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.