A walk on the Hermitage

Theoretical knowledge is one thing, practical knowledge another. During my sommelier studies we had to learn a lot of facts by heart. You learn about production zones, allowed grapes, vinification methods, and of course you taste a lot of wines. But driving around in a region, walking in the vineyards, seeing the grapes is still so much more enriching. When I was in the northern Rhône last summer, I decided I wanted to drive from south to north, just to have a feel of all the appellations. When you see the northern Rhône on a map, you think vineyards in Saint-Joseph for example have an eastern exposure. Having seen the vineyards, and even having camped underneath one, I can assure you that things are much more complex. There are quite a few small rivers there that connect to the Rhône and that have vineyards on their slopes, meaning the vineyards do no face east, but south or south-east! I also saw how small Condrieu is, and how unbelievably steep the Côte Rôtie is. No wonder these wines are so expensive.

So having driven all along the northern Rhône, it’s only logical that I also wanted to see the Hermitage, that sleeping giant on the “wrong” side of the river. Hermitage is probably the most prestigious appellation in the northern Rhône, and unfortunately there is also not much wine being produced. The reason for this is that the surface for production cannot become bigger, the vineyards being limited to the Hermitage hill. There are 136 hectares that can be used for Hermitage, all the other zones on the left bank, mainly in the back of the hill, belonging to Crozes-Hermitage, with a production area of 1,633 hectares, just to give you an idea. In 2015 the total production was 5,340 hectolitres.

The first thing that struck me when I saw the Hermitage, was the perfect exposure. Again, if you look at the map, you might think that the Hermitage faces west or south-west, as it lies along the Rhône, which runs from north to south. In fact, the Rhône takes a couple of sharp turns just before the Hermitage, and the hill itself faces south. Immediately after, the Rhône takes its normal course again.

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This picture is taken from the Hermitage. Here you can see how the Rhône starts taking its turn. The vineyards in the back are Crozes-Hermitage.

In fact, when I talk about “the” hill, that’s not entirely correct. The Hermitage is not simply one hill, one bump with an even surface, like the Corton hill in Burgundy. It’s actually a very long-stretched hill. In certain places there are parts of the hill that come more to the fore, while in other places there are tiny brooklets that divide the hill.

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The Hermitage seen from below

As you can see very well in the picture above, the hill is very complex with different exposures, some better than others. Some parts of the slopes do not face south, but rather south east or south west and will be in the shadow in the morning or in the evening. A second thing that is very visible on this picture is the difference in height. In certain parts of the Hermitage the hill is so steep that terraces are needed to keep the soil from sliding down in case of heavy rains. In the front behind the wall, however, these are also Hermitage vineyards, and they are completely flat.

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Another example of the different exposures of the vineyards on the Hermitage.

To add to the complexity, the soils are also very different, both from west to east, as from high to low. I’m not a geologist, so at the risk of oversimplifying things, I will explain how I understand the geology.

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This picture is not taken in the vineyards, but in the nature reserve just next to the Hermitage. Here you can see the granite rocks and how they decompose in smaller pebbles and ultimately in sand.

The mother rock is granite. The west part of the Hermitage is where the granite is most dominant. This is where the lieu-dit Les Bessards is situated. This vineyard is considered to be among the best for syrah. It’s here that Chapoutier’s L’Ermite comes from and where the famous chapel, owned by Paul Jaboulet, lies.

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In the middle (from west to east) you will find the lieu-dit Le Méal, another prestigious site for red Hermitage. Ferraton’s Le Méal 2004 was an experience that will stay with me forever. Very rich, but also very complex. Wonderful! Here the soil is mainly made of pebbles and loess, which is a sediment of dust that came with the wind. If you go to the bottom of the hill, however, you will find a much richer soil mainly made of clay, not considered to be the best sites of the Hermitage. And finally the part furthest to the east is less steep and is composed of what the French call “poudingue”, literally pudding! This refers to a conglomerate of galets, stones, that are kept together by calcareous sediment. In general, the eastern part is considered to be better suited for whites, about one quarter of the production. But when I was walking on the west part I also found quite a few vineyards with marsanne, the grape most often used for white Hermitage.

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A bunch of Marsanne grapes

As you will probably notice, the bunch Marsanne grapes you see above does not seem to be in the best shape. Well, that brings me to my last observation I made up there on the Hermitage. The hill is very complex, but that is not the only thing that explains the differences in style you might find when drinking Hermitage from different producers. The bunch of Marsanne you see above is from a vineyard belonging to Michel Chapoutier. As you may know, Chapoutier’s viticulture on the Hermitage is biodynamic. So no synthetic fertilizer or pesticides. The difference with the grapes I saw in the vineyards of Paul Jaboulet could not be bigger.

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A healthy looking bunch of syrah grapes in a vineyard of Paul Jaboulet

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Bunches of weathered syrah grapes of Michel Chapoutier

I don’t want to spark a debate about biodynamic vs traditional, but it just goes to show that many factors influence the character of the wine you ultimately get in your glass, and it’s not only terroir.

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Tired but happy with my walk on the Hermitage!

Chapoutier : instant happiness from the Rhône

In my previous post I sang the praise of Angelo Gaja’s Barbaresco. But there was one wine in the line-up of my birthday tasting that stepped up to the challenge and said : “Hey, what’s all the fuss about?! Try me!”. And that was Michel Chapoutier’s Hermitage Moneau de la Sizeranne 2012 :

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Sniffing from this glass gave us instant happiness. A very complex and seductive nose with initially a bit of typical syrah reduction, followed by ripe strawberries, black pepper, green herbs, tobacco and a bit of smoke. The wine was beautifully balanced, fresh and ripe at the same time. In a perfect spot to drink right now.

This Hermitage delivered big time. And to be honest, most of the wines I already had of Chapoutier do! Yesterday evening I opened a bottle of the Couronne de Chabot 2012, a Saint-Joseph that Chapoutier brings on the market with Yannick Alléno, a French top chef. Again typical syrah reduction aromas to begin with, real barnyard funk! Black pepper, laurel, ripe red fruit, and iron. Great freshness in this wine. And again instant happiness from the first sniff.

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Other wines of Chapoutier that really blew me off my socks in the past were Les Varonniers, a Crozes-Ermitage, with great finesse and elegance. And Les Granits, a Saint-Joseph that shares the same characteristics as the Varonniers but that is maybe even more complex.

Unfortunately, the oohs and aahs that Chapoutier’s wines provoke all over the world push the prices up at a high speed. Especially for the “premium” wines. Luckily the quality of the “basic” cuvées of Chapoutier is still high, allowing everyone to enjoy a bit of instant happiness. The Crozes-Hermitage Y/M of Alléno and Chapoutier, for example, is a real taste bud pleaser coming at a very reasonable price.

When I visited Chapoutier’s shop last summer, I bought a few more bottles for when my need of endorphins is high. So don’t be surprised if you see more raving posts about Chapoutier in the future.

 

 

Midlife crisis? Drink Gaja!

A midlife crisis is a great excuse to organise a birthday tasting and open a couple of wow bottles. The ones you’ve been saving for a special occasion. Also the ones that have a price tag that comes with the label (read overpriced wines), but that you secretly want to try anyway, at least once. All in all, turning 40 has its advantages…

I lined up 12 wines to share with three other winos, ranging from Champagne to Burgundy, Piemonte and Sicily, to end with a deliciously sweet Jurançon.

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The line-up

I will not discuss them one by one, but just pick out a couple that made us silent for a couple of minutes. The first one is the Barbaresco 2013 of Piemonte icon Angelo Gaja. If you know Piemonte, then Angelo Gaja probably does not need introducing. He is not only recognized for making top Barbarescos, but is also known for his controversial decisions such as the introduction of small barrique aging instead of the traditional botti (large casks), planting the international grape varieties cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc in Piemonte, and breaking out of the official Barbaresco DOCG designation. A bit of a phenomenon, really. All the more reason I wanted to try one of his wines!

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The Barbaresco is the flagship wine of the Gaja family. Even though Gaja started producing single vineyard Barbarescos in the 60s, it’s the “normal” Barbaresco that was produced already in the 19th century. Nowadays it is made with grapes from 14 different sites and it is aged for 12 months in barriques, and another 12 months in large oak casks. Gaja is sometimes called a modernist and the barrique aging could make you think that his wines will taste like vanilla juice, but still, his wines are always described as elegant and refined. To be tested of course! Also, if you are familiar with nebbiolo, you know that this is a grape variety that can be quite austere, producing wines that need time, sometimes even decades, to reach their peak. Opening a 2013 nebbiolo would in most cases be considered infanticide, a waste of money. Well, one of the reasons Gaja introduced barrique aging was to soften the tannins, and make wines that are more approachable in their youth. 2013 is also a vintage that produced  in general lighter wines than 2012. Again, to be tested!

How do you prepare such a bottle? That remains one of the most difficult things in wine, I find. Most of the wines you find in the supermarket are made to drink young, and you can just pop and pour. Once you go to wines of a higher segment, you will often find wines that need time, wines that can be difficult in their youth, aromatically challenging, or austere. It would not be the first time that I hear people who buy an expensive wine to celebrate a special occasion, and end up being really disappointed. Opening a bottle in advance can help to give it oxygen, and let it breathe. But for how long? The day before? A couple of hours in advance? Or pouring it in a carafe to give it a more agressive oxygen treatment? There is not one right answer to this, I’m afraid. A Bordeaux can benefit from opening it the day in advance, but I’ve had bad experiences with doing so with lighter wines, Burgundies for example. With wines made of nebbiolo, my experience is that the tannins can be quite rough, even unpleasant, on the second day. So I decided to open the Barbaresco a couple of hours before tasting it.

When I opened it around noon, I had a little sip to see how it was and check if it didn’t have cork taint. The wine already displayed beautiful aromas of red fruit, but the complexity was not there yet. I didn’t panic. A little bit of air can do wonders. And indeed… The red fruit was accompanied by floral aromas, and a bit of pepper. It was not so much the complexity but the quality of the aromas that made everyone realise this was something special. Delicate, elegant and refined were some of the adjectives that came up when sniffing from our glasses. The first sip pushed us further into exaltation. Ripe fruit but a cool impression at the same time. Everything here was so well dosed. The tannins were noticeable, but ripe and elegant, and provided a superfine structure that carried the wine. The long finish presented us with an extended goodbye. If I had to choose one word to describe this Barbaresco, it would be airiness! The complete opposite of a blockbuster actually. Or how a wine can mesmerize without having luxurious oak, or huge concentration.

Well, what can I say? This is an experience. Angelo Gaja completely lived up to his reputation as “King of Barbaresco”. You pay alot for a bottle, but at least this is the kind of tasting that will linger in your thoughts for long and that will put a big grin on your face when you think back of it. When you buy such a bottle, you don’t buy 75cl of wine. You buy an experience!

After reading this declaration of love for Gaja’s Barbaresco, you probably think this wine was the undisputed WOTN. For those of you who don’t master wine slang, that’s Wine Of The Night. Well, actually, there was a strong contender… Which one could that be, you think?

An attack of champagne fever

– Do you want the Blanc de Blancs or the Brut?

– Nah, I’ll have the Rosé.

We felt pretty much at ease on day three in Champagne to order our umpteenth « coupe ».  Almost like the locals, I was tempted to say. But in fact I saw the locals drinking beer, gin, coke, cocktails and what not, but not champagne. Luckily there are hordes of tourists who do, just like me last weekend, spending a surprise weekend in Reims to soothe the pain of the big 4-0. Yes, yours truly reached the age when you start asking : will I die any time soon? Should I sell my house and buy a couple of Romanée Contis? Or quit my job and become a grape picker? So my wife organised a weekend in the Champagne region! Who knows me better than my piano? My wife does…

« We’re going to Champagne?! », I panicked when she told me. « Then I urgently need to do some research on which local grower we should visit! Because we should buy some champagne of course! » The champagne fever had gotten hold of me. A brief lucid moment made me realize that I actually already have quite a stash from last winter’s raid at the wine fair in Lille, France. But then the champagne fever took over definitively : « Well, we’ll just have to drink more champagne then, won’t we?! »

As it turned out, the end of August is not a good moment to go to Champagne. This is the last moment of peace for the growers before the harvest begins, so they take their well-deserved holidays. Already three or four had let me know that they were not available for a visit, when I spoke to the lady of Champagne Laherte Frères in Chavot. There they were already preparing the cellars for the coming harvest, which is exceptionally early this year. She must have heard the despair in my voice when I asked if we could not come on Saturday then instead of Friday, because she finally accepted!

It took us a while to find them, because they didn’t have any big signs anywhere. When we found them, we were greeted by two Frenchmen who were equally suffering from champagne fever. « Since you are from Belgium, we kindly ask you to turn around and leave. There are things you share and things you don’t share! » « Very well », I said, « let’s make a deal. If you no longer touch our beers, we will not come to Champagne anymore. » That seemed to be a convincing argument to let us stay. When the lady of the house went out to get something, one of our French friends continued in a hushed voice : « Seriously, these champagnes are damn good stuff! Unfortunately, the prices are accordingly! » I had not seen the price list yet, but I knew that their basic Brut cost 16,60€ in 2016. I was shocked to see that it now costs 25,50€. A 50% price rise over two years… I thought the locals had become immune to champagne fever, but it seems that at Laherte Frères they caught the virus as well… Luckily it has not yet damaged their capacity to make great champagnes! We tasted the biggest part of their range, and we loved most if not all of them. IMG_2320The Brut and the Blanc de Blancs (100% chardonnay) were very good, fine, elegant, fresh. I also loved the 100% pinot meunier, but it was quite pricy at 39,90€. The odd one out was a 100% pinot noir. The wood was quite strong in the nose (most of their champagnes are made with wines that are aged in barrels) but the champagne actually tasted like a red Burgundy… I found it hard to believe, I had never tasted anything like this. There was actually red fruit in there. We did not need more convincing, they have high quality champagnes at Laherte! We bought a selection and moved on.

Next stop : G.H. Mumm. One of the big houses, completely different than a small, local grower. But it’s nice to wander around in those endless cellars where it’s 12°C all year round. More than a 100km of cellars under Reims, it’s hard to believe, almost a second city under the city. And in a way, this is the heart of the city, a cold one, but beating strongly.  Mumm produces 7,5 million bottles every year. Mainly for the « emblematic » Cordon Rouge. Sophie, our guide, always talked about the « emblematic » Cordon Rouge. Luckily I did not get the « emblematic » Cordon Rouge  during the tasting at the end of the tour, as my wife had booked the Black and White Experience. Not that I would have minded drinking Cordon Rouge, but we got the RSRV Blanc de Blancs, a 100% chardonnay vintage champagne of 2012, and the RSRV Blanc de Noirs, a 100% pinot noir vintage of 2008. IMG_2312This is a high-end line of champagnes, one bottle costing 60€. The Blanc de Blancs was very fine, it had a beautiful mineral nose and a touch of Brie cheese, something that reminds me of the 2011 vintage of Dhondt-Grellet. The mousse, the bubbles, was very fine. A lovely champagne really! The Blanc de Noirs was the complete opposite, with more fruit in the nose, mirabelle plums, and a very round mouthfeel. Less my style of champagne.

Final destination, the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay, a stately avenue where a few big houses have their buildings. Moët et Chandon, amongst others, with a statue of good old Dom Pérignon, the friar whom is said to have discovered how you put bubbles in wine. IMG_2359We decided to peek inside out of curiosity and ended up in the shop, with techno beats and golden gadgets shattered between the « Doms ». It gave me a slightly uncomfortable feeling because I found myself between people who seemed to be in the final stage of champagne fever. People who are in this irreversible stage can be recognized by the following symptoms : taking selfies in front of a bottle of Moet Ice Impérial, loading your car with several cases of « Dom », or buying a Moët umbrella of 50€. IMG_2361These people are unfortunately beyond salvation, and need to be avoided. That’s why we decided to shuffle swiftly towards the exit without attracting anyone’s attention.

And that’s when we ended up on the inner court of Collard-Picard further down the avenue to enjoy a Blanc de Blancs and a Rosé. An appropriate ending to a feverish champagne weekend.IMG_2365

Back home the worst still had to come, I thought, as my birthday was only on Tuesday. I feared that moment and I expected I would need alot of champagne to get through that difficult day. But guess what, I got up, and I was still the same, nothing had happened. My hair had not turned grey overnight, I did not suffer from memory loss, and I did not feel the need to buy a motorcycle.

I opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate all that.

 

 

Sampling port wine in the Douro valley

For the last leg of our holidays we went to the Douro Valley and, finally, Porto. Impossible then not to go tasting port wine… To be honest, however, I had to force myself a little bit to do it. I still remember port from my days as a student, when I had a, let’s say, « younger » taste. Port was sweet and therefore I drank port, it was as simple as that. I drank cherry beer for the same reason… 

Luckily things have evolved! I never really came back to port, however. Even though I know there is so much more to it than the cheap supermarket ruby and tawny ports. Reason more why I had to take this chance to sample a few ports. 

So off we went! First stop was Quinta da Pacheca, a small winery (50 hectares) based in Lamego, which is situated in the Baixo Corgo, the first of three sub-regions in the Douro valley, being the coolest of the three and receiving more rainfall than the Cima Corgo and the Douro Superior.

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Map copyright of Court of Master Sommeliers

A boat trip from Pinhao to Tua allows you to get an impressive overview of the vineyards on the very steep slopes of the hills along the river. 

Pacheca prides itself of being one of the first wineries to bottle under their own label, well before the Douro became a demarcated zone in 1756, the first one in the world by the way. Despite the fact that Quinta da Pacheca is a relatively small winery, it is modern, having its own hotel (barrel rooms included) and fancy restaurant.

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Beautiful, but I hope they have airco!

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Groups who are on a boat tour have dinner in their vat room

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A certain Mr Sandeman is watching over

I was on an organised visit, and Pacheca also has still whites and reds, so the tasting included also two still wines, before the port wines. Of the latter we tasted a 20 year old tawny and the 2012 vintage. 

If you’re not familiar with the styles of port wine, these are the basics : tawny is an oxidized style of port (hence the color and the name) because it spends many years in small wooden barrels, up until 40 years! Ruby ports are not oxidized because they are bottled immediately (standard rubies) or spend a limited time in big wooden casks (vintages).  Vintage ports are top ruby ports and considered to be among the best wines in the world. These ports are at their best after several decades of bottle ageing, so you need to be very patient if you buy a vintage port…

Normally vintage ports are only declared in the best years, 2011 being such a year, and more recently 2016. Some wineries, like Pacheca apparently, chooses to  declare more often, the choice being entirely theirs. They do need to get the approval of the Port and Douro Wines Institute, because it’s the institute that decides whether the port is good enough to be declared as a vintage.

Back to Pacheca :

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Vintage 2012 :

Very smooth aromas and mouthfeel. Ripe cherries, surprisingly low in tannin for such a young port, good acidity. Very soft, velvety even. A bit too easy for my taste, honestly. A smooth operator! 42€

The 20 year old tawny

Very rich, opulent nose, with dried figs, date, brandy, and quite strong oxidative aromas here but I love how the walnuts complement the candied fruit and give extra depth, almoste create another level within the wine. Very long finish, with good acidity helping the port to linger nicely on your tongue. I will spill the beans a little bit : this was the best port I had in Portugal, and you will be astounded once you see which other ones I’ve tasted later on… 42€

Just a round of applause, by the way, to Quinta da Pacheca for letting us taste such beautiful and expensive wines on the tour. At other wineries, the better the quality, the more you paid. Not unlogical, and that’s why it makes the Pacheca tasting even more exceptional.

Once we were in Porto for the final leg of our holidays, we tasted a few more port wines.

At Quinta do Noval, on the terrace of their wine shop/bar, on the bank of the river Douro. Great setting to watch the sunset!

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Hey, what is Ronaldo doing here?!

Colheita 2003

A colheita is basically a tawny port from one particular vintage, 2003 in this case. On the label it shows when the wine was bottled, 2018 for this one, which makes this a 15 year old tawny. The oxidation here is also quite clear, but not in a way you’d expect it to be. This was the kind of nose of a wine that is slightly past its peak. Not much, I don’t want to exaggerate, but I think the time has come to drink this Colheita. Rather low acidity as well, probably explained by the hot vintage, which makes it a bit viscous. Not my cup of tea, I’m afraid.

Tawny 10 Years old

More balanced nose than the Colheita, ripe cherries, smooth, not very nutty at this stage. Good port. But what I often saw is that the price of the 20 year old tawny was not exponentially higher. If the 20 year old gives more complexity, what I expect it does, it might be worth spending a bit more.

The last winery we visited was Graham’s, a property of Symington. No tour, just tasting.

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Lot’s of people visiting Graham’s

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18€ per glass…

Tawny 10 Years old

Ripe cherries, the sweetness still quite present, but well balanced. You sense that this the youngest of the tawnies. Very smooth and rather easy-going.

Tawny 20 Years old

A bit more depth here, but it’s still the fruit that draws the attention. Very little nuttiness in comparison to the Pacheca. Good, but you know by now which one I prefer…

Since this was our last visit, and since Graham’s is a big name, I was very curious to taste a top port, so we decided to spend a couple of extra euros (this is an understatement) for the 40 year old tawny and the 1983 Vintage! 18€ each per glass. Tasting portion!

Tawny 40 Years old

This had to be it. The nec plus ultra, the wine that overarches all the others and keeps you silent for a couple of minutes. 1983 is considered a top vintage and we were told that it’s now in a beautiful spot to drink. The nose was definitely complex, with loads of candied fruit, dates, figs, you name it, but also quite a strong caramel aroma, which I found a tiny bit too present. The port was very much like nectar, liquid honey almost, and again little oxidation. Very nice, deep. But I suppose this is a slightly different style than the Pacheca. Different price also… 142€

Vintage Port 1983

Very fine nose, dried raisins, slightly herbal. This makes me think somewhat of a nicely evolved Chateauneuf, quite ripe obviously, but still elegant and persistent. Good balance and very soft. I expected a bit more length perhaps. But still, a very nice vintage. Unfortunately at the same price level of the 40 year old tawny : 142,50€.

The visit to Graham’s was a nice ending of my little port exploration. It gave me an idea of what top ports can offert. But am I now converted to port wine? Well… Hard to say at this point as I noticed that the styles of Pacheca and Graham’s differed considerably. So it would be nice to explore a bit further. Unfortunately, the better quality port wines come at a price (and prices are going up fast it seems), so you will not just buy a couple of dozens just like that. So I’ll start with laying my hands on a Pacheca Tawny 20 Years. Because that was a bottle that I seriously liked! 

 

The perfect girl at Quinta do Piloto

The second winery I visited during my holidays in Portugal was Quinta do Piloto. I was eager to visit another winery in the Setubal region, because it’s here that the grape castelão is the traditional main grape for reds. As you might have read in one my previous posts, my interest in this grape was piqued when I drank Rodrigo Felipe’s Humus Lca, 100% castelão. The region where the grapes are grown is the same as for the sweet Moscatel, but is called Palmela (named after the town), an appellation that allows still whites, rosés and reds.

Quinta do Piloto is a family owned estate. That does not mean, however, that it’s small, as they have have 200 hectares of vineyards. At least, I wouldn’t call that small. My guide, Rita, did not agree, though. The estate used to have 500 hectares before it was divided among the children during the last change of generation. That’s why Rita found 200 hectares small. A question of perspective, I suppose.

The winery is not the most modern. Or as Rita gracefully said : it’s an old winery, but “built according to modern principles”. She referred to the construction of the winery in several levels in order to use gravity to transport the juice of the crushed grapes to the tanks without using pumps.

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Before we started the tour, Rita said she was going to give “a perfect girl” ! I was already looking forward to meeting Scarlett Johanson, but alas… The perfect girl was a shot of half aguardente, the local brandy, representing a strong woman, and half Moscatel de Setubal, representing a sweet and charming girl. The mix of both was “the perfect girl”. I politely took a few sips, but quickly emptied my cup on a moment Rita was not paying attention. Things weren’t meant to be with the perfect girl…

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Preparing the perfect girl

Moving on to the real wines. I had 3 whites and 3 reds :
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Siria 2016

We kicked off the whites with a wine made of the grape Siria. I had never heard of this grape, let alone tasted it. It is also known as Codega in the Douro and Roupeiro in the Alentejo. The nose was particularly fresh, with green apple taking the front stage.  The wine was surprisingly fresh, and could almost make you think you were drinking a muscadet. But it was also extremely light and there was little more going on than the initial freshness. Normally I like such wines, but this one lacked a bit of content.

Roxo 2017

This was not the sweet Moscatel Roxo de Setubal, but a dry version of the same grape. Very aromatic nose, immediately appealing with peach and white flowers. This wine had  more body than the Siria, and a bit more depth. Very playful and fresh. A nice summery wine.

Branco Reserva 2015, DOC Palmela

Very different glass of wine here, a stylistic break really. Yellow plum and pear come out of the glass. This requires a bit more sniffing! An aromatic profile that is completely different than the previous wines, more serious as well. This Branco was quite full, without being heavy. Not an easy wine though. Not something you would just have as an aperitif, but rather a wine that you would drink with a meal. The bacalhau com natas, cod with cream and potatoes, would be a good match if you wanted to pair it with something Portuguese. This wine is made of arinto, antão vaz and siria.

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Touriga Nacional 2016

This varietal wine kicked off the three reds. Touriga Nacional is especially known in the Douro Valley for being the main grape for Port wines, but Portugal, which is a wine country where wines traditionally consist of blends, sees an increase in monovarietal wines and Touriga Nacional is the grape you will most often find for such red wines.
I was afraid I was going to get a heavy and jammy wine, not having had many good experiences with monovarietals of Touriga Nacional. But this one was not heavy at all! The nose was very appealing with blackberry aromas and blackcurrant. The remarkable thing in this wine was the freshness and balance, with an acidic backbone that would prove to be the defining characteristic of all their reds. Lots of fruit, very smooth and velvety. There is also quite a bit of tannin here, but it’s ripe and will soften perfectly with ageing. Very good effort!

Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

Very different wine, riper than the Touriga, with dark plum in the nose. The freshness kept this wine attractive enough, and ripe tannins gave this a bit of backbone. Probably not a wine that I would recognize as Cabernet if I was served this blind, but not a bad wine.

Tinto Reserva 2014, DOP Palmela

This is the wine I came for, the Castelão, and it did not disappoint me. One sniff was enough to immediately realize that this was a different register. From the attractiveness of the fruit in the previous wines to a more elegant nose with flowery notes and fruit that tends to be more red than black fruit. Nice tension in the wine and precise, yet ripe tannins that guarantee the ageing potential. I like the restraint and the somewhat cool character of this wine. Perhaps I met the perfect girl after all at Quinta do Piloto.

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Bravo Quinta do Piloto!

Bacalhôa Vinhos :art, art and art. And wine…

My first visit to a winery during my holidays in Portugal was to Bacalhôa, located on the peninsula of Setubal, just under Lisbon. Setubal is especially known in Portugal for producing Moscatel, sweet fortified wine. The grape is known in France under the name of Muscat. But there are also still wines being made in the region, either as regional wines, or under the DOP Palmela.

Bacalhoa has much more in their portfolio, however, than regional wines and Moscatel. They have wines from seven different regions of Portugal. The winery was created in 1978 by the family Scoville, but it was José “Joe” Berardo, a businessman/stock trader/art collector, who bought Bacalhôa in 1998 and brought it to its current position of being one of the biggest wine producing companies in Portugal. The roots of Bacalhôa lie in Azeitão, at the Palácio da Bacalhôa, which is where I started the guided tour, together with a dozen or so other tourists. There was a second group doing a tour at the same time, just to give you an indication of the size of this venture and the amount of people it attracts. In Europe wine tourism is still not so developed as in the US for example, so I was even more surprised to see such a machinery at Bacalhôa.

So, the Palace : it dates back to the 15th century and changed hands many times. The first wine was issued in 1978 and you can still buy their first cabernet sauvignon, that was produced in 1979. 5000€ for a 10L bottle will do the trick. If it’s still drinkable is another question. IMG_1797I will save you all the details of who owned the palace (Portuguese kings amongst others), and just share a couple of pictures instead because the palace is really beautiful. It’s impressive how it was renovated by the way. We saw a few pictures of the state it was in at some point, and the difference couldn’t be bigger. It was basically a ruin. With José Berardo being an avid art collector, it’s now not only beautifully renovated, but also full of paintings, statues and other artefacts.

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The poolhouse

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The vineyard behind the palace used for Bacalhôa’s flagship wine

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Co-owners of the Palacio

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I like art. Seriously, I do!

When the visit of the palace was over, I had good hope that we would finally hear something about Bacalhôa’s wines and get a sip as well. Instead of that, we now went to José Berardo’s private art collection, which is 3km further, next to the wineshop. I was on the extended tour…

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Bacalhôa’s art collection

Even though the collection is a perhaps a bit eclectic, there are beautiful pieces there. I particularly enjoyed the art nouveau and deco furniture in the collection. I even got to see original pieces of Victor Horta, the Belgian art nouveau artist. When we then did the room with African art, I really started wondering a bit if I was in a winery or a museum.

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Art

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More art

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Belgian art (Victor Horta)

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More Belgian art! (William Sweetlove)

But then! Finally barrels…IMG_1833Here’s where the Moscatels age. The region of Setubal actually has two different Moscatels, the ordinary one and then there is the Moscatel Roxo, of which there are only 40ha in the region. Bacalhoa has 5 of them. It is a natural mutation of the Moscatel and  is supposed to be sweeter and more concentrated.

We then also got to see the vat room for the still wines, which was very atmospheric, with very little light and azulejos, the typical Portuguese tiles, on the wall.

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Aha! We are in a winery after all…

Luckily we then moved on to the tasting part. As I mentioned, Bacalhôa has a big portfolio, with wines from all over Portugal, but in this tour, you only get to taste three. Luckily our guide was in a good mood and threw in a fourth. Here they are :

Quinta da Bacalhoa 2016, Vinho Regional Peninsula de SetubalIMG_1839This is the estate’s white, made of Sauvignon, Sémillon and Alvarinho. The nose was rather simple, with citrus, and a touch of honey. The wine was round and ripe, despite the use of sauvignon, which normally gives freshness. Unfortunately, not much freshness here and a bit simple on the whole. Price : 16,99€.

Quinta da Garrida, Reserva 2014, DaoIMG_1840A wine from their estate in the Dão, made of Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz. A rather lactic nose, cherry yoghurt, and very peppery. Again a round wine, with the cherries playing the main role here. Not very complex and lacking depth. This is all about the fruit. Price : 7,49€.

Moscatel de Setubal 2015, DOP Moscatel de SetubalIMG_1842The entry-level Moscatel of Bacalhoa. Very dark in color. The guide explained that they use the must of red grapes to give a bit of color to the wine. The wine is very aromatic, with loads of fennel and aneth, almost a bit like cough syrup. Despite that this is a sweet and fortified wine (17%), this is a pleasantly refreshing, balancing the candied fruit rather well. Good finish, with a bit of caramel lingering on your tongue. Really nice. Especially given the price of 4,99€…

Moscatel Roxo Superior 10 Anos, DOP Moscatel Roxo de SetubalIMG_1838The guide threw in a fourth wine, which was normally not included in the tour. I’m glad she did, because this was clearly from another level. Beautiful and complex nose, with marzipan, spices, honey. Just like in the basic Moscatel, there is a great acidic spinebone in this wine that carries the sweetness of the ripe fruit. The density here is remarkable, with the wine really coating your palate, without becoming gooey. This is a delicious nectar, that nestles on your tongue to stay there very comfortably for a while. Price : 19,99€.

The Moscatel Roxo was a nice ending to a long visit. I didn’t expect the Moscatels to be so attractive. I have tasted several Muscat based fortified wines, from the Languedoc for example, but most came across as sugary and simple. Here they really have more to offer than that, and they are very well made, nicely balanced. I was less impressed by Bacalhôa’s still wines, however. And it’s particularly the white estate wine that raises a few questions in my mind. It’s not very clear to me why you would want to make Sauvignon blanc in a hot region like Setubal. The wine wasn’t bad, but if I want a Sauvignon blanc, then I will look for it in Bordeaux, or the Loire, depending on the style I want.

Anyhow, Bacalhôa should be commended for preserving the patrimony of the region. The Palacio was really beautiful. And for art lovers, there is plenty to revel in. If you go for the wines, do check out the Moscatels. The Roxo was the best Moscatel I had in the region.