Good Deals Disguised

April 20, 2008

Given that I buy a lot of wine I am always on the lookout for good deals. There are a lot of them out there, but it is not an easy task to weed out the low quality wines, which tend to be the extreme majority in the lower price range.

One category that virtually always delivers consistent quality is Portugal’s Vinho Verde. I had recently written about Vinho Verde in connection with a trip to Portugal. In short they tend to be very refreshing, light, slightly bubbly whites made in a style that is not really comparable to anything out there. On a warm day it would be hard to imagine something more perfect than a bottle of Vinho Verde. To top it all, they tend to be really good values across the board. One example is Aveleda Fonte, the higher end label of the Casal Garcia I wrote up back in December. This wine retails for $6 a bottle at Cost Plus in the US. That is 4 euros in a retail establishment! What an amazing value?!

So why the title good value disguised? I happened to come across this wine at a good seafood joint in Sausalito, CA called The Fish. This is a perfect place for a Vinho Verde. Imagine sunshine, t-shirt weather, sitting outside on the water and sipping on slightly sparkling, beautiful wine. The problem is The Fish marks up the wine to $27 a bottle eroding that fantastic value I expect from Vinho Verde. I think it is outrageous for a self service restaurant to charge $27 (no service included!) for a bottle that they probably buy at around $4-$4.50. 

So go Vinho Verde, I will buy you whenever I can get my hands on you, but I will also avoid places that take advantage of your great value and try to rip off customers on your back.


Name: Aveleda Fonte, Vinho Verde, 2007

Rating: 8 out of 10

Body: Light

Price: $6 retail, $27 at The Fish

Got it at: Cost Plus, San Francisco, CA

Aveleda Fonte, Vinho Verde, 2007


San Francisco and Lisbon are similar. They are both on the ocean, they have similar climate, they are both hilly (both 7 hills both to be exact), and both San Francisco and Lisbon have a Golden Gate Bridge, in fact almost identical looking and near identical size (SF: 2,737 m, Lisbon: 2,277 meters). Is this not freaky? To add to the freakiness, I discovered that in downtown Lisbon there is a wine bar called Nectar Wine Bar. Now this is freaky because I spent half of my life at the counter (the customer’s side) in a wine bar called Nectar Wine Lounge in San Francisco. Even their logos are similar.

So needless to say I like Lisbon and I like their wine culture. Wine is everywhere in Lisbon and it comes in all kinds of varieties. Unlike Spain, where with some exceptions basically Tempranillo rules, Portugal has all kinds of wines. Think fizzy Vinho Verde, the sweet Madeira, the reds and whites from Dão, Alentejano and Duoro, and of course Port. And it does not stop there, wine comes in light body, full body, old world, modern style, any kind of shape or form. I do not like them all, but I love the variety. This is a country to discover in terms of wine.

And discover we did at the Nectar Wine bar. We had fantastic food and several tastes of wine, three of which I will try to summarize now. The first one is Quinta dos Roques, Encruzado, a white from the Dão. Rui Reguinga, the wine maker, makes the Encruzado, the white varietal indigenous Dão, in a modern style. The nose immediately hit me as caramelized apple, then you taste tropical fruit, rich minerality and a long finish. Good stuff, I would buy it any day.

The second wine is a light bodied red from Quinta dos Cozinheiros. This house is in the Beiras region, halfway between Porto and Lisbon, very near, a mere 8 kilometers from the Atlantic Coast. Because of the proximity to the ocean, the climate is cool, steady without heat waves and summer sleet, which is almost normal in continental climates, such as France and Germany. The steady cool weather helps maintain the acidity level in the grapes , and as a result these wines age quite well. This red was the Poeirinho 2000, which is made of the grape of the same name or otherwise referred to as Baga. Baga is a red grape with a very thick skin, which tends to rot quickly. They harvest these grapes before they fully ripen and ferment them in their skin, if I am not mistaken, sort of like Beaujolais Nouveau. One difference is that they leave Poeirinho in French oak for 12 months. It is kind of strange, because these wines age very well, yet they have quite a bit of commonality with Beaujolais Nouveau, which is usually consumed within the first year. In fact when I tasted this Poeirinho 2000, I thought it was sort of a cross between Beaujolais Nouveau and a Lambrusco as it is light, simple, and a tiny bit sparkling. Go figure! I was not a huge fan of this wine, but it was interesting.

The last one of the Nectar Wine Bar batch is the Passadouro 2005 from Quinta do Passadouro. This estate is owned by a Belgian businessman Dieter Bohrmann who moved down to Portugal twenty years ago to break with the Port tradition (for which Douro is famous) and try to make dry red wines. For the first 15 or so years he had been working with famed Port maker, Dirk Niepoort, but over the last few years Passadouro has been more and more independent. This 2005 vintage is one of the first fruits of this independence. The wine is super dark color, very high in tannins, a bit tarty, heavy on minerals sort of that old fashioned Dão style, and has a disappointingly short finish. It is way too tight at the moment, and I think this wine needs to age quite a bit before it becomes more enjoyable. That said, it has potential, and I can tell that it will taste quite different in a few years, but it is a shame to put this wine on the shelves now. The winery also acts as a guesthouse and next time I am Douro I will be sure to knock on their door and perhaps spend a night.

Name: Quinta dos Roques, Encruzado, 2006

Rating: 8 out of 10

Body: Medium

Price: 3.50 euros per glass, ~10 euros retail

Got it at: Nectar Wine Bar in Lisbon, Portugal

Quinta dos Roques, Encruzado, 2006

Name: Quinta dos Cozinheiros, Poeirinho, 2000

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Body: Light to Medium

Price: 5.50 euros per glass, ~14 euros retail

Got it at: Nectar Wine Bar in Lisbon, Portugal

Quinta dos Cozinheiros, Poeirinho, 2000

Name: Passadouro, 2005 from Quinta do Passadouro

Rating: 7 out of 10 (with quite a bit of potential)

Body: Medium

Price: 5.80 euros per glass, ~12 euros retail

Got it at: Nectar Wine Bar in Lisbon, Portugal

Passadouro, 2005 from Quinta do Passadouro

You read it right. Louis Roederer, the house that is most famous for its high-end Cristal Champagne, also makes beautiful reds and whites in Portugal. Their winery is called Ramos Pinto Cellars and they are located just outside of Porto in the Douro region of Northern Portugal. They are one of the most reputable producers of the Port desert wine, but Ramos also make traditional reds and whites.

We selected a bottle of Bons Ares, 2006 from Ramos Pinto to go with our seafood at 1 De Maio restaurant in Lisbon. The wine is made of the indigenous varieal of Viozinho and Sauvignon Blanc. It has a golden color, quite aromatic, hints of cinnamon, baked apples and a fairly heavy weight on the finish. It is perfect with seafood, even with spicy sauces as the acidity (perhaps from the Sauvignon Blanc?) is definitely present and cuts through the sauce. It is also a good value at about 6 euros a bottle in retail, which is quite a deal in Portugal. I wish I could get this wine elsewhere in Europe or in the US, I would likely get a case of it.

Name: Bons Ares Branco, Ramos Pinto, 2006

Rating: 8 out of 10

Body: Medium to Full

Price: 12 euros (in restaurant), 6 euros retail

Got it at: 1 De Maio restaurant, Bairro Alto district, Lisbon, Portugal

Bons Ares Branco, Ramos Pinto, 2006

Prior to visiting Portugal I had tasted wines from Douro, Dão (entry on Frei João Reserva) , and the northern Portuguese Minho region where they produce Vinho Verde. Last week I had the chance to visit Lisbon and taste some fantastic wines from Alentejo, which promptly became my favorite Portuguese region. This happens all the time. If you have an open mind and are willing to taste a wide variety of wines, you will discover amazing jewels that for one reason or another never made it to the mainstream outside of their locales.

While I would say wines from the Dão require an acquired taste, and to some extent even Douros, Alentejo wines, both reds and whites, are very approachable. I will start with a white, Herdade do Rocim‘s beautiful Olho De Mocho Reserva 2005, I tasted at the Nectar Wine Bar in Lisbon. My first impression of this wine was that it tastes like Arneis, from the Italian region of Piemonte. It is fruity, has quite a bit of pears, almonds, and an upfront hint of petrol, though very different from Rieslings. The varietal, Antão Vaz, is typical for whites in Alentejo. The body is medium to full and the acidity level holds up quite nicely to the fruit. You can easily drink this standalone and it is also very flexible for pairing with food.

One of the impressive reds I tried from Alentejo was the José de Sousa Mayor 2000 by José Maria de Fonseca (JMF). It is plush, very velvety (almost Napa Cab style soft tannins), very well structured and explodes with dark fruit, tobacco and dark chocolate. It is a heavy, best paired with beef or perhaps game dishes. If there is something I took home from this wine is that it is the closest to modern International taste that I have found in Portugal. It is extremely approachable for even the non-adventurous mind. The one strange thing about it is that the wine is made in a traditional Alentejo style, in that they ferment the grapes in clay pots/tanks called lagares (if you’ve seen people stomping on grapes, this is similar), yet it has such a modern taste. It is made from 55% Trincadeira, 33% Aragonez (called Tempranillo in Spain) and 12% Grand Noir (Tinta Fina) from old vines planted in the 1950s, spends about 10 months in American oak and is bottled unfiltered. If you can get your hands on this wine, you have to try it.

Name: Olho De Mocho Reserva 2005 from Herdade do Rocim

Rating: 8 out of 10

Body: Medium to Full

Price: 4.50 euros per glass, 12 euros retail

Got it at: Nectar Wine Bar in Lisbon

Olho De Mocho Reserva 2005 from Herdade do Rocim
Name: José de Sousa Mayor 2000 by José Maria de Fonseca

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Body: Full

Price: 6.50 euros per glass, 18 euros retail

Got it at: Alfaia Wine Bar, Bairro Alto district, Lisbon, Portugal

José de Sousa Mayor 2000 by José Maria de Fonseca

Vinho Verde, the Green Wine

December 8, 2007

I love Portugal. It has awesome weather, a beautiful coastline, rich history and great wine. Portugal not only has fantastic reds, whites and desert wines, it also has a category which is distinctly Portuguese. This is Vinho Verde, or Green Wine. Vinho Verde does not refer to the wine’s color, but the fact that it is new wine. It is mostly white, though reds also exist. The whites are a bit sparkling, fairly acidic, and are all very refreshing. They are absolutely perfect summer wines and relatively low in alcohol so you can have some with lunch and not feel like you want to fall asleep in the afternoon.

The last Vinho Verde I tasted was a perfect example of this category. Casal Garcia is from the house Quinta da Aveleda, which is the largest producer of Vinho Verde in Portugal. They make about 1 million cases of wine a year! What I admire about them is that even at this huge production they make consistently good quality wines. The Casal Garcia is made from four grapes: Trajadura, Loureiro, Arinto and Azal. This simple wine has quite a bit of citrus and apple (granny smith) and a load of fresh taste. I had it with fresh seafood in Lisbon on a sunny afternoon. I would not have chosen any other wine for the occasion. And it was the house wine. Spain, are you listening?

Name: Casal Garcia, Quinta da Aveleda, NV

Rating: 7 out of 10

Body: Light

Price: Almost Free (House Wine)

Got it at: Churrasqueira O Cofre, Lisbon, Portugal

Casal Garcia, Quinta da Aveleda, NV

I am somewhat of a bargain hunter you could say. I love fantastic wines and spend a fortune on this hobby as do many others. However, the pleasure of a great wine doubles for me when I get a deal. This is especially true for wines that have been aged 10+ years. Aged wines are more and more difficult to come buy these days as wineries dump their goods on the market as fast as possible in the interest of making a few more bucks. This generally also means that wines that are aged are a lot more expensive.

Wineries in some parts of the world, though, are not yet caught up in the pressure of capitalism (just-in-time winemaking?) and are sticking to traditions that they followed for hundreds of years. One such region is Portugal’s Bairrada, which lies about 150 kilometers south of Porto or 200 kilometers north of Lisbon. In Bairrada most wineries are making wine using centruries old traditional methods and here this also means they tend to age wine for a long time. And boy, do these wines age well…

Last night I had a bottle of Frei João Reserva, 1995 from one of Bairrada’s magnificant winemakers, Cave São João. This wine is 12 years old now and is just starting to show its character. You get the slightly orangie color that is typical of older wines and a beautiful heavy structure as you swirl it around in your glass. The taste is powerful, exploding fruit, almost biting into your tongue, cedar, leather, tobacco (definitely smoky too), tannins and quite a bit of minerality. This is a complex, fairly big wine, one in which you keep discovering new treasures on the palate after each sip. It is also very different from new world wines, and even different from old world wines that are made in modern style (such as most reds from Bordeaux or Barolo). It is unique and absolutely wonderful. And the best thing about it? I picked it up for about 17 euros, though you can get the same bottle in some online shops at almost half the price! Is that not a bargain?

Name: Frei João Reserva, 1995

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Body: Medium to Full

Price: 16.95 euros

Got it at: Cave Rokin, Amsterdam, Holland

Frei João Reserva, 1995