Ontem Branco 2016

When I see a new wine hit the shelves with a hefty price tag, especially when from an apparently unknown producer (as far as the label is concerned), I always approach it with caution. And in this case, the label gives almost nothing away to justify the price of €28.95 (Apolónia). This is a lot of money for a Portuguese white wine and there is nothing to tell us clearly who has made it, where it has been made or what grapes it is made of. Hmm …

But a little research reveals an interesting story and then it all starts to make sense. The reason there is no region mentioned on the label is that the vineyard in question is not located in a recognised wine region. It is actually a tract of land with vines that have been nurtured for between 80 and 100 years, located somewhere between the Douro, Dão and Beiras Altas regions, at an altitude of over 700 metres.

Closer inspection of the rear label reveals in tiny print that the wine is produced by Conceito Vinhos Lda. Now this is a name to be reckoned with, the project of dynamic young winemaker Rita Marques of the highly regarded Conceito wines in the Douro.

For this new project, she joined forces with her fellow winemaker at Conceito, Manuel Sapage, and the wine historian and writer Luís Antunes. As I know Luís personally, I decided to give him a call and find out a bit more about the project.

The vineyards surround the tiny hamlet of Avelôso in the Mêda district, an area that they had all passed through many times and noticed the old vines around the village. The grapes had been tended for generations by the villagers and sold on to wine producers, but the tradition was dying out and there was talk of replacing the old mixed variety vines with new plantings of higher yielding and more commercially viable grapes.

The trio saw the potential to create something different and maybe even help bring recognition to an unknown and undeclared wine region.

I have not yet tried the red, which is even more expensive at around €35, but the white is certainly an interesting and unusual wine. 2016 is the first vintage for the white and they harvested the grapes in early September, a good few weeks earlier than the local farmers would have done at such an altitude up in the north of the country.

“They all thought we were mad and told us the grapes were too green,” said Luís. But the producers knew what they wanted to achieve, aiming to express the full freshness of the high altitude and maintain a low level of alcohol. This is a field blend made up of many different grape varieties including Rabigato, Verdelho, Síria, Dona Branca and Encruzado that were harvested by hand and placed whole in stainless steel vats to allow fermentation to start whilst still in the skins. The wine then spent 10 months ageing, 80% in steel and 20% in used oak. 

The resulting wine seems to be exactly what the producers were aiming for. It is extremely light and fresh with green apple and citric notes on the nose following through to great acidity in the mouth and a surprising complexity of underlying flavours ending in a lingering finish that belies the light structure. Given the acidity, this is a wine that will definitely benefit from a few years of bottle-ageing. For now, it is a perfect partner for a seafood dinner.

By Patrick Stuart
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