Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Passion of Portugal: Esporão and Murças

I have heard a clarion call for the wines of Portugal, those intriguing wines which seduce with their tantalizing aromas and flavors. Will you heed that call as well?

The delicious still wines of Portugal remain, in large part, unknown to many wine consumers. Though there has been growing publicity about the quality of these wines, that growth remains slow, which is a boon to Portuguese wine lovers as those wines often offer an excellent value. You may not be familiar with the names of their indigenous grapes, their wine regions or producers, but you should take a chance on their wines. Sample a few of them and you will quickly realize the attraction. Let their exotic aromas and flavors transform you into a believer.

As a Portuguese wine lover, I was thrilled to recently receive an invitation to attend a special Portuguese wine dinner at the famed Le Cirque in New York City.  Chef Miguel Vaz Oliviera (pictured above) of Herdade do Esporão, a large winery in the Alentejo region, received an invitation to come to Le Cirque as a guest chef, a great honor. So, Chef Oliviera created a Portuguese inspired menu, based on several traditional recipes, and selected the accompanying wines for a crowd of about sixty or so attendees.

Though the establishment of the Esporão winery is more modern, the Herdade estate, in the Alentejo region, actually extends back to 1267, when the estate's boundaries were first established. About 700 years later, in 1973, Joaquim Bandeira and Dr. José Alfredo Parreira Holtreman Roquette bought the estate, naming it Finagra, with plans to create a winery. The winery was eventually built in 1987 and ten years later, they expanded operations to include the production of olive oil. In 2009, the winery was renamed Esporão S.A., and they have also begun to produce wines in the Douro region under the Quinta dos Murças brand. The Herdade estate consists of about 4500 acres with 1115 acres under vine and 200 acres with olive groves.

I have previously tasted and enjoyed wines from Esporão so I especially looked forward to this six-course dinner, each course paired with a wine from Esporão or Murças. During the dinner, two related "secrets" were also revealed about Portuguese wines, secrets which provide a revealing insight into the nature of those wines. And I'll share those secrets with my readers.

The first general secret to Portuguese wines is blending, using a mix of different grapes to produce a single wine, whether red, white or rosé. Each grape brings its own particular characteristics to the wine, so hopefully the mix becomes greater than any individual grape on its own. Though you will find single varietal wines in Portugal, blends are far more common and they certainly can be quite compelling.

The second related secret pertains to the Douro region, where the key there is field blends. A field blend is a vineyard where different grape vines co-exist and intermingle together, and you may not even know the specific grapes that grow together. Thus, when you harvest those grapes, you already have a blend, though you generally don't get to manage the proportions of each specific grape. This can create a very intriguing wine.

Neither of these secrets is unique to Portugal, but they are important elements of wine making in that country, helping to create a Portuguese identity.

The first course of the dinner was a Fava Bean Salad (baby fava beans) with pieces of lightly smoked sausages and herbs. I am not a fan of fava beans, though others at the table loved them, but I very much enjoyed the sausage. This dish was paired with a 2010 Esporão Verdelho, which is produced from 100% Verdelho and sees only stainless steel. After swirling the wine in my glass, I sniffed at the aroma, immediately captivated by its compelling and complex nose. The taste was equally as enticing, with delightful flavors of pear, grapfefruit, and even hints of banana. It was crisp and tasty, with a satisfying finish and would be a great summer wine. And at about $12, it is a great value too. A very fine start to the evening.

Next up, a dish of Acorda de Alho (Portuguese garlic soup) with a slice of goat cheese and coriander infused olive oil. The garlicky broth was flavorful and paired well with the creamy goat cheese, and I could have easily devoured a second bowl of this soup. With this course, we drank the 2010 Esporão Defesa Rosé ($14), a blend of Syrah and Aragones. The nose was mild with some subtle red fruit aromas, but that red fruit, especially cherry and raspberry became more prominent on the palate. It was a dry wine, with good acidity, some complexity and was a pleasure to drink. It was neither Provence nor California in style, rather maintaining its own identity. Another perfect summer wine.

The next course was Farinheira, a smoked sausage, with organic scrambled eggs and a fresh herb and shoots salad. This was scrumptious, and would even be a perfect breakfast dish. The smokiness of the sausage was enticing and went very with the rest of the dish. It was paired with the 2009 Esporão Reserva White ($14), their flagship white wine, a blend of three indigenous grapes: Roupeiro, Arinto and Antao Vaz. About 20% of the wine was fermented in American and French oak, as they wanted to keep the wine crisp and approachable. I found the wine to have a delightful nose of tropical fruits.  On the palate, the wine had more melon and pear flavors with hints of nuts and smokiness, which complemented the sausage. It was a more full bodied wine, with good acidity and a lengthy and satisfying finish. For the price, you are getting a lot of character in this wine.  

The Bacalhau Esporão, salt cod, was accompanied by panadeira, layered potatoes cooked with Esperao Extra Virgin Olive Oil, garlic and dried oregano. The flaky cod was delicious, with a nice salty kick, and the potatoes were superb, with a crunchy exterior concealing the soft and fluffy interior layers. The wine pairing was the 2008 Quinta dos Murças Reserva Red ($45) from the Douro region. The estate dates back to the 1700s and the wine is a field blend of old vines. Only about five of the grapes in the blend are identifiable, and there are maybe 15-20 other unknown grapes in the blend. What a fascinating and mysterious field blend.

This might have been my favorite wine of the evening, the type of wine I feel is typical of the best of Portugal. It had an enticing and exotic nose, with an earthy and spicy smell mixed in with blackfruit.  On the palate, it delivered on the promises of its nose, with a complex melange of earth, spice, vanilla, blackfruit and even mild hints of herbality. The tannins were moderate and the finish was long and pleasing. This is a wine to slowly savor, relishing its complexity, as well as a perfect wine for wild boar, lamb, or a juicy steak. Consequently, I didn't think this wine worked well with the bacalhau, the wine seemingly to overpower the more subtle flavors of the fish. I did save some of this wine for the next course, and it was a much better pairing.    

The Assado Esporão were pork cheeks slowly braised in red wine and then roasted, served with creamy mushroom rice and chives. The moist and tender pork was excellent, and the rice added an intriguing earthy and umami element.  The pairing for this course was the 2007 Esperao Private Selection Red ($42), their flagship red wine which is a blend of Alicante Bouschet, Aragones and Syrah. It was the biggest wine of the evening, with strong aromatics and more ripe fruit flavors, including plum, black cherry and blackberry. The fruit was complemented by a mix of mushroom, spice, vanilla, and toast. This is a meat wine, perfect for a hearty BBQ or a slow roasted prime rib.

Finally, we ended on a sweet note with the Sericaia, with confit plum puree and cinnamon ice cream. Though the menu stated the sericaia was a "creamy souffle like preparation,"  it was more of a cinnamon cake, and checking online it appears that is more the case. It was quite tasty, a fluffy and sweet cake with the creamy ice cream and fresh plum slices.  With this yummy dessert, we drank the Quinta dos Murças 10 Year Old Tawny Port. Now, my personal preference is for 20+ year old Ports, so though I enjoyed this Port it did not thrill me as it might some others.

Overall, this was a superb wine dinner event, with some amazing food and wine, great people and lots of fun. It reinforced my love for Portuguese wines, and I cannot recommend enough that you expand your palate to include the fine still wines of Portugal. A good place to start would be with the wines of Esporão and Murças, especially their value wines.  In addition, consider dining at some local Portuguese restaurants to enjoy their cuisine, though don't forget to accompany your meal with some Portuguese wines.


Jason Phelps said...

Thank you so much for the detailed coverage. Count me in the group with limited experience with wines from Portugal. I will certainly be taking these recommendations in hand for my next virtual visit to an old-world wine region!

I don't know of another wine educator that consistently succeeds at expanding the knowledge of their readers by taking the road less traveled and sharing the trips!


Couves said...

That sounds like a really nice meal. (I *love* farinheira!) Esporao makes consistently good wines, at all prices. I had their new 100% petit verdot recently and it was quite good.

Anonymous said...

Veal cheek, not pork....