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Sommelier Certification: Portuguese Wine Beyond Port (Plus Some Smaller Old World Standouts)

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spilled wine
wine admiring
Analyzing the color of my wine. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

“Who drank wine yesterday?” asks Costas Mouzouras, the director of wines at New York City’s Gotham Wines and our teacher for today’s Sommelier Society of America class on Portugal.

A few hands go up and he shakes his head, a slight smirk on his face. “What about the rest of you? You’re taking a wine course. You should be tasting wines everyday, whether it’s a $5 bottle or a $50.”

What I love about Mr. Mouzouras is his lecture not only involves teaching about the wines of Portugal, Greece, Lebanon, Israel and Hungary, but also providing crucial tips for our exam. With each class we’re given maps of the regions covered. According to Mr. Mouzouras these are one of the handiest tools a sommelier certification student can have.

“Using maps is the easiest way to study and take notes. What’s the soil? What grows there? You’ll visually understand where everything is.”

Portugal is an interesting wine country to look at on a map, mainly because it’s so small yet so diverse. Drive through Portugal and you’ll quickly realize there are an array of climates and wine styles, with 14 regions and 29 DOCs. What’s special about Portugal as a wine region is very few Portuguese varietals are planted elsewhere, so when you taste something it’s truly unique to the place.

wine tasting
Wine tasting during a Portuguese wine class with the Sommelier Society of America. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

There are three classifications you’ll need to know when learning about Portuguese wine. From lowest quality to highest quality, these go:

  • Vinho de Portugal (also known as Vinho de Mesa): Essentially this just means it was made in Portugal. Not all these wines are bad; however, they aren’t adhering to specified quality control laws.
  • Vinho Regional: 85% of the grapes used in Vinho Regional wines must come from one of eight specified regions, including Rios do Minho; Tras-os-Montes; Beiras; Ribatejo; Estremadura; Alentejo; Terras do Sado; and Algarve.
  • Denominacao de Origem (DOC): DOCs represent the highest-quality wines and encompass 19 wine regions and 40 wines. On the label you’ll typically see “DO.” If you’ve read Epicure & Culture’s articles on French wine regions, Portugal’s DOC classification is like France’s AOC classification.

It’s also important to note that when drinking a varietal wine, the minimum allowance of the grape is 85% — much higher than in places like California (75%), although lower than in wine destinations like Chablis and Beaujolais (100%). Like with Spain’s wine country, Portugal’s wine industry is closely regulated. Unlike in places like California and New Zealand where terms like “reserve” are merely marketing ploys, in Portugal everything you see on the label is there because it has been evaluated to be so. In Portugal and Spain, the word reserve (or reserva) means it was aged in a cask and bottle for at least three years.

spilled wine
Spilled wine. Photo courtesy of Gerry Machen.

Portugal Wine Regions

There are a number of important wine regions within Portugal — including Port, although that won’t be covered until the Fortified Wines class. Today, we’ll be looking at Minho VR, Dao DOC and Douro DOC.

Minho

Minho offers a very fertile landscape home to numerous crops and, of course, vineyards. This region is well-known for its Vinho Verde, the largest DOC in Portugal and well-known for its myriad small growers. It stretches from the River Minho in northern Portugal — just below the Spanish border — down to the Porto coast and continuing inland about 30 kilometers (19 miles). While the cool, wet climate makes grape ripening a challenge, traditional growers have learned to plant grape vines on the vineyard edges and up trees to open up space for other crops, while modern winemakers choose to grow grapes in areas with maximum exposure to the sun. Not surprisingly, this wine is know for being acidic — even the reds.

While some may think the name refers to green or grassy white wines, Vinho Verde can be any color of wine as well as a single varietal or blend, and instead refers to the youthfulness of the wine. Typically here you’ll find sandy and granite soils growing loureiro, trajadura, arinto (pedernã), avesso, and the popular high-minerality alvarinho grapes made into low alcohol (about 6-9%) and inexpensive wines starting at $4.99 a bottle.

To help us get a taste of Minho, the class samples a Cruzeiro Vinho Verde, as, according to Mouzouras, Cruzeiro makes very high-quality wines. This pale white wine offers tart apple on the nose with some citrus and floral on the palate. It’s an easy, fun wine great to drink on a warm day.

wine grapes
Wine grapes. Photo courtesy of Gergely Csatari.

Dao

Dao is another important region to know in Portugal, a continental climate area surrounded on three sides by mountains growing mainly red wines. There are about 50 grapes permitted in Dao, although the main one you’ll find is touriga nacional — often said to be Portugal’s best wine grape, and the main grape used in Port. It’s known for being rich and well-balanced and offering essences of black fruits, cherry and sweet spice. Some other important grapes in the region include alfrocheiro preto, tinta roriz, jaen, bastaro (reds) and encruzado (white).

We get to try this grape for ourselves with a Casa de Santar Dao ($10.99), made with touriga nacional, alfrocheiro preto and tinta roriz, which is known as tempranillo in Spain’s wine country. The wine starts out like an alfrocheiro with unripe aromas on the nose, but soon becomes touriga nacional offering dark fruit flavors and tastes of cardamom, spice, rose petals and smoked meats. It’s an interesting wine, and one that really allows me to taste the famous grape of Portugal.

douro
Douro. Photo courtesy of unhappy by design.

Douro

Douro is a traditional wine region, showcasing schist-filled hillsides and famous for its dry red wines and Port (about 2/3 of the wine here is Port, which is then shipped to Porto, the famous city synonymous with the fortified wine). The main grape varieties used to make Port — touriga nacional, tinta roriz, tinta barroca, tinto cao, touriga francesca and a grape with spicy characteristics, tinta da barca — are also used to make the region’s red wines. Red wines from Douro can range from light and fruity to more heavy and spicy. You’ll also still find a lot of high-quality wine makers here crushing grapes by foot. This allows some give with the grapes and massages them instead of completely squashing them like a machine.

The wine we sip to acquaint us with Douro is a 2008 Quinta Do Popa TN ($27), which Mr. Mouzouras informs us is a “very tame version of touriga nacional.” When the wine is young it’s very tannic; however, because it’s had time to age it’s softened.

At this point Mr. Mouzouras provides another tip: always taste wine as it is straight from the bottle. Then, for your enjoyment, aerate it. For those taking the Sommelier Society of America sommelier certification course to get into the wine industry, it’s vital to be able to explain to a customer what they’re going to be getting as soon as they pull the cork.

santorini winemaker
Santorini winemaker twisting and pruning the vines to protect them from strong winds. Photo courtesy of Klearchos Kapoutsis.

Greece

As today’s class is also covering other “smaller Old World standouts,” we get to talk about Greece, which, according to Mr. Mouzouras, “looks like an outstretched arm into the Mediterranean (I don’t know about you, but visuals like this always help me study). Greece has a pretty consistent Mediterranean climate, and has no problem producing very ripe grapes. While the country mainly produces white wines, you can find some great and even powerful reds.

For a little history, the belief is that the Greeks took grapes to Italy through trade and colonization and the Romans spread them through Europe. In Greece, you’ll find about 300 indigenous grapes, some of which include assyritiko, moscofilero (whites), mandelari, and xynomavro (reds), to name a few.

There are a number of classifications for Greece, from most prestigious to least, including:
*Appellation of Origin of Superior Quality (OPAP): Equivalent to French appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC). Greece has only 20 acres classified as OPAP. These wines can be either dry or sweet.
*Appellation of Origin (OPE): Equivalent to France’s vin délimité de qualité supérieure (VDQS).
*Topikos Oenos (T.O.): Similar to France’s vin de pays (country wine), there is no appellation of origin and can incorporate many specified areas and only certain grape varieties.
*Epitrapezios Oenos (E.O.): Similar to France’s vin de table (table wine), as the wines can blend grapes from different regions and have no appellations of origin.

A note on Cava. When you hear the word Cava in reference to Greek wines it is not the same as Spain’s sparkling Cava. In Greece, Cava — along with meaning “wine shop” — refers to an aging requirement.

It’s clear that Mr. Mouzouras is saddened that we can’t spent more time discussing Greece; however, he’s chosen three wines he believes express the region’s best capabilities. Which, he makes clear, is not Retsina, a pungent, pine resinated white and the “stigma of Greek wines.”

The first Greek wine we start with it a 2012 Domaine Sigalas White ($19) from Santorini made with assyritiko and athiri. While the assyritiko provides an intense earthiness from the volcanic soil — you can actually taste notes of ash — the athiri features elegant aromas and helps to soften the wine. The wine haw a fresh acidity with flavors of peach and apricot.

Another taste of Greece is enjoyed through a 2007 Boutari Grande Reserve Naoussa ($24.99), barrel-aged a minimum of two years and bottle aged an additional minimum of two years. The wine is a made with the xinomavro grape, known for its rich tannins, outstanding aging capabilities and complex red fruit aromas.

According to Mr. Mouzouras, Boutari is one of Greece’s wine leaders, and this wine is no exception, a red wine tinged brown with age, but still offering surprising tannic structure despite the color. It is light and beautifully balanced, with olive on the nose and red fruit and spices on the palate.

Finally we travel to the Peloponnese Peninsula with a 2011 Palivou Nemea ($17), with the word Nemea telling you the wine has at least 85% agiorghitiko. From Nemea AOC you’ll typically get wines with a deep red color, soft tannins and complex aromas. With this wine in particular, it has scents of black cherry, plum, peppercorn and a slightly chalky essence, which we’re told is typical of this wine. On the palate, it has a nice acidity but tannins that are a bit too high, showing it isn’t quite ready to drink.

israel wine lunch
A delicious wine lunch in Israel. Photo courtesy of israeltourism.

Israel

Along with Lebanon, Israel claims to have the oldest vines in the world, with Jesus turning water into wine at Cana (which is today in Lebanon but many believe to have been in present day Kafr Kanna near Nazareth) in biblical times as well as being talked about in the bible in relation to wine. This makes Israel a great destination for exploring wine history.

The main grapes used in Israeli wine are zinfandel, merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, syrah and pinot noir (red) as well as chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, gewurtztraminer and riesling (white). A myth exists that all Israeli wines are often low quality and intensely sweet — possibly due to the accessibility of Manischewitz — but the truth is there are a number of high quality wines coming from an array of diverse climates. Oh, and one last thing, while many are, not all Israeli wines are kosher. And if they are this has nothing to do with quality, but simply that the wine-making adheres to certain procedures. For example, Jewish males who observe the Sabbath are required to watch the entire wine-making process, and all wine ingredients must be kosher.

For Israel we compare two wines from the same vintage and grape that are quite different, showing just what a large role terroir can play. The first is a 2010 Isaac’s Ram Cabernet Sauvignon from Hevron Heights Winery ($29). It has a deep red color with soft tannins, a medium to medium plus body, a nice acidity and flavors of plum and a slight earthiness and wood from the aging. It’s important to note Hevron Heights is hilly and mountainous and located 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) above sea level, with a warm, dry climate and dramatic temperature swings between day and night.

Our next Israeli wine, also a 2010 cabernet sauvignon, is a Bazelet HaGolan ($32) from Golan Heights, a region with some of Israel’s highest vineards — some vineyards even get snow — with mineral-rich volcanic soil and a cool climate terroir. This wine is leaner and briny with a longer finish, and is very fruit forward with notes of strawberry and peppercorn.

wine notes
Taking notes during my sommelier certification course with the Sommelier Society of America. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

Lebanon

As stated above, Lebanon also believes they’re home to the world’s oldest vines, dating back to biblical times when local Christians believe Jesus turned water to wine in Cana, Lebanon. According to the Wall Street Journal, the oldest wine producer is Chateau Ksara, started in 1857 by Jesuit priests. Today, Lebanon is using wine to help market their tourism, producing everything from crisp whites to bold reds.

For our Lebanon tasting we have a 2005 Chateau Musar, which Bob Moody, the chairman of the Sommelier Society of America, has me put a star next to.

“Make sure you really pay attention to this wine,” he says. “It’s an expensive, high-quality wine you won’t want to miss out on.”

According to Mr. Mouzouras, this wine is the national treasure of Lebanon, made in the fertile and agriculturally-rich Bekaa Valley — famous all over the Middle East — and made with cabernet sauvignon, with it’s compelling aromas and flavors; cinsault, a French wine grape mainly used in the Rhone Valley for spice; and carignan, a popular blending grape in the Rhone as well as southern France and Rioja. The wine is red with a brownish tinge, intense yet fresh with a medium+ body and medium tannins. There is an unmistakable scent of barnyard and dirt on the nose and notes of bread and jammy fruits on the palate. Interestingly, the class has very mixed opinions of the wine. While some love it, others admit to not understanding the fascination. This isn’t because the wine is bad, but because it’s unfamiliar, unlike anything else out there.

hungarian wine
Hungarian wines from the Villany Region. Photo courtesy of zolakoma.

Hungary

Despite being small, Hungary boasts a large number of indigenous and international grape varieties, like chardonnay, semillon and tramini (white), and cabernet sauvignon, kadarka and kekoporto (red). One can also not forget the white grapes that compose Hungary’s most famous wine, Tokay (Tokaji) Aszu — not related to the tokai grape from the Italian wine region. This luscious botrytis-affected dessert wine has honeyed notes and an exceptional balance due to its natural acidity that cuts the sweetness. Tokay Aszu is made with four botrytis-susceptible grapes: high acid furmint; the floral and fruity harslevelu; the crisp and aromatic muscat lunel; and oremus, a grape capable of achieving high levels of sugar.

Tokay Aszu comes from Hungary’s Tokay Region, where Karen MacNeil of “The Wine Bible” claims the first delicious botrytis-affected wines in the world were made. While in Germany’s wine region they measure the ripeness of wine grapes, for Tokay Aszu they measure sweetness. Measured in puttonyos, the table looks like this (note: the table starts at sweet and goes all the way to outrageously sweet):

  • 3 Puttonyos = 6-9% residual sugar
  • 4 Puttonyos = 9-12% residual sugar
  • 5 Puttonyos = 12-15% residual sugar
  • 6 Puttonyos = 15-18% residual sugar
  • Tokay Aszu Eszencia = 18%+ residual sugar
  • Tokay Eszencia = 40-70% residual sugar (wow!)

For our Hungarian tasting, we sample a 2007 Chateau Dereszia Tokaji Aszu, 5 puttonyos. With delightful stone fruit notes and a great balance, the wine is sweet without being cloying, despite having 120 grams of residual sugar. As the creamy liquid envelops my palate, I can certainly understand why this wine is the prize of Hungary.

class wines
Wines from class. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

One Final Tip

Before we end, Mr. Mouzouras provides one final tip, this one on judging a wine’s value. When you take a sip of wine you swallow. After the initial swallow the wine will naturally force you to swallow again, even though nothing new has gone into your mouth. Count how many extra swallows there are. This is the star rating Mr. Mouzouras gives the wine. He then compares this rating with the price to determine the value. Remember, just because a wine only has one extra sip doesn’t mean it isn’t a great value — as long as it’s priced accordingly.

Have you ever experienced Portuguese, Greek, Israeli, Lebanese or Hungarian wines? Please share in the comments below.

Also Check Out:

Sommelier Certification: Exploring The Delicious World Of Italian Wine

Local Living On Italy’s Scenic Amalfi Coast

Hold The Pork: Vegetarian-Friendly Finds In Portugal’s Land Of Meat And Fish

Jessie Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

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