The old saying that “curiosity killed the cat” may be a cautionary tale for some, but when it comes to increasing my understanding of wine, it is certainly curiosity that is the driving force. It is this desire that spurs me to taste new wines from obscure regions, often made from unheralded grape varietals and little-known wineries. If all I tasted over and over was Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa or Shiraz from Barossa Valley or even my beloved Tempranillo from Rioja, I would simply be sailing through territory that my taste buds have already charted. In the business, we call this exercise acquiring a “cellar palate.” This is akin to a winemaker tasting his own wine without trying those made by others. After a while, your palate becomes stale and even worse, your view of what constitutes a well-made wine becomes myopic.
In Portugal, there is no shortage of indigenous grape varieties that the average wine drinker here in the US would be unacquainted with. It is estimated that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 different ones. Can you just imagine the simultaneously intriguing yet daunting task of sampling them all? Talk about attaining a brand new perspective on wine! Well, in reality, unless you work in the wine industry in Portugal, this kind of a wine tasting quest is virtually impossible. Furthermore, even if you did, it would probably be impractical.
But my goal here is to challenge you to taste something outside of your comfort zone. So what if instead of sampling 600 I invited you to just taste six? Seems more reasonable, right? Better yet, you can taste all of them in one bottle. Next time you’re at your favorite ABCFWS store location, walk over to the “Fortified Wine” section and pick up a bottle of Graham’s Six Grape Porto (currently $21.49) and examine the back label. Listed on the label will be Portugal’s most important red grape varieties: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Amarela and Tinto Cao.
Touriga Nacional is the star of the list and undoubtedly Portugal’s finest and most significant red wine grape. Its hallmarks are concentrated aromas and flavors reminiscent of black raspberries with aromatic and floral undertones. Touriga Francesa is a cousin of Touriga Nacional and the most widely planted variety. It features an intense grape flavor and floral perfume. Tinta Roriz is better known under its Spanish pseudonym, Tempranillo, and contributes its signature Black Cherry essence and balanced complexity. Tinta Barroca yields grapes with high natural sugars, while Tinta Amarela and Tinto Cao contribute deep color and bright acidity.
You can enjoy Porto with dark chocolate, walnuts or pecans, blue-veined cheeses or a nice cigar. Yes, it is a touch on the sweet side, a result of fortifying the wine with brandy during fermentation.
Not quite ready for dessert but would like to taste these grape varieties in a full-bodied, dry version? It just so happens that many of the best producers in Port country also make unfortified red wines that will pair nicely with grilled meats and vegetables (and blue-veined cheese too). I highly recommend Quinta do Vallado Vinho Tinto (currently $17.99) as a great example of this style.
The 2008 vintage has recently arrived in our stores and is an effective way to avoid the untimely onset of “cellar palate.”
Jim Greeley, Wine Supervisor, SW Florida