The World’s Greatest House White

An extraordinary 24 hours in Portugal
Apr 1, 2014

PORTO, Portugal—Every December in Wine Spectator’s final issue of the year, I write a column titled “My Wines of the Year.” Typically, it’s just a handful of wines, almost never more than four. There’s no common denominator save one: They are wines that generate, to borrow from Wordsworth’s famous phrase, the sensation, “my heart leaps up when I behold.”

This past December, one of my Wines of the Year was a red that I had never previously tasted nor even heard of. I landed upon it quite by chance in a large-scale tasting of some 40 or so Portuguese wines. It was in the middle of the lineup, and yet in a single sip, my heart leapt up.

So I tasted it a second and then a third time, with similar cardiac response. Still, I was skeptical. Could it be that good? So I subsequently bought a bottle and carefully tasted it at home, on its own, and then with dinner, to reassure myself that it was what I had initially concluded. And so it was.

The wine is Quinta de Foz de Arouce Tinto 2010. Even by Portuguese standards, that’s a pretty odd name. (If you want to try your luck with Portuguese, the tricky part of the name is pronounced something like “Fawsh da Rohss.”)

Anyway, I knew that as soon as I got to Porto, I had to visit the property that produced this red wine that so captivated me. As it happens, the ancient estate is only about 90 miles south of Porto, not far from the city of Coimbra.

Quinta de Foz de Arouce is one of those improbably old European properties that’s been in the same aristocratic family since the 1500s. There’s actually a village called Foz de Arouce, and for a long time the Osório family, the hereditary Counts of Foz de Arouce, pretty much owned the whole spread. It’s a small river valley (a “foz” is an estuary or mouth of a river) surrounded by mountains. There are no other significant vineyards for miles around, which is unusual in a wine-drenched place like Portugal.

The current owner, João Osório, Conde de Foz de Arouce, is an elderly gentleman who has turned over the management of the 37-acre vineyard to his two sons-in-law: Luís de Castro, who serves as the general manager, and João Portugal Ramos, who conveniently happens to be one of Portugal’s most famous consulting enologists as well as an owner of multiple vineyards throughout the country.

Not surprisingly, Ramos’ deft hand is clearly present in the Foz de Arouce wines. On my visit, a variety of vintages were poured, starting with two years, 2012 and 2010, of the Branco (the Portuguese word for white wine), which I had not previously tasted. Composed 100 percent of what’s locally called Cerceal (better known elsewhere in Portugal as Arinto), it’s an exceptional white grape variety that deserves to be far better known than it is.

The 2012 Branco, barrel-fermented and barrel-aged for eight months in older barriques, was a bright straw color, with a slight touch of honey and white flowers in the nose, still closed, with pleasing acidity in the taste.

The 2010 showed what even a mere two years of age can deliver. While the bright, straw color was identical to that of the 2012, the scent of the older wine was much more evolved, redolent of rosemary and honey, with a crisp, fresh, bright acidity and a lingering herbal note in the taste. It was remarkable enough that had I tasted it blind, I would have guessed that it was a Chassagne-Montrachet.

Being mistaken for a white Burgundy is hardly a slur upon a wine’s character. (Later, during lunch, the Count, who is a great Burgundy lover and for decades traveled to Burgundy twice a year, said that other tasters also had invoked Chassagne-Montrachet, with which he said he agreed.)

The reds showed yet more distinction. Two reds are made, a regular Tinto drawn from the entire vineyard and a small-production Vinhas Velhas, or old vines, made exclusively from a 7.4-acre (3-hectare) plot of 70-year-old vines with stunningly low yields of just 10 hectoliters per hectare, roughly equivalent to an eye-opening half-ton of grapes per acre.

Suffice it to say that ringing the changes through multiple vintages of the regular bottling revealed an absolute consistency with that 2010 Foz de Arouce Tinto of my Wines of the Year.

The regular Tinto is made of Baga (80 percent) and Touriga Nacional (20 percent), two of Portugal’s most widely grown indigenous red grape varieties. Again and again, the wine displayed the violets and blackberry signature scents of Touriga Nacional, while the Baga (a grape that can be tricky to ripen in zones cooler than Foz de Arouce’s sheltered bowl in the mountains) gave the wine an elegance and backbone rarely associated with this variety.

Oddly, the Vinhas Velhas bottling was less rewardingly consistent, with wines going back to 2003 see-sawing between a remarkable density and power and, in the less attractive years, a bit too much astringency (2005) or a baked note from an unflatteringly warm vintage (2007). However, the latest release, the 2009, is flat-out superb, a mighty red with almost forbidding density of fruit yet effortlessly refined. It will need a decade of aging to evolve, I would think.

And with that, I mistakenly thought that my day’s wine-tasting was at a highly satisfactory close. I was wrong. Over lunch, I mentioned that we were planning on spending the night at the fabulously preposterous—and thus irresistible—Bussaco Palace Hotel, just 27 miles north of Foz de Arouce.

The Bussaco Palace Hotel has to be seen to be believed. It’s an elaborate assemblage of gargoyles and gables and turrets built as a folly by Portugal’s King Charles I between 1888 and 1907. A privately run hotel, the palace and its grounds are owned by the state. It was designed by an Italian architect who was a stage set designer, which tells you something right there.

When we mentioned our destination, Foz de Arouce agronomist João Perry Vidal, who had accompanied us through the vineyards, said, “My cousin runs the place. I’ll give him a call.”

And that, in turn, proved to be a showstopper of another sort. We checked in, marveled at the madness of it all, and eventually made our way into the vast, stunning dining room. We ordered our meal, and while I was perusing the wine list, the sommelier arrived.

I said something about not being quite sure which wine to order, to which he gently replied, with a slight smile, “I’ll be choosing the wine, sir.” And with that, he departed.

He returned with a bottle of white wine with a very old-fashioned-looking label, all sepia and swirls, designated Buçaco Branco Reservado 2003. I inquired about this wine, which I had never heard of, let alone tasted, and was informed that it was, effectively, the house white.

Now, I don’t know about you, but about the last wine I would ever order in a restaurant—let alone a moderately expensive restaurant—would be the house white. I mean, really.

What was served was simply an astonishment. Buçaco Branco Reservado 2003 was not merely astonishingly good, it was astonishingly great. And I don’t use that word carelessly. I’m telling you, great. Almost chartreuse in color, it was an electric-bright, utterly fresh-looking yellow-green wine delivering a powerful yet subtle gust of herbs and wax and minerals like no other white wine of my experience.

Like a rube at a carny act, I kept gawping at this marvel, tasting repeatedly, each time trying to convince myself that it really was as good as I kept thinking it was.

How is it possible that a wine this remarkable could go so unnoticed by so many otherwise knowledgeable wine lovers for so long? Surely, I’m hardly alone in my longtime ignorance of it.

“Oh, that’s easy to explain,” replied António Rocha, who is in charge of Buçaco wines. “Until very recently, the wines were never sold outside of the hotel. If you wanted to try it, you had to come to the hotel to do so. And it’s been that way since, oh, about 1920 when the wines were first produced.”

Now, he further explained, the barest dribble of Buçaco Branco and Buçaco Tinto—about 10,000 bottles of each is produced annually—is released to a few Portuguese retailers, as well as a bit to Brazil and Montreal, with London soon to come. Nothing is sold in the United States, yet.

Leading us into the royal cellar of the hotel, Mr. Rocha offered a tasting of Buçaco Branco Reservado from the 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2008 vintages, capped by a did-I-read-that-correctly 1958 Branco.

The Branco is a blend not only of three indigenous white grape varieties but also of vineyards in two separate zones.

The Bairrada zone, which is south of Porto and maritime-influenced, grows the white grapes Maria Gomez (known elsewhere in Portugal as Fernão Pires) and Bical.

The Dão zone, on the same latitude as Bairrada but farther inland, midway between the Atlantic Ocean and the Spanish border, grows the white grape called Encruzado, which is Dão’s signature white variety.

And how were all these whites? Astonishing, I tell you. Bright, fresh, deep, seemingly untouched by age, with that eerily beautiful greenish cast and that waxy/herbal, intense fruit enlivened by a lightning bolt of acidity that zig-zags across the palate.

And what, ahem, about that 1958? Here, finally, age began to show, as it damn well should after more than half a century. Again, the color was bright, but now a deep golden yellow. The scent was honeyed and lightly caramelized but still very much alive with no intrusive oxidation. The herbal scent so prevalent in the younger whites remained in the ’58 as well. On the palate, the fruit is drying out, displaying almost overly strong herbal and menthol notes. The vibrant acidity poked through the thinning fruit like a large bump on the head of a man with a sparse comb-over.

A 2005 Tinto was, inevitably after the dazzlement of the whites, not as dramatic. Generously flavorful, it’s a bit on the coarse side, a blend of 60 percent Baga from Bairrada and 40 percent Touriga Nacional from Dão.

Far more promising is a dramatically rich, intense single-vineyard Tinto designated “VM” after its 1-hectare (2.47 acres) vineyard called Viña da Mata, in the Bairrada zone. Composed of 70 percent Baga and 30 percent Touriga Nacional grown on calcareous soil, this powerfully dense wine is nearly opaque in its blackish hue, with the noticeable blackberry scent of Touriga Nacional and displaying fine tannins that somehow helped extend the lingering, delicate finish.

So that was my 24-hour day. How was yours?

Portugal Opinion

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