Category Archives: Port & Sherry

Tasting Report: 2009 Vintage Port (and Beyond)

The schedule has gotten in the way of transcribing my notes from a solid half-dozen wine events of late, so over the next few weeks expect a flood of wine tasting reports. I’m starting off with this dispatch from Fladgate’s 2009 Vintage Port event, in which the company poured not just samples of the newly declared 2009 Vintage Port from its three estates — Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, and Croft — but also the other three vintages from the last decade, 2007, 2003, and 2000.

2009 is already a bit of a controversial year: Only Fladgate has declared broadly that it will release a vintage for the year; other houses are offering only token bottlings.) Based on my tasting there’s no cause for alarm, though: The 2009s are in general dark and intense, but fundamentally no better or worse than the other vintages from the 2000s.

This type of tasting is really tough because even mediocre Vintage Port is still pretty darn good, and putting 13 Ports side by side makes picking a favorite even tougher. (If I had to: Fonseca’s 2000, which is also, by a slim margin, my favorite vintage overall of this bunch.)

Tasting notes on each wine follow.

Tasting Report: 2000, 2003, 2007, 2009 Vintage Port

2000 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port / A- / bigger raisin, prune notes, very extracted and young

2000 Fonseca Vintage Port / A / better balance, subdued, rich and complex

2000 Croft Vintage Port / B+ / lots of jam, very fruity

2003 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port / A- / lush, drinking well, offernig some of the character of the table wine

2003 Fonseca Vintage Port / B+ / young, some tightness and greenness here

2003 Croft Vintage Port / B / young, big tannin remaining

2007 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port / B+ / menthol, mint, and strong citrus notes

2007 Fonseca Vintage Port / A- / good balance and open, despite its youth

2007 Croft Vintage Port / B+ / some greenness, licorice notes

2009 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port / B / very acidic, with a hard edge

2009 Fonseca Vintage Port / A- / drinking fairly well, but not very nuanced yet

2009 Croft Vintage Port / A- / incredible dark, coffee and cocoa notes, not balanced but with promise

2009 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port Vargellas Vinha Velha / B+ / from a single block in a single vineyard, more mint here, but a surpising weakness in the body; disappointing

Affordable Dessert Wine Roundup

With party season getting underway, it’s time to look at dessert wines, no? (OK, so party season is nowhere near arriving, but these wines have been sitting here all year and I finally had the time to properly review them.)

This hodgepodge of wines basically have nothing in common except higher alcohol (usually), sweetness (some more than others), and the instruction to drink them after dinner. And they’re all under 30 bucks.

Thoughts follow.

2007 Paul Jaboulet Aine Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise Le Chant des Griolles – Quite a mouthful for a Muscat, this relatively simple dessert wine from France offers a mere 15% alcohol and moderate sweetness. The body is citrus, with some backbone, a peachy/orange character intense with floral aromatics. The finish is a bit off, too meaty, but overall it’s solid for a muscat. B+ / $29 (375ml)

2008 Carlo Pellegrino Passito di Pantelleria – A Sicilian wine from the Zibbibo grape, this is more intense than standard Muscat, but still easy drinking. Lots of aromatics, with a bit of a harsh finish. Still, a bargain for Passito. 15% alcohol. B / $25 (750ml)

2008 Chateau de Jau Muscat de Rivesaltes (pictured) – Another French Muscat, it’s the lightest of the bunch, with a distinct lemon character (perhaps that’s why there’s a photo of a lemon on the bottle). Perhaps not decadent enough to stand up to a big dessert, it’s likely a better pairing with cheese or even before dinner. 15% alcohol. B+ / $19 (500ml)

2007 Les Clos de Paulilles Banyuls Rimage – A big French red, but one that tastes stronger than its actual 16% alcohol. It has a raspberry and strawberry punch to it, which plays well with the relatively moderate sweetness. A little simple for a Banyuls, perhaps, but fairly easygoing and harmless. B+ / $19 (500ml)

2002 Churchill’s Late Bottled Vintage Porto – A bit of an anomaly in this roundup, but hey, we’re not perfect here at Drinkhacker. 20% alcohol and a fine way to wrap up the roundup. A simple LBV Port, it’s lush with plum character and black cherries, but the body is on the light side for Port. A very nice value and something I wouldn’t hesitate to order by the glass with a chocolaty dessert. B+ / $28 (750ml)

chateau de jau muscat Affordable Dessert Wine Roundup



Tasting Report: Madeira Wine 2010

To call Madeira poorly understood would be charitable. This truly ancient fortified wine from an eponymous island off the coast of (and part of) Portugal dates back to the 1400s and comes in infinite varieties. Sadly, the only one most drinkers are likely to have ever encountered is the cheap bottle carried by the local grocery store, rarely used for anything more than the occasional recipe.

Madeira grew to popularity after it was fortified and shipped to the New World during the 1500s, the heat and motion from the journey transforming a rough beverage into something different and special. Though modern Madeira is no longer shipped around the world, it is still kept warm during the aging process (called estufagem) in order to simulate the voyage.

Very little Madeira is single-vintage in origin, and even those wines with a year on the label may not be entirely from that vintage. Legally, only 85% of the grapes in a bottle have to come from that year’s harvest. Instead, you’ll find a wide variety of places, production styles, and other descriptors cluttering up the typical Madeira label.

The taste of Madeira is difficult to describe, something of a bastard child of Port and Sherry, featuring as many variations as those two wines comprise. Quality is even more wildly variable, as my tasting notes from a recent gathering of Madeira producers will surely indicate. (Grab that 1922 D’Oliveira if you can, a mere $460 a bottle!)

Tasting Report – Madeira Wine 2010

NV Blandy’s Sercial 10 Years Old / C+ / a bit skunky

1968 Blandy’s Vintage Bual / B / unthrilling

1997 Cossart Gordon Harvest Bual / B- / unripe

NV Henriques & Henriques Finest Full Rich 5 Years Old / C+ / thick, angry

NV Henriques & Henriques 10 Years Old Malmsey / B+ / richer, with more fruit and nutmeg

NV Henriques & Henriques 15 Years Old Boal / B- / over sweet to the point of cloying

NV Broadbent Fine Rich 5 Years Old / A- / Port-like with a bright sweetness, best young Madeira of the tasting

NV Broadbent Malmsey 10 Years Old / B+ / too tart, minerally and powerful

1998 Justinos Madeira Fine Rich Colheita / A- / quite lovely, with a good body and a raisiny fruitiness

1969 D’Oliveira Reserve Sercial / C- / odd, golden color, wholly off in tone

1988 D’Oliveira Harvest Terrantez / C

1973 D’Oliveira Reserve Verdelho / B+ / better balance

1989 D’Oliveira Harvest Malmsey / B+ / still fruity and lush

1968 D’Oliveira Reserve Boal / B+ / solid flavor, deep gold color

1922 D’Oliveira Reserve Boal / A / best Madeira of event (and almost 90 years old); amazingly rich, huge, silky sweet body

NV Barbeito Historic Series Sercial Charleston Special Reserve / B

1988 Barbeito Sercial Fraqueira / B- / rough hewn

NV Barbeito VB Reserve Lote 2 Casks 12d & 46a / A / blend of 2 regions, well balanced and special

2001 Barbeito Boal Casks 48 & 84 / A- / very Port like, despite gold color

Tasting Report: Wines of Portugal 2010

Portuguese table wines are always a mixed bag, with rough-hewn whites and a wild variety of reds to contend with. This year’s Portugal grand tasting event was familiar (see 2008′s event report here), with lesser-known Port vendors vying for attention among makers of vinho verde and other wines amongst a crowded group of wine enthusiasts muscling their way around the room.

This year I found a soft spot in my heart for aragones, a variety of grenache grown here and in Spain, which produced some much more complicated wines than Portugal is typically known for. Several producers had good aragoneses (aragoni?) on tap, with some equally compelling wines made from touriga nacional grapes — a grape usually used to make Port. Would love to experience top producer Esporao’s wines again.

Ratings and a few notes on tasted wines (and one brandy) follow.

Wines of Portugal 2010 Complete Report

2008 Casa de Santar Reserva DOC Dao / A- / pineapple-like, charming

2009 Grilos DOC Dao / B+ / perfumy white

2008 Palestra DOC Douro / B+ / thin red

2005 Dona Maria Amantis VR Alentejano / B  / coffee notes

2005 Dona Maria Reserva VR Alentejano / B / tight

2007 CARM Reserva DOC Douro / B  / tight, vegetal

2008 Carmim Aragones VR Alentejano / A- / licorice, leather notes

2007 Charamba DOC Douro / B- / an oddity, like children’s juice

2008 Esporao Reserva White DOC Alentejo / B+ / perfumed

2007 Esporao Reserva Red DOC Alentejo / B / herbal

2007 Esporao Aragones VR Alentejano / A / great balance, 100% aragones grapes

2007 Esporao Touriga Nacional VR Alentejano / A- / deep, dark chocolate and menthol character

NV Krohn Porto 20 Year Old DOC Porto / A- / woody and good tawny character

NV Krohn Porto 30 Year Old DOC Porto / A  / a slight improvement

1968 Krohn Colheita DOC Porto / B+ / somewhat medicinal

1998 Krohn Colheita DOC Porto / B+ / dusty but lighter in style

NV Ferreira Dona Antonia Reserve Tawny Porto DOC Porto / B / 3.5 years aged, simplistic

NV Ferreira Duque de Braganca 20 Years Old Tawny Porto / B+ / vanilla character

NV Ferreira Quinta do Borto 10 Years Old Tawny / B+ / Cognac notes

2000 Ferreira Late Bottled Vintage Porto / B+ / fresh

2007 Ferreira Vintage Porto / B- / very fruity, jellybean like

NV Sandeman 30 Years Old Tawny Porto / A- / nutty with cocoa notes

2007 Sandeman Vintage Porto / B / not near ready for drinking

2000 Quinta do Pego Porto Vintage / B+ / oddly tannic

2007 Quinta do Pego Porto Vintage / B+ / easygoing

2007 Cartuxa DOC Alentejo / A- / very curious, fresh figs and cherry

2006 Cartuxa Reserva DOC Alentejo / A- / more balanced, like the standard bottling

NV Caldas Porto Fine White / A- / nutty with fig notes

2004 Quinta da Gaivosa Late Bottled Vintage Porto / A- / nice balance here

NV Quinta Tamariz VSOP Brandy DOC Vinho Verde / B- / harsh

2008 Patrimonio DOC Torres Vedras / A- / thinner, lighter style

2008 Casa Santos Lima LX VR Lisboa / B- / fruity finish but rough

2005 Brutalis VR Estremadura / B+ / not so brutal

2005 Dona Belmire Beiras VR Beiras / B

1994 Barros Colheita DOC Porto / B / green

1989 Burmester Colheita DOC Porto / B+

1989 Kopke Colheita DOC Porto / A- / good, mellow and muted

1975 Barros Colheita DOC Porto / B

2000 Calem Vintage Porto / B+ / feels young

Re-Review: Sandeman Tawny Port 20 Years Old

Here’s a fresh look at this tawny, last reviewed in 2008. A good, old 20 year old tawny port with a ruddy brick-red color, Sandeman’s affordable porto is an easy and accessible entry to the style. Port’s traditional raisin and prune characteristics are present, but they are considerably muted beneath wood notes, smoke, and some vegetal character — all at the expense of some of tawny’s traditional sugariness. It isn’t quite as ultimately harmonious as I might have liked, but for those looking for something a bit less sweet in an after-dinner wine, this one might do the trick. 20% alcohol by volume.

B+ / $45 / sandeman.eu

sandeman 20 year tawny Re Review: Sandeman Tawny Port 20 Years Old

Review: Three Old Williams & Humbert Rare Sherries

I’ve said before that I am not much of a sherry drinker, but seriously, Harvey’s Bristol Cream is about the only sherry that America knows: You even see it on the dessert wine list at some of the finest restaurants… despite the fact that you can nab a bottle for about 12 bucks.

Following up its 15-year Dry Sack Oloroso, Williams & Humbert offers these three new sherry bottlings, all well-aged and intriguing, and each quite different.

Don Guido Rare Old Sweet Solera Especial Pedro Ximenez, aged 20 years, is as thick and dark as black coffee. Nutty on the nose, it’s intensely raisiny on the palate and could easily pass for an old tawny Port. Not a lot of complexity here, to be honest. It’s a solid punch of raisin character sprinkled with wood notes, but a little cloying in its sweetness. (Not that I should be surprised — it says so right on the label.) 18% alcohol. B / $50

Dos Cortados Rare Old Palo Cortado Especial, aged 20 years, is frankly not my kind of sherry. Burnt golden in color, it has a promising and young nose, fragrant with wood and vanilla and raisiny Port-like character. But the body is nothing at all like that, surprisingly astringent and quite rustic, with a very dry, vegetal character. Hard to get past a few sips of this one. Maybe more up your alley if you’re into drier dessert wines; the company intriguingly suggests using it as a cocktail ingredient. 19.5% alcohol. C- / $50

Jalifa Rare Old Amontillado Solera Especial, aged 30 years, is the age king of this roundup, and it shares a lot of its DNA with the Dos Cortados. The color is similar to the Dos Cortados, but with a comparably muted nose, the lightest of this roundup. Again, this sherry is extremely dry, with a nutty body but a lingering acidity that borders on medicinal. Built for fans of the dry dessert stuff. 20.5% alcohol. C / $70

williams-humbert.com

Review: Dry Sack Oloroso 15 Years Old Solera Especial

One reader recently asked why we don’t review much sherry around here, and the answer is simple: They don’t send us much sherry to review, and in fact they don’t sell much of it in the U.S. at all.

In fact, Williams & Humbert’s Dry Sack 15-year Oloroso is the first sherry we’ve formally reviewed here, and it’s a doozy. This is actually a blend of two sherries, a dry oloroso (78%) and Pedro Jimenez (22%), each blended separately with the solera style (in which wines are aged in a series of casks, with a portion of wine from each cask is progressively moved into the next-oldest cask every year until a tiny bit is finally drawn off the oldest cask and bottled, in this case after a total of 15 years through the process).

The result is a cryptic wine, dark oak in color and 20.5 percent alcohol. The nose is filled with raisins, but a nutty character becomes quite palpable as the raisin-like sweetness fades. The finish is spicy, with allspice and mulled wine; you get a whiff of these in the nose, too.

Dry Sack Oloroso 15 has a somewhat short finish, surprising considering the pedigree of what’s in the bottle, but that isn’t a major detraction from a wine that, at about $25 a bottle, is impressively inexpensive.

B+ / $25 / williams-humbert.com

dry sack 15 year sherry1 Review: Dry Sack Oloroso 15 Years Old Solera Especial

Tasting Report: 2007 Vintage Port

For the first time since 2003, Portugal has declared a vintage Port year: 2007, which was characterized by relatively cool weather, followed by some heat near harvest time, just enough (they say) to ripen the grapes.

I had the chance to sample the 2007 vintage from 12 different producers this week (total production of all of these wines together equals a scant 65,000 cases) — and while I’m not prepared to say, as some might have you believe, that this is “the best vintage of all time” (a phrase one hears a lot when dealing with winemakers no matter what year it is), it’s certainly a solid year that will offer wines with plenty of longevity and diversity.

Styles were quite different from producer to producer, and I couldn’t pinpoint anything specific that might define 2007 uniquely. Best bottles were poured by Graham, Taylor Fladgate, and Dow, but if I had to pick a favorite, I’d give the slight edge to Fonseca’s immense and flavorful Vintage Port.

Also on hand were a sampling of older ports dating back to the 1970s, and its here where some of the event’s most amazing treasures were found. Specifically: Dow’s 1980 Vintage Port, just perfect for drinking right now with a wonderful balance of fruit and alcohol, earth and sun, and definitely a good deal for $110 if you can find bottles still laying about.

2007, as it was explained to me at the show, also marks an interesting legal change for Port producers: Previously they were forced to buy the brandy used in the production of the wine from the Portuguese government. (For the novice: 15 to 20 percent of a bottle of Port is actually brandy, which is used to arrest the fermentation process midstream by killing the yeast with alcohol and leaving the sugar in the wine, which is why Port has that characteristic sweetness.) The new rules let Port makers use a higher quality of brandy that’s not sold by the feds — which should lead to better quality wines, and more divergent styles.

Complete notes and ratings follow.

2007 Vintage Port

2007 Croft / B+ / heady and herbal
2007 Dow / A- / very dry in style, easier-drinking than most
2007 Fonseca / A / really packed with fruit; this one has great longevity
2007 Graham / A- / flowery, easygoing. moderate sweetness
2007 Noval / B / spicy and racy
2007 Quinta da Romaneira / B- / too woody, some astringency
2007 Silval / B+
2007 Smith Woodhouse / B+ / very traditional, raisin notes
2007 Taylor Fladgate / A- / solid, well-behaved and balanced
2007 Vargellas Vinha Velha / B+ / cocoa-infused, lighter in style
2007 Vesuvio / B+ / rich, generally fair
2007 Warre / B+

Older Vintages Sampled

1980 Dow / A+ / just about a perfect Port, ready to drink right now, gorgeous and rich, but not overpowering
1985 Fonseca / A- / definitely ready for 20 more years in the bottle, full of strong cherry notes
1970 Graham / A- / quite pale and light, fading
1977 Smith Woodhouse / B+ / fading, some off green notes
1977 Taylor Fladgate / A- / well-aged, though filled with sediment
1983 Warre / B+ / heavily alcoholic, dry and light

Review: Warre’s Otima 10 Year and 20 Year Tawny Port

Eschewing traditional design — those white-stenciled bottles look cool but they’re certainly not “modern” — for a more contemporary approach, Warre’s Otima line aims to “change the perception of Port” through new packaging. What’s inside the bottles is different too, a tawny Port with a lighter structure that Warre positions as good for drinking any time, not just after ingesting 20 ounces of prime rib. (Warre’s even suggests drinking them chilled!)

Here’s how the two Otima bottlings — both sold in sleek 500ml decanters — stack up.

Warre’s Otima 10 Year Tawny Port – Really light in color; to the casual eye you’d might think it was table wine, not Port. The taste is, for the most part, classic tawny, with a strong cherry kick and a moderate finish. Certainly lighter in body than many tawnies I’ve tried, but not overwhelmingly so. Not sure I’d drink it before dinner, but it does make for a nice digestif. A- / $22 (500ml)

Warre’s Otima 20 Year Tawny Port – Color is noticeably darker here but still not too deep. Much more tart and slightly sweeter than the 10 Year, almost like the 10′s sweet cherries have turned sour. Drinkable, but actually not as outright pleasant as its younger brother.  B / $35 (500ml)

warre.com/otima

warre otima 10 year port Review: Warres Otima 10 Year and 20 Year Tawny Port warre otima 20 year port Review: Warres Otima 10 Year and 20 Year Tawny Port

Review: Charbay Pomegranate Dessert Wine

Yes, pomegranate rage has now reached all the way to the wine world, with Charbay knocking out this non-vintage, pomegranate-based dessert wine (the company makes two other pomegranate products already), ready to give your digestive system a kick in the glands.

Charbay starts with 100% organic pomegranates, ferments them, then arrests that fermentation when there’s sugar still present by adding Charbay’s own Pinot Noir Brandy. The final concoction is 18.7% alcohol, in line with most traditional, grape-based Ports.

Though the nose doesn’t let on — it’s more Port-like than you’d think — the flavor is something else: Starting soft, then quickly becoming extremely sweet as if hits the back of the mouth. Much like drinking 100% pomegranate juice, it then becomes very tart, puckering the mouth into an O.

It’s not bad, per se, but it’s just not the way I like to enjoy dessert wine (with less fruit and sourness) nor the way I like to enjoy pomegranate juice. But I think the company, and the wine’s numerous fans, have the right idea on how best to consume it: Boil this down into a reduction and put it on everything from pork chops to ice cream.

C / $38 / charbay.com

charbay pomegranate dessert wine Review: Charbay Pomegranate Dessert Wine

Review: Inniskillin Ice Wines

Rarely have dessert wines vanished from Drinkhacker HQ so quickly as Inniskillin’s Ice Wines (or Icewines). Traditionally made icewine from Canada, these high-alcohol, high-sugar, high-addiction-level wines vanished in days.

Icewine is a very sweet and flavorful wine made from grapes that are left on the vine until winter’s frost arrives, freezing the grapes only after temperatures hit -8 Celsius and stay there for some time. The frozen, ultra-ripe grapes are harvested and fermented, leaving a preciously small amount of actual wine from the harvest: Pound for pound, you get less than 15% the amount of wine from frozen grapes as you do from regularly harvested ones. The sweetness is tricky: You may think you’re drinking a heavily fortified wine like port, but these wines land at between 9 and 11.5% alcohol, considerably less than most table wines.

Icewine can be made from a variety of grape varietals, and I tried a number of them for this review. All come in 375ml half bottles (prices listed are also for 375ml versions) and are designed to be served very cold (which makes sense). These wines come from the Niagara Pennisula in Ontario.

2007 Inniskillin Riesling – A classic dessert wine, very fresh and crisp, with flavors of apricot, peach, and flowers. As with many icewines, it’s the honey that keeps you coming back, and this Riesling is perhaps the most easy-drinking of all the icewines I tried. Very refreshing, this is an awfully hard bottle to put down. 9% alcohol. A / $85

2007 Inniskillin Cabernet Franc – This traditionally hearty and rough red grape makes for an icewine that is, surprisingly, very similar in flavor to the Riesling, with that same super-sweet fruitiness but tricked out with red berry notes. Cabernet Franc — who knew you could turn it into something like this!? Those strawberry/raspberry characteristics are interesting, but I found myself longing more for the crisp simplicity of the Riesling. 9.5% alcohol. B+ / $100

2005 Inniskillin Sparkling Vidal – Another spin on this theme, the Vidal grape (hugely popular for icewine) traps the naturally-occurring carbon dioxide that comes with fermentation and bottles it up, Champagne style. It’s very alarming to smell and taste such amazing sweetness alongside effervescence like this, but it grows on you. The carbonation is pretty mild, and it fades away after less than an hour in the glass, leaving a straightforward honey, apple, and flowery finish. 11.5% alcohol. A- / $75

inniskillin.com

Review: Smith Woodhouse Lodge Reserve Port

Smith Woodhouse isn’t the biggest name in Port, but the company’s Lodge Reserve Port is a winner in the nonvintage world.

This is a rich and vibrant ruby Port, full of fruit and jam flavors. The finish is impressively long. It stays with you in the back of your mouth for minutes, fading from sugary jam to muted wood notes. No, you don’t get those intense sherry and caramel notes that you get with an aged, vintage port. This is more of a straightforward currant/raisin affair with an intensely purple color. But for a mere $18, you really can’t go wrong with this one.

B+ / $18 / smithwoodhouse.com

smith woodhouse lodge reserve Review: Smith Woodhouse Lodge Reserve Port

Review: Sandeman 20 Year Tawny Port

I always seem to have a bottle of Port open and at the ready… but never get around to drinking it. Memo to self: Drink more Porto.

Sandeman’s 20 Year Tawny is a nicely mellowed tawny, not too rich or sweet (which I know turns many Port drinkers off), but still bearing some nice complexity.

The Sandeman is a deep orange, reminiscent of a good brandy. The flavor is lightly sweet but still unmistakably Port, balancing out its jammy notes and a distinct honey laciness with an intriguing, orange finish.

Sandeman obviously recognizes the lighter structure of this Port and is pitching it as a unique ingredient in making cocktails. Here are two, courtesy of Philip Ward at New York’s Death + Co. bar. (Updates below from Ward.)

The Baltasar and Blimunda
1/2 oz. Sandeman 20 Years Old Tawny Port
2 oz. Beefeater Gin
1/2 oz. bitters
1/2 oz. vermouth (Punt e Mes recommended)

Stir. Serve up and garnish with flamed orange twist.

the dahlgren 287x300 Review: Sandeman 20 Year Tawny PortThe Dahlgren
1 oz. Sandeman 20 Years Old Tawny Port
2 oz. tequila (blanco)
1 oz. ginger beer
3/4 oz. simple syrup
1/2 oz. fresh lime juice
dash of bitters (Angostura)

Shake well and serve in a highball glass. Garnish with a lime wheel.

I tried the Dahlgren (with the guesses as noted above; picture at right)… not a bad concoction, definitely turns a light style Port into something pretty heavy. The tequila (use something good) plays intriguingly with the citrus character in the Port (and I love the ginger beer element… never woulda thought of that), but I think this might be better with the proportions of Port vs. tequila reversed.

A- / $40 / sandeman.eu

sandeman 20 year tawny port Review: Sandeman 20 Year Tawny Port

Tasting Report: Vini Portugal, April 22, 2008

In the world of wine, Portugal is known for two major things: Expensive, fortified dessert wines (Vintage Port), and super-cheap whites (primarily from the Vinho Verde region). Recently, nearly 40 Portuguese wineries, importers, and distributors gathered in San Francisco to offer an updated perspective on the wines of Portugal. The verdict: About the same as it was in the ’70s.

That’s not meant as insult, and in fact I met a number of Portuguese winemakers who’d flown all the way here to show off their wines, standing stoic in their suits with nary a grin as they earnestly, yet calmly, intone that the wine you’re tasting costs 3 euros a bottle. It’s safe to say this is the only event I’ve attended where you could try both Mateus and Lancer’s — and yes, both brands are still around, though hardly as strong as they were 30 years ago.

On the other hand, a smattering of producers were on hand with Tawny and Vintage Ports, some of which were truly dazzling.

And then there were the oddities, wines made with every grape under the sun, many of which I’d never thought would work in Portugal — Pinot Noir!? — but far more that the average U.S. wine drinker will have never heard of: Trincadeira, Moreto, Bical. The list never stops.

I tasted nearly 40 wines at the event and, I’m sad to say, you won’t find a lot of them on the shelves at your local wine merchant. Many of these wines haven’t made it to the U.S. yet, and even fewer of them have arrived on the west coast. If you’re in New York, your odds are better, but I can’t imagine a lot of people will spend days seeking out a $12 bottle of Vinho Verde. (That’s pretty common here for Portuguese whites, though the dip as low as $6 or $7. Prices were unavailable for most of these bottlings and aren’t included below.)

Some highlights. A lot of Portuguese white is surprisingly good. At its best, Vinho Verde can be a refreshing, lemon- and apple-like wine with light floral notes and without that overpowering butter and woodiness in a lot of American whites. Look for wines made from Alvarinho grapes, if you can find them. My favorite of all, a bottle called Clemen Reserva (I doubt there’s a non-Reserva), which embodied all the characteristics I mentioned above; it’s a blend of Alvarinho and Trajadura grapes.

Some interesting reds emerged, too: Goanvi sells a full line of reds, and the two I tried were surprisingly nice. The cost of the Capote Velho Reserva, a blend of Syrah, Touriga Nacional, and Aragones? $6.

Naturally, there was plenty of Port to be had, though many of the major producers were absent from this event. Barros’ 1957 Colheita was a treat, a wonderful, caramel-and-chocolate sipper that has mellowed perfectly in 51 years. Quinta do Portal’s 2003 Vintage Port, while representing a much younger wine, was surprisingly mellow for being in the bottle for such a short time. If you are looking for Vintage Port to drink now and don’t want to pay out the nose (maybe $60, if you can find it), I highly recommend tracking this bottle down.

Bottom line: Looking for something light, easy, and fun? Serve a Vinho Verde and ask your guests to guess what it is. For a more unique experience, pick up a Portuguese red. Quality is all over the map, but you likely won’t spend a fortune on the experiment.

A full tasting report follows.

Vini Portugal Full Tasting Report

2005 Entre II Santos Doc Bairrada – B
2005 Campolargo Doc Bairrada – C
2005 Coisas Antigas Doc Bairrada – B+
2005 PV VT’05 DOC Douro – B
2007 Terras de Alter Fado – A-
2006 Terras de Alter Fado Reserva – B
2005 Ramos-Pinto Adriano White – B-
2006 Ramos-Pinto Adriano Red – B-
2004 Ramos-Pinto Duas Quintas Reserva – C+
NV Ramos-Pinto Porto Quinta Ervamoira 10 Years – B+
NV Ramos-Pinto Porto Quinta Ervamoira 20 Years – B+
NV Ramos-Pinto Porto Reserva Collector – B
1998 Krohn Colheita – B
1987 Krohn Colheita – B-
1978 Krohn Colheita – B+
NV Krohn Lagrima – B
2007 Catarina Regional Terras Do Sado Peninsula De Setubal – B+
2006 Casa Santos Lima Sousao, Regional Estremadura – C+
2006 Palha-Canas Regional Estremadura – C+
2005 Goanvi Capote Velho Reserva – A-
2006 Goanvi Terra Grande – A-
2003 Quinta do Portal Grande Reserva – B
NV Quinta do Portal Moscatel – A-
2003 Quinta do Portal Vintage Port – A
NV Quinta do Portal 30 Year Tawny – B+
NV Quinta do Portal 40 Year Tawny – A-
2007 Azul Vinho Verde – D
2006 Companhia Das Lezirias Fernao Pires – B+
2007 Clemen Reserva Vinho Verde – A
NV Barros Very Old Dry White Port – B
1957 Barros Colheita Port – A
1975 Barros Colheita Port – A-
1994 Barros Colheita Port – B
2005 Barros Vintage Port – A-
1995 Smith Woodhouse Late Bottled Vintage Port – B+
2005 Post Scriptum Douro – B
2005 Messias Vintage Port – B+

wines of portugal Tasting Report: Vini Portugal, April 22, 2008