I just want to preface that I wrote this entry shortly after returning and have spent the intermediate time preparing the final touches. The trip took place in early August and spanned a week.
While the juices are still fresh in my mind I thought it best to spit everything out now rather than in two weeks to preserve the freshness.
I was fortunate enough to be invited along for a trip to northern Portugal and Galicia earlier last month, a trip that has been in the works for a few months and meant to educate us on who the winemakers are, what exactly they do with their grapes and the environment their wines come from. The trip jam packed with a non-stop itinerary that included site visits, tasting a diverse array of wines, getting to know the faces and stories behind the wines, and best of all the food.... oh how I love seafood...
After flying into the Lisbon the six of us were quickly picked up in what would become our mobile home: a spacious Volkswagon van with our first stop being a town called Mouraz, just outside of Tondela in the Dao region - an integral part of the country's wine growing culture. The Dao (sounds like down), situated in the north-central part of the country, was approximately three hours away allowing our weary heads enough nap time to wash off the red-eye flight and regain ourselves. The countryside throughout the areas we visited were beautiful and sweeping, almost immediately you're climbing some mountain range giving you the perfect vantage point to see down into the steep valleys or out into the rolling horizon, and always reminded of the nature in every nook and cranny. In a sense it came as a surprise to learn that many of the towns are quite dispersed, there were no intense city centers unless you were in Lisbon (as we were on our last day) or Ourense in Spain; much of it quaint towns with a heavy influence of medieval beginnings that still dictate their growth.
Our first stop would be in Mouraz, a town just outside of Tondela, to visit the estate Casa de Mouraz run by Antonio Lopes Ribeiro and Sarah Dionisio. I've met Sarah twice before and I'm always amazed at the energy she brings when speaking about their wines: they are a dedicated duo who have the scope and ambition of reviving a treasure trove of indigenous varietals essentially forgotten, or are so immersed in field blends, that there is almost no point in mentioning them at all on a label for a slew of reasons. In speaking with them they have both rented and purchased parcels spread out across three regions: the Dao, the Douro, and Vinho Verde. The impression I got from them was that, more so for Portugal than most other regions in the portfolio, that they have a longer habit or tradition perhaps of seeding a field with multiple varietals rather than a monoculture. I get the impression that this wasn't meant to be done but was something that happened out of necessity and economics of the past - the estate works with and seeks out fairly isolated and dilapidated vines, often old and unkempt, sort of like how a historian might seek out any lead on letters from a famous author or celebrity to complete and preserve the full story. Arriving at their cellar, walking up the short driveway to the you're immediately welcomed by air heated with olives, citrus notes (local lemon and lime trees), roasting herbs and a stony salinity that singularly reminded me of their field blend "Elfa." I have to say out of the entire trip this was the only estate which immediately exuded this direct sense of connection to a wine.
As we moved inside for the tasting we were first poured their "Biotite," from Vinho Verde, which is by far the most interesting Vinho Verde I have ever come across. Most often these wines are light and fizzy - more a marketing ploy than a stylistic choice, or something left to the winemaking process, and while the Biotite was light it was not fizzy, provided a bit of weight, great acid and an array of citrus and fresh herb notes - a combination not commonly associated in these wines. From there we tasted through two vintages of their Dao Branco and Dao Encruzado, the former being a field blend of 4-5 main varietals but spanning approximately 15 varietals (Marlvasia Fino, Bical, Cerceal, Dona Branca, Uva Cao, and the list goes on) while the later is purely composed of their trumpet white varietal Encruzado, a grape that has some serious potential fresh and aged, and one that this estate is putting their full weight behind. We tasted back-to-back the 2012 Dao Branco which showed a reserved cool creamy herb-mint on the nose while the palate had a fairly strong bitterness and astringency - a little disconnected I would say. The 2009 Dao Branco though was driven more by Encruzado and elicited more pineapple rind, pith, orange oil and was much more sharpened - I rather enjoyed this one more. Moving onto the pure 2012 Encruzado, it showed high acid with a breath of lemon cream icing as if straight from the refrigerator and a distinct saline note; when we moved onto the 2010 Encruzado you begin to realize the potential for this varietal: it smelled much more like an aged Riesling than anything else, not heavy, certainly not sweet, but with a directed acidity of bruised fruit and petrol within a note of thick flinty smoke on the palate. It was then that Sarah enlightened us to the unknown aging potentials of this varietal and explained that they opened a bottle with decades under its belt and said that they begin to show more like Burgundy - I await this experience to taste a 20 or 30 year Encruzado, a varietal virtually unknown and has now captured my attention like an enchanting enigma.
From here we tasted through a flight of their Dao Tinto, stretching between 2009 and 2011 and composed also in the field blend style with varietals including Tinto Roriz, Alfrocheiro Preto, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and perhaps a few others as Sarah and Antonio continue to work on cataloging all the varietals in their fields. We started with the the 2011 Tinto, showing black pepper spiked chorizo sausage, dark olive brine with distinctly gritty tannins and a lovely undertone of basil infused tomato sauce - all together a heart gripping BBQ wine if I ever sensed one. The next vintage was the 2010 and showed less of the gritty strong tannin and more fresh fruit, something they attest to the warmer season of that year, and the 2009 Tinto, much of the strength that was found in the 2011 was tempered into a pronounced acidity pin-pricked with spices. The 2008 Tinto was the softest of the bunch and showed more eucalyptus with everything sort of playing second fiddle. It was very exciting to taste a single wine, made from the same vineyards over the course of six years.
Then we moved onto the perhaps the most eccentric wine of the bunch: 'Elfa,' the smell of which I instantly recognized while walking up their driveway to the cellar room, the air heavy with roasted herbs, heated olive trees, and citrus oil oozing from the rind as a distinct stone-laden mineral scissoring component strung through these ephemeral elements. Perhaps I have developed a predisposition to this wine because I enjoy its intensity and uniqueness, but then the associations while visiting the vineyards where the other wines came from weren't always so clear. The 'Elfa' is a genuine single plot field blend where all the grapes were picked at once, not always matured, both red and white, average around 100 years in age, and reflected the description above with high tannin and starting alcohol of almost 16% during fermentation.
After hanging around a bit, chatting organic treatments, the mystery of various grape varietals, potentials, histories, whether they rent or own the land and seemingly tasting even more wine, we got a move onto our first vineyard next door. If there ever was a theme to an estate, it would be this one single parcel of mostly white grapes with dashes of red humbly grown with wild grasses covering the ground; always with instances of mystery as not all the vines were recognizable or known to them since many of the parcels they've searched out, rented or purchased, seemed lost to history.
We visited a slew of vineyards next, set in dense forests dominated by eucalyptus and pine that were only accessible by old dirt roads squeezed on both ends by lush ferns, pines, and wildflowers growing out of these cut stone of exposed earth and granite. Arriving at the peak of this set of vineyards you could see the expanse and the isolation of such endeavors, you really understood their interest and desire to have nature's ambiance expressed in their wines, capturing the spontaneity of what's essentially given to them (found forgotten plots) as well as what the grapes had to say for themselves. In the winemaking world there is something of a touchy subject that tends to split most camps: some might say wine is made in the vineyard, by the vines themselves, with little of the winemaker's hand having an effect on the wine, others emphasize the opposite is true and acknowledge that the crop has to be treated responsibly to get good wine but the act of creating a fermented juice occurs in the cellar: in all reality wine is influenced from both and in the end wine, as a product, comes about by being a tinkering chemist - some tinker more, some less.
The dinner that night would be a prelude to all other dinners: loads of seafood, local specialties, and copious amounts of wines to revisit.
The next day we drove to Douro -perhaps my favorite region because of Port and the warm sunny weather and visited the vines that predominantly go into their Douro Tinto blend. The drive there was fairly smooth, entering a small medieval looking town partially outfitted with shops and homes between structures that had crumbled - a sad yet romantic theme throughout our scenic travels. Stopping here we were loaded into the back of a pick-up truck, preceding a brief sip of water in this quaint shop, and then driven down what would become something like a sixty-degree incline -heights are not my favorite place to be, they make me feel as if all control is lost and we're just waiting to be tossed over the edge into free-fall, but the view was amazing: vineyards, almond and olive trees dotting the landscape like fine gradients from a surrealist attempting some warped pointillism painting in this hot region, up close the contrast between earth and plant created an almost surrealistic view on our tour as the eventual stop to our long drive was revealed to be the little stark white chapel perched at the peak of this mountain (from which I took that picture above from). In the Douro the estate grows many of its reds, mainly alfrocheiro and tempranillo, and by lunch we were indulging in a flight of Antonio's Douro Tinto between 2010 and 2012, as well as their Encruzado 2012 over some amazing steak and light charcuterie side dishes.
As the sun was beginning to set we made our way to our next lodging called Otro Tiempo, a quaint little bed and breakfast house retrofitted from within and still composed of the same stone and wood used to construct it back in medieval times. The the interiors a romantic meld of their historical past, the more recent inhabitant's past and the current technological future. With some time to spare we went for a brisk walk through the winding streets, up the nearby hill that only seemed to go further upwards as street turned to loose stone trail until the wind turbines were overhead. Later that evening, on our way out to dinner, we were brought downstairs to see the ancient lagar in the basement now serving as storage for the current home owner. This prompted the owner to take us to another property of his nearby whose basement served as a mini-museum with a larger lagar in it's foundation that had two levels - a rarity. Our visit was short though, the tenant renting the downstairs apartment, behind a fairly stable wooden door, soon grew weary of our visit and began a wild voracious rant from behind his door, yelling and screaming as if he was being subject to torture. Suffice it to say we were ferried out quickly in good humor: a man with so much anger over so little an inclusion left us wondering how someone exhaust that much energy being angry over what, a little whispering low volume irregular noise?
Onto our second dinner -already we feel like we've been there for four days- unfolds with white gloved black tie styled service, not overdone, but attempting to emulate such exclusivity. We were served some nice dishes, the wines started with a winemaker unknown to us from Lisboa but that we could see fitting into the portfolio. Soon enough we moved onto a score of other wines and dishes that were explained to us with precision, like little experiments and although I appreciated the diligence, it wasn't something I felt was required. I recall the wines during this first phase outdoors but not with any detail, when we moved indoors due to some light rain I had more focus and we tasted wines from a young man named Tiago working in the Douro: young and adventurous winegrower, studied in Oregon in Pinot Noir country I believe of which some of this rubs off in his wines -not that they're new world per se, but there is a playfulness to his wines while being serious concentrations. He produces a beautifully lean Pinot Noir rose, a big Pinot Noir, a Moscatel Galego Branco which is fascinating and a Branco. From then on it was a stream of wines that eventually devolved into a blur, impressive pours that continued until past the witching hour and experiences that only pictures could carry in the end.
Satisfied nonetheless, the next day proved to be a picnic by comparison: we drove into Vinho Verde country and toured the pergola trained vines with mint growing at their roots; bamboo, wild celery and the fresh scent of living fecundity wet and wild all around you, something that, only when I came back, did I realize through my tasting notes on their vintage 2012 Air Vinho Verde (essentially the same as the Biotite) made complete sense to have noticed about the wine. Within this magical respite of kiwi trees and an organic garden, we went to lunch at a seaside restaurant to have a wonderful seafood paella hearty meal - lobster and shrimp with rice... well just look at the picture! and then paired with a flight of their Vinho Verde "Air" and "Biotite".
This would be our last day with them before heading out into Galicia, only to see them once more for our final farewell in Lisboa.
My take away about Casa de Mouraz is that they are perhaps one of many pioneers bringing our attentions back to the classic Portuguese varietals, with eco-conscious mindsets, while re-purposing mixed fields into wines we now couldn't do without: creceal, encruzado, tempranillo, albarino, alfrocheiro and a host of other grapes not often spoken of here in the states.
On a side note, two months before the trip, I finally opened up the last bottle of Air Vinho Verde by Antonio Lopes Ribeiro, a bottle that had been sitting around for months and awaiting some warmer weather. It's not often you get to visit the place that a wine comes from and recently had the same bottle in the comfort of your own home - at least not for most of us and a habit I would love to make more frequent. I had originally prepared this wine to be an entry on its own since Vinho Verde isn't a wine I've invested any time into discovering: perceived as a genre of wine that is mass produced, maligned by it's almost blanket sameness between any two until it doesn't matter which you picked up, and with the hindrance of being marketed as wine with carbonation for the American masses. It almost falls in line with how I've come to think of Prosecco (something light, dry, innocuous and bubbly) or Pinot Grigio (light, dry, crisp, tasteless). Well it's now time to graduate -the general feelings that to drink the cheap and easy is to remain willfully ignorant of the prowess that maturity and development allows for any style of wine, however, our purses and tastes, our biases and 'costs vs benefits' will always shade our decisions in the end and so I'm here as a recent convert for those more affluent or wanting more rewarding times, to remind you that when scouring the racks Vinho Verde can be more than a one night stand wine. The bottle I had was two years old (2012), I recall drinking the same last summer and being wowed, cloistering the other two away until i was ready: funnily enough, one exploded sitting on my floor and the other one was consumed. The wine showed beautifully, a vaporized fresh cut lawn on a hot summer day, blown through with sea mist and salt, twists of lemon and lime, a discerning sense of flint with acid on the rise but curved into the fruit like partners in a synchronous dance; this is not a light, dry, fizzy, clear as water "wine" but the most refreshing canary yellow you could wish for in a glass. I want to say there was an almost Cremant appeal to it, but I don't want to be too bombastic. Search it out, drink it and enjoy when you get the chance!
Note: The whole country of Portugal, at least where we were, had this smell of blown out campfire smoke, warmed olive trees and eucalyptus.