Adega Coop. de Borba, Alentejo, Portugal
wine pixies

Adega Coop. de Borba, Alentejo, Portugal

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 management.

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 human judgment.

The 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 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.

Verdict: Good merger of Old World and New.

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Autheticity and indigenous grape varieties are an excellent calling card.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award

Adega Coop. de Borba Portugal

Some of the cooperative's vineyards.

Adega Coop. de Borba Portugal

The winery's distinctive label reflects a proud region.

Adega Coop. de Borba Portugal

Alentejo is in southern Portugal. Borba is located just to the northeast of the city of Évora.

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