Monday, 29 December 2014

Alvarelhao/Brancellao - a preliminary skirmish

Ladies of the Adega de Moncao checking on grape varieties in their Vinho Tinto

There are wines one never forgets. Forlorn Hope's Alvarelhao ("Suspiro del moro") is one of them. We liked it so much we made it Slotovino Red Wine of the Year 2012/13.

Ever since we have kept our eyes open for other wines made from this grape. We learned that in Spain it is known as Brancellao but until now we only ever found it in blends.

During these researches an unsettling piece of information surfaced which we need to disclose: Californian Alvarelhao is most likely Touriga Nacional. Now we love Touriga Nacional (who doesn't?) but it would be a pity if the Moor's last sigh was more the Moor's last laugh.

Thanks to Winesearcher we tracked down a bottle of 100% Alvarelhao in London. It is by Campolongo of Bairrada - not the Minho or Douro which are the usual home of Alvarelhao. Thanks to Tony of Portos - a very nice Portuguese Wine Bar and Restaurant in St. John's Street, London, we obtained a bottle for a tasting. Although coming out well enough it didn't have the impact of the Forlorn Hope Alvarelhao, nor could we say its characteristics reminded us of it particularly.

Shortly after this tasting the opportunity arose to make a quick trip to Porto from where we were determined to call in on Moncao - the most likely part of the Minho to have wines made with Alvarelhao and then over the Spanish border to Ribadavia and Ourense in the Ribeiro region for Brancellao.

Our enquiries started at Vini Portugal in Porto but amazingly they only had one Vinho Verde there (a white). So close to the Minho (the Vinho Verde region) and yet so far.

Estimates for driving from Porto to Moncao varied from 1 - 2 hours. In fact the border at Valenca can be reached  in 1 hour and then Moncao is only 17km along a local road.

Driving up the A3 motorway there was barely a vineyard to be seen. Very pretty and atmospheric hills and mountains with typical Atlantic pines and vegetation reminiscent of Cardiganshire in the weather on that particular day. Off the motorway there were quite a few vines planted in gardens but only a couple of vineyards.

Moncao feels remote both in distance and time. It is a frontier town with ancient fortifications against Spanish incursions. One of the first sights we saw was a shepherd driving a flock of sheep across a road very near the centre of town.

 also not far from the centre was a small vineyard.

We often find that in towns in the centre of wine-growing areas it is particularly difficult to find a shop selling wine and so it was in Moncao. Having heard of the Co-operative Adega de Moncao, we headed there.

The Adega de Moncao is rated as one of the best co-operatives in Portugal. At around 4.00 in the afternoon it was very quiet with only some ladies in overalls, gloves and hairnets hovering around the retail window. We asked if we could buy wine and they said we could. There were about half a dozen different whites on view and only one red. Expressing interest in the red, we asked what varieties it was made from. This caused a general mobilisation as can be seen in the photo at the head of this post. Eventually the answer came;


Normally Vinhao might be the largest constituent but Moncao being the centre for Alvarelhao, that took the lions share. Pedral is described as being rare in Portugal but now more common in Spain where t is also known as Verdejo Colorado. A Portuguese synonym is Alvarinho Tinto.

We asked how much a bottle of this wine might be and were told it could only be sold by the half case. Not wanting to carry 6 bottles around and rather worrying if it was any good in any case, we made our most doleful face and explained that we had come all the way from London and would not be able to take so many bottles back on the plane etc. At this the nice ladies relented and handed us the bottle. Asking how much we owed them, they laughed sweetly and made it clear it was a present. What a great Adega - giving it away!

It turned out the ladies knew what they were doing. This was a really delicious and interesting wine which we can heartily recommend.

From the Adega to the Spanish border was only a short hop. The Spanish wine region immediately over the border is the Rias Baixas as can be seen in our maps above. Although there is no sign of the border, both Portugal and Spain being Schengen countries, the Minho and Rias Baixas are not a cross border wine region. Such a thing exists in the Carso or Kars between Italy and Slovenia. Rias Baixas is concentrated on Albarino which is originally from Portugal (Alvarinho) as we know. In fact most grapes of the Minho are cross-border varieties as we have seen with Pedral. Others include Borracal/Caino Tinto, Loureiro, Trajadura/Treixadura, Vinhao/Souson and of course our Alvarelhao/Brancellao. Those which didn't cross the frontier include the Portuguese Azal of which more in a moment.

The scenery on the Spanish side is very similar to that of the Minho not surprisingly. We followed signs to Ourense. We had planned to stop at Rivadavia but there had been no signs to there until suddenly and unexpectedly an exit titled Rivadavia presented itself.

We immediately found ourselves presented with the Vitivinicola de Ribeiro co-operative; a handsome building with the winery machinery visible from the outside through large glass windows. Breezing in we were given an old-fashioned look by the girl at reception. Funny because business hours as posted on the door said open until 6.00pm and it was only 5.00pm. Then of course we remembered that we were in Spain and local time was one hour later than in Portugal.

The magic words 'comprar vino' secured extra time so we were invited to enter the organization's handsome tasting rooms and retail counter. Many of the wines bear the name' Costeira' familiar if not common from UK winelists and merchants. Thoughtfully, as if expecting our visit, there were three handsome posters celebrating 'Vides Galegas' on the walls. Immediately we wanted to buy one of each to put alongside similar posters of the 'Symphonie des cepages de Chateauneuf du Pape', Napa grapes etc. Sadly we were told they were no longer obtainable.

Red varieties include Souson, Caino Bravo, Merenzao, Brancellao, Mouraton, Espadeiro and Mencia.

White are Albarino, Treixadura, Godello, Luoreira, Torrontes, Caino Branco and Dona Branca.

while Albarino, Loureira, Treixadura and Torrontes are recommended to have with your shellfish

A kindly gentlemen in a lab-coat immediately found an interesting red for us made from Caino Tinto, Brancellao, Souson, Ferron and Mencia. Wow! Ferron by the way is also known as Manseng Noir which needless to say is unrelated to Gros Manseng or Petit Manseng. Manseng Noir pops up in Southwest France. There are 3 hectares in the Pyrennees Atlantiques, 4 hectares in Spain and 10 hectares in Condom between Bordeaux and Toulouse.

The rule at the Vitivinicola de Ribeiro was a minimum of 3 bottles so we allowed ourselves to be advised on a Treixadura. and another white from a blend.

Buoyed up by the high serendipity count, we plied our way onwards to Ourense, provincial capital and gratifyingly far from the tourist trail. It turned out to be a rather charming bustling city which seemed on the surface at least to be economically rather better off than the part of Spain we are used to (viz. Andalucia).

After entering a bit of a serendipity-free zone, normal service was restored by our coming upon Tenda Santorum, an Ourense institution without doubt.

Although small, it had everything as far as we were concerned, with plenty of shelves devoted to the local wine specialities. This is never a given. We learned this thanks to many an experience where these are shunned. Only now for instance can you buy a reasonable selection of Malaga wines in the Sierras de Malaga region.

There was even a blogger on hand who also served in the shop called Daniel Marin ( a very knowledgeable person dedicated to the same aspirations as us and keen to share them with as many people as possible.

This Brancellao from Valdeorras was tough and sadly disappointing. Perhaps too young to drink right away?

We're looking forward to this. Zarate's Espadeiro was a big find.
Albarello is yet another synonym for Brancellao/Alvarelhao. Let's hope this one hits the spot.

Back to Porto with our swag and a dinner of chicken gizzards on the departure level of the airport. Now which other airport has a concession serving chicken gizzards? We hope not too many!

We were not quite finished with the Minho. Francesco de Sa Carneiro Airport has an excellent selection of Vinhos Verdes. Good for them and for us. We added two rather more usual but nice examples to our collection a Vinhao (Quinta do Outeiro de Baixo) and a Loureiro (Casa Vilacetinho).

Also from Casa Vilacetinho was  a 100% Azal Vinho Verde. 'Wine Grapes' is not encouraging about Azal. Much reduced in plantings in comparison with days of old, it is written off as one of the least interesting Vinho Verde varieties. At the same time 'Wine Grapes' acknowledges that it produces 'delicate, fresh wines with flavours of lemon and green apple. Fear of rot sometimes spurs growers to pick too early, resulting in screeching acidity.' That was not the case here. The Casa Vilacetinho Azal was a major find. Azal in the right hands is welcome to the august Slotovino Hall of Fame.

What an amazing skirmish this had been not only with Alvarelhao/Brancellao but so many other 'cepages modestes' as rare grape varieties are condescendingly called in French. Alcohol levels are almost uniformly reasonable. Now on to Madrid to see what the country's capital made of Rias Baixas, Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra, Valdeorras and Monterrei, this almost Tempranillo-free zone of utmost diversity and interest.

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