A Letter from Joshua Greene

Feb 11, 2014

A Letter from Joshua Greene

Portugal: Rocks




Estremoz is a walled town on Portugal’s frontier, a conical rise out of the Alentejo  plain, thirty miles from the border with  Spain. Marble is everywhere, framing the doors and windows of white houses on the hill, providing stone for the  Torre de Menagem and the Igreja dos Congregados, the tower and baroque  church at the top of the town.

Foz Coa is a border town to the north, at the mouth of the Coa River where it meets the Douro; many of the town’s buildings are made of dry-laid schist.  It’s the center of an archeological park where 25,000-year-old drawings have survived on the rock. Carved into vertical schist outcroppings in the wilds of the desert scrub, these drawings dot a landscape sparsely populated by sheep, olive trees and the occasional farmer, their surroundings not significantly different than they were at the time the art was conceived.

The Douro cuts a deep canyon to the sea, a meandering gash where fault lines  spilled broken rock out of a vein of schist, girded on either side by solid granite—in  the rivers and hills of Vinho Verde to the  north and west; in the mountains of Dão  to the south and east.

In Cantenhede, on Bairrada’s coast south of where the Douro meets the sea, you can stand on a plain that’s blindingly white, pure limestone in every direction. The plain and the low hills that surround it are covered in vines—as are the steep schist canyons of the Douro, the granite river valleys of the Minho and Dão, and the sides of the marble hill in Estremoz.

Portugal’s wines are about rock, how clay and limestone come together to sustain the roots of old-vine baga in Bairrada, how schist crumbles and fractures to hold the cool winter rains, allowing vines to survive the Douro Valley’s dry August heat. While there is seemingly infinite diversity in the evolution of the rock—and a vast resource of vine DNA that evolved to survive within it—Portugal has geologies that are consistent enough in large areas that you can see the rock, taste the wine, and come to some useful conclusions about the way the ground and the vine interact.

Portugal is old Europe. There are towns that still look Roman. There are city neighborhoods that can take you back five centuries, to the height of the country’s imperial powers. And there’s an undercurrent of conservatism: Many growers have sustained agricultural wisdom even as others have tried out trendy vines from abroad and producers have tinkered with new technologies in their cellars. There is enough stubborn resistance to the disruptions of modernity that all of the great wines of Portugal are made in whole, or in significantly large percentages, from the country’s own distinctive vine varieties. And many of Portugal’s greatest wines are still made with the stone-age technology of lagares, shallow stone basins in which grape bunches are crushed by people marching back and forth in their bare feet. This is not a political movement to return to traditions. It is a continuation of traditions.

You will find examples of innovation in Portugal that are tied to this respect for agricultural wisdom. In the Douro, the leading companies have invented mechanical lagares for more efficient production. Rather than work in tall, stainless steel tanks, they have adapted the shape and depth of the lagar, adding mechanical feet that press almost as gently as a team of treaders. They now have the option to foot-tread their top wines in stone, or to mechanically tread, adapting technology to their grapes and their soil, rather than the other way around.

It’s the respect and honor many of the most talented wine people in the country show to their inheritance that draws me back to Portugal again and again. There’s a large community of winemakers and growers dedicated to the wisdom inherent in their soil, their vines and the people who came before them, a community that innovates for the sake of their agricultural inheritance, rather than at the expense of it. That community has come together in the form of the Douro Boys, who make and market table wines in a region still dominated by Porto; in the Baga Friends, who share their infatuation with traditional Bairrada; and in other, less formal alliances that help to share knowledge and create some of the world’s most exciting wines.

This is the secret of Portugal. The best things are in plain sight, but nobody announces them. If you don’t make an effort to know the best of Portugal, nobody will tell you. Several years ago, a friend suggested I check out what was, at the time, the most popular club in Lisbon. He gave me the address and I wandered several narrow streets in search of it. When I did find the place, there was street no street number and no sign on the door. On the other hand, the crowd was immediately welcoming and there was no bouncer outside blocking the way in.

A note on the selection process:

Marta Galamba, an enologist working for ViniPortugal, organized three sessions of tastings for me; one in Lisbon, two in Porto. I provided a list of wines to include, if the producer had stock and wished to participate. She also solicited wine from producers throughout Portugal, limiting the number of submissions from each producer so the focus could be on what they considered their great wines.

Galamba and her team presented the wines to me in numbered glasses, in flights by region, variety and vintage. After I culled 100 or so of most intriguing wines, Galamba requested new samples and I retasted those, again in flights based on region, variety and vintage.

My goal was to assemble 50 wines representing the major regions of Portugal, so I left out wines from some regions with wide representation in the final list, in order to include wines from other regions. I did not include any wines that I would not consider great, but diversity is part of the greatness of Portugal and it is, I believe, an important part of the final list.

Many of the greatest wines of any country are either very limited in production, or quickly sold out, or both. Some of the wines you may taste here are rare; others are in wide distribution. But some wines are not included due to supply issues. This list represents a snapshot of 50 Great Wines; there are other great wines of Portugal waiting for you to discover them.

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