Portuguese Wines, The Gifts Of Friends

Ξ September 27th, 2010 | → 5 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, PORTUGAL, Wine History, Winemakers, Wineries |

Upon the completion of principle filming of a documentary on historical wines, when back in Lisbon I found myself with more than a case of remarkable wines given to me by winemakers from across the country and the Azores. What sublime, halcyon days! Up at 6 a.m. each morning to prepare to film the sunrise across the plains of the Alentejo and the first light on Pico volcano, or to feel the warmth, hardly lost overnight, again gathering in the stones of the Pousada Rainha Santa Isabel. Paying attention to the soundtrack, I was also to record on these mornings distant dogs barking and children’s voices, trees rustling in an occasional miraculous breeze, small scooters puttering down narrow village streets, lowing cattle and complaining sheep filling in between the strikes of a somber church bell; this is some of what I heard, each often in exquisite isolation, sounds rising against the overwhelming silence of the countryside. Never more than in Portugal have I heard less, yet heard more, if you get my meaning.
Another familiar sound was when handling the bottles of wine given to me. A morning ritual was to rethink, reflect, on all of my yesterdays here, the hard work now metamorphosed into a bottle. But the bottles may also be outright cyphers of tangled speech and sensory overload, mine. For the wines are not, in the main, rare. They are not trophies. They are not wines subject to the noisy, quasi-commercial blather of internet-based critics and bloggers, however necessary might be their breathless voices elsewhere. No. These wines are the stories of a place made liquid by an anonymous farmer’s hand. And even the word terroir seems quaint to describe them, ever the naive ur-concept marking thought’s surrender to mere commerce. No. These wines, in the main, are scoreless non-entities, and all the better for it. Portugal, with nearly 300 varieties under cultivation, is among a very, very small number of countries left on the planet where the wine writer, however accomplished, is left struggling for understanding.
A Jeropiga made by the Colares oenologist (and friend), Francisco Figueirdo. Every year he makes this fortified drink as a holiday gift for the Colares Collective workers, some of them volunteers. As folks may know, certainly readers of this space, Colares is under threat from expansive development, principally second homes of well-to-do Lisbonites and expats. Its rough grape, Ramisco, is out of step with an increasingly globalized palate, less the case with its Malvasia. Standing four-square against the combined forces of an indifferent EU, touristic and vacation developments, and the international palate, Colares growers face the opposition with courage, which is to say, they labor.
This is the famed ‘black wine’ from the Vinho Verde, here from outside of Braga, specifically Basto. Made of the Espadeiro grape in very limited quantities, in part by the august Dr. Pedro Malheiro, this wine is locally famed for its harsh, rustic flavor and deeply pigmented color. Other tintas grown include, depending on the sub-region, Amaral, Alvarelhão, Borraçal, Padeiro, Pedral, Rabo de Ovelha Tinto and Rabo de Ovelha (Anho), and Vinhão grapes. Whites… another time! The Minho overall? The grapes grown there are yet another story! In any case, the alcohol for this wine tops out at 9.5%. The Espadeiro grape makes the staining qualities of Petite Sirah positively negligible!
Ah, the frustrations of translation! Though I’ve been to Sr. António Miguel’s adega twice, still the full complement of his patrimonial lines escape me. Located in Vila Alva, the adega, as with many others in the town and, quite frankly, the region, is filled with cement jars and a few of clay. I shall not go into the wherefores and whys of the clay jar tradition (I shall let my film do that), I will volunteer that I felt a moment of near-disabling humility. At the end of our adega shoot, Sr. António appeared with this bottle in his hand. It was from a competition he’d recently entered. He did not win. I don’t think his effort even placed. But this is a bottle I will treasure. When on our film scout in February, Sr. António told us he was looking to sell his adega. I am happy to report a young relative has since stepped up and has pledged to keep the winery operational for another generation.
Lastly, I offer a 1963 Dão wine. Rather than write the gloss, I prefer to let my friend, Mario Rui Ferreira, associated with the adega, tell the story.
“The vineyard: Single vineyard, very old. As Carlos’ father Elisário (1899-1997), used to say : ‘vines from our parents and olive trees from our grandparents’. This, and the manual work done in very hard conditions, made the land owners keep the plants as long they would produce, respecting the life cycles.
Varieties: Touriga Nacional (65%), and 30 grapes varieties officially approved in the region, including a bit of white, following the saying ‘a bunch of flowers is made of every flower’.
The story: This was the last wine the family produced before coming back to its own label in 1999 [Quinta Vale Das Escadinhas & Quinta da Falorca]; nut it dates back further, to 1964, to the founding of the Adega Cooperativa de Silgueiros; it was then that Carlos’ father decided to go along with the other farmers. So, leading by example, the family started to sell the grapes to the coop. As this ‘63 would be the last wine ever, there was a big effort to make it an excellent wine, one that would evolve very well, that the family could drink it in the following years; and, most importantly, they kept several bottles to revisit every once and a while on special family occasions. The funny thing is that Carlos’ father, preferred young wines! That’s the main reason why there are a few bottles left.
The wine making: As we all know, 1963 was a great year for wine in Portugal, and this wine one is no exception. It really shows the ageing potential that especially Touriga Nacional has. That is linked with the purity of the wine making process, picking the bunches, taking them to the lagar, having them crushed with feet, and letting a natural fermentation start and be finished naturally. Several days later, the juice would finish fermentation and be stored in neutral wood. This was so as to not have the wood influence the wine, but to simply act as a container. The wine would have been sold in the same year.
The wine, when bottled in ‘64, had 12,5% alcohol, full of fruit, good acidity, fresh, with minerality, and with a not too dark color.”

These are just four of the dozen remarkable wines I brought back. How I wondered whether Customs in Newark would allow me to pass! The officer I confronted watched me closely as I explained why I had so many bottles over the limit. Declining to stammer, insisting the case of wine was only for personal use (how could I ever hope to draw him into my dense narrative in the moment of our encounter?), he relented. I am grateful for this gentleman’s generous interpretation of the restrictions.
A final note: The blogosphere finds itself, no less than the established press, shattered into specialities. This is a necessary division of commercial, but not intellectual labor. The strength of the specialist is also their most profound weakness. As I move through the wine world deepening my appreciation of even the most well travelled regions, I discover again and again the limits of expertise. The question remains: For whom does one write?


5 Responses to ' Portuguese Wines, The Gifts Of Friends '

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  1. on September 27th, 2010 at 11:30 pm

    I love this piece, Ken. Your appreciation of these bottles and their stories is beautiful and moving to read. The writing itself is carefully crafted and smoothly, gracefully the words swim from you to me.

    To answer your question, I think we write for ourselves. If someone likes it, enjoys it, if someone is changed or moved by our words, the better. But first and foremost, we write because we have to, and we write for ourselves.

  2. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on September 27th, 2010 at 11:34 pm

    Gwendolyn, you got it exactly right. We write for ourselves. Thank you for the generous comment.

  3. Jo Diaz said,

    on September 29th, 2010 at 10:39 am

    As I entered the country from Portugal (sans samples, because I thought that I couldn’t bring them with me), I was asked, “Was this business or personal travel?” I said, “Business.” He asked me, “What business?” I said, “The wine business.” I then had to talk about the wine business for the next 10 minutes… Hey, I’ve got a plane to catch. I should have brought the wine!

  4. on September 29th, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    Ah, the problem of bringing wine back from Portugal. Well, if I am lucky, I just might get that opportunity next Spring. See you there, Ken?


  5. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on September 29th, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    You know it, Charlie. I hope you may join me, Virgilio, Nuno and Liliana for the premier of the documentary. Details to come.

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