge.” Increasing the profile of Portuguese still wines in the US, she explained, is important to every Portuguese producer. “It’s really refreshing to know your group is trying Portuguese wines.” Tempe and Alison had been generous enough to furnish us with a second round of the Azamor bottles, and we enjoyed these with a selection of dishes from the excellent Olé Tapas Bar down the street.
As the Young Winos discovered last December and again this evening, Portugal remains one of the great unspoiled value regions in the current wine landscape. On the white side, if our two bottles of Vinho Verde were any indication, it’s possible to find spunky and distinctive wines for under $10. And in the realm of reds, the Azamor bottles re-affirmed for us that Portugal is a source of affordable and approachable old-world wines with tremendous complexity, drinkability, and intrigue. Don’t be inhibited — do yourself a favor and find out what Portugal’s all about.
Doug always asks the tough questions whenever he meets a new winemaker; post-drinking discussions are important; David and Jessica apparently liked their food
The Young Winos of LA — edutoxicating Los Angeles since 2005.