Sunday, February 16, 2014

José Maria da Fonseca

When I travel in a foreign country, getting off the beaten (touristy) path is a must. There's a real sense of adventure in boarding a local bus with no forehand knowledge of precise stops and distances, available maps, or a strong command of the language. During my recent trip to Lisbon, Portugal I did exactly that for a day trip to Azeitão, a small town located southeast of Lisbon in the northern part of the Setúbal peninsula. 

I had appointments that day at two very different wineries and my first stop was at José Maria da Fonseca. Historically recognized as a dependable Port producer, Fonseca's southern outpost concentrates on their table wines and the dessert gem Moscatel.

The 'control' is on the left, the bottle on the right made the trip!
The winery buildings are full of commemorations and historical items, including a bottling machine from the 1800s and two racks of Moscatel, one with bottles wrapped in red and green tissue, and one in blue and white - which celebrates the fact that they've been making wine for so long they've survived two regimes and therefore two differently-colored flags.

There are also barrels of Fonseca's special "Torna Viagem" Moscatel: way back in the day, when sent by ship to other countries, the conditions in the hold of the ship - heat, rocking - resulted in an accidental but wonderfully beneficial accelerated aging of the wine. In 2000, Fonseca replicated the trip, keeping a control sample at home - after six months, they saw a difference in the traveling wine which amounted to twenty-five years of aging! They repeated these trips in 2007 and 2010, the latter lasting a whole year on the seas, and that Moscatel was found to have aged the equivalent of thirty-five beautiful years.
Private collection room.

Although Fonseca makes very fine table wines, the Moscatel is the pride of the family; every year they take one barrel and fifty bottles of the current vintage and place it in their own private collection. It is not being saved to be consumed (perhaps if the Pope and ten or twelve heads of state arrived on the same day, they might crack open a bottle,) but is kept as part of the incredible legacy of the family and that wine.

I was joined by António Maria Soares Franco, a seventh-generation member of the family, to taste through some of their wines and we began with the Periquita line. In the mid-1800s, José Maria da Fonseca himself purchased a plot of land with that name and planted grapes to make table wine. In 1941 the company trademarked the name, and it is believed to be the oldest brand of Portuguese table wines, known for its consistent quality.

2012 Fonseca Periquita Branco (which made my list of Top Wines Under $20 of 2013!) It had a pale gold color, with straw and light tropical fruits on the nose. Nice fruit expression with citrus on the finish but not overly acidic. Great on its own or with appetizers or shellfish. Blend of Verdelho, Moscatel de Setúbal, Viosinho and Viognier.  ~ $10

The 2012 Fonseca Periquita Tinto (original) was a very quaffable table red; a medium-plus ruby color, it had a bit of a dusty nose with cranberry and florals with good fruit expression, nice balancing acidity and subtle tannins. A blend of Castelão, Trincadeira and Aragonez, it was a great food wine for ~$10.

There was a little more structure in the 2011 Fonseca Periquita Tinto Riserva. (Often, 'riserva' means wines that were aged longer or were selectively designated so by the producer - in this case it is a quality term bestowed by an independent commission.) This was a quite dark ruby red, with blueberry and blackberry on the nose, following through on the palate. Its soft tannins gave it more structure, but it was still easy to drink. Aged for 8 months in oak, a blend of Castelão, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca. Very good, especially at ~$15.

Grapes for Portugal's most famous dessert wine, Port, are sourced from the Douro Valley region much farther to the north. Fonseca uses some of their Douro grapes for their Domini series of table wines - which is a pretty big sacrifice considering the business and esteem of Port! The 2010 Fonseca Domini was medium plus ruby, with a lovely nose of red fruit, gravel and earth. In the mouth it had much more gripping tannins, but was elegant with violet florals and a little licorice. Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, ~$15.

I have often crowed about the amazing quality for the value wines coming out of Portugal, and all of what we'd tasted so far absolutely fit the bill. But often if you take even a tiny jump in price, the rewards are magnificent.

To wit: the 2008 Fonseca Domini Plus is a field blend (meaning no one is truly sure how much of which kinds of grapes are in it) from a 60-year old vineyard. The grapes were handpicked and foot-trodden in the old style in large stone trenches, or lagares. It then spent 12 months in new French oak. The Plus was an opaque, teeth-staining ruby. It had a nose of blackberry liqueur, licorice, violets, lavender, mocha and graphite. In the mouth, there was an incredible density of flavor, with all of those notes washing over the palate in waves. It was highly tannic, but appropriate for its style. My notes say, "Wow.  Just amazing." While tasting this, António nodded at his glass and said, "Pure Douro;" the expression of fruit showed the sacrifice of Port grapes was completely justified. And even though it is a higher price point, this wonderfulness still costs only around ~$35-40.

Finally we arrived at the 2010 Fonseca Moscatel de Setúbal. Moscatel is produced similarly to Port in that the base wine's fermentation is arrested by the addition of a brandy spirit. That means the yeast gets knocked out by the alcohol and never finishes munching up its food source, sugar, so the resulting wine is sweeter and higher in alcohol - perfect as an accompaniment to dessert (or as a dessert on its own!) A medium caramel-gold, this had a nose of burnt sugar and apricot, with vibrant acidity in the mouth and additional flavors of candied orange peel and a hint of spice. It would stand up beautifully to a crème brulée or some heavenly dark chocolate and fig concoction. A half-bottle is ~$10.

Knowing that Fonseca could easily coast on its reputation both for Port as well as their table wines and Moscatel, I asked António what his vision was for the future. He replied that they wanted to come up with new ideas and new blends, but honor tradition (like the Perequita,) and always continue to improve.

I couldn't have asked for anything more! Except, perhaps, room in my suitcase for some of these bottles.  Luckily, their availability in the States (and elsewhere) is fairly good.  My adventurous day trip to Azeitão was off to an incredible start - stay tuned for the next chapter, Bacalhôa...


Wednesday, February 5, 2014


Pinot Noir is such an interesting wine.  Forget the praise heaped on it by Miles, the persnickety oenophile in Alexander Payne's movie "Sideways" if you can (his monologue about the notoriously difficult-to-grow grape was really about... himself) - with all of the Wineaux out there who love Pinot Noir, I've never heard one wax quite as rhapsodic.

You see, PN can be a bit of a conundrum.  First of all, there are the two main "styles:" Old World, like the Pinots from Burgundy with austere, elegant earthiness, and New World from the US and New Zealand which shower you with bright fruit; it is a grape that is known to reflect its terroir very specifically.  But you also have producers tailoring their wines to mimic different styles, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell a Pinot's precise origin from what is in your glass.

So can one generalize about Pinot?  Perhaps only to say that it is a lighter-bodied red (except when it's not) with a fair amount of acidity (except when it hasn't) that comes in a number of diverse styles but is often pretty darn quaffable.  Pinot is also a born 'food wine' due to its acidity and lighter weight.

At a recent Pinot Days event I sampled a number of wines from California producers of PN.  (The organizers crowed there was an array of Pinots from the Pacific Northwest and New Zealand on hand as well, but the majority were from CA.)  It always makes me laugh when trade event brochures have NO room to write notes, which explains why my following reviews are über concise.  I sought out some of my favorite producers, as well as a few new to me.  (Starred entries are standouts.)

Belle Glos is a perennial favorite - they make PNs from a number of standout sub-regions in California. You can't miss the distinctive wax capsules which actually meander down half of the bottle in a smear of luscious rich red.

*2012 Belle Glos Dairyman Pinot Noir Russian River Valley: lavender florals, strawberry, cherry pie - I wrote, "WOW - YUM."  ~$43

2012 Belle Glos Las Alturas Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands: Herby nose, velvety fruit, very spicy! Long length. ~$40

*2012 Belle Glos Clark & Telephone Pinot Noir Santa Barbara: Dark berry syrup, clove.  Outrageously smooth and elegant, yet rich.  ~$39

It is believed that Buena Vista Winery is the oldest commercial winery in the US.  (At least Wikipedia believes it!)  Located in Sonoma, CA - prime Pinot territory - they make a wide array of wines, from Chardonnay to Zinfandel and much more in-between, including these PNs with great quality at an affordable price.

*2012 Buena Vista Pinot Noir Sonoma: Light cherry berry, bright and pleasant, nice easy finish.  Super choice for those who crave a smooth, delicious wine without too much structure. ~$13

2009 Buena Vista Pinot Noir Carneros: Earth, bramble fruit, zingy acidity, elegant and crisp. ~$20

DeLoach Vineyards is a Russian River Valley producer who zeroes in on the three main grapes that thrive there - Zinfandel, Chardonnay, and our friend Pinot Noir.  

2012 DeLoach Pinot Noir Russian River Valley: Round fruit on the nose, sour fruit, good acidity. ~$19

*2010 DeLoach Pinot Noir Russian River Valley/Green Valley: Expressive fruit, lovely integrated components, good fruit/acid balance and nice weight. ~$39

2010 DeLoach OFS ("Our Finest Selection") Pinot Noir Russian River Valley: great nose, merdy terroir, darker berry fruit, clean, elegant. ~$33

Founded by the namesake Texan who played frontiersmen Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone in the 50s and 60s, Fess Parker has emerged as a pioneering winery in many ways.  Strong family lineage, entrepreneurial drive, and high quality earmark this winery.

2010 Fess Parker Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills: Robust fruit and flowers, black raspberries, very smooth. ~$22

2011 Fess Parker Pinot Noir Bien Nacido Vineyard: Super perfumey, little spice, juicy, not too long a finish. ~$48

*2010 Fess Parker Pinot Noir Ashley's: Lots of fruit, spice and earth, elegantly integrated, very lovely. ~$40

As a sucker for anything bubbly, I was hoping that I'd find one of their signature sparkling wines at the Gloria Ferrer table, but not this time!  (As you may know, Pinot Noir is one of the red grapes often used in making Champagne, and many US sparkling producers who make wines in the methode champenoise style use it to great success as well.)  However, I was very interested to try some of their varietal Pinots.

2008 Gloria Ferrer Pinot Noir Etesian: Styled for by-the-glass consumption, very earthy, light yet solid. ~$16

*2010 Gloria Ferrer Pinot Noir Carneros: Lots of floral perfume, little bit of earth, tasty in the mouth, nice balance, not too big. ~$20

A colleague insisted I go by the Hilliard Bruce Winery table.  Speaking with winemaker John Hilliard, I was impressed by his dedication to making his winery sustainable.  He mentioned that after transitioning from an Organic production to Certified Sustainable, he has actually reduced his emission numbers, and passionately stated, "Greenhouse gases are the biggest threat to mankind." (He was also a bit of a rebel, pouring a Chardonnay at a Pinot Noir event!)  But it was a great visit:

*2011 Hilliard Bruce Chardonnay Santa Rita Hills: Incredible nose, mountain florals, lemon curd, green apple, wow, very very crisp, low oak, pretty atypical Chard. ~$45

*2010 Hilliard Bruce Sun Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills: Blackberry stem and florals on the nose, lots of raspberry, smooth, elegant and rich but not overpowering. ~$55

Another well-respected winery is Landmark Vineyards, located in Sonoma.  They also have a wonderful Chardonnay and make some wines with Rhône varietals, but their Burgundian-style Pinots are standouts.  The cursive script on the label speaks to the bibliophile in me - I feel like these wines are about to tell me a story.

2012 Landmark Pinot Noir Overlook: Interesting lavender nose, violets too.  Tangy and rich, black fruits and spice.  ~$26

2011 Landmark Pinot Noir Grand Detour: Robust nose, berries and cola.  Lots of acidity.  Little unbalanced finish but lengthy with great acidity - needs food! ~$35

*2011 Landmark Pinot Noir Solomon Hills: Small production - 150 cases.  Noticeable earthy terroir, dense flavors, fruit, floral, cinnamon/clove, but still very very light and elegant.  Mmmm. ~$55

All in all, the variety and quality of PNs coming from California remain pretty consistent.  I find you do have to search around at a higher price point to really get good quality (many sub-$20 CA Pinots are one-dimensional, which is why the Buena Vista Sonoma was a nice surprise.) But if you're ready to browse around at that level, you will certainly find many exciting wines that definitely support Miles' ardor!