I recently had the opportunity to travel to Portugal for a short tour courtesy of the Sogrape group and their UK importer and distributor, Liberty Wines. It might come as something of a surprise to learn that one of the largest wine producing companies in Portugal, with the iconic brand Mateus Rosé as part of its extensive portfolio, is also entirely family owned.
The Sogrape company was formed in 1942 by Fernando Van Zeller Guedes, and is run today by his three grandsons, Salvador, Manuel and Fernando. It truly a powerhouse of the Portguese industry, not only through the huge sales of Mateus, but brands including Sandeman Port, Quinta do Azevedo Vinho Verde and one of the country’s most revered red wines, the Douro’s Barca Velha.
Sogrape’s reach is global however, not just in the distribution of its Portuguese wines, but its wholly-owned wine estates that include Bodegas LAN in Rioja, Finca Flichman in Argentina, Viña Los Boldos in Chile and Framingham in New Zealand.
This visit and accompanying tastings spanned four important Portuguese wine regions, from Minho in the far north, to the Alentejo in the south, by way of the Douro and Dão.
Quinta de Azevedo, Minho
Day one saw me drive around 1.5 hours north of Porto to the beautiful and historic Minho region, home of the widely-available and always excellent Quinta de Azevedo Vinho Verde. There is considerable experimentation here too, explained winemaker Antonio Braga (right) and one of Sogrape’s current generation of owners, Manuel Guedes. “It’s a challenging time for Vinho Verde in some ways,” says Manuel. “Do we keep the ‘fun’ wines or concentrate more on trying to move Vinho Verde upward?” To that end there is a new, more ‘serious’ Loureiro and Alvarinho blend, and maybe a red Vinho Verde in the future, possibly not made from Vinhao as is traditional, but from Mencia.
One of the wine world’s most widely used fermentation yeasts, QA23, originated in the Minho, but Antonio also uses wild yeasts in some ferments. “But more important than yeasts, or barrels, is picking date and blending,” he says. He is a huge fan of old field blends, where different varieties are co-planted “Field blends can be beautiful because it is like a marinade – the flavours integrate and grow together before you ‘cook’ them.”
Also tasted was one wine from Quinta da Torre, owned by the Guedes family since 1990.
Read tasting notes on three wines from Quinta de Azevedo and Quinta da Torre
(2019) A blend between 70% Loureiro and Alvarinho (Albariño). Lovely lemon and herb inviting aromas on the nose, fragrant and dry, it is intense on the palate, lovely clean, crisp character with a touch of skin contact grip. Pure citrus finish, lovely. Waitrose stocks this but appears to have moved on to the 2018 vintage.
(2019) Again 70/30 blend of Loureiro and Alvarinho, with 40% fermented on the skins to build texture. An extra dimension of ripeness and fruit skin grip, the palate bone dry and powerful. So intense on the palate, skinny and grippy, lemon and orange rind, wonderful creamy texture.
(2019) From the Guedes family's Quinta da Torre estate in Monção close to the Spanish border, a region specifically renowned for Alvarinho wines, this is in a much lighter, more saline framework than the Azevedo Reserva tasted alongside, but super-fresh and bursting with personality.
Close tasting notes
Quinta dos Carvalhais, Dão
I met up with Beatriz Cabral de Almeida, winemaker at the Dão estate of Quinta dos Carvalhais, a 105 hectare property purchased by the Guedes family in 1988. Granite soils are planted with indigenous Dão varieties like Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Alfrocheiro and Jaen for red wines and Encruzado, Bical and Cercial for whites. One of the secrets to the freshness of Dão’s wines is altitude, these vineyards at 465- to 500-metres above sea level.
The climate here is more continental than in Minho. Though the altitude means it is still on the cooler side for Portugal, Beatriz recalls how devastating wild fires in 2017 that killed many people breached the vineyards, but so many local people and the fire service rallied to stop it and save the vineyards. Though a new winery with lots of small-volume tanks allows plots to be vinified separately, the granite lagres in the old winery have been restored and small quantities of grapes are being processed there on a trial basis.
Read tasting notes on seven wines from Quinta dos Carvalhais
(2019) Lovely sense of mealy creaminess with 60% of the fruit barrel fermented and aged in new 500-litre barrels. Nutty but fresh too, beautiful fruit ripeness, so tangy with a lime and tangerine acidity and a delightful creaminess to the texture again. Price quoted is when bought by the six-bottle case. Take the wine-searcher link for other stockists, where single bottle price is around £24.00
(2019) Encruzado and Verdelho blend. Fermented in steel, then two years in 225 litre used French oak barrels. More obvious creamy and custardy oak, lovely stone fruit and lemon fruit, a touch of saline character. The palate has that softened, creamy barrel character. So much balancing acidity that it never loses focus. Again, price is when bought by the six-bottle case, but see wine-searcher for single bottle options.
(2019) Several varieties in this fascinating wine, 40% Encruzado, 30% Gouveio, 12% Semillon and 18% unidentified field blend, with wines from the 2005, 2006 and 2009 vintages, it spends an average of 10 years in barrel. This is only the third release of this wine, 7000 bottles. Again some mint and vanilla characters, plenty of barrel influence, creamy and waxy, and still with some herbal and lightly truffle character, but the freshness and clarity is excellent. What an interesting wine, salts and sour lemon giving intense character.
(2019) Lovely big, dense chocolate and red plum character, creamy and meaty. Cedar and some tobacco comes through, lightening the picture. Seven months in used barrel, but keen, bright, edgy and focused tart berry fruit character, really grippy tannin and keen acidity add plenty of structure to the fresh fruit.
(2019) Matured in new and one year-old barrels for 12 months, this is 100% Tinta Roriz, aka Tempranillo. Cedary, spicy, some meat stock and plenty of meaty, dark berry fruit. Lots of firm tannic backbone, very juicy though, lots of sour cherry and the tightness of the tannins on the finish suggest this needs time, or to be decanted now. I can see no retail stockists in the UK at time of review.
(2019) From three vineyards on different soils, to add complexity. Lovely fragrance here, and a tight glossiness to the black fruit, a big raft of plum skin and black cherry acidity and tight spicy tannin, a delicious wine with great structure, fruit and freshness, with excellent length too. Again price is when buying a six-bottle case, but wine-searcher link will show other stockists with single bottles around £22.00
(2019) Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Alfrocheiro blend, each component fermented in stainless steel then aged separately for 12 months in new and used French oak before blending. Very sophisticated wine, herb and garrigue character, fudge-like creaminess and keen-edged black fruits. Juicy and deliciously cool and creamy, mint-edged black fruit smoothly fresh into the menthol finish. Note price and stockist quoted at time of review is for an earlier vintage.
Close tasting notes
Herdade do Peso, Alentejo
Down in the quite different heat of the Alentejo, Herdade do Peso is a massive property that occupies a total area of 457 hectares, with 160 hectares planted to vine. Around 152 of those are red varieties including Aragonês (another Tempranillo synonym), Trincadeira, Alfrocheiro, Periquita and Touriga Nacional. White varieties are Antão Vaz and Arinto. I knew I had met winemaker Luis Cabral de Almeida somewhere, but it clicked that was at Finca Flichman in Argentina many years ago, before his return to his Portugal.
Sogrape established this estate in the Vidigueira region in 1996, having previously bought fruit from it to make Alentejo wines under other brands. Major improvements were made in the vineyards, and 1998 a new purpose-built winery was added. It has a diverse output, from less expensive everyday bottlings to Reserve wines made only in exceptional years, and as well as French, American and Caucasian oak in the cellars, there are clay amphorae, as traditionally used in the Alentejo.
Read tasting notes on nine wines from Herdade do Peso
(2019) Touriga Nacional, Alicante Bouschet and Aragonez. Perfumed and quite leafy, a vegetal hint to floral and cherry. Deeper and meatier than the Sossego Tinto, a liquorice twist of bittersweet tannin, acid and dark fruit.
(2019) Alicante Bouschet is 68% of the blend, with Syrah and Touriga Nacional. Much more obviously minty and ripe, with vanilla and tight blackcurrant. Big dry tannins, but the juicy ripeness of the fruit and the lemony bite of acidity sits nicely in the long, quite elegant finish. Price quoted is if buying a case of six: use the wine-searcher link for single bottle stockists, but price in the £25 - £27 range.
(2019) Antão Vaz, harvested in two parts, two weeks apart, "first on melon skins second on white fruit". Oatmeal and almond touches, with clear, cool white fruit, fine apple and pear clarity and acidity, touches of light breadiness add interest.
(2019) 100% Alicante Bouschet from two blocks, one on clay giving strong fruit and freshness, the other on sandy soil with lower acid and more roundness says Luis. Aged in all new oak, 70% French, 30% American. Beautiful aromatic nose, lovely coffee and mocha, and deep but bright fruit, graphite and cedar, and long, cool acidity with fine, tight-grained tannins. Stockist quoted is for the previous vintage.
(2019) A small percentage of this was matured in amphora, almost all Alicante Bouschet with a little Syrah. Beautifully pure nose, pepper and hints of flowers, also a mocha note in the background, with a little sizzle of bacon fat. Freshness with fleshy plum and pepper-spiced, fat cherry fruit. Lovely endive bite of bitterness and cocoa to the long, pure, very fine tannin finish.
Close tasting notes
Casa Ferreirinha, Douro
Based in the winery at Quinta de Leda in the Douro Valley, I met head winemaker Luis Sottomayor, responsible for all winemaking in the Sogrape group, with a particular hand in making Ferreirinha’s most famous wine, Barca Velha. This is the biggest property in the Douro Superior, with 160 hectares of vineyard, dominated by plantings of Touriga Franca.
A wide range of wines is produced here, but of course focus falls on the almost legendary Barca Velha. There have been only 18 releases of the wine since 1952. Selected barrels are bottled in Burgundy-shaped bottles if thought to be good enough, but assessment continues throughout the ageing process before a decision is made whether the wine will become Barca Velha, or will be labelled as ‘Reserva Especial’ – hence both wines are uniquely in the Burgundian bottles from this producer. These really are wines from exceptional years, and often neither is released: 2008 was a Barca Velha year for example, 2009 a Reserva, 2010 nothing, 2011 as yet undecided, and neither wine will be produced from the 2012, 2014 or 2015 vintages.
Read tasting notes on 15 wines from Casa Ferreirinha and Barca Velha
(2019) This has been my 'Wine of the Week' a couple of times in previous vintages and is a delightfully fresh summer blend that seems to defy the hot conditions of the Douro. Floral and lime freshness and limpidity. Gorgeous texture and big thwack of seaside salinity and pithy lemon fruit in a terrific little wine at the price.
(2019) Made mostly from Rabigato. Youthful green tinge and a more open, slightly yeasty and complex nose than the Planalto with some herb and light figgy aromatics. Huge grapefruit character, pithy and dry, lovely. Price given is if buying by the case of six.
(2019) All made from estate-grown fruit, the blend is Viosinho and Arinto, 50% matured in new 500-litre French oak for 6 months. The oak here just adds creaminess, a hint of almond, then grapefruit and more salty minerality into a long, shimmering finish. Very good value.
(2019) Four varieties from Cima Corga, led by Touriga Franca. Nice bright colour, red and black vine fruits, primary, dry and with a slight inkiness, dry and liquorice character, lovely fresh acids and smooth tannins.
(2019) The same four varieties as the 'Esteva', but from hotter Douro superior and meatier and more balsamic in character, certainly more rustic on the palate, but with a meaty charm and again very good freshness to the acids and tannins.
(2019) From Cima Corga and Douro Superior, this spends 12 months in three- and four-year-old oak. Again the Douro's Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Tinta Barroca is the blend. Instantly smoother and silkier, the palate has a blue-black fruit intensity, it is fleshy, but the smoother tannins and ripe fruit married to elegant plummy acidity.
(2019) Older French oak for 75% of this, plus 25% of new American oak. Luis says it's a deliberate move to make a style more similar to New World wines, but still all Portuguese varieties (60% Touriga Franca, 25% Touriga Nacional, 15% Tinta Roriz). Slightly balsamic, more spicy opening, but the vinous Douro fruit is there, savoury, dark, lovely deep plummy vine fruits.
(2019) Beautiful lift to the nose here, violets and sweet spices, a slick of black fruits and lightening touch of raspberry in there too. Rich but freshness too, a graphite edge to black cherry and cassis, smooth and fine tannins and beautifully integrated acidity.
(2019) New to the market, this wine from the Cima Corga is the first release. A little lighter in colour, bright, again hugely floral aromatics, lots of lift and elegance. Real juiciness, real elegance, there is a grippy edge to the tannins to add a ruffling quality, great cherry skin and pert, dry red fruit acidity. Delightful.
(2019) This will not be released until some time in 2020, but is a fabulous wine. A field blend of around 20 varieties, from a single vineyard that is over 100 years old and harvested at just one ton per hectare, one bunch per vine. Fine black fruit, very pure and cassis-like, such lovely depth and racy dryness, spicy and very long. Superb wine, tentative 94 for now, but possibly worth more. The 2010 is for sale in some Portuguese stores at around 250 Euros per bottle.
(2019) Legado is a separate ultra-premium brand, but made at the Casa Ferreirinha winery. A blend of 35% Touriga Franca, plus Touriga Nacional, Donzelinho, Tinta Roriz, Tinta da Barca, Rufete, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Barroca and other varieties from the old vineyards of Quinta do Caêdo. It is aged two years in French oak, in cellars at Vila Nova di Gaia. Powerful nose, plenty of balsamic, slightly resinous oak, deep damson plum and liquorice, little blueberry and aromatic violet touches. Supple, silky tannins, a big sour cherry character with good acidity.
(2019) Mostly made up of Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional, with 15% Tinta Roriz and 10% Tinto Cão, this was aged for 16 months in French oak (75% new). This is the wine that, during maturation, could become Barca Velha or Reserva Especial, and only 17 have been produced since the first release in 1960. Sumptuous, cedar and graphite edge robust, meaty fruit, a peppery lift too in a lovely, complex but open and generous style. Meat stock and densely chocolate and fleshy plum fruit, but tannins but full and ripe. It's a big wine, but worthy of its 93-point score from me.
(2019) Beautiful nose, less dominated by the oak than the 2013 Legado, and of course with 10 years under its belt. Beautiful lift and floral edges, some ash and coffee comes through, that signature freshness again, that bittersweet cocoa and dark cherry edge of tart acidity, this is long - very long - and has such layered savoury qualities, vast intensity and such freshness. 50% Touriga Franca, 30% Touriga Nacional, 10% Tinta Roriz and 10% Tinto Cão.
(2019) Just a touch musty at first, the aromatics a little suppressed, but with some agitation it begins to open and show the aromatics, those floral edges to meat-stock and figgy aromas, in the mouth lovely creaminess to the tannins, another lovely wine, though perhaps the 2008 showing a little better on the day.
Close tasting notes
‘The Don’ needs little introduction, the iconic cloaked figure having adorned bottles of Sandeman Port since 1935. I visited the winery at Quinta do Seixo, surrounded by some of Sandeman’s most important Douro vineyards, and then on to their cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia. Both are well set-up for tourism, with shops, tours and tastings.
In the Douro, Sandeman’s vineyards span 700 hectares between the Douro and Torto rivers, with a multitude of different expositions and altitudes, giving “So many possibilities compared to the Alentejo for example which is a flat plateau with the same altitudes and expositions,” says Luis Sottomayor. There’s also a mix of very old, and much younger vineyards, with Sandeman planting not only six different clones of Touriga Nacional, but comparative rarities like Touriga Fêmea. The robotic lagares are a major draw for visitors as they relentlessly ‘tread’ the grapes, though for the premium ports foot-treading is still the order of the day.
Back down in Gaia, it was a delight to meet up with quintessential Englishman abroad, the charming George Sandeman, 7th generation Chairman of the company and roving ambassador, pictured in the cellars with the Don observing proceedings. He is also a huge fan of age-dated tawnies, the focus of our tasting with him. “Tawnies aged in Vila Nova de Gaia are fresher, perhaps less intense and caramelised than those aged in the Douro, but fresh and far more drinkable.” he says.
Choosing young wines to become aged tawnies requires skill and experience, with a need to identify “strong young wines that can improve over 40 years,” he says. Stocks of newly fermented wine come to Gaia and are aged for one year before first racking, then back into barrel for another 12 months and the cycle continues. As they age, barrels can be refreshed with younger wines – a fractional blending system that George says keeps the house style of freshness. Drawn from cask, we tasted a sample of a 60-year-old wine that had so much density, red fruit and raisins, lovely spice and walnut and dried apricot notes, caramel too, but the freshness was dazzling. “Perhaps too intense on its own for Sandeman,” says George, “but an excellent blending component that gives the 30- and 40-year-olds some of their character.”
(2019) Unfined unfiltered, and George says it needs to be decanted off the sediment if three or more years old. More closed than the Reserve. Currants and cherries, nice floral and leafy characters emerging, some pepperiness and a nice long finish.
(2019) This single quinta vintage wine is immediately darker and more dense in character than the 2013 LBV, with cassis and black cherry, a little more drying tannin, grippy, serious with lovely freshening acidity. Young.
(2019) Elegant lift here, the florals and bergamot and violet perfume pronounced, creamy black berries, so pure. Beautifully supple sweetness with some bittersweet cocoa and endive bite of cherry ripe acidity. Deep and delicious.
(2019) Spicy, bold, quite a deep colour, bold fruit and spice-driven, some aromatic tobacco notes, the palate creamy and rich, the figgy sweetness offset by the acidity. Lovely freshness with unobtrusive spirit just warming the finish.
(2019) Paler and more delicate colour, rather more raisin and dried fig aromas, smokiness and tobacco. Immediately more luxurious, a velvet texture and pure, sweet, the luscious plump fruit and nuttiness giving complexity and richness against the acidity. Fabulous.
(2019) A little more caramel and light dustiness, walnut husks and dry in character. The palate has that intensity ramped up slightly, but it's a lovely bitter orange tang of acidity. Long and so intense.
(2019) Much more of walnutty and dried fruit character, figs and a touch of shellac, the palate super sweet, a lovely warmth of the integrated alcohol, not at all stale or clumsy: the acidity and freshness retained.