Response to “Portuguese wine for holiday cheer”

By Jesse on January 6, 2009

We’d promised our members a lineup of festive yuletide wines for their holiday tables, and I like to think we delivered. Here’s the re-cap from our recent Portugal tasting:

Our first collective observation was the conspicuous lack of whites. There’s a place for white wines in the holiday season, I still maintain, but apparently this group tended not to agree. With nary a verbal tribute to the absent Vinho Verde, we dove right in to the 2006 Valtorto (Douro), a blend of 45% Tinta Roriz, 40% Touriga Franca, and 15% Tinta Barroca. The nose was faint, with notes of red berry drifting around; Erika also picked up some lavender. (Kristen, always the consummate hostess, was cooking something garlic-based in the kitchen, and the bouquet proved no match.)

The palate was total unripe berry and sour cherry, with a lot of pomegranate action as well. I’m a big fan of pom juice, so I wasn’t appalled, but a few other Winos were less than kind. Also at play were some chalky tannins (no acid to be found), and some smoke and ash underneath the surface. “I didn’t hate it” was about the biggest accolade this bottle received, with Jason going so far as to call it “not enjoyable at all.” At $12, this was a pass.

Next up was the 2006 Niepoort Vertente (Douro), which left a massive dose of some healthy-looking sediment in the bottle. It had an old-worldish nose, featuring characteristics variously described as “sugar cones” and “shoe horns.” Others picked up some spice, as well as some of that classic “Band-Aid” action. (I’d finally learned the word Brettanomyces a few weeks earlier, and was all set to drop it here, but I forgot how to pronounce it and simply sat quietly instead.)

The palate’s initial notes were tobacco and black cherry. Response around the room indicated that people figured this an extremely “old-world” wine, given its muted fruit notes and earthy character. As it opened up further, it displayed hints of saddle leather and licorice; Kristen called it “woodsy.” At $21, this was a bottle that several Winos present would be interested in re-visiting.

We moved on to a sort of bastard stepchild of a vertical tasting: two non-subsequent vintages of the Dom Martinho bottle that we’d enjoyed at Vendome last spring. The 2003 Dom Martinho (Vinho Regional Alentejano), produced by the Lafite-Rothschild family of Bordeaux, is a perplexing blend of Aragones (Tempranillo), Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. The nose was earthy, with leather and firewood notes. It was also described as mildewy, but in a good way — like the middle page of an old leather-bound book in some obscure library. Andrew said it smelled like “driving by where a forest fire had taken place.”

The palate, like the previous bottle, was old-school: understated and subtle, with leather and blackberry notes most prevalent on the medium body. “I want to drink this in that library,” I mused, and several others applauded the light tannins and semi-sweet chocolate notes towards the end. For a few Winos present, the finish ran a bit tart for their liking. Otherwise, this was a solid winner at $15.

We followed this stately bottle with the kid brother, the 2005 Dom Martinho (Vinho Regional Alentejano), boasting a slightly updated label. (Speaking of graphics, I think it’s amazing that when you google “Alentejano,” the first image result is this thoroughly NSFW cartoon. I can only assume that naughty old Mr. Lafite-Rothschild is behind this.) This bouquet seemed a bit tighter and less expressive than the previous vintage, but we picked up some berry, cherry, and cocoa powder notes. Overall, the nose ran fruitier and a little less old-school than the ’03.

The palate, too, tasted significantly younger. Tobacco and leather had been supplanted by chocolate, black pepper, and some dark fruit. The tannins were firmer, and the finish was shorter. Noah picked up an interesting hint of apricot on the back end. Erika didn’t like it as well as the previous bottle, but she appreciated the cherry notes. Tod had found this bottle for $12, leading Jason to posit that he’d buy it now and cellar it for three years. Everyone else, though, would rather splurge for the ’03 and drink it now.

The main course was over, and it was time for some serious dessert action. Our first Port was the 2003 Quarles Harris Late Bottled Vintage Porto, a dainty little number I discovered recently at the Teej (for an explanation of the term “Late Bottled Vintage,” check out this timely exegesis that Dr. Vino posted the very day of our tasting). The nose was “not overpowering,” to the relief of those who assumed all Ports were massive, stinky monsters. Notes of prunes and dried dark berries were complimented by a “mild sweet smell.”

The palate was gleefully described by those same Portophobes as “very mild!” Instead of hulking, the palate ran “fruity and playful,” with notes of cherry cough syrup, vanilla, and a lot of blueberry. The sweetness, though present, was not too much for anyone, and the only complaint was that there was a slight medicinal note, which a few Winos found off-putting. We broke out some marbled Stilton cheese, Port’s classic companion, and found that it took that edge off, imparting a caramel flavor onto the wine. “Man! That is a divine pairing,” I wrote in my notes, adding that it reminded me of the cigar section at the drugstore. “It makes my face feel all tingly, it’s weird,” reported Andrew. At $14, this was a real winner, and had the effect of dispelling a lot of unfortunate notions about what Port is all about.

Tod had been a voice of dissent on the previous bottle, stating that he preferred a “darker, more syruppy port.” I hoped he’d respond well to our final bottle, the N/V Taylor Fladgate Fine Tawny Porto, another holdover from that Vendome tasting in March. On the nose, we picked up notes of “tinder box” and “woodpile.” Jason got a lot of raisin action, and “raspberry syrup” was also offered up. Kristen applauded the “dark garnet” of this wine in the glass.

The palate was heavier, to be sure, and also more syruppy. That said, it didn’t really seem much more than medium-to-full-bodied, and Jason called it lighter than other Tawny Ports he’d tried. Once again, the sweetness wasn’t so much as to be objectionable to anyone, and once again, the Stilton proved a brilliant pairing. At $18, this proved less popular a candidate than the more fruit-forward LBV bottle, but those few who preferred the heavier style were fully in the Taylor Fladgate camp.

I wound up pouring the Quarles Harris for a couple of other Portophobes — my parents — at our Christmas dinner, and I’m happy to report it was extremely well-received. Whether you’re looking for a modern take on the classic dessert wine, or something earthy for the main course, Portugal seems to be a hotbed of both great values and beguiling bottles.

The Young Winos of LA — edutoxicating Los Angeles since 2005.

1 Comment

  1. Great write up, I’m thirsty!

    Comment by Dylan Conroy — January 18, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

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