In the late 1990’s, when I was embarking on a career change: from the deadline-driven life of an art director to one in the wine industry, I was eager to learn as much as I could about this new wine-world. My first route was through education, as I attended wine classes and tried to learn all I could about the classic wine-producing regions of the world.
Another tact I pursued was to seek out people with established careers in the wine business. One particularly valuable piece of advice I received was to spend time on the floor of a reputable wine store.
So, off I went, armed with my first wine-class certificate to interview for a job at Astor Wines, the largest retailer in New York City. I applied for a job, and was surprised to be offered a part-time sales position on the spot. I was handed a green apron, given a brief tour of the store and was to start in 2 days’ time. Was I that good or did I just happen to unknowingly walk into ‘retail hell,” otherwise known as the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas in NYC?
After a bumpy first couple of weeks, I found my footing around the store and started to develop a loyal customer following who would come into the store and seek my advice. I was thrilled! What was my secret? Back from my earliest wine-studying days and still today, I have been a staunch supporter of up-and-coming wine regions, and of under-appreciated grapes. I am a firm believer that you should not have to spend an arm and a leg to buy a bottle of wine to enjoy the same evening or even one to put away for a few years.
While everyone else was happily selling the cheap and cheerful Shiraz and Cabernet wines from Australia and Chile, I was trotting people to the back of the store, to the few dusty bins that housed wines from Portugal and were made from grapes with strange names like Touriga Nacional, Alicante Bouschet or Castelão.
Back then, one of my favorite ‘insider deal’ wines was a light-bodied red called ‘Periquita’, which retailed for a whopping $4.99. Even though customers were a little scared by the low price of that wine (most shoppers tend to be suspicious of wines that are too cheap) they would often came back, telling me how much they enjoyed it. If someone wanted a bigger, and fuller bodied wine, I would recommend a wine from the Douro region in northern Portugal. At the time, the Douro was much better known for Port, its sweet fortified wines, and the un-fortified wines of the region were still a novelty.
Fast forward 16 years to 2014: Portuguese wines have made some in-roads in the US, but they have yet to make the break-through that I have been long predicting. Why that is, I am not quite sure: is it the lack of familiarity with the grapes or regions of the country, or perhaps the absence of popular Portuguese restaurants to popularize the wines? One thing that was true back then and still today, is that for anyone willing to venture out of their wine ‘comfort zone’, Portugal offers a highly affordable treasure trove of wine discovery.
A great place to start is to seek out the wines of Herdade do Esporão, one of the most consistent producers in the country, making a wide and exciting range of wines at every profile and price point.
One of my favorites is a white wine, produced from the Verdelho grape; abrilliant pale lemon colored wine, with a vibrant nose redolent of springtime grass, citrus blossom, green apple and white flowers. On the palate the wine is clean and fresh with a flavors of green apple and grapefruit, with mineral notes that linger through a persistent finish. And best of all, you get all this for under $13!
For lovers of fuller bodied white wines, look no further than the White Private Selection. Produced from a blend of Antão Vaz, a little-known native Portuguese grape variety, and Semillon. This wine has a pale straw color, and seduces with creamy toasted barrel notes along with aromas of ripe golden apple, vanilla, spice and tropical fruit. Rich and round on the palate, with flavors of pineapple, banana, vanilla and sweet spice, the wines finishes with a pop of acidity which keeps you coming back for more. For lovers of premium California Chardonnays, this wine is a steal at under $25.
Now if full-bodied reds are what you crave, then Portugal offers wines at a quality and value that are difficult to beat.
For big and bold reds, the Alentejo region is the place to go and Quatro Castas is the wine for you. As the name indicates, this wine is made from a blend of four varieties all in equal parts; Aragones (aka, Spain’s Tempranillo grape), Alicante Bouschet, Petit Verdot, and Syrah. This inky- purple wine greets you with aromas of ripe red and black cherry fruit, along with notes of eucalyptus, and a dusting of sweet cinnamon spice. On the palate it is big and bold, loaded with ripe berry flavor and a finish reminiscent of freshly-roasted coffee beans. All this for under $15, talk about a wine that over-delivers!
And last but not least, we travel to the north of Portugal, to a sister property of Herdade do Esporão, called Quinta dos Murcas for the Red Reserve blend. Located in the heart of the historic port-wine region of the Douro, this wine is produced from a blend of grapes traditional to the region; Tinta Roriz, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa and Sousão. If none of these grapes sound familiar to you, do not fret for you are not alone. But answer me this, does the world really need another Merlot-wine anyway? This wine offers immediate satisfaction with a compelling nose of fresh crushed blackberry fruit, dried thyme and violets. On the plate, a dense core of blackberries, ripe figs and spice are livened up by juicy acidity framed by ripe, yet present, tannins. This is a wine that you can enjoy tonight, or put away in your cellar to revisit in a few years. Amazing quality, good age-ability and at under $13, the biggest steal in this line-up.
I am still hopeful that the age of Portuguese wines will come one day soon, until then we can continue to enjoy these wines, which bring unique expressions, new flavors, and exciting blends at prices that that most of us can afford. Till then, enjoy the treasure hunt and Saúde!
[originally published in Notes from Esporão]