By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 27 Oct 2018
Portuguese sparkling wines deserve to be better known outside their country. The quality of Portugal’s fizz would outstrip many Italian Proseccos or Spanish Cavas, thanks to the efforts of two passionate winegrowers.
The first is Celso Pereira (pictured above), winemaker for Vertice sparkling wines. I recently met him in the Douro Valley in northern Portugal where he makes an exceptional range of traditional method fizz from high altitude vineyards 650 metres above the river. The Douro is well known as the home of Port and robust red table wines – but in recent years a tiny quantity of white wines have emerged from cooler, north facing vineyards in the Alto Douro.
The story of Vertice is extraordinary. It began in the mid 1980’s when the owners of California’s most famous sparkling wine producers, Schramsberg, arrived to investigate the potential of fizz-making in Portugal – thanks to a connection with a Golden Gate bridge engineer and Douro winegrower Joao Carvalho Maia.
Schramsberg’s Jack and Jamie Davies visited all the regions of the north from the home of Portuguese fizz, Bairrada, up to Douro and the Minho. They settled on the area around Alijo in Douro’s Cima Corgo as most suitable for its granite and sandy soil, great thermal amplitude and high altitude, where they established their Portuguese joint venture Caves Transmontanas.
“Interestingly they did not want to make fizz from Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, but focused on Portugal’s native grapes”, says Pereira. “They studied 25 varieties doing small micro-vinifications. Within four years they narrowed it to white Gouveio, Codega and Malvasia Fina grapes and one red Touriga Franca working with about 40 growers around Alijo – then over the years we added white Viosinho and Rabigato grapes”, he says.
Winemaker Celso Pereira, who was born in Angola, trained at Portugal’s Coimbra University and worked in Western Australia and California, is the man behind the Vertice creation. He is one of the most passionate winegrowers I have met, determined against the odds to produce sparkling wines in an unforgiving landscape and climate to match Champagne.
“The key is to get healthy grapes with body and acid, but the weather is a challenge for us. We have great diurnal temperature difference on the Alijo plateau with 30 degrees by day and 15 degrees by night which allows us to retain grape acidity, but in recent years summer temperatures have been increasing. We have limited water, it is difficult to get workers to work on these steep slopes and our yields are tiny”, he says.
Yet Pereira manages to produce 100,000 bottles of sparkling wine from native grapes which taste remarkably good – and his Millesime particularly impressed our group of tasters as a serious match for Champagne. In my mind, one of the secrets behind his success is his use of part ferment in old barrels he imports from Burgundy – which add complexity and depth to his wines. His range of Vertice fizz is a one-off – there is nothing like this anywhere else in Portugal – yet.
The second man who is helping to put Portuguese sparkling wine on the map is the legendary Luis Pato, also known as ‘Mr Baga’ (pictured right). Pato is based in Bairrada region, where 70% of Portuguese sparkling wines are made. This area south of Oporto, just 20 km from the Atlantic coast, has sandy and chalky clay soils, a cool maritime climate where the wine styles are fresher, but less minerally than in the Douro.
Pato, a chemical engineer rather than a winemaker by trade, is a highly inventive person. He was determined to tame the local red Baga grape, which has been planted in Bairrada for eight centuries.
“To cope with the tannic Baga, I devised a method of using the first early picked crop for my sparkling wine to reduce the yield and concentrate my reds. I find the sandy soils give grapes with good acid, but Baga grows best on chalky clay to give more body”, says Pato.
Pato is a relentless innovator with his fizz. He experiments with two fizz methods: traditional with second ferment in bottle and the riskier Antigo ancient method without disgorgement of the lees. He has also created the first ‘natural’ fizz in Portugal with no sulphur addition – Vinho Pan.
Like Pereira, Pato is determined against the odds to put Portugal on the world’s quality sparkling wine map. Watch this space too – as Portuguese wine innovator Dirk Niepoort will soon be releasing his new Bairrada fizz.
Douro: VERTICE MILLESIME ESPUMANTE BRUT 2011 ***STAR BUY***
(£19.95 Wine Line, Edinburgh 07757291440 www.thewineline.co.uk)
Biscuity yeasty aroma with floral undertones, intense ripe sweet creamy citric fruits with good depth and a long crisp dry finish – just 6 g/l dosage. A remarkable vintage fizz made from a blend of five Portuguese grapes, part oak ferment and 4 years lees ageing.
Douro: VERTICE GOUVEIO ESPUMANTE 2010
Extraordinarily focused fizz with limey fruits, crisp, very dry and very focused linear fizz made from the Gouveio grape, also known as Godello. Depth of fruit comes from its part ferment in barrel with 7 years lees ageing.
Douro: VERTICE PINOT NOIR ESPUMANTE 2008
Deep complex Blanc de Noirs. Very winey, rich cherry fruits with minerally depth, complex with quite prominent oak from Oregon oak maturation and creamy depth from 8 years lees ageing.
Bairrada: LUIS PATO MARIA GOMES ESPUMANTE NV
(£14.99 Valhalla’s Goat, Glasgow; Drinkmonger, Edinburgh; St Andrews Wine Co)
Pato’s best selling fizz is the sweetest of his range made from white Maria Gomes grapes planted on sandy soils, it has elegant floral notes, limey undertones, crisp, light and charming.
Bairrada: LUIS PATO ‘INFORMAL’ VINHA PAN ESPUMANTE ROSE 2014 ***STAR BUY***
Made from red Baga planted on chalky clay soil; burnt orange colour, biscuit depth, rich rounded, sweet and sour raspberry fruits with a full rich lingering finish. Very good.
Join Rose’s Champagne v Sparkling Wine Tastings on 1 November at The Royal Scots Club in Edinburgh, on 16 November in Rufflets Hotel nr St Andrews and on 12 December in Abode Hotel in Glasgow : prices from £42 www.rosemurraybrown.com