Here’s a true story: I'm on the phone with a retailer, buying some Burgundy. After the order is placed, the retailer tells me about a deal they got on a wine that they weren't putting on their website at the request of the distributor.
“It's 2004 Trimbach Frédéric Émile Riesling,” he said.
“How much?” I asked.
“Twenty bucks a bottle,” he replied.
“I'll take two cases,” I said. It was a helluva deal.
Now, one of the few perks to knowing me is that when I come across a deal like this, I send out a quick e-mail informing my pals. No sooner had I done so than I got a call from one of the recipients. “So whaddya think? Should I buy it?”
I was flabbergasted. I mean, the regular retail on this wine is $40 to $50 a bottle, which the guy already knew. Discretion and good taste preclude reporting my response, which involved an inquiry about the compositional makeup of his brain.
I mention this because it's a problem I see all the time: wine-buying paralysis. We're offered so many wines today, from so many places, that we're overwhelmed.
And then, there are the seemingly endless and relentless “bargains.” Some of them really are that, while others are just the usual you-gotta-buy-it, faux urgency of retail hypemasters.
Because of this, we now seem to have two broad groups of wine buyers: Those who act on what they taste, hear about and read; and those who don't.
The latter are in the majority, of course. Despite everything, they buy the same wines over and over and … over again. Their wine purchases are confined to a handful of wines that, typically, charge ever-higher prices for ever more calculatedly unvarying products. (Whoever first wrote that familiarity breeds contempt must have misheard. It breeds content.)
An unwillingness to act is arguably the biggest barrier to modern wine appreciation. This came urgently to mind in the past two weeks while traveling in Portugal and the Galicia region of northwest Spain.
In both places, over and over again, I came across wines that were not just interesting, but compelling. Unique. Marvelous. And not least, incredible deals.
For example, I visited the producer Casa Santos Lima in the zone called Lisboa, which is a mere 45-minute drive from its namesake Lisbon. Until 2009, it was called Estremadura, but the Portuguese wine authorities wisely chose to discard that name (Spain has one too) and capitalize on the name familiarity of the nearby city.
Casa Santos Lima is an example of the sort of wine producer we all say we want. The wines are well-made. And they are composed not of the usual suspects but instead of an astounding number of Portuguese grape varieties, such as the white grapes Arinto, Fernão Pires, Moscatel, Rabo-de-Ovelha, Seara Nova and Vital. Red wines include such varieties as Alfrocheiro, Camarate, Castelão, Preto Martinho, Sousão, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Miúda, Tinta Roriz, Tinto Cão, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional and Trincadeira, among others.
José Luis Santos Lima Oliveira da Silva, who owns the estate, is an affable, American-casual (“Call me José Luis”) former banker who inherited part of the property and then bought out most of the other family shareholders. He then expanded the estate to an impressive 511 acres of vines, nearly all contiguous.
“We create about 30 percent of all of the Lisboa wine produced today,” he says. “And of our production, we export about 90 percent.”
The sheer variety of wines is dizzying: 34 whites, 12 rosés and 44 reds, many of which are blends of various indigenous grapes, along with so-called international varieties such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. The three dozen or so that I tasted were perfectly made, if of inevitably varying quality and interest. Every importer chooses from the array, winnowing it to a mere handful for efficiency's sake.
Here's the kicker: You cannot beat the price. “The majority of our wines sell [to importers] for less than 2 euros,” says José Luis. “I'd much rather price my wines a little lower and sell everything I make, which we do,” he adds, with a shrug.
Two euros a bottle is about $2.60, which translates, after the usual markups, to a retail price of $7 or $8 a bottle, tops. (I'd check out the white wine called Portuga, the Quinta da Espiga red and, if you can find it, the lovely, strawberry-scented Bons Ventos rosé.)
And while you're at it, you should seek out the next-door neighbor of Casa Santos Lima, called Quinta de Chocapalha (pronounced show-ka-pie-ya). An estate of 112 acres, it too specializes in indigenous grapes, but seeks a significantly higher price ($30 a bottle) as well as exhibits a much higher level of fine-wine ambition. Regrettably, distribution is limited here in the United States, but a supply does trickle in.
A family property, Quinta de Chocapalha is creating eye-openingly fine wines made by the daughter, Sandra Tavares da Silva, who also has her own property in the Douro, called Wine & Soul. More about her to come in another column, I promise, as what she's doing in the Douro is remarkable.
Look for the superb varietal white Arinto and the two signature reds—Quinta de Chocapalha Tinto (a polished, wild cherry–fragrant blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Alicante Bouschet) and the utterly different Tinto Riserva (a dense, rich, seamless blend of mostly Touriga Nacional with Tinta Roriz and a dab of Syrah). You'll be amazed, I promise.
You know the key word here, right?