The idea of drinking nine glasses of wine and then being able to remember the evening may seem impossible, but it happened to me.
The occasion was a wine-tasting put on by the Birkbeck Wine Society last week. Portuguese wine was the subject studied by 28 thirsty would-be connoisseurs.
Our hosts were Charles Shaw and Jill Cameron from the society and the wine expert Gilbert Winfield, in very natty waistcoat, who introduced each wine and gave us plenty of information about them and Portuguese wines in general – that is, when he could make himself heard among the excited hubbub.
The room in Gordon Square was decked out like a restaurant, including candles and spittoons, and by chance your solitary male correspondent was lucky enough to find himself sitting with three charming women companions (pictured) as well as two wine glasses waiting to be filled.
We started with a vinho verde, the classic slightly sparkling white wine known to Algarve holiday makers. Then came another white, then some reds, and finishing with a port and another sweet wine. We each had a sheet with the names of the wines and descriptions, with space for our own comments on each for future reference, and a map of the regions on the back.
Gilbert, Charles and Jill were our waiters.
Sensibly the glasses were small and only half-filled, for the sake of keeping an orderly evening. We usually had two glasses on the go at once, for comparison purposes.
Along the way we learnt a lot about Portuguese wine and wine in general from Gilbert.
- Portugal makes “delicious wines, undervalued in this country”.
- Vinho verde, sold widely in tourist areas of Portugal, is an “abused category … people come back with a good feeling about it, buy it here, and think, hmm, I don’t remember it being this wishy-washy in the Algarve”.
- Vinho verde, made in the north, is not actually particularly green, but since it doesn’t keep very well it is bottled early, and as young wines have a green tinge that is where the name comes from. The “spritz” comes because it is bottled before fermentation is finished so some carbon dioxide is trapped in the bottle, giving it a refreshing fizz.
- Wine tastings are usually done from north to south. Vines grow in temperate latitudes between 30 degrees and 50 degrees in each hemisphere. Portugal is right in the middle, between 37 and 42, although being on the Atlantic seaboard it is cooler and rainier than inland areas at the same latitudes.
- Northern wines are lower-alcohol but with “nice depth”, said Gilbert, while the further south you go the grapes are riper, with more sugar, so they are higher-alcohol, “bigger” wines.
- Portuguese whites “don’t leap out at you but have a very attractive white fruit aroma, and have a rich, oily, mouth-filling fulness, very satisfying”.
- Portugal produces “big, tannic red wines … the tannin gives a tongue-coating, bitter taste which helps them go well with fatty foods”.
- Wines made from grapes, unlike those made from other fruits, don’t taste of the fruit; they develop complex, exotic flavours that don’t remind us of the grape – except wines from the muscat grape, which do.
- The appellation system in Portugal is looser than elsewhere and is no great guide to the quality of the wines: you can have good and bad wines in every area. “You can have low-level, low-priced wines that are absolutely delicious,” said Gilbert.
- The exception is the Duoro region: this is the port region and the makers have recently gone into high-quality production of non-fortified wines also.
- “I was in Lisbon recently and you could get a decent bottle of the local wine for €3 a bottle – even €2”. So there’s a holiday idea!
After the tastings came a “heads and tails” quiz. Everyone stood up, and Gilbert asked a question, related to his talks, with choice of two answers, a “heads” and a “tails” – only one correct. You placed your hands on the relevant part of your body. The answer came: if you were wrong you sat down. Then another question. The last man or woman standing won.
This went to a tie-break question unrelated to Portuguese wine: name the five main Bordeaux grape varieties.* One knowledgable gentleman walked away with the prize (in a bottle of course) and there was another winner in a society raffle.
Lastly, in a poll for future subjects, a “cheeses of northern Europe” event came top.
Before then though is the society’s next meeting, Wines of Georgia with Chris Bowling, founder of Oxford’s Georgian Wine Society.
Charles said of the Portuguese : “The event went very well, Portuguese wines can be tricky to approach, partly due to the unique grape varietals and the rich tapestry of varying styles.”
The evening cost your correspondent £15 – and he managed to make it home safely, despite not using the spittoon once.
* The main red Bordeaux varietals are: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. Of course Carménère, though much more rare, is also allowed.
Details of all the wines tasted:
1. The Wine Society’s Vinho Verde 2012
A refreshing blend of Alvarinho and Trajadura grapes, light white fruit and a slight spritz
2. Quintas das Bageiras Bairrada Branco 2012
Bical, Maria Gomes and Cerceal combine to make a fresh and citrus style, with rich palate texture
3. Caves de Pegoes Dry Muscat 2012, Setubal
This grape also makes sweet wine in Setubal, but this one is dry, but with that lovely ripe, slightly spicy fruit typical of Muscat
4. Ribeiro Santo Dao 2011, Charles Lucas Vinhos
Touriga National, Tinto Roriz, and Alfracheiro grapes combine to reveal a dark-fruited wine with hints of savoury Mediterranean herbs
5. Alianca Reserva Tinto 2011, Bairrada
Touriga National, Baga, Tinto Roriz, again black-fruited and spicy, with a hint of oak-derived vanilla
6. Monte Velho Vinho Regional Alentejo 2012, Herdade do Esporao Aragonês, Trincadeira, Touriga Nacional, Syrah.
A heady ripe fruit mix, softened by 6 months in oak, with smooth spicy toasty flavours. This is one of southern Portugal’s finest estates.
7. Quinta da Manuela Douro 2000 Tinto
A mature wine from the Port region, tannins softened with age, and rich flavours of spicy plum/fruitcake and dried fig with chocolate notes.
8. Symington Family Estates Late Bottled Vintage Port 2008
Both these last two wines are made from the port varieties of Touriga National, Touriga Franca, and Tinto Roriz. Prunes, raisins and figs, with rich cakey warmth and mouth-filling tannins to refresh it
9. Moscatel de Setúbal, Bacalhôa 2011
A rich and complex fortified wine abound with orange tea flower, raisins and a smooth, sweet yet fresh finish
Results of the poll for future tastings:
Sake Masterclass 9%
Japanese Koshu Wines with Lynne Sheriff MW 3%
Sherry with Bodegas Williams & Humbert 16%
Boutique Producers with Stephen Forward of Essentially Wine 14%
Barwell & Jones tasting with Angus McNab 14%
Cheeses of Northern Europe with Fratelli Formaggio 27%
Portugal 2 with Richard Mayson 3%
South Africa with Tim Atkin MW 14%
The raffle prize was a book on sherry (The Big Book of Sherry Wines, various authors, donated by the Sherry Institute) and a bottle of artisanal sherry.
The quiz prize was a bottle of Henriques & Henriques madeira.