Judging the Wines of Argentina Awards 2017

The judges and trophy winners

The judges and trophy winners

For the last week I have been in Mendoza, Argentina. This is the heart of Argentina’s wine industry, and it is by far the largest region, with 156 000 hectares of vines, which constitutes 75% of the country’s vineyard area. This is a lot: it’s about the same as the area under vine in Australia, and a third again the size of South Africa’s vineyard surface.

I was here to judge the wines of Argentina awards. This year, the judges came from Argentina’s three key markets: the UK, China and the USA. We judged in teams of three, each jury with two internationals and a local judge.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Over all 594 wines were entered, and each wine was judged by two panels. If there was a discrepancy of more than a couple of points between the panels, then the wine was re-tasted by a team of seven to decide which medal it should be awarded. After this, there was a trophy round, where the gold-medal wines were all re-tasted in categories, to pick out the stars. This time, everyone tried all the wines.

I was judging with Martin Kaiser and Peter Granoff

I was judging with Martin Kaiser and Peter Granoff

Following the judging, we all took part in a seminar for winemakers, held at Salentein’s impressive Killken visitor centre and restaurant in the Uco Valley. Each of us was asked to talk for 10 minutes, covering our own domestic markets, and also talking about wines that we had chosen to show the Argentine winemakers. These were wines that had some success in our local markets, and which we felt had something to say to the locals who were interested in how they can succeed with exports. And then, after a lunch, there was the awards ceremony, where the results were revealed and trophies were handed out.

In total there were 12 international judges, four each from China and the UK, three from the USA, and Paz Levinson, who’s an Argentine sommelier based in Paris. [We are all listed here.] After spending a week together, we really gelled. It felt like a family. It often works this way: put wine people together and they will find common ground, and despite the differences in our backgrounds, ages and personality types, we really forged some nice connections. Everyone joined in and made an effort to get to know their fellow judges, and we even had a lovely late night drinking Fernet Branca and swapping road stories.

What about the judging process itself? The challenge here was dealing with stylistic preferences, and also for many, this was the first time they’d judged a lot of wines like this in blind conditions. Judging wine blind isn’t the easiest thing to do, and the temptation is to reward the outliers in any flight. Often, this means that ripe, sweet wines with lots of concentration do well. If you have judged quite a bit, you are less likely to fall for the big wines, and search for elegance and beauty instead. But there’s also the danger of rewarding wines for what they are not. A wine can’t get a high score just because it isn’t big and ripe. It has to have positive attributes of its own.

The problem comes when people have different notions of what constitutes quality in a wine. There are certainly cultural differences here. Some people have grown up in a culture that celebrates ripeness and concentration, and that doesn’t mind lavish use of new oak. It’s very difficult to come to a consensus if you have different notions of quality.

But it is possible to separate out preference and judgements of quality. Experienced judges are able to assess quality separately from liking, recognizing good examples of varieties or styles that they don’t care for. This is the real challenge of judging consistently and fairly. Being a judge doesn’t give you a chance to punish wine styles that you personally dislike.

I’m going to be publishing my notes and scores on the wines that I tasted over the next few days. It’s always interesting to compare these with scores, given blind, with the scores I give sighted. Most of the time I’m reassured that producers who make wines I like get good scores from me when I taste the wines blind. It’s a nice calibration exercise.

The results are here.

What are my views on Argentine wines after this tasting? There’s lots of reason for excitement, but there are still a few concerns. I really like the inexpensive wines, which generally show direct, pure fruit and give a lot of pleasure, with freshness. Malbec is very strong, Cabernet Franc is strong, Cabernet Sauvignon is struggling a bit. Blends of Malbec and Cabernet Franc are exciting. Bonarda is massively underrated and can yield delicious wines even in the warmer regions, such as east Mendoza. The Uco Valley produces some wonderful wines, while Patagonia shows a lot of potential. And the north also has the potential to make excellent high altitude reds. Whites haven’t really grabbed me yet, although I have tasted a few very good Chardonnays and some stunning Semillon (though not in this competition). I struggle to get excited by Torrents. The concerns? Still too much winemaking at the top end: picking late, making dense, sweetly fruited wines that are then given too much new oak. That’s not the future for Argentina. I also had a few nice sparkling wines here, which showed a lot of promise. I’ll be keeping tabs on Argentine wine over the next few years because it’s at an interesting phase.

Dinner at Edy's with some great people and wines, including some Argentine stars

Edy del Popolo

Edy del Popolo

Had a lovely dinner last night at Edy del Popolo’s place, along with Sebastien Zuccardi (winemaker), Paz Levinson (sommelier), David Bonomi (winemaker and partner of Edy in Per Se) and Andres Rosberg (sommelier). They opened a lot of very good bottles, including some very serious Argentine wines.

David Bonomi

David Bonomi

Andres Rosberg

Andres Rosberg

Paz Levinson and Sebastien Zuccardi

Paz Levinson and Sebastien Zuccardi

Sebastien Zuccardi

Sebastien Zuccardi

We began with some Chardonnay.

Catena Alta Historic Rows Chardonnay 2015 Mendoza, Argentina
I think this is referring to vine rows rather than epic historical disputes, and it’s a pretty sharp wine. Fresh and linear with subtle toast and spice, as well as some pear fruit, over the top of keen citrus notes. There’s a mineral egde, too. Very fine. 92/100

Viña Cobos Bramare Los Arbolitis Vineyard Chardonnay 2015 Mendoza, Argentina
14.7% alcohol. From Paul Hobbs. Very rich and intense, and also quite textural with pear, apple and spice notes. Mealy and detailed with some warmth and a slight sake quality. 91/100

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sandhi Rita’s Crown Chardonnay 2014 Santa Rita Hills, California
This is a lovely taut wine with matchstick reduction skilfully integrated into the linear pear, peach and citrus fruit. This is such an expressive wine with concentration, minerality and drive. Quite beautiful. 94/100

Zuccardi Valle d’Uco Fósil Chardonnay 2016 Mendoza, Argentina
From the 1400 m San Pablo vineyard, which has sand/silt over stones with chalk. 70% concrete egg, 30% third use 500 litre barrels, no malolactic. It’s a very cold site that is more silty with deeper soils that Gualtallary. This is linear, fruity and pure with tangerine and lemon notes, supported by keen acidity. Pure, focused and bright, with just a hint of green tea. This is quite special. 93/100

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Raveneau Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre 2014 Burgundy, France
Very linear and fine with pure citrus fruit. This has substance and concentration, yet it also shows real finesse. Lemony and fine with very subtle dairy notes in the background, and great potential for development. 95/100

Norton 1959

Norton 1959 white – almost 60 years old!

Norton White 1959 Argentina
This is a varietal Semillon, and it has aged incredibly well. As you might expect, it’s a full yellow/gold colour, but shows remarkable purity and freshness, with complex notes of pear, tangerine, marmalade and wax, with a lemony finish. Good acidity and structure, showing a citrus core with some warm, waxy, spicy notes. Just beautiful. Almost perfect. 96/100

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Zuccardi Poligonos del Valle d’Uco Cabernet Franc 2016 Mendoza, Argentina
This comes from San Pablo in the Uco Valley. Fermented in concrete and aged in 2500 litre foudres. So fresh and supple with fine red cherries. Elegant and fine with lovely precision and drinkability. I love this style of Cabernet Franc. 94/100

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Franck Balthazar Cornas Chaillot 2014 Northern Rhône, France
Such a taut, compact wine with tar, spice and black pepper. Reductive and intense with bold black fruits. Firm and compact, showing some tannic structure and good acidity. So primary but with amazing potential. 94/100

Until the late 1980s there were only two types of vineyards in Argentina: they were Criollas (the local mission varieties) or Francesas (French varieties imported later). So this next wine is named Francesa as it’s a field blend of French varieties.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Per Se Francesa 2014 Chacayes, Mendoza, Argentina
A field blend of Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, from Chacayes in the west of the Uco Valley. Very fresh yet with great concentration and fine-grained tannins. There are some pepper hints. Ripe and sleek yet fresh and balanced with some wild herb notes in the background. 94/100

Per Se La Craie 2014 Gualtallary, Mendoza, Argentina
This is Malbec (80%) and Cabernet Franc (20%), co-fermented, 1300 metres altitude. Aged for 16 months in second-fill oak. Concentrated and intense with bold, ripe, sweet black cherry and blackcurrant fruit. Fresh and expressive but with lovely concentrated, silky black fruits. Has a really fine, chalky, mineral edge to it. 95/100

Per Se La Craie 2012 Gualtallary, Mendoza, Argentina
65% Malbec, 35% Cabernet Franc, from a warmer vintage. Beautifully gravelly and chalky with sweet, fine red and black fruits. Very fresh and supple with nice tannic structure. A warm vintage, but this wine has lovely focus. There’s richness, but also complexity and freshness. 94/100

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Zuccardi Finca Piedra Infinita 2014 Paraje Altamira, Uco Valley, Argentina
This is a special vineyard, named after a poem called Piedra Infinita written in 1932, but also referring to the 1000 truckloads of stones that had to be removed when this vineyard was planted. It’s at 1100 metres in the Uco Valley. Lovely supple wine with fine gravel and spice notes as well as sleek black cherries. So pure with real freshness, showing expressive fruit. Lovely structure. 95/100

Viticultores de Gualtallary Volare de Flor NV
From David Bonomi and Edy del Popolo. This is very fine and expressive. It’s really complex with minerals, spice, citrus and some saltiness. Really spicy with a core of citrus fruit and minerals and complex herbs. Tangy. 94/100

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

Visiting the stunning monastery vineyard in Gualtallary, Mendoza, Argentina

 

Edgardo and Paz

Edgardo and Paz

Edgardo (Edy) del Popolo and Davi Bonomi took Paz Levinson and I out to see their Monasterio vineyard, high in Gualtallary, in the Uco Valley. Here, at 1500 metres on the ridge of a hill there are some amazing soils, with a very high proportion of active limestone. It’s this combination of extreme altitude plus special soils that make this potentially such a superb site. [Edy and David both have day jobs, but have collaborated to make the remarkable Per Se wines.]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The land is owned by a monastery, and when Edy first saw it he knew that he had to plant a vineyard here. In Gualtallary there are some areas with quite a bit of limestone, which in these very dry areas slowly accumulates in the soil as calcium carbonate is formed (see an explanation of this process here), and slowly increases in concentration because it isn’t washed through in the arid conditions. In these alluvial soils, with large river pebbles and stones, it accumulates on the surface, forming a white crust. This is the most obvious sign, but aside from these white stones, you also get some accumulation in the soil, and frequently a white pan forms.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Normally in the region the areas near the river have no calcium carbonate in the soil, but as you move further away it begins to show up: it accumulates over time. The typical range in the area is 0-6%, but in Edy’s vineyard, it is 14-40%, which is an enormous concentration.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But it’s not just limestone. As well as the chalky bits, there are a wide range of other bits and pieces in the soil, including some soft, decomposed granitic stones that just crumble in your hand, different sorts of clay, and small and large alluvial stones. It’s pretty interesting.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The bush vine part of the vineyard

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

He’s planted 1.5 hectares already, with Malbec plus some Cabernet Franc. The vines have so far had two harvests. They are individually staked, and in a small part of the vineyard they are left as bush vines. Edy and David visit three times a week and do most of the work themselves. Edy says that this way you get to know the vines: this is the way viticulture should be, he maintains. With a vertically shoot positioned vineyard you can lose this connection.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

They are planting another hectare and a half, and have been ripping down to 1.5 metres before planting, removing lots of stones in the process, which the monks have piled up according to their size with a view to using them as material to help construct a winery. They also have a small vineyard on their property, but the soils there are very different, with deeper sandy loams.

There is irrigation here, but in 2016 it wasn’t needed: there was enough rain to dry grow the vines. This is their goal, but in some years irrigation will be needed. Weed control is manual, but they are not organic or biodynamic. Yields so far have been very low, but they are thrilled with the wines that they have so far made. They have a very distinctive personality, apparently, which is what you’d hope for when so much care has been taken establishing this vineyard.

Visiting the CARO winery in Mendoza, Argentina

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

CARO is the joint project between Eric de Rothschild (Lafite) and Nicolas Catena. Lafite had already begun a joint venture in Chile (Los Vascos) when Baron Eric met Nicolas, and he was quite surprised by the quality of the Catena wines. The two decided to start a joint venture – these were all the rage at the time – and so CARO was born, with the first wine released in 2000. The idea was to bring together the two grapes that were so important to each family: Eric’s beloved Cabernet Sauvignon that forms the backbone of Lafite, and Catena’s famous Malbec.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In 2003 they bought what is now the barrel ageing cellar and winery for the CARO project. It’s now a beautifully renovated brick building and cellar, that was part of the historic Escorihuela Gascón winery in Mendoza City (that winery is also owned by Catena, and houses Mallman’s well known 1884 restuarant). This was built between 1884 and 1895. 2003 also saw the release of a second wine, Amancaya, which has since been followed by a third, a straight Malbec called Aruma. Fernando Buscema is in charge of this project, and he’s doing a great job.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This is a winery project, rather than a vineyard one, and the grapes are sourced from vineyards in the first zone of Mendoza and also the Uco Valley. The wines are impressive: pick the Amancaya for drinking now, and lay the Caro down: it needs time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Aruma Malbec 2016 Mendoza, Argentina
First vintage 2016. No oak. 25 000 case production. Fresh and supple with lovely bright fruit. Pure, focused black cherries and blackberries. Some subtle meat and olive notes, but the key theme is pure fruit, and it’s a lovely balanced wine. 91/100

amancaya

Amancaya 2015 Mendoza, Argentina
60% Malbec and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, half in barrel and half in concrete vats. Retail US$22, 30 000 case production. Very fresh and supple with some sweetness to the focused black cherry and blackberry fruit. Lovely freshness here with a bit of spice and a hint of coffee. Lovely weight and drinkability. 93/100

CARO wine

CARO 2015 Mendoza, Argentina
80% Malbec, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, matured in oak, 80% new. 3000 cases in this vintage. $65 retail. Rich and quite dense with chocolatey, spicy notes and sleek black fruits. Rich ad powerful with great concentration of black cherry and blackberry fruit. So powerful and polished but not over the top. Currently carrying some oak but it will integrate. 93/100

 

 

The wines of Luis Pato, Bairrada star

luis pato

Luis Pato is perhaps the most famous face in Bairrada, even though he’s had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the regional authorities, that led him for a time to drop ‘Bairrada’ and move to labelling his wines as Beiras, the larger regional appellation.

Pato is known as a modernist, but he makes wines that also integrate the best traditions of the region. One of the keys to making more serious wines from Baga, the red grape of the region, is reducing yields. ‘Baga was producing too much and only made great wines two years out of ten,’ he says. ‘Now we have cut the yields we can make great wine eight years out of ten.’ He also thinks there is a great future for sparkling wines of the region.

Luis was the first in the region to do a green harvest, in 1990. When he started doing it, his workers were distressed. ‘He is crazy,’ they said. ‘He is against God.’ Now he harvests Baga for sparkling wine three weeks earlier than picking for reds, from the same vineyard.

This was a great chance to look at current releases, and also to look back and see just how well some of these wines can age, red and white. We also got to compare the effect of sandy soils versus chalk and clay on Baga, through the lens of his Pe Franco wines made from ungrafted vines.

Luis Pato Vinha Pan Espumante 2015 Bairrada
This is made with no added sulfites, 100% Baga from chalky/clay soils, zero dosage. Intense and citrussy, and a bit sherbetty with a zesty palate and good acidity. Lovely purity and drive here, and a bit salty. 90/100

Luis Pato Informal Baga de Vinha Pan Espumante 2013
This is a pink fizz from Baga. Lively and taut with raspberry, strawberry and some herbs. Shows lively spiciness with nice intensity and lovely fruit. 89/100

Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas Branco 2016 Bairrada
This is 50% Bical from chalky/clay soil, 25% Sercial from sandy soils and 25% Sercialinho from sandy soils. Crisp and intense. Youthful with lovely pear and citrus fruit, and a hint of pithiness. Very pure with good acidity. 92/100

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas Branco 2014 Bairrada
Fresh, lively and intense with crisp citrus fruit. Mineral and taut with nice density. Intense with good acid drive. 92/100

Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas Branco 2009 Bairrada
Bical chalky clay and Sercial and Sercialino from sandy soils. No oak. Some melon and pear fruit with fine toast and some softness on the mid-palate. Nice breadth here with a delicacy, and well integrated acidity. 90/100

Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas Branco 2007 Bairrada
Yellow/gold in colour. Lively, spicy and citrussy with some toasty notes. Has some butterscotch and also a lively spicy acidity. Lovely crystalline fruits quality here. Showing some evolution but still retaining freshness. 90/100

Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas Branco 2004 Bairrada
Full yellow/gold character. Toast, spice and nuts with some crystalline citrus fruits and a lovely depth, with good acidity. Nice weight with some development, and some savoury detail. Some singed lemon peel and marmalade characters here. 92/100

Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas Branco 2001 Bairrada
Only sandy soils for all varieties, fermented in new French oak. Nutty and oxidative, and deep in colour. Has raisins, herbs and the fruit has gone. Some baked apple notes. 85/100

Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas Branco 2000 Bairrada
Spicy and nutty with nice depth. Has citrus intensity, with some tangerine and lemon notes, and some citrus pith under the fruit. Vivid and weighty with some development but also some life. Lovely nutty/waxy detail. 90/100

Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas Branco 1998 Bairrada
Very interesting with nuts, spice, a hint of raisin, some nectarine, marmalade and lemons. Has good acidity underpinning the fruit. Ageing really nicely, with complex nutty depth and just a hint of mushroom. Beguiling. 92/100

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas Branco 1991 Bairrada
Orange colour. This is from sandy soils and was fermented in new oak. Powerful and spicy with marmalade, herbs and apricot flavours. Very intense and still alive with some spicy citrus notes. Quite beautiful. 93/100

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Luis Pato Vinha Formal 2016 Bairrada
Bical with 30% Serial, chalky clay soil. Lively with nice precision and a bit of pith. Really intense with nice lemon, pear and spice notes. Juicy and focused. Lovely. 92/100

Luis Pato Vinha Formal 2010 Bairrada
Pure Bical from chalky/clay soil, fermented and aged in new French oak. Complex, slightly smoky, spicy, citrus fruit nose. Vivid, intense and citrussy on the palate with lovely texture and weight. Shows lovely weight and intensity with fine spicy complexity and good acidity. Very fine. 94/100

Luis Pato Vinha Formal 2008 Beiras
Vivid, spicy, crystalline citrus fruits nose. Very fine toasty hints. The palate is fresh and intense with vivid lemony fruit and some lovely spicy marmalade detail. Pithy, spicy, complex and intense with great freshness and lovely acidity. Lovely wine. 94/100

Luis Pato Vinha Formal 2004 Beiras
Yellow/gold colour. This has lots of interest: there is a smoky, mineral undercurrent to the spicy lemon and pear fruit, with a hint of apple and fine toasty hints, as well as some subtle mushroomy hints. Lovely wine. 93/100

Luis Pato Vinha Formal 2003 Beiras
Surprisingly fresh for such a warm year, with nice acidity, some apple notes, a bit of spice, and vivid citrus and pear fruit. Good concentration and depth with fine spiciness. The acid core is what makes this wine work so well. Lovely. 93/100

Luis Pato Vinha Formal 2001 Beiras
This is quite rich and developed with some raisin hints, some baked apple and a bit of lemon curd sweetness. Attractive in a sort of mellow maturity. 89/100

Luis Pato Vinha Formal 1999 Bairrada
Bold and intense with sweet apple and pear with nice citrus and spice. Shows some development with the appley richness, but also has a bit of freshness, with nuts and good acidity. Very attractive. 90/100

Luis Pato Vinha Formal 1998 Bairrada
Full yellow colour. This is beautiful: textured and creamy with lovely smooth, slightly saline crystalline citrus fruits with some melon richness, and hints of nuts and toast. Very fine with lovely depth: this is ageing so well. 93/100

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This was an interesting comparison. It was looking at Baga grown on ungrafted vines in two vineyards 9 km apart. The Valadas comes from chalky clay soil while the straight Pé Franco comes from sandy soils. The Baga from sandy soils shows more acid and tannin so needs more time in new French oak, while the chalky clay makes wines that are much more smoky. ‘If I put this in new oak, people say it is too oaky,’ says Luis. So he uses used oak for this wine.

Luis Pato Pé Franco Valadas Vineyard 2015 Bairrada
Supple, fresh and detailed with lovely freshness and appealing raspberry and red cherry fruit. Has lovely acidity and such a supple, elegant character. The tannins are well integrated. Lovely elegance and precision. 95/100

Luis Pato Pé Franco Quinta de Riberinho 2015 Bairrada
Complex with some sweet spicy oak hiding under sweet but fresh cherry and berry fruit. Ripe, intense and firm with grippy tannins. It still hasn’t integrated the oak. There’s lots of potential but it’s tannic now. 93/100

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Luis Pato Vinha Barossa 2015 Bairrada
Very elegant, supple and fine. Sweet and juicy with lovely red cherry fruit and a bit of spice. There’s a silky texture with a bit of tannic grip, and smooth pure fruit. Very juicy and lively. 94/100

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas Tinto 1988 Bairrada
Earth, spice and tar and some grip. Earthy and intense with some tannins. Rasping, grippy and firm with nice fruit still. 93/100

Luis Pato Vinha Pan 2015 Bairrada
Very floral and expressive with amazing cherry fruit aromas. The palate is so pretty and pure with red cherries and raspberries. Silky and expressive with nice purity. Has some stony spiciness under the fruit. 94/100

Luis Pato Vinha Pan 1999 Bairrada
This was a difficult vintage but the wine has developed beautifully. Earthy and spicy with nice density. Grippy yet elegant with good structure. Drinking beautifully now. 94/100

Luis Pato Vinha Pan 1997 Bairrada
Highly aromatic and developed with beguiling leafy green, spicy, earthy, malty cherry fruits. The palate is harmonious and elegant with smooth, sweet, subtly leafy earthy fruit. Very smooth and delicious. Lovely stuff but drink up. 93/100

Luis Pato Vinha Barossa 1997 Bairrada
Lively, spicy and intense with vivid raspberries and cherries, and some freshness. Has earth and tar, and a hint of plummy bitterness on the finish. Developed but still with some grip and some edges. 93/100

Luis Pato Vinha Pan 1996 Bairrada
Vivid and supple with nice spiciness. There’s some finesse to this as well as good structure still. Fine spices and attractive fruit characters. 93/100

The wines of Quinta das Bágeiras, Bairrada

bageiras

Mário Sérgio’s Quinta das Bágeiras is one of the leading wineries in Bairrada. He created the domaine in 1989 from 12 hectares of vines he got from his grandfather, and grew it by a further 16 to its current size of 28 hectares spread over 10 different vineyard plots.

The wine style here marries a modern approach with a traditional one. All the grapes are hand-picked and the reds are fermented in lagares with wild yeasts, and the sparkling wines are all zero dosage.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Quinta das Bágeiras Bruto Natural Rosé 2015
100% Baga. Fresh, tangy and bright with great acidity. Red cherries and lemons with a bit of grapefruit pith. Lovely precision here with a bit of refreshing tartness. Has real intensity. 90/100

Quinta das Bágeiras Super Reserva Rosé Brut Nature 2011
This has 12 months skin contact and is aged on lees for a long time. Complex, dense and intense with notes of herbs and spice. Has some subtle tea and red cherry character, as well as a hint of dried leaves. Nicely complex and with lots of intensity. 91/100

Quinta das Bágeiras Super Reserva Brut Nature 2014
Maria Gomes and Bical, stainless steel fermentation, two years on lees. Zesty, pithy, citrussy nose is quite intense. Very lively and lemony on the palate. Herby and intense with zesty acidity. 89/100

Quinta das Bágeiras Grande Reserva Brut Nature 2011
This spends five years ageing on lees. Complex and taut with a subtle toast and orange peel edge to the bright, slightly pithy citrus fruits. Linear and intense with nice focus and weight. Quite complex. 90/100

Quinta das Bágeiras Avô Fausto Branco 2014
Maria Gomes from sandy soil aged in used French oak. Intense, nutty, waxy nose. Some coconut and spice on the palate with rich pear and apple fruit. Has a savoury, nutty edge. 88/100

Quinta das Bágeiras Avô Fausto Branco 2015
Maria Gomes, with 20% from chalky/clay soils. There’s a bit of citrus freshness here along with some dense, waxy, nutty spice and pear fruit. Quite burly and dense, but with a bit of brightness. 89/100

Quinta das Bágeiras Garrafeira 2015
Maria Gomes and Bical, old vines, fermented in old vats. Citrussy and dense with nice complexity. Has real presence with pear and white peach and a bit of fine spiciness. Tending towards elegance. 91/100

Quinta das Bágeiras Pai Abel Branco 2014
From a single vineyard, a blend of Maria Gomes and Bical. Very pure and linear with a beguiling waxy undercurrent to the nicely dense citrus fruit. Some pear and spice, too. Shows lovely nutty notes adding interest to the fresh fruit. Good acidity. 92/100

Quinta das Bágeiras Garrafeira Branco 2012 (magnum)
Very lively, aromatic citrus fruit nose. Has richness and density, but also freshness. This has knit together beautifully and is smooth, with a touch of marmalade and apricot richness under the smooth pear and citrus fruit. Lovely. 92/100

Quinta das Bágeiras Avô Fausto Tinto 2013
Refined and quite elegant on the nose. Supple, juicy palate with good acidity and a stony minerality under the raspberry and cherry fruit. Quite grippy, but with finesse. 91/100

Quinta das Bágeiras Avô Fausto Tinto 2012
Lifted, spicy and detailed with vivid cherry and berry fruits. Firm and grippy with good structure. Has a slight balsamic edge but is aiming at elegance. 88/100

Quinta das Bágeiras Avô Fausto Tinto 2010
Good structure here with an earthy, spicy, savoury edge to the bright raspberry and cherry fruit. Has plenty of grip, but the tannins are fine-grained. Structured, determined wine of real appeal. Some elegance here. 92/100

Quinta das Bágeiras Pai Abel Tinto 2011
Wonderful freshness and concentration here with subtle earthy, spicy savouriness, a hint of baked cherry pie, and some robust raspberry fruit. Lively acidity and firm tannins here. Has a bit of damson bitterness on the finish. 91/100

Quinta das Bágeiras Garrafeira 2013
Dense and expressive with taut berry fruits and some minty spiciness. The palate is dense, structured and has lots of vivid berry fruits with hints of leather and earth. Lovely density and structure and freshness: has lots of potential. 93/100

Quinta das Bágeiras Garrafiera 2005
This is showing beautifully. There’s density and structure, with lots of raspberry and cherry fruit, but also some earth and leather complexity. The tannins are firm, but have started to yield a little, and there’s good elegance here. Show lovely harmony with a lot going on, but all of it working in the same direction. 94/100

 Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

Adding features: why the bolt-on approach to growth rarely works in wine

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Recently I was driving a hire car. Back in the day, cars used to have radios, and perhaps a cassette player. Then there were a few knobs to control the heating, the airflow, the heated rear window, windscreen wipers, indicators, and that was about it. With small variations, every car was pretty much the same, and it was simple.

Now, modern cars have small computers on board. There’s an integrated sat nav, and the entertainment options are myriad, with multiple menus to scroll. The steering column has numerous switches in addition to the windscreen wipers and indicators. It’s quite impossible to navigate all the options. There are just so many features. I’m quite smart at this sort of thing, but even I find the modern options daunting.

This is how things seem to work these days. A product is produced, and then it is usually improved, by adding extra features. Often, these features are tangential to the main purpose of the product. In the case of cars, there is feature bloat. I want a car to do what it is supposed to do: allow me to drive. I want it to be reliable, economical and safe. Possibly also fun, and aesthetically pleasing, and I want it to be affordable. Some entertainment system is useful, but all these multiple menus and options are annoying. Super complex air conditioning/climate control is also annoying, because it’s so hard to get it right. Adding extra features isn’t always the best option for product improvement. There’s something to be said for stripping features away and concentrating on the main purpose of the product, doing that really well.

Many wine businesses evolve organically. They are modestly successful so they keep going on the same path that they started out on. There is no strategy involved.

There’s nothing wrong with this. If you have a great vineyard, and make the wines you’re your patch of ground gives you each vintage in an honest and terroir-transparent way, and you have enough customers, and you pay your bills and make some profit, then that’s entirely the right approach.

But there are a lot of wine businesses that are more complex than this, where the production-led approach (make wine and then try to sell it) isn’t working very well. There are many producers caught in the middle ground: they aren’t making cheap commodity wines that the supermarkets can sell a lot of, nor are they making fine wines that are in such demand they have to be allocated. They know that they could be doing better than they are, but they are so busy working just to make a modest profit that they keep on going the way they always have.

When it comes to a wineries portfolio, growth is reactive, and the number of wines in the range usually expands. New ‘features’ are added, in the sense that the winery expands its offering. Because the old items in the range are still selling they aren’t culled. The result is that with time the offering becomes more complicated, and makes less sense to the outsider. Internally, the owners can justify each addition (or ‘extra feature’), but from any other perspective, the offering is a bit confusing.

Filipa Pato and William Wouters: groundbreaking wines from Bairrada, Portugal

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Filipa Pato is the daughter of Luis Pato, and she’s been making wine for a while now under her own name. But she really found her direction when she began focusing solely on Bairrada, and started working with her husband William Wouters, a Flemish dude (from Antwerp) with a background in the restaurant business. With their children, they live in a beautifully renovated house in Ois de Barrio, next door to her father, built over a new winery. With views over the vineyards, it’s a lovely spot. But such are the rules that they are not allowed to vinify here because they live on the floor above the winery. So the plans are to build a new house next door and then have one as winery, one as home.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A beautiful old block of Baga in one of Filipa’s vineyards

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

They now have quite a few amphorae (they are Tuscan; initial attempts to work with Portuguese amphorae weren’t successful because of leakage), and these have become integral to their evolving wine style. Beginning with the 2010 vintage Filipa also started picking earlier, and has converted her vineyards to biodynamics.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Twice a week they host customers for a visit to the vineyards and cellar, followed by lunch and a tasting. This costs €50, and Filipa says it is much more effective for hosting people than simply giving tastings. Besides, they get to know their customers, it’s a fun experience, and it makes use of William’s chef skills!

Limestone soils, Bairrada

Limestone soils, Bairrada

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

THE WINES

FP by Filipa Pato Bical & Arinto 2016 Bairrada
All limestone soil. Vivid, intense and lemony with lovely bright citrus fruit. Nice acidity here with some grapefruit freshness. Detailed and energetic. So crisp and precise. 91/100

Filipa Pato William Wouters Nossa Calcario Branco 2016 Bairrada
12% alcohol. 10% on skins in amphora, 100% Bical, wild yeast. Beautiful stuff with a lovely mouthfeel. Very fine citrus fruit with hints of apples and pears. Very fresh and vivid with an incredible delicacy and also mineral energy. Lovely feel on the palate. 95/100

Filipa Pato William Wouters Nossa Calcario Branco 2011 Bairrada
100% Bical, but this predates the skin contact and wild ferment. Fresh and lively with a bit of pithiness and a slight salty, mineral edge to the lovely citrus fruit. This has real finesse and interest with keen acidity and a nice subtle spicy bite. I love the acid structure. 94/100

Filipa Pato William Wouters Nossa Branco 2008 Beiras
Debut vintage of Nossa. This is evolving really well with lovely sweet citrus and pear fruit, a hint of white peach, some fine spiciness and ripe apple. There’s also a bit of sweetness here (the fermentation didn’t finish completely). It’s a lovely wine with nice focus and depth. 93/100

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Filipa Pata William Wouters Post Quercus Baga 2015
Amphora wine. Very fine and floral with red cherry, raspberry and fine hints of spice and earth. Textured and really elegant on the palate with grippy but fine-grained tannins. So supple and expressive, this has elegance and complexity. It’s quite lovely. 95/100

Filipa Pato William Wouters Post Quercus Baga Tinto 2014 Bairrada
Open and aromatic on the nose with sweet, subtly lifted raspberry and cherry fruit. The palate is elegant with lovely raspberry and cherry fruit and some grippy but well integrated tannins. Really lovely and beguiling. 95/100

Filipa Pato William Wouters Território Vivo Baga 2012 Bairrada
Lifted, dense, spicy nose with some bright blackberry and cherry fruit. Fresh with some savoury structure and firm tannins, coupled with good acidity. Chunky, spicy, vivid and dense with a tannic, slightly drying finish. A bold wine. 92/100

Filipa Pato William Wouters Nossa Calcario Tinto 2015 Bairrada
Fine and expressive with a slight lift to the sweet raspberry fruit. There’s freshness on the palate but also a hint of balsamic warmth in the background, coupled with some stony, chalky hints. Pretty and detailed with nice grip on the finish. Elegant but structured style. 93/100

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Filipa Pato William Wouters Post Quercus Bical 2015 Bairrada
Bical from amphora. Lively, intense and quite tangy with lovely pear and apple fruit, together with lemony acidity. There’s a tangy spiciness under the fruit. Appley and appealing with some brightness and a lemon peel twist. Lots of detail here. 94/100

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Filipa Pato William Wouters Esprito de Baga 2013 Bairrada
The first vintage of this sweet fortified wine to get the appellation of Bairrada. Fresh, fine and aromatic on the nose. Sweet on the palate with a lovely vermouth character. A bit spirity with some warm earthiness and fine herbs. Compelling and complex with smoky, herby, spicy edge. Unusual and brilliant. 94/100

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

Quinta de Baixo, Bairrada, with Dirk Niepoort

dirk niepoort quinta de baixo

Dirk Niepoort has long been interested in the terroirs of Bairrada. He thinks that the combination of the chalky clay soils and the Baga grape variety makes this potentially the best terroir in Portugal, even though he acknowledges that in many respects the region is a bit messy. ‘It is not the easiest variety in the world, but if you tame the vines and don’t overcrop it, and pick it at the right time, then Baga from Bairrada is probably the best terroir in Portugal.’

Baga, from young (20 year old) vines at Baixo

Baga, from young (20 year old) vines at Baixo

He came to Bairrada for the first time in 1995/96, and made some wines with Casa de Saima and Mario Sergio at Bargeiras. Then, in 2010, he helped Filipa Pato with a fortified wine project, and at the same time made some table wine. In 2012 he made wine at Quinta de Baixo, eventually taking the plunge and purchasing the Quinta in December that year.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Taking as his inspiration some of the great wines of the past, he went full in and began working in the style he thinks best suits this grape variety and place. ‘From the beginning we worked without compromise,’ says Dirk, ‘with no extraction and working with whole bunches a lot.’ The reds are made partly in lagar with short fermentations of around 10 days, and part is fermented in closed stainless steel tanks. 40% stems is typical. Buckets are used to wet the cap, and that’s the limit of the extraction.

New plantings, chalky soil evident in the far ground, more clay , near

Critics say that Niepoort is producing wines that taste more of Niepoort than the place. I think they are wrong: his style, which is for less extraction, earlier picking and good acidity, is making compelling wines of terroir that should age brilliantly. ‘The secret  and greatness of Bairrada is not power, but elegance, lightness, acidity and chalkiness,’ says Dirk.

A view over Dirk's favourite vineyard, which is 100 years+ with individually staked vines

A view over Dirk’s favourite vineyard, which is 100 years+ with individually staked vines

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Indeed, as we tasted through barrels of the 2015 Garrafeira (a wine not yet released), he mused on how much he would pay to taste this wine in 20 years’ time. There are 17 hectares of vines at Baixo, and he also buys grapes in from growers (estate fruit is enough for about 30% of his needs). We looked around a few vineyards, including a venerable centenarian vineyard that looks very ragged but produces amazing grapes. About 10% of the vines are white, and they go into the blend. The wine from this vineyard, labelled ‘D’ at the moment and unreleased, is his favourite, and it’s profound.

As well as Baga, Dirk makes incredible white Bairrada, and a lovely sparkling wine called Acqua Viva. The Vinhas Velhas white is fermented in fuders (old 1000 litre barrels imported from Germany) with very little sulfur dioxide for almost two years. It is bottled with no fining or filtration.

Dirk is trying to get rid of small oak and do everything in large barrels. He has an interesting collection of larger vessels, some from Germany and others from Austria. ‘In Bairrada it is important not to play too much with wood,’ he says. ‘It is not good at all for Baga.’

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

‘I have jumped into this project in an exaggerated way with no compromise,’ says Dirk. ‘I thought it would take 5-10 years to get the wine the way I wanted, but I have been happy with everything from the beginning.’

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Goncalves Faria Branco 2013 Bairrada
10.5% alcohol. Fresh, linear, very pure and light with lemon, spice, pear and a hint of green apple. Stony in the mouth with some mineral intensity and nice acidity. 93/100

Goncalves Faria Branco 2015 Bairrada
Lovely lemony purity to this wine with a bit of appley richness. Good core of acidity with some citrus pith, too. Great intensity and purity here with a lovely depth as well as keen acidity and lemony drive. 92/100

Vinhas Velhas Bical Maria Gomes 2014 Bairrada
Very pure and fine with nice citrus and pear fruit with a bit of apple character. Lovely purity and elegance. Such lovely acidity. Has weight and purity. 94/100

Vinhas Velhas Bical Maria Gomes 2015 Bairrada
11% alcohol. Pure and pristine with nice intensity of citrus and pear fruit, together with keen acidity that integrates beautifully into the fruit. Juicy and linear with hints of tangerine, lemons and fine herbs. Nice fruit expression, too. Needs a bit of time to show its best, but already compelling. 94/100

‘B’ Vinhas Velhas 2013 Bairrada
This is an as yet unnamed, unreleased wine from a single vineyard that spends three years in large oak.Very fine and mineral. Intense and concentrated, and a bit saline. So mineral, pure and textured, this is remarkable stuff with immense potential. 96/100

Lagar de Baixo 2014 Bairrada
Beautiful aromatics here: floral cherries and raspberries. Supple and sweetly fruited, this is smashable but also refined and quite serious. Delicious and fine, and drinking perfectly now, although it will age. 94/100

Lagar de Baixo 2015 Bairrada
Old and young vineyards, fermented in lagares and then aged in large oak. Such aromatic purity! Red cherries, plums, fine spices, subtle sappy notes. The palate is light, expressive, pretty and digestible with lovely red fruits, fine spiciness and good acidity. Very light on its feet and elegant. Quite beautiful. 93/100

Goncalves Faria Tinto 2015 Bairrada
More clay soils here, inland. Very elegant, fresh and supple with pure red cherry fruit. Has a bit of crunch, with some tannin, but it’s very well integrated. Supple, fine and juicy with nice complexity. This is quite special. 94/100

D 2015 Bairrada
A special project made from a special old vine vineyard, with some white grapes in the mix (5-10%). This is unusual. There’s some reductive character still, with bright, grippy, fresh red cherry and cranberry fruit. Funky but serious with some firm structure and savoury detail under the bright fruit. Hard to assess right now but I think it will be amazing. 2016, tasted from barrel, is very special. 95/100

Poerinho Baga 2015 Bairrada
12% alcohol. So fine, fresh, concentrated and expressive with elegant red cherry fruits and nice grippy structure. Good acidity too. This shows lovely finesse with everything pulling together. So expressive and pure with lovely juiciness. 95/100

Nat Cool Baga Velha 2016
No sulphites. In a litre bottle. Very fresh, juicy and supple with tight, lively red cherries and raspberries. Juicy and fresh with good acidity and some grip. A very light, drinkable style with some edges. Smashable. 90/100

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

See also:

Tasting the wines of the Buçaco Palace Hotel, one of Portugal's treasures

palace hotel bussaco

The Buçaco (Bussaco) Palace Hotel is one of Portugal’s most striking bits of Neo-Manueline architecture. It’s almost impossibly ornate, with incredibly elaborate stone carvings rammed in just about everywhere. But despite its over-the-top nature, it’s quite magical. Originally there was a convent on this hilltop site, but the current building was constructed as a palace for one of Portugal’s queens in the late 19th century, but a change of political fortunes meant that it was turned instead into a hotel, exactly 100 years ago in 1917.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One of the inside secrets of Portugal’s wine trade was for a long time the wines of Bussaco. Right from the beginning, Alexandre de Almeida (the owner of the hotel, and whose grandson Alexandre is now running the family hotel chain) wanted to offer local food and drink, and so the hotel began making their own wines, creating the current labels in 1920 (they are the same every year: the vintage is indicated by means of a small white sticker). These, a pair of red and white wines, have always been a blend of Dão and Bairrada, and they had a reputation for their longevity. But you could only get them and drink them in the hotel dining room. Occasional bottles got out, and they were the source of great excitement.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This all changed with the challenging financial situation in 2008. Suddenly the hotel began releasing stocks of old wines, and they began to make their way onto the market. For a while, there were some nice older vintages available, but this supply has now dried up, and Bussaco are releasing current vintage only.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

These wines have traditionally aged beautifully. The winemaking changed a bit back in 2001, though, with a switch from large old vats to small new oak for the white. Is the wine better? It’s impressive, but will take time to shed the oak, and may age well. But it’s different, so only time will tell. I love the story and the old bottles, though: this historical wine holds a unique place in the Portuguese wine scene.

Buçaco Branco Reservado 2015 Beiras, Portugal
Maria Gomes and Bical from Bairrada with Encruzado from Dão, in equal proportions, fermented and aged in 300 litre new French oak. This is a baby that needs a decade or so. Complex nose of nut and fennel, with a citrussy intensity. Vivid, powerful palate with some warm spicy richness and a rounded pear, spice and nut character. Very intense and powerful with potential for development. The oak is quite present at the moment. 92/100

Buçaco Branco Reservado 2013 Beiras, Portugal (magnum)
Very intense, spicy and vivid with citrus fruit, some pear, a hint of fennel and some spicy oak. Youthful and intense with good acidity, this needs time. 91/100

Buçaco Branco Reservado 2005 Beiras, Portugal
This has an incredible nose with amazing matchstick reduction adding spicy minerality. The mineral palate has pithy hints and a lovely core of crystalline citrus fruit. So linear and engaging, with lots of potential. 95/100

Buçaco Branco Reservado 2001 Beiras, Portugal
Full yellow in colour. Toasty and rich with broad pear fruit, some spice and some white peach. Quite dense with a nice spiciness to the rich fruit. 92/100

Buçaco Branco Reservado 1992 Beiras, Portugal
Intense and fresh with just a hint of mushroom and some waxiness, over the top of intense lemon and pear fruit. Has structure and freshness, and is ageing beautifully. Some pithy notes, too. Still very fresh. 94/100

Buçaco Branco Reservado 1958 Beiras, Portugal
This old wine is remarkable, and still very fresh. It has beguiling flavours of mint, pine and eucalypt with citrus and wax notes, and lovely precision and acid drive. It’s now a bit delicate, but drinking beautifully. 95/100

Buçaco Tinto Reservado 2015 Beiras, Portugal
This is 60% Baga from Bairrada and 40% Touriga Nacional from Dão. Sweetly aromatic with floral Touriga character on the nose: fine cherries with some meat and olive. Lovely freshness and focus to the sweet fruit on the palate. Very fine grained tannins, cloaked in sweet fruit. Primary but very fine with lots of potential. Harmonious. 94/100

Buçaco Tinto Reservado 2010 Beiras, Portugal
Sleek, sweet and nicely dense, with mint, spice and herb notes, as well as a bit of tar. Very sleek and sweet with appealing black fruits but there’s a faint hint of medicine and a tangy metallic finish that I don’t get on with that well. 90/100

Buçaco Tinto Vinha da Mata Reservado 2001 Beiras, Portugal
Sometimes a second red, a special selection, is made under the Vinha da Mata label, indicated on the small vintage sticker with ‘VM’ before the year. This is firm and spicy with nice grip. Very structured and savoury with vivid black cherry and blackberry fruit. Firm and dense. 92/100

Buçaco Tinto Reservado 1983 Beiras, Portugal
Firm and spicy with some herbal notes, a bit of spiciness, and notes of meat, earth and herbs. Very savoury with some spiciness and elegance. Ageing very nicely. 93/100

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com