Just spit it out!
Face the fear and meet some new grapes
Perhaps the biggest barrier to wine tasting is a fear factor brought on by worrying you might say something wrong.
The language of smell and taste is unfamiliar and can be intimidating – especially when experienced wine tasters rattle off descriptions like “cut grass” and “forest floor.”
Phrases like “on the nose” rather than “it smells like” don’t help, but it really isn’t rocket science and is much more about having the confidence just to say what it is you can smell or taste at the time.
While trying some fancy South African fizz (otherwise known as Methode Cap Classique) in a silver service wine lodge Ana declared “bacon” to the horror of the sommelier, but she was spot on...and he eventually joined us by nodding in agreement.
“I think the grape is the only fruit on earth that has very special behaviour, because after fermentation the grape is able to imitate different fruits,” said Dorina Lindemann, wine maker and founder of Quinta da Plansel in Montemor-o-Novo in Alentejo.
“So if you have an apple or banana, it’s simple and always stays the same, but the grape really has got the possibility to imitate passion fruits, banana, pineapples, red fruit. And this only happens with a grape.”
We’ve been learning the lexicon of the Wine and Spirit Educational Trust (WSET) and the biggest take-away so far has been to bunch similar fruits in an order of type and intensity.
“WSET was founded in 1969, because they thought there should be a standardisation and making tasting notes,” said Wilmy Matton who runs the Plansel International Wine School with Dorina.
“It’s a systematic approach to tasting so that you can build up a file in your head and you have an international way of describing wine.”
The list is uses the same scale for smell and taste, but is a little different for white and red wines.
It starts with primary aromas which are created by the fruit and in the winemaking process, and the first thing to sniff for is florals: blossom, rose or violet.
Then for white wines the fruit is separated into green (such as apples, gooseberries or grapes), citrus (like lemon or grapefruit), stone fruit (such as apricot or peach) and tropical fruit (banana, passion fruit etc).
Red wines are broadly split between red and black fruit – such as the difference between red and black plums or cherries.
Then there are secondary flavours added in the winemaking process such as oak from the barrels, or a biscuity flavour which comes from leaving the wine “on the lees” or the remains of the fermentation yeast for a while.
Finally tertiary tastes and smells emerge when certain wines are left to mature – it can give a dried fruit or earthy character to red wines and a nutty or caramel edge to a white.
It’s great fun experimenting – especially with some of the less well known grape varieties that you find here in Portugal which can be very different.
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One of the biggest hurdles to overcome was spitting out all the amazing wines we tried at Plansel’s wine school...but if you’re tasting dozens every day something’s got to give.
Among scores of Portuguese grape varieties grown at Quinta da Plansel's nursery I’ve chosen three which mean a lot to Jorge Böhm who helped develop the Portuguese grapes with the best potential in the 1970s and 80s as the country was going through a wine revolution.
“I have a big passion for the Portuguese grape varieties,” says his winemaking daughter Dorina Lindemann, “so if you ever want to know something about Portugal, at the special tastes about the grape varieties come and speak with me.
“And now my passion is introducing my daughters to the world of wine: you understand what is really investigation, passion, taste, power, everything a little bit.”
As we discovered, Touriga Nacional and Arinto are well suited to the intense heat of the interior of Alentejo, and Trincadeira might be tricky to keep, but it has an important place in Plansel’s family history…
ARINTO (if you like a dry Riesling)
Arinto is one of Portugal’s oldest grapes – known up in the Port-lands of the Douro as Pedernã – and as Jorge Böhm explained it was the source of some confusion in the nineteenth century.
“Arinto is a variety quite similar to Riesling – they both have this petrol taste – you know Riesling wines have a petrol taste when they’re getting older,” he said, telling the story of a World Congress in Paris at the end of the 19th century.
Apparently Portugal’s wine supremo at the time and his French equivalent were at the Alsace exhibit together tasting wine and the Portuguese expert asked how come France had Arinto grapes.
“And for long time the Portuguese were convinced that Arinto was Riesling,” said Jorge Böhm. “Though I come from a Riesling area - I come from the Rhine Valley – I selected...Arinto and I'm very happy that my daughter is using it.”
Dorina Lindemann swirled the light golden wine around her glass and held it up to the light.
“You find Arinto all over Portugal,” she said, “but what is special with Arinto is you have very small berries with a very thick skin.
“So even if it gets to 45 or 50 degrees outside you do not have a problem – there’s resistance against sunburn which is number one very important for the region, and the second part is you still have a fantastic natural acidity.
“So that makes Arinto so special for these hot areas. It's outstanding.”
And then she talked us through the taste: “A lot of freshness, and citrus, lemon, some peach – it's more European fruits – you get a little touch of oak because we worked three months a little bit on oak. For Alentejo it’s a very fresh nice drinking wine.”
TOURIGA NACIONAL (If you like Cabernet Sauvignon)
The author Richard Mayson gives very few grapes five stars in his book “The Wines of Portugal,” but Touriga Nacional secures a top score on the basis it “has potential international status, [is] outstanding in its own right or of major significance in a blend.”
And Bordeaux has recently approved it as an official grape to help the region adapt to climate change (Alvarinho, a Portuguese vinho verde grape is also on the list).
“You definitely can plant Touriga Nacional all over the world as it makes different wines,” said Dorina Lindemann, who has planted the grape in her native Germany, southern Brazil and Portugal.
“So if you're in a very cool area you will have more flower notes and less complexity and tannins, so you will have more fresh easy drinking red wines.
“If you go to hotter zones, you will get the very complex and very powerful Touriga Nacional – so it depends a little bit, but it always makes good wine.
“For here in my area, is outstanding because it's a big personality and it defends itself against diseases and doesn’t get sunburnt. It's the future for changing climatic conditions.”
Her father Jorge Böhm agrees – as I wrote about in my last despatch, it was the best performing of all the Portuguese grapes when he was working with universities to produce wine and take it to the best tasters in the world.
He remembers when he arrived in Portugal there were less than 800ha of Touriga Nacional and say snow it’s approaching 10,000ha.
“We have an enormous potential and it is adapting in different ways of different climate zones. So we have a completely different Touriga Nacional in the Dao area in the Douro Valley and in Alentejo,” he said.
TRINCADEIRA (sometimes called Portugal’s Malbec)
Like many Alentejo grapes it has another name in the Douro (and elsewhere) – Tinta Amarela – and is one of the famous port grapes now being used in still wine.
It’s notoriously difficult to grow and to harvest as it’s best when picked within a few days of reaching the perfect ripeness.
“This variety was very famous and worked really well in the years before irrigation was permitted,” said Kevin Koch, an international wine business student who was interning at Plansel when we visited and showed us around the winery.
And it has a special connection to the winery and was a favourite of Dorina’s husband Thomas, who unfortunately passed away very young.
Kevin told us everyone was wondering why he was planting so much Trincadeira.
“And the first vintages were not really good at all, it was really hard to make good wine out of... but the year after he died the vintage was one of the best Trincadeiras produced,” he told us.
One of their wines is now called: Plansel Trincadeira "Homenagem ao Thomas," and is dedicated to him.
“Trincadeira is very traditional – people know it – 40 years ago it was the wine from Alentejo,” said Jorge Böhm.
He's now working on a new breeding programme with 400 different plants to try and create a clone which he hopes will help restore the grape’s famous tradition - even though it may take many years.
Talking us through a tasting Kevin said the first thing you smell with trincadeira is spices and dark fruit.
“I always compare it with the Christmas spices that you use for baking – you can find cardamom and some liquorice.”
But Dorina’s still to be convinced it’s a grape for the future as temperatures rise in an already hot Alentejo.