Garrafeira Nacional, A Treasury Of Portuguese Wines

Ξ May 17th, 2011 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, PORTUGAL, Wine News |

Tucked away down the narrow streets of the Baixa neighborhood of Lisbon, on the corner of Rua de Santa Justa and Rua dos Douradores, Jaime Neves Vaz does the joyous work of cultural preservation. The Vaz family’s third generation proprietor/owner of the liquor store Garrafeira Nacional, Jaime offers more than the latest vintage. Though visitors will surely find the most recent popular, off-beat, and hard to find wines from throughout Portugal, including a large selection of ports — all the way back to 1720! — it is in the area of Portugal’s historical wines where the Jaime’s shop truly excels.
Somewhere in Portugal a house is being renovated, or is changing hands, perhaps inherited by the owner’s children. It too often happens that the entire contents of a wine cellar will be tossed out into the dumpster. Why? Because the bottles are old and dusty. And if it is a white wine, what are the chances a 60’s vintage is still any good? This is a serious problem in Portugal where popular wine knowledge develops very slowly. Of course, Portugal is not alone in this. Here in America, where wine cellars are uncommon (I do not know of a single individual with a proper cellar), we are thirsty drinkers but have an ambiguous relationship to historical wines. And by ‘historical’ I mean nothing more than wines with a minimum of 15 years of aging. But with respect to the holdings of Garrafeira Nacional, 15 years is only a blink of the eye.
Jaime Neves Vaz to the rescue. He keeps his ear to the ground for hints of such spectacular cultural tragedies in the offing, that of the dumpster, and he also regularly attends auctions and spot buys cellars before it is too late. And what is a marvel for the wine tourist is the reasonable prices Jaime then asks for these wines. We met in Garrafeira Nacional. I spoke to him recently when in Lisbon for the premier of my wine doc, Mother Vine.
Admin Where did all of these wines come from?
Jaime Neves Vaz Some of them were acquired from my father long ago. Others we bought in auctions and from private collections, private cellars. We are very careful when we buy. We will often open some wines to check their quality. Most of the time they are very good wines.
And were most kept in real cellars?
JNV I pay close attention to that. If it is a good cellar there is no problem. But even when from a bad cellar I will still give it a try, open a few bottles. You must pay attention to the level of the wine in the bottle, the temperature of the room; there are many factors to consider. I am very careful. It is then very important how we keep the wine here in the shop.
When the store began was it principally port that was offered?
JNV No. This shop began in my family in 1927. We sold wine but it wasn’t at that time a normal business here in Portugal. My grandfather bought the shop. Then my father. It was about thirty years ago that we began selling only wines. The new wines we then bought are now old!
How do you hear about the cellars that come up for sale?
JNV I’ve been in the business for quite a while. I have lots of friends in the business. People know me. They know I like to buy old wines. I love it!
While visiting Carcavelos, I heard a terrible story of old wines simply being thrown away. So what is it about Portuguese wine culture that would lead someone to throw bottles out, to toss them into a dumpster?
JNV This happens a lot. What can I say? [laughs] They just put them into the garbage! Four years ago I bought a little cellar, somewhere around 100 bottles. The owner said to me that all the other ones he put into the garbage! It was because they didn’t have a legible date or the bottles were a little bit dirty. I asked him how many he had thrown away. He told me it was 400 to 500 bottles!
[My gasp of horror is clearly audible on the recording. Admin]
JNV Ok? It’s what we sometimes do. It happens. And they were like these. [Jaime gestures to dusty bottles of old port, Madeira, and Muscatel de Setubal, among others, protected inside a glass case.] And this man had very, very good port and Madeira wines. Into the garbage! I’m sorry…. He said the bottles were dirty. It is a pity. Because it is wrong.
Another visitor nearby, Portuguese, added, “People will say, ‘let’s taste it to see if it’s good’. But they don’t know the wine, they don’t know the label. Some of the wineries no longer exist. But they taste it without paying much attention to the wine. They treat it as though it was new. They don’t know how to pour it, how to decant it. So they taste it roughly and say it is spoiled. They spoiled it! This reveals a clear lack of wine culture in evaluating the quality of the wines. People prefer young wines. But most of these were made in a time when wine was simply put into a bottle and left to age.”
JNV But people are starting to pay attention. They read more. They read wine magazines, newspapers, and the internet. They are starting to learn just how good an older bottle of wine can be. Before they would say of an old bottle that it had to be no good. They would not even open it. But I tell them to slow down. Open the bottle. It is very important to open the bottle! But as I said, this is starting to change. They are beginning to learn that wine is alive.
How have your customers changed over the years? Who now comes in your shop?
JNV There has been a very big change. It started in the 1990’s. The culture of wine here in Portugal began to improve. Customers began to be more careful, and they began to try a much wider variety of wines. There was a big evolution in favor of experimentation. But most people still prefer new wines. We have a ways to go!
Let’s say I select these bottles for them. [Jaime picks a series of bottles of white Colares from 1967. Note the splendid variation among the bottles.] They will say, “They are too yellow; they’re from 1967. The bottles even differ among themselves. Forget it. I don’t want to try it because it must be bad.” But it is not true, I tell them! That it’s yellow, ok: it has 40 years of age! But the wine is good! Old wines are amazing.
Could you tell me a little about your grandfather and father?
JNV About my grandfather I cannot speak much. I did not know him. He died 15 years before I was born. But of my father, he started with wines of Colares, Dão, Bairrada, and Douro. Wines back then were elitist, only for very rich people. But not today.
And do you host tastings here? Do winemakers and companies visit with wines for you to taste?
JNV Yes. In fact, tomorrow [Thursday, May 5th] we have a tasting with Kopke, wines of 10, 20, 30, and 40 years of age. All white ports. We will also taste a 1961, with 50 years. It is a new idea for the whites they earlier did not bottle, only blend. Today they are starting to sell whites. It is very, very interesting. White port is perfect, especially with the aging.
Thank you very much, Jaime. I will be back in a few weeks, about that you can be sure.
JNV Thank you. It was a pleasure. See you soon.
Out I went into the late afternoon light. The blue of the Tejo was glimpsed down the shadowy Rua Augusta in one direction, the pearly tiles of the city streets at my feet, rising to orange upon the walls of the Convento do Carmo, in the other. I walked refreshed, happy, knowing that this Noah’s Ark of wine, Garrafeira Nacional, floated safely upon the rough waters of Portugal’s wine history. Dear reader, so should you.


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