Portugal’s wines must be the most undervalued in the world. While most of us can’t afford to buy aged wine in its prime, in Portugal, you can. You don’t need a cellar and 10 years’ patience; you just need a cheap flight to Lisbon, some AirBnB research, and an empty suitcase with enough wool socks for your bottles.
While every other wine region is struggling to fool folks into believing their wines are blessed with this generation’s buzzwords — freshness, acidity, unique indigenous grapes, and enough tannins to improve with age — Portugal actually delivers. It’s an irrefutable truth whose meaning sets in via your gums once you’ve tasted through your first dozen Portuguese wines. The wines call for food: they are crafted for them.
Even if the Portuguese have anointed a precious handful of crown jewels priced 200-900€ from the Douro — Barca Velha; Pera Manca; Quinta do Crasto; and of course aged ports — the insane value lies outside of these fleeting icons of national pride.
The sweet spot in Portugal for aged wine is between 13 and 40 EU. Perusing Lisbon’s Garrafeira Nacional wine store is like a dream — just row after row of perfectly aged wine, at thrift store prices.
Just look at this receipt. Pinch me. A 1991 Bairrada Reserva? 19€. 1969 Colares red? 45€. A 1969 Colares white? 27€50. Not even one Euro per year of bottle age, for stunning, perfectly aged wine, that often could even continue aging gracefully. Plus, some other Garrafeiras sell 1969 Colares for half these prices!
It’s worth mentioning as well that I know of no other country where you can slide 3€ in coins across a checkout counter, and have someone slide a bottle of wine back in return that you genuinely want to drink — red or white.
WHY IS IT SO CHEAP … WHAT’S WRONG WITH IT ?
Exactly why is Portuguese wine undervalued? Some mysterious reasons, some obvious. Most obvious: the language barrier. To native English ears, Portuguese can sound like a lisping Russian on quaaludes. The labels can be baffling. It’s actually quite frustrating when a native speaker explains “Barros” is pronounced “Bock-hoesh”; I give up. The critical “branco = blanco” translation for all white wines isn’t intuitive for English speakers, either.
No surprise, then, that Portugal’s biggest export market is Brazil. The ubiquitous “Quinta”, or farm (read: estate, or vineyard), seems to bring to mind Christopher Columbus’ ships, then leaves folks stranded conceptually before they ogle a different bottle in a wine shop.
The elusive part of the undervaluation puzzle is the humble Portuguese character; many seem to feel it’s hubris to ask for high prices. Reacting to Europe’s deepening economic crisis, many shrugged off the news with a sardonic smile, noting, “Eh! We’ve been poor for a long time — we’ll be fine”.
It’s a different value calculus, here, and many Portuguese are the first to confess they are typically reluctant to toot their own horns.
GO GET THE JEWELS
So here’s the plan. For your next vacation, consider a direct flight to Lisbon: a vertical, twisting city surrounded by azure waters that’s pulsating with energy and full of youthful life — quite the contrast to rural Portugal, where chronic high unemployment and “brain drain” have left most cities sun-baked, childless landscapes with an elderly population rambling through empty city squares.
Not so with Lisbon: it is so very alive, and there’s so much to take in. Even if at times Portugal can feel like a nation whose golden years are behind it, the heavily antique-laden decor and roaring twenties charm of hotels will please all jaded children of the 20th century strip mall aesthetic, who invariably thirst for Old World ‘authenticity’.
Lisbon is at its best when it manages to fuse modern and antique seamlessly; when, say, thoughtful giant graffiti pieces envelope gorgeous, long-abandoned 19th century buildings; or when futuristic buildings that somehow bear testament to a Guimard-style Art Nouveau aesthetic abut decaying ports and old churches.
Lisbon boasts the second greatest aquarium in the world (I love aquariums, especially hungover), countless art museums, great restaurants with low prices and amazing seafood, and of course, the Garrafeira wine shops. Taxis are cheap and nearly everyone speaks English. Here’s what you should stuff your luggage with:
The rarest crown jewel of Portugal. The ungrafted, pre-phylloxera wine whose grapes grow nowhere else in the world. A pathetic 18 ha remain, down from 3000 ha in the 1930s, as 150-200 year-old vines are razed for beachfront property construction. I understand; I’d like to live there too. Worth a day trip to Sintra to visit the beach, vines, and producers just an hour by car from Lisbon.
A miniscule 8,000 bottles are made each year in the entire Colares DOC. Vines are planted by digging 3 to 8 meters deep in the sand until workers hit clay — and tragically, many died, buried by sand while doing so. Young ungrafted cuttings are placed over the clay, and as the vine grows taller, a first layer of manure and then sand are gradually poured on top of it. Once flowering occurs, Dali-like crutches are placed under the vines to lift grapes off the sand.
Believe the Baron: Colares wines aren’t ready until they attain 50 or 60 years of age. If you’d like to learn more about the 103 year old Baron von Breummer, the pendulum-wielding mystic that not even pancreatic cancer can hold back, who founded Casal Santa Maria, click here.
If a tiny bit of Colares is made, an even tinier bit is exported. It’s worth every cent. Colares is bottled in smaller 500 mL bottles to accelerate the aging process. I can vouch for Colares whites from Casal Sta. Maria, and reds from Viuva Gomes da Silva 1. The whites show white flowers, latex, beeswax and honey. In their youth, they have a lovely, lean lemon rind and stone character, but a thick midpalate presence with toasted coconut shavings on honeyed custard and unmistakeable salinity. Young reds often show sweet, rusty, slightly barnyardy tannins on the nose. The palate brings high-toned blood orange and rust with leather and an intense acid, tannic finish. Just tears at your tooth enamel and reminds you this wants to be aged — you are in a losing race with this wine, which will most certainly outlive you; the 1931 reds are still young, the 1969 not orange in the least. The finish brings to mind Nebbiolo a bit, and makes you vibrate with contentedness; for here is something truly unique. This wine is an antidote to overwrought, modern industrial wine — a delicious, exhilirating challenge of sorts.
Older Colares were bottled in 650 mL bottles, a sweet bonus when buying older stock. Once the red wine is ‘ready’ around 50 years of age, it becomes a more raisinated cherry with damp earth, still marked by light body, salinity and no lack of searing acidity (allegedly from the sea winds). A 1969 Viuva Gomes Colares red was as acid as could be, like an apple cider-covered handful of dark cherries with a smoky ketchup aroma that dominated the finish. The white nearly always shows an iodine character, high acid, and salinity, along with oxidative notes you’d expect.
Next wine to hoard? The reds of Bairrada: the land of the allegedly untamable, feral, tannic Baga grape. Think of it as Portugal’s Carignan, or perhaps Tannat 2. Nearly any Bairrada red will improve with age, and will reliably perform its magic act of being light-bodied, tertiary from aging, yet fresh, lifted and full of life. Look for either legendary aged Quinta das Bageiras, or Luis or Filipa Pato, whose wines can fetch $15-200. Luis Pato once remarked that with low yields, Baga was like Pinot Noir; with high yields, Baga resembled Nebbiolo. Halfway between Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo? Sign me up.
The 1991 Quinta das Bageiras Reserva was unforgettable, and the best 20 Euros I’ve ever spent. Smoldering charred wood, old leather, pomegranate fruit youthfulness, hints of chocolate and almond and intense tannins with gripping acid to this day (24 years old: still going). I bought their last bottle at the Garrafeira Naçional; let this be a lesson to always chat with sales staff, as this was their recommendation, and I would never have seen the bottle where it was stowed.
BUÇACO (OR BUSSACO) WHITES
And Buçaco, unimported wonder-wine that Matt Kramer of Wine Spectator put on the map a few years ago after having his mind blown. The 2007 Buçaco white is a bit like a Lopez de Heredia Rioja white from a really strong, fresh vintage mated with a creamy Chassagne Montrachet that saw some battonage. Smoky; creamy; disarming salinity and rich honey with gentle allusions to latex. Rich, complex, opulent; yet frank, bright, and seamless on some level. Utterly addictive.
This wine is such a strange bird: it’s inextricably linked to the Alameida Hotel chain, now called the Thema Hotel chain, where it is served as a house wine. If the Garrafeira Nacional wine store runs out of Buçaco, you can try phoning one of the Thema hotels in Lisbon.
Ultimately, you should visit the historic Bussaco Palace Hotel up north in Coimbra, in the middle of a forest. Be prepared for an experience that brings to mind the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, however. These hotels are fading, decaying palaces, which, not unlike rural Portugal’s city squares and many historic vineyards, have fallen into disrepair, and feel somewhat abandoned. But their commanding beauty and historic appeal has foreign investors and wealthy aristocratic Portuguese families flocking to invest and rebuild (in both the vineyards and hotels).
These photos are from a stay at a nearby sister hotel of the Bussaco Palace Hotel, also in the Thema chain, the Curia Palace Hotel. I just loved it, abandoned decay and all; it felt haunted.
Bussaco Hotel owner Alexandre Almeida began bottling Bussaco wine in 1917 for the hotel, and as it is a wine produced near the borders of the Bairrada and Dao regions (cf. map above), it borrows varietals from each, yet must content itself with table wine (Vinho de Mesa) status. Both red and whites can age and improve over 20 years, with exceptional vintages lasting 50 years. Reds combine the Dao’s Touriga Nacional grape and Bairrada’s Baga grape to create a long-lived wine that’s taut yet fresh; and the whites combine the Dao region’s Encruzado with Bairrada’s Fernao Pires, Bical, and an occasional drop of Cercial — careful, not the Sercial you know from Madeira3.
More on Encruzado in my next article, examining the woefully undervalued, refreshing whites you needn’t age nor carry home in a suitcase from Portugal.
- I’ve not yet sampled Arenae’s Colares — read about them here https://cellarbook.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/feet-buried-in-the-sand/. [↩]
- Montus Madiran reds never seem to shed their tannins, no matter how long you wait. [↩]
- Bairrada’s Cerceal is probably the progeny of Malvasia Fina and Madeira’s Sercial, cf. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1, 368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, Jose Vouillamoz. Ecco: 2012. p 214. The unending list of Malvasia and Sercial variants are two of the most confusing grapes I’ve encountered. [↩]