The well-attended recent Portuguese VINIPAX consumer wine fair in the Beja municipality in Southern Portugal offered the opportunity for local residents to sample the new breed of quality wines, and seasoned foreign journalists to taste – and judge – these wines in the context of popular wines in today’s global market. The top scoring wines (all had been pre-screened by local wine judges) were all top in class, and represented incredible quality. At the highest level, the whites were barrel fermented and matured in French oak, and the best reds had also seen more than a year’s maturation in French oak as well.
VINIPAX was created in 2007, organized entirely by the Beja municipality and enologist Anibal Jose-Coutinho, leading wine authority and the author of many books and guides on Portuguese wines. Anibal is passionate about Portuguese wine and is working hard to put it on the world’s map.
In the days leading up to the fair, Anibal and the municipality arranged for international wine writers from FIJEV (the International Federation of Wine and Spirits Writers) to visit a variety of winemakers, each with diverse objectives and personalities. Miguel de Sousa Otto of Herdade do Vau searched for four years to find exactly the right land to begin his vineyard. He put his daughter – an architect – to work at once in refurbishing the dilapidated old farmhouse, which is now a pleasant inn sought out by families, hunters, and others with a sense of adventure. Though viniculture was not his first profession, he embraces it fully and proudly led our group to his new vineyard where he personally nurtures the vines and seems to know each one of them. Though the vines are young, the tasting session revealed incredible balance and finesse across the whites as well as reds. The wines are so delicious it’s clear serous attention went into creating them. They are incredible quality for the price.
Another passionate winemaker can be found in the very vivacious Luis Duarte of Herdade dos Grous in Alentejo. This is a large winery with spacious grounds, an artificial lake, organic farming and animal husbandry, luxury accommodations, along with a restaurant serving some of the most incredible cuisine in the country. Duarte was part of the first crop of newly minted enologists in the beginning of the eighties, with bold and exciting ideas. At Herdade dos Grous he appears to have the sort of budget that allows him to buy hundreds (or more) of French oak barrels from the best French cooperages, and make the wines his heart desires. The barrel fermented whites tasted rich and elegant, and the reds were elegant, yet assertive with that spicy Alentejo kick. My favorite wine here has a romantic story. It is called Moon Harvest Tinto and it is named thusly because the grapes are harvested at the exact moment the moon’s gravitational pull is bringing the sap to the grape. According to ancient lore, this is the most succulent time to taste the grape – and if the wine is any proof, it certainly is! This estate is a popular stop along the popular Alentejo wine route.
Another notable visit included Herdad da Mingorra in Alenteja. Owner Henrique Uva has cultivated the estate’s 135 acres of vines for the past 30 years, producing high quality grapes that sold at a premium to Alentejo’s top wineries. In the past decade the price for grapes fell in Portugal and Henrique was torn between tearing up his vineyard and replanting with higher-priced crops, or starting his own winery. So he decided to start his own winery, and the results so far are very successful. Though Henrique only made a brief cameo appearance during our visit, he seemed like quite an interesting individual who succeeds in whatever he intends to accomplish. The tour of the winery, and the tasting, was carried out by personable Pedro Hipólito, the full time winemaker, with the assistance of Henrique’s daughter Maria who works full time at the winery in a number of capacities. The wines were exceptionally good and the equipment state of the art.
Nuno Gonzalez is the very confidant winemaker behind the wines at Herdade da Malhadinha Nova (the name means black and white cow in Portuguese). As soon as he started our tour of this state of the art winery, he boasted that the wines were so good they were already out of stock and there was a huge demand for more. During the dinner that followed, we found the boast was well deserved. The reds were rich, spicy, powerful, and had lots of muscle for long aging in new/older French oak barrels. The whites came in two styles – fresh, crisp, and young, and barrel fermented for a richer, softer, more luxurious mouthfeel. The cuisine at this winery restaurant was also fabulous, and the winery owns a boutique hotel nearby.
More and more, Southern Portugal is becoming known for very upscale red wines matured in French oak and bottle fermented reds, You can find small boutique producers along with giant high production wineries like Casa de Santa Vitoria, producing more than a million bottles a year.
Three groups of FIJEV members judged the wines presented at VINIPAX. It was a pleasure to taste and judge them.
Here is the top wine in each category (white, red, fortified).
Top Still White Encosta do Enxoé
Top Red Monte do Além
Top Fortified Adega Palmela Moscatel de Setubal