Off the Grid: Portugal

Calling certain Portuguese wines “off the grid” can be superfluous, as even the well-known wines from that country aren’t “on” the grid of many wine drinkers to begin with. You don’t walk into Debra’s Fruit Hat Emporium and say “gimme the weirdest one, I don’t do mainstream”, the esoterica are pretty much assumed.

The Portuguese don’t help matters with their fluid moon-man nomenclature, though, do they? Our first wine is from an area that half the wine maps call Borba and the other half call Borda, and knowing the Portuguese language is probably pronounced Gerald or something. As I've said before, Portuguese is like Spanish with an extra helping of Sinutab. All ribbing aside, these wines should be on your grid. Portugal and Spain represent the very best Old World value by leaps and bounds, the Portuguese icons at the top of the pyramid are sold for the same prices as mid-level French and Italian wines. The bottles I bring you today are modern, beautifully structured wines with unique profiles and great longevity, they can stand alongside top Bordeaux and Tuscany in quality and stature without ever employing the language of low expectations, like “rustic” (Rustic in Furniture-Speak: quaint and charming. Rustic in Wine-Speak: smells like horse). Let me guide you through the place-names to show you some absolutely stunning juice, beginning with a region just north of the Algarve:

Alentejo. Don’t call them California. Even though the rolling hills look like it, even though the wines boast the fruit-roof-over-a-log-cabin brawn of Napa, don’t say California in front of them but it’s perfectly normal to think it. Traditionally one of the regions that we get corks from, the viticulture here dates back to Roman times but Alentejo, like many other Portuguese regions, stayed unseen in the shadow of Port wines until Portugal joined the EU and investment rolled in. Tempranillo’s alter-ego Aragonez is planted here but the stage truly belongs to Alicante Bouschet, the thick, fat French-born grape whose claim to fame – besides awesomeness – is that its flesh and juice are as deeply red as the skins (most red grapes – almost all of them - bleed clear). Red wines from this hot place are big and bold and unafraid of fruit or wood, drawing unavoidable comparisons to the top wines from the Golden State – albeit at a fraction of the price.

Herdade das Servas Reserva 2013, Estremos, Borba/Borda/Gerald, Alentejo. Get this wine on your radar now, or everybody else is going to have a better summer than you. The Serrano Mira family has farmed in Estremos for 350 years, and brothers Carlos and Luis founded Servas in 1998 with an eye towards pairing the traditional grapes of Alentejo with more international varieties like Cab, like this Reserva that reaches the depths and structure of wines 3 times its cost. Alicante Bouschet with Cabernet Sauvignon hit with French and American oak and drinking like Napa by way of Jumilla. Spicy blackberries tossed with cocoa and crème de cassis hit all the pleasure centers with a huge body and a brilliantly modern afterburn. We’re going to pour it this Saturday at 3pm in the River District Vintage Room if I have any left. Not submitted to any reviewers (that speak English, anyway). 8 wooden 3-packs available, $66.98 +tax

Heredade do Mouchao “Mouchao” 2013, Casa Branca, Alentejo. One of Portugal’s most famous non-Port wineries (and one of the buzziest booths at this weekend’s Top Drop Vancouver for sure), Mouchao was turning heads well before anyone could find Alentejo on a map. Originally a cork farm started in the early 1800s by a Port importer named Thomas Reynolds, Mouchao has seen its output change from cork to olives to sheep to wine, all amidst political turmoil and violent revolution, but it’s still owned and run by the Reynolds family. The flagship wine Mouchao is an ode to traditional Alentejo winemaking, blending in local grape Trincadeira with the dominant Alicante Bouschet, and fermented in open-top granite tanks (called Lagares) before aging 3 years in used tonneaux. A long decant is necessary to wake the bear, but it’s one spicy bear when it’s awake, and this bear likes chocolate, berries and beef bouillon a lot more than other bears. Mouchao is the Beaucastel of Alentejo, if you will: the traditional benchmark against which other wineries measure themselves. 96 points Wine Enthusiast, 95 points Decanter, 94 points Robert Parker, 3 6-packs available, $83.98 +tax

Bairrada. Sitting off the Atlantic coast about halfway between Lisbon and Opporto in a warm Maritime climate, Bairrada’s unique contribution to the world of wine is the thick-skinned, late-ripening Baga, the red grape that answers the question: What If Nebbiolo Carried A Gun? Baga was long the sneaky little secret of Port producers, who added the illegal grape to Port blends to boost structure and longevity; the grape fraud became so commonplace that the 18th century Portuguese government ordered all of Bairrada’s vines ripped up to protect Port’s reputation in the all-important British market. Today, Baga makes amazing tannic, tight and statuesque wines that only start singing after a decade plus of cellaring, and hey, whaddya know:

Luis Pato Quinto do Moinho 2000, Beiras (Bairrada). Like Angelo Gaja in Barbaresco, Luis Pato eschews the qualitatively restrictive regs of Bairrada and files his wines under the more general Beiras regional appellation. Where many Bairrada producers soften their wines by adding Merlot, Mr. Pato – the scion of a 4-centuries old wine family – goes full commando with 100% Baga but then does us the favour of putting it down for a 19-year nap. This 2000 Quinto do Moinho has taken on the orange tinges of an aged Barolo but reminds me mostly of a 20-year-old Saint-Estephe from Bordeaux: there never was much fruit to lose, and Nirvana is reached when the structure calms down enough to find balance with the body. The herbaceous nose – again after a long decant – is teeming with roses, tobacco, dried plum, and burnt orange. Gorgeous stuff, you can judge for yourself when we pour it this Saturday at 3pm in the River District Vintage Room. Not submitted for reviews (another thing that cranky Mr. Pato despises), 2 6-packs available, $72.98 +tax

Until next time, Happy Drinking!