Portugal is a small country, out of the tourist mainstream perhaps, yet everyone I know who
has taken the trouble to visit the place raves. “These people know how to live”
is the usual remark. Outside of the rarified reaches of the fortified wine we call Port, the
wines of Portugal are little known in the United States. Portugal's heritage of indigenous
grape varieties, once a weakness on the international scene, may well become one of its
greatest strengths, if the Adega Cooperative has any say in the matter. Located in Borba in
Alentejo, southeast of the capital, Lisbon, Adega brings together some 300 small players who
together produce wines designed to get the best out of today's Portuguese equation.
I might as well explain what I mean by “Portuguese equation.” Thirty years
ago, Portuguese winemaking was rustic, disorganized, and out of touch with international
tastes. Portugal's membership in the European Union changed all that. As in much of southern
Europe, EU money came in to modernize equipment, techniques, marketing, and
The EU is the first part of the equation. We have already mentioned the second part,
Portugal's wealth of indigenous (read, “interesting”) grape varieties. The third
and final part of the equation is the fact that Portugal is also a very good place to grow major
international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Portuguese winemakers like Adega,
with one foot in the traditional world and another firmly planted in the modern, are now well
poised to tie it all together, and for a pretty price indeed.
I attended an Adega wine tasting at STK New York Downtown recently. STK's Executive
Chef Todd Miller paired the dishes based on the wines, coming in personally to explain his
(successful) logic to the assembled group. I think logic was the star of the night. Throughout
the evening, the personable Luís Gaspar from Adega hammered home the winery's
sensible approach: use the best we have, access both indigenous and international, marry
ancient soil with modern techniques, and add measured doses of hard human effort and savvy
The Adegaborba.pt 2008 Rosé accompanied Chef Todd's “Big Eye
Tuna Salad with Avocado, Basil, and Pimentone (toothsome slabs of smoked
sausage).” The Rosé is mainstream pink, not salmon, based on the Aragonez
grape, a synonym for what the Spanish call Tempranillo. The grape grows on souls of chalky
clay and schist. I told Luís, who agreed, that tasting blind I would have guessed the
wine to be a Grenache-based rosé from southern France. The fruit is gentle strawberry
and raspberry. The wine is off-dry at a reasonable eight grams of sugar per liter; acidity
makes up for that. Another key number that applies to this wine is six, the number of dollars
it costs. Very refreshing and surprisingly layered for what is supposedly a simple wine. I
would not have blinked if you asked me for twelve.
As Luís explained, “We do compete on price, but it's not enough to
compete with Chile, Argentina or Australia in this market. Our ability to use our own
indigenous varieties, and combine these with international varieties when we feel it is
necessary, is what really gives us the edge.” All wines are blends.
Three red wines accompanied the main course, in my case, a “Filet of Beef with
Roasted Shallot, Potato Puree, and Crispy Maitake Mushroom,” for others,
“Seared Salmon with Lentils and Green Apple.” Each of these wines succeeds
in bringing an accessible international style, on the one hand, with some interesting
Portuguese individuality, on the other.
The Adega Coop. de Borba 2005 Reserva Red, $12, starts with a gimmick. I usually
do not like gimmicks but I like this one immensely. In addition to wine, Alentejo is the
center of world cork production (you will not find the Portuguese adopting screw caps in the
near future). This wine's label is composed of paper-thin sliced cork, lovely to touch. Of
course that would be nothing if I didn't like this blend of Aragonez, Trincadeira,
Castelão and Alicante Bouschet. The wine sees a year in French and American oak
before six months bottle aging. A rich red, very fruity and concentrated, the wine brings
aromas of red fruit and chocolate, a plump dry palate of candied fruit, cherry, coffee and
nutmeg, soft and yet resilient tannins, and quite a soft finish. I really enjoyed grazing my
fingernails against that cork label.
The Adegaborba.pt Reserva 2004 Red, $10, is 75% Trincadeira, 10% Alicante
Bouschet, and 15% of a wine I can pronounce, Cabernet Sauvignon. For starters,
though even 15% Cab can dominate a wine, the Cab is well integrated here. The wine gets a
year in new oak and a year in bottle before release. A deep ruby, the wine gave me aromas of
red fruit, fragrant vanilla, milk chocolate, with similar notes on the palate and in addition
mocha, roasted walnut, and a toasty character. The wine has good structure and grip, probably
that Cab speaking. Acidity is medium plus, tannins verging on those appropriate for tannin
fans, yet the finish is long and light, with fruit prevailing at the end.
The Adega Coop. de Borba 2002 Garrafeira, $25, is a study in fruit concentration.
“Garrafeira” means “first wine” in Portuguese, in this case the
equivalent of a vintage declaration, a wine made only in select years. Aragonez, Trincadeira
and Alicante Bouschet make up this one. The fruit undergoes extensive skin-contact before
fermentation, a full 21 days afterwards. The wine enjoys an 18-month stay in American oak,
and then two years of bottle aging. Luís gave an excellent survey of skin phenolics and
anthocyanins in discussing this wine. “We get these mostly from old vines,” he
says, “grown on schist soils, dry-farmed, low yield, using green pruning and cluster
pruning at appropriate stages in the growing season.” I found the nose rich and dense,
with red fruit, black raspberry, vanilla, coffee, cocoa and violet. Acidity played in the
background. In the mouth, the wine is smooth, tannins very soft, with palate notes of dried
fruits, walnut, almonds, ripe vanilla, tobacco, nutmeg and sweet cinnamon. The finish is all
soft, ripe fruit.
It is important when you are enjoying a dessert of “Molten Chocolate Cake with
Vanilla Ice Cream” on a bed of what Chef Todd calls “Chocolate Dirt”
(salt, cocoa, cumin and coriander), that the wine stand up to the potential sensory overload.
The Adega Coop. de Borba 2003 Cinqentenário was up to the task. I do not
know the suggested retail price. This is the cooperative's 50th anniversary wine. “We
made this with three non-Portuguese varieties,” Luís explains, “simply
because these were the finest we had that year. The wine is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30%
Alicante Bouschet and 20% Syrah, all vinified separately before blending. The wine ages for
12 months in new French and American oak. A deep garnet in color, the wine activated my
nose with prune, fig, thick chocolate, sweet licorice. Very well balanced in the mouth with
absolute full body, this wine has got grip, very ripe tannins, and palate notes of dark fruit,
black pepper, nutmeg, clove, toasted cinnamon, and chocolate, the combination almost
reminiscent of Mexican chocolate. Not that I was in any way objective, given the dessert
placed before me.
Good merger of Old World and New.