50 GREAT PORTUGUESE WINES

Could anyone have been surprised that after the landmark New York Public Library main branch building on Fifth Avenue acquired the official moniker of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building that it would be simply a matter of time before its inexorable transition from a legendary public space into just one more piece of very deluxe Manhattan Real Estate, a metamorphosis ongoing as the facility is emptied out of much of its vast research collections in order to satisfy the NYPL high command’s objective of maximizing what they characterize as an ‘underutilized’ (read: under monetized) institution? Of course, even before a plutocrat decided it should bear his name (Schwarzman certainly could have donated funds to the NYPL without requiring any name change), the historic venue had served as the staging ground for many glittery functions – including film premieres, publication launches, fashion shows and benefits too numerous to account for – but now that the distracting clutter of all the books, manuscripts, artworks, maps and more which are slated for re-location to New Jersey is giving way to a more ‘modern’ streamlined library, there are an increasing number of opportunities to enjoy the space for things other than reading and such. And with all that said, if you’re going to taste the best wines the west coast of Iberia has to offer, there are fewer more majestic places to do it in than ‘The Schwarzman’ – so I will leave any detailed analysis of the issues surrounding the plans afoot there for another time and for other commentators, and focus here on the fine spirits being poured on the relatively mild afternoon of Thursday, January 16.

The day began in the Edna Barnes Salomon Room on the third floor, where the 50 Great Portuguese Wines Luncheon & Awards Presentation, presented by Wines of Portugal, Joshua Greene (who emceed and arranged the tasting sequence for the luncheon) and Evan Goldstein, MS, was held. Seating places for the assembled guests were set up with four goblets, poured respectively with one white wine, two reds, and one dessert wine; different tables were assorted different wines (unlike some luncheon tastings where a specific flight is presented for everyone in attendance) and the somewhat random aspect of this provided a welcome change of pace, which piqued curiosity about what other wines were being served with the meal; one had the sense of being allowed to truly sample how the wines interacted with the various foods on ones’ palate, rather than being instructed as to which were the ‘correct’ wines with whichever course.

At my table the white was a 2012 Vinho Verde Contacto from Anselmo Mendes Vinhos [www.anselmomendes.pt], and this Alvarinho proved to be one of the better whites among those I later sampled at the walk-around tasting later in the day. With the crisp, light, yet distinctive flavor characteristic of Portuguese whites, it was a fine complement of the first course of Salmon and Celery Root Tartare. In the tasting booklet the listing of each of the 50 wines was accompanied by a capsule description by Joshua Greene, and for this white he describes an “earthiness, focused on lotus root and litchi,” rounded by notes of “chamomile to beeswax and honey.”

The two reds at my seating area were first a 2010 Brutalis (85% Alicante Bouschet and 15% Sauvignon, from the region of Lisbon) from Vidigal Wines [www.vidigalwines.com], and a 2010 Reserva Red  (Alentejo; varietals of Aragonês, Trincadeira, Alicante Bouschet and Cabernet Sauvignon) from Herdade Do Eporao [www.esporao.com]. I found each to be fairly dry, with the Reserva tending towards a mild astringency, and while both were fine, there were reds I preferred at the later tasting; in Joshua Greene’s notes on each of these he identifies “hints of leather” – so I suppose I was simply not in a leathery mood for lunch (though I can be at other times).

The standout selection of the luncheon wines at my table was Symington Family Estates’ [www.symington.com] Graham’s Single Harvest Tawny Port (from a “blend of traditional Douro grape varietals”), which prompted me to murmur the word “nectar.” This 1969 port is deep, mellow, full-bodied and rich, and, while not as citrusy as some of the other dessert wines which I later sampled (though Joshua Greene notes hints of oranges and apricots within it), is nonetheless not a heavy wine – it’s the sort of spirit I can imagine having around the house for a year, and breaking it out only now and again to reward myself when I’ve been good, so as not abuse the privilege of its company by consuming it in a week or a month of rashness.

As the luncheon concluded it was time for the Awards Ceremony, honoring a variety of restaurateurs, distributors and importers. For the Restaurant of the Year there was a tie, with citations for both Pier 95 in Freeport, Long Island [www.pier95.com], proprietor: Ramiro  Santos; and Hearth Terroir and Wine Bar in the East Village of Manhattan [www.restauranthearth.com], proprietor: Paul Grieco, and beverage director: Matt Stinton. The Retailer of the Year Award went to Astor Wines and Spirits [www.astorwines.com], wine buyer: Lorena Ascencios. The Chain Retailer of the Year was awarded to Binny’s Beverage Depot in Chicago [www.binnys.com], whose Portuguese wine buyer, Bob Calamia, could not be personally on hand to accept; and the Importer of the Year went to Wine In Motion [www.wineinmotionusa.net], partners: Pedro Veloso and Jose Dias.

One other item of note for the luncheon was the apparent change of menu. I noted that the program detailing it seemed to be comprised of several layers of paper, and when I held the side of it, it turned out that the original menu had been covered over with a similarly-printed piece of paper glued over it; the original menu, printed on card stock, was one with first and second courses of Hudson Valley Poussin and braised Flatiron beef with Ossobuco sauce, and that these had been supplanted by the salmon and duck (the dessert, a caramelized D’Anjou pear roasted with lavender honey and red wine and served with maple brittle cream, was the same on both menus.

Then it was time for the walk-around tasting, which took place in the Celeste Bartos Forum on the ground floor of the 42nd street entrance to the building. The roughly square-dimensioned room was well suited for a tasting, as wine tables were arrayed in a clockwise arrangement around the circumference of the room, and, as with the luncheon (and many tastings), the whites were displayed first off, giving way to the reds, and then concluding with dessert wines. In the center of the room there were a few tables with cheeses, fruits, breads, dips and other comestibles for folks to sample along with the wines, and essay for themselves what spirits paired best with what savories and sweets. (As with any of these affairs, a goodly number of the attendees either apparently missed out on the lunch or didn’t get enough to eat upstairs, so it was a good thing that the regularly beseiged stocks of edibles were replaced as they ran low throughout the afternoon; the especially ravenous, like one attorney of my acquaintance, took the opportunity to stuff wedges of cheese into bags brought to the occasion presumably expressly for that purpose.)

I was able to sample every one of the wines in the tasting, and while a fair number were commendable, I will focus on those that I felt stood out most. Although the 50 selections were not ostensibly presented sequentially according to any sort of rating or ranking, I had to wonder what method was used to determine their array, because for whatever reason I found that the whites which made the most impression upon me were those on the several tables just prior to the reds. These included the 2011 Rui Reguinga Enologia [www.ruireguinga.com] Terrenus from Alentejo (varietals of Arinto, Fernao Pires, Bical, Roupeiro and others) which I thought had a good balance between a core acidity and the fruity and floral notes it held, while also being a fuller white than those I tested earlier (and as I generally expect from Portuguese whites); this wine is currently seeking a US importer, and if that were my line of business I’d be having conversations with them about bringing it over. The next white I liked, a bright, acidic and also full-bodied 2012 Verdelho (Vinho Verde style from Alentejo), was by the same producer of the second red I had during the luncheon, Herdade Do Eporao; Joshua Greene observes that this wine feels “warm and spicy without feeling hot.” The third of my favorite whites was the 2012 Vale Da Poupa Moscatel Galego White, a Douro Moscatel Galego Branco by Secret Spot Wines [www.secretspotwines.com], which I found to be both fruitier and less acidic than those I’d previously sampled, with both a full body and slightly spicy aftertaste; this wine would be equally apropos to a dinner or dessert menu.

Thereafter it was on to the reds, with three of the finest, to my palate, among the first I tasted. Light, brightly fruity with notes of cherry and peppercorns was the 2009 Portal Da Águia Red Doc (Tinta Roriz, Castelao, Syrah and Alicante Bouschet varietals from the Tejo region) produced by Quinta Da Alorna [www.alorna.pt]; this hails from a 6,900-acre property that conveniently enough contains cork forests. Also light and with hints of peppercorns, yet dryer, was the 2008 Red (33% Tinta Roriz, 22% Syrah, 22% Touriga Nacional, 11% Touriga Franca, 10% Castelão, 2% Alicante Bouschet from Lisboa) from Quinta De Chocapalha [www.chocapalha.com]. More of a medium-bodied wine, featuring a light citrus aftertaste yet some of the same spiciness of the previous reds was the 2011 Estate Collection Red (25% Touriga Nacional, 20% Aragonez, 10% Castelao, 10% Alfrocheiro, 10% Tinta Miuda, 25% Syrah from Lisboa) by Quinta Do Pinto [www.quintadopinto.pt]; the producers for this wine are also currently seeking a US importer. Also in this group of reds was a fine Touriga Franca from Alentejo; produced by Quinta Da Plansel [www.plansel.com], the 2010 Marques De Montemor Colheita Seleccionada Touriga Franca was well-balanced between with a fruity, peppery and spicy character. Two more reds about halfway through the selection of 50, both Baga wines from Bairrada, were notable. Not overly full-bodied yet with an evenness and a fragrance of cherry over a lightly spicy aspect was the 2009 Vinha Pan produced by Luís Pato [www.luispato.com], and the 2009 Garrafeira Red by Quinta Das Bágeiras [www.quintadasbageiras.pt] had a big flavor at first sip with a buttery quality and citrusy finish; Joshua Greene notes the “scents that shift from woodland red berries to tangerine pith and cumin-like spice” of the latter.

Of course, if you’re talking big flavor and Portuguese wines, the conversation will sooner or later lead to ports and other dessert wines.  I had the pleasure of journeying to vertiginous Porto in 2006, and as you walk along the Douro you cannot miss the prominent signage of one port wine brand after another, mounted on the hillsides of Vila Nova de Gaia – the sister city to Porto just across the Douro which is home to all the major producers. (The impact of all this open air advertising is not unlike that of the ‘Hollywood’ sign, except that there are many more such types of signs in Porto, and the products they promote are all more worthwhile and deservedly longer lasting than what the Hollywood sign represents.) Two of the houses I visited for tastings while in Vila Nova de Gaia as I wended my way uphill from the Douro were Taylor, and, just across and the down the road a bit, Burmester. Among the dessert wines at the tasting on January 16 was a Burmester Tordiz 40 Year Old Tawny Port (30% Touriga Nacional, 30% Tinta Roriz, 30% Touriga Franca, 10% Tinta Barroca) by the producer Sogevinus Fine Wines [www.sogevinus.com], which I found to sparkle with flavors, at once of a lemony citrus quality, paired with warmer notes of apples. Also with a nice lemony finish to complement an essentially hearty and rich smokiness was the 1996 Blandy’s Colheita Bual Madeira [www.blandys.com]; with the Blandy family – today led by Chris Blandy – in the Madeira trade for over 200 years, it is apposite that in the tasting notes Joshua Greene says that “this could be a wine from the Stone Age, or a completely modern wine for dinner tonight, poured to match the sharp acidity of a sheep’s cheese.” Coupled with another tasting of the wonderful Graham’s Single Harvest Tawny Port I’d enjoyed at the luncheon, these sweet wines were a fine way to conclude a flavorful afternoon.