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Portugal: The New 2016 Whites and 2015 Reds

“Portugal: The New 2016 Brancos and 2015 Tintos – and Much More”

This is a large issue with a lot of different regions and vintages on tap, but our two focal points are the new 2016 Brancos and 2015 Tintos. Let’s start with the whites, the traditional focus of our August issue. There have been many fresh, unoaked 2016s reviewed already, of course, but this group includes many bigger boys, typically oaked. After tasting a fair share, the conclusion is easy: The 2016 Branco harvest is very good—another fine white vintage. Compared to recent years, I’d say it is probably a step behind 2015. They are certainly better than the 2014s and probably close to the 2013s, maybe a bit better, maybe a little behind. That last is too close to call at the moment until we see more of them in bottle and settled down. For the record, that is not an insulting comparison. I think 2013 is an underrated white vintage. The whites have been excellent, and they have suffered a bit in reputation because the reds were a lot trickier. Of course, in many places in Portugal, the whites often tend to be more consistent than other wines. They mostly are harvested earlier, avoiding all or most of the rainfall problems that often plague harvests in places like Douro (e.g., 2013).
Álvaro Castro (Pellada) and daughter Maria. Castro produced many stunning wines this issue.

Usual disclaimer: There are many different terroirs and, of course, producers sometimes have varying success in managing them. Just focusing on terroir, though, if you are talking about whites made around Beja and comparing them to Portalegre and Bairrada as if there is no difference, generalizations begin to shatter. So, while you should take the generalization with a grain of salt, it does have some use. There is no doubt overall in Portugal, for instance, that vintages like 2008 and 2009 each have a certain style that you find in many places. That style will at least be consistent within a producer’s lineup. If you’re ordering blind off of a restaurant list, you can almost always count on the 2008s to be crispier and fresher than the 2009s from the same producer (which typically will be deeper), comparing apples to apples.

So, it is no surprise that the 2016 vintage is another success. The only question is how big of a success, but the style difference may be more important. It is stylistically different than the 2015s, last year’s great Branco vintage. I do prefer the 2015s still, for that style, balance and consistency. The 2016s are fatter and fruitier while the 2015s, it seems to me, are crisper and better focused. They mostly have more energy. That’s all relative—they both do everything pretty well. When I related that impression on energy and acidity to producers, some (not all) defended the 2016s and said that on paper, the 2016s had just as much acidity as the 2015s. That may be so—on paper—but perceptibly, it is not always the case. The fatter 2016s do not seem to show the acidity or focus as easily. Their fruitiness seems to change the perceptible balance. Luis Pato said they are two different vintages and that 2015 has more acidity because it was less dry than 2016. He added, “2016 is more approachable now because [it is] less acidic but more flavored…keeping a fine aging…for 15 years.” That, more or less, seemed to be the case to me, although we will see how that aging part goes. Personally, I think the 2015s will age a little better.

Plus, in several places, like cooler Vinho Verde, it was also true that the 2015s were simply more consistent. Several producers, like João Cabral de Almeida (Calçada, Camaleão and others) indicated numerous challenges in the vineyards in 2016. It worked out better for some than others. Some were just as good if not better than 2015. Many were not. (Most of the Vinho Verde reviews are in the April and June issues, although there are a few remnants left for this issue.)

So, for my part, I still think the 2015s are better, even if not everyone agrees. Some producers now lean to their 2016s (Rita Marques of Conceito, for instance), while others maintained their preference for the 2015s (Jorge Moreira of Poeira, Real Companhia Velha and La Rosa, for instance). The usual disclaimer again applies: people have different terroirs and make different decisions on when to pick and the like, with varying degrees of success. Generalizations are just that—there are plenty of wines that can go either way in either vintage. Overall, the 2016s are very good, full-bodied, round and fruit forward. They have enough freshness to support the fine mid-palate depth. They won’t disappoint.

The 2015 Tintos

The more interesting part of this article comes down to the 2015 reds. I’ve been reviewing the lesser wines for a while now and have really liked their intensity of flavor, but this article features a good look at many of the upper-level reds, sometimes not yet bottled. Those are just previews, but note that I do have a protocol. They must be: A) out of barrel and in tank, B) the final blend, and C) awaiting bottling set for the near future—anywhere from a couple of days to a few weeks.

This looks like a consumer-friendly vintage that will still have some distinction. As I said with the Ports, this is a year when the wines have the glorious intensity of flavor that this vintage seemed to produce effortlessly. Plus, the flavor does not come from overripe grapes or jammy fruit. The acidity in this year makes the wines sing. They are remarkably fresh and impossible to dislike. The freshness lifts the fruit and defines it, carving out precise images. They are pretty delicious and fun to drink. A classic example might be V. Puro’s 2015 Aliás red from Bairrada. Take all those adjectives and apply them there.

The downside, if you want to call it that, is that they are a bit lighter in style overall. In that regard, plus the acidity, they reminded me most of the 2008s, but I think the overall quality is better, noting both their intensity of flavor and concentration levels. If, in the grander scheme of things, it is not the most concentrated vintage, then that is something that will affect some wines more than others, depending on the producer’s terroir and decisions. In some areas, it may be no issue at all. Many seemed quite typical in varying terroirs. If, as a group, they are a bit lighter, they are not thin, and they should do well.

Regarding aging, they will be approachable on the younger side. They should still age well, too—most have the concentration to hold up, and they are beautifully balanced. People have a tendency to underestimate the ability of lighter but fresher wines to age well.
Some Douro folks—Dirk Niepoort on a lazy Sunday after presenting many brilliant 2015s; Jorge Alves, Pedro Guedes & Celso Pereira, collectively representing Quinta do Tedo, Quinta Nova, Vértice & Quanta Terra, clowning around with me after a long tasting

The defining characteristic of the vintage, though, should be that they simply taste great. It is some of the most delicious young fruit that I have seen in a new vintage. Remember, always, that fruit is fresh, not jammy. That is what makes this vintage work. It seems like a general success in the country. I loved what I saw. If it is not always a great vintage—some cellar time will shed more light—it is a very good one. Many wines from multiple regions I visited were pretty terrific. Any number of producers—Wine & Soul, Van Zeller, Niepoort and many others—had terrific vintages, about as good as any they have had.

The 2015s do not arrive with a lot of hype, but they look solid. Time will tell whether the wines here turn into anything very special and complex in the cellar. At the upper level, I think they will. I predict, though, that you will not ever regret buying them. At the lower level, well, the regular Tintos are pretty delicious. Sure, try to keep your hands off of them. Good luck with that.
Some Dão stars on tap: Julia Kemper; Peter Eckert (Quinta d. Marias), José Lourenço (Roques); José Perdigão, Vanessa Chrystie

Regional focus on Dão and Alentejo, apart from Douro

This issue also has an unusual number of producers from Dão and Alentejo. As I say every year, Portugal is not a synonym for Douro. There are plenty of famous Douro producers here—Van Zeller, Duorum, Niepoort, Fojo, Crasto, Wine & Soul, Portal, Symington, Quinta Nova, Vallado, La Rosa and many others—but there are plenty of fine wines being made in other places, as this report proves once again. In Dão, for instance, we have an array of terrific producers, like Álvaro Castro (Pellada), the poster boy image for this issue, with daughter Maria, plus Roques, Julia Kemper, Falorca and Lemos, among many others. It is quite a collection, with many wonderful performances.

In this region, by the way, it is easy to buy the lower-level wines and get wines that age and taste great for modest money. The freshness the region tends to deliver preserves the wines well. The wines have a cooler feel. There is also a bit of a late release fetish. Many of the big reds on tap tend to be 2012s and 2013s. I liked the 2015s that were there. Xito Olazabal (M.O.B., in Dão) added that 2015 might be the best vintage in 30 years. Some of the Alentejo contingent, clockwise from top left: Miguel and Luis Louro (for Mouro & Monte Branco); Susana Esteban; David Baverstock of Esporáo; David Ferreira of Mouchão (yes, the Portuguese are famed for wearing white shirts to wine tastings and I mock them regularly for it)

From North to…Alentejo

In Alentejo, there is also a glistening lineup—Mouro, Mouchão, Luis Duarte, Dona Maria, Fitapreta, Malhadinha Nova, Cartuxa, J.P. Ramos, Cortes de Cima, Esporão, Rocim and many more. Among the “many more” are three producers representing Portalegre, Alentejo’s hot new subregion: Susana Esteban, Howard’s Folly (a.k.a. Hill Valley) and Rui Reguigna. The Symingtons just bought property in Portalegre but are not producing yet. This still-obscure subregion—a high-altitude and cooler area—is a very different view of Alentejo and looks like it is going to take off.
João Portugal Ramos and daughter Filipa—instead of just putting him with Alentejo (his original and most famous operation), let’s give him his own photo to represent the “many other regions” section of this article, since he has operations in Tejo (Falua), Vinho Verde, Beiras (Foz de Arouce) and Douro (Duorum), too. These are Alentejo vines depicted, though.

Finally, there are many other regions represented as well, if not quite in as much detail. You get names like Luis Pato and Dirk Niepoort (listed under Quinta de Baixo) in Bairrada (yes, he’s here for Douro, too, not to mention Vinho Verde and Dão), Chocapalha in Lisboa and several “last blasts of summer” in Vinho Verde besides Niepoort, including João Cabral de Almeida, Agrimota/Calçada, Casa de Cello (also here for Dão) and Santiago, with many others from around the country.

This issue has a great group of producers and wines, with everything from superstars to values.

Top rating wines, soon to be available at Vino Veritas:

Lemos and Van Zeller – CV 2015 | RP95-97
Wine & Soul – Pintas 2015 | RP95-97
Niepoort – Batuta | RP94-96
Niepoort – Quinta de Baixo – Gonçalves Faria | RP95