A Foreign Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (Touriga Nacional)

After a little break to recuperate from the copious amounts of eggs, bread of affliction and wine consumed and imbibed over the glorious Pesach holiday we are back to discuss a special grape that plays a primary role in some of the world’s greatest dessert wines while moonlighting as a single varietal dry wine – Touriga Nacional.

Despite having a name reminiscent of a South American country’s national soccer team, Touriga Nacional is considered by many to be Portugal’s finest wine grape – a big honor considering the 200-500 (depending on how varietals are counted and who you believe) indigenous grapes to which Portugal lays claim. Likely named after the Tourigo village located in the Douro valley, the grape has a significant number of aliases including Bical Tinto, Touriga Fina and Tourigo do Dao. Touriga Nacional is world-renowned primarily due to its role as on of the mainstays in Portugal’s eponymously named spectacular dessert wine – Port but it also increasingly being used in high-quality dry wines. Touriga is typically blended with other varietals including its genetic child Touriga Franca (f/k/a Tinta Francesca and sometimes referred to as Touriga’s Cabernet Franc (referring to the utilization of the calming and enhancing effect Cabernet Franc has on Cabernet Sauvignon’s bigger and bolder characteristics within the Bordeaux blends)), Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz (a/k/a Tempranillo) and Tinta Barroca (along with the other 75 varietals authorized for Port).

With thick skin and tiny berries providing a very high ratio of pulp to skin that results in providing intense fruit flavors and a very high level of tannins (which, in well-made wines is well-balanced by the grape’s naturally high acidity), Touriga Nacional provides the overpowering experience so essential for Port’s body, intensity and longevity but its muscle can be an acquired taste. When produced on its own, Touriga will show as a big wine loaded with tannin, loads of alcohol, high acidity and heavily extracted fruit. All of these big characteristics require quality winemaking to ensure everybody plays well together – otherwise you can end up with some unbalanced and unpleasant wines. This potential for extreme boldness is one of the reasons it is typically blended with other varietals which help to soften the wine and bring it some added complexity. One of its most noticeable characteristics of a Touriga Nacional wine is intense floral aromatics, primarily lush blooming violets (or lavender) along with big, ripe and lush black and blue fruit notes with a healthy dollop of dark chocolate and notes of pepper, allspice, anise and herbs. However, these luscious aromatics occur very late in the grape’s development, making its achievement an even harder goal.

Before phylloxera devastated the vineyards of the Iberian, close to 90% of all plantings in Dão were of Touriga but in the mid 70s growers replaced most of the plantings with higher-yielding (and thus more lucrative) varietals. Despite the fruit having extremely low yields, the leaves are exceptionally prolific and vigorous requiring a significant amount of vineyard maintenance in order to achieve the desired effects within the vineyard. Thriving in hotter environments and infertile rocky soil, Touriga is primarily grown in the northern Douro and Dão (where is likely originated) regions of Portugal (while also thriving in the southern regions of Algarve and the Alentejo and the western regions of Ribatejo/Tejo and Setubal along with Bairrada and Azores). In the Douro and Dão regions, the varietal is grown primarily inland where it is shielded from the cooling effects of the Atlantic Ocean (an alternate name of Mortágua plays homage to the grape’s ability to thrive in such harsh growing conditions). Despite being the Portuguese grape with the best name-recognition, it represents less than 10% (and closer to 2% according to some) of all grapes planted in the country.

The Jekyll and Hyde of the newsletter’s title is in reference to Touriga’s primary role in the sweet Port wines while also holding down a real job as a significant varietal in dry wines as well. Despite Port maintaining its position as the most recognized and acclaimed wine of Portugal, only 40% of the country’s production (and half of Douro’s) is dedicated to sweet wines, with the remainder finding their way to dry table wines, many of them worthy of attention. Interestingly, it is sometimes the lower-graded vineyards that yield better dry red wines. The cooler vineyards which are classified lower for port can yield fruit better suited for red dry wines, resulting in a QPR bonanza if one knows where to look. While the lovely 2006 Portuguese Casa de Corca has unfortunately stopped providing us with the kosher pleasures of Touriga Nacional, other wines have stepped in to fill the void you may not have realized existed. In addition to the delightful kosher Port wines from Porto Quevedo and Porto Cordovero, the Quevedo House recently released an easy-drinking and entry level (mevushal) dry version of its great QPR Port named Oscar Quevedo – a blend of 60% Touriga and 40% Tinta Roriz (and previously recommended in my “Case for Everyday Drinking”). While somewhat of an antithesis to the varietal’s characteristics of ageable wine with tannins that need integrating time and bold flavors, the results are a great everyday quaffer at an unbeatable price (one of Portugal’s mainstays and a reason I expect to see more entry-level kosher wines from there).

Recognizing the varietal’s ability to thrive in hotter climates, a number of other countries have seen success with the grape including Argentina, Spain and South Africa. Closer to home, the ambitiously creative (and talented) Weiss Brothers behind the Shirah Winery also utilized Touriga Nacional from California’s Sonoma Valley in their eclectic “Coalition” (but have since phased the varietal out of the blend, losing some of the incredible spice but attaining a higher level of consistency and easier to achieve balance). The grape has also seen success in Israel, where Pierre Miodownick of Domaine Netofa has seen great success with some spectacular port-styled wines (among the best options for kosher, Port-styled wines) and a dry blend named Tinto. The Golan Heights Winery also produced a Jekyll and Hyde duo of sweet and dry Touriga Nacional wines – the 2T is a dry blend of Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cão with the T2 being the dessert version of the same blend.

Listed below are some recent tasting notes of those wines taking advantage of all that Touriga Nacional has to offer. I hope you give at least a few of them a whirl and I look forward to hearing from you as always.

Domaine Netofa, Netofa Tinto, 2013: In line with the winery’s philosophy of utilizing varietals native to regions similar in climate to Israel, the Tinto is a blend of Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), which has been produced every year as a successful and interesting good QPR wine (with the percentages varying slightly year after year). Following the 2012 version which presented with more exuberant red fruit than prior versions (along with a hint of bitter tannin), this wine (a blend of 60% Touriga and 40% Tempranillo) follows that line with an aromatic nose loaded with red fruit alongside plenty of boysenberry and blueberries, enhanced by white flowers, summer stone fruit and a hint of minerals and a full bodied juicy palate with plenty of rich dark red fruit and hints of blue fruits, earthy minerals, well-worn saddle leather, warm spices, gripping tannins that provide structure but need some time and great acid keeping the wine alive and fresh and lingering finish tinged with slightly bitter herbs and sweet fruit. A very enjoyable wine with enough intrigue to tantalize. Drink now (but give it 15 minutes of air first).

Domaine Netofa, Fine Ruby Port, 2012:  Following on the success of its inaugural 2010 release, Netofa launched a 2010 Ruby port with class and elegance and followed it up with this worthy successor.  A blend of 80% Touriga Nacional and 20% Tinta Roriz (a/k/a Tempranillo) with 20% AbV, this is rich, deep and delicious dessert wine, that gets even better after it has been open for a few days.  Aged in new French oak for two years, the wine presents with cloves, other warm spices, rich black fruit, raisins, baker’s chocolate, roasted nuts and with just enough acidity to keep things upbeat and long luscious lingering (say that three times fast) finish. Please give it the time it deserves to open – you will be richly rewarded [Only in Israel].

Domaine Netofa, Late Bottled Vintage Port, 2010:  This is the same wine that comprised the 2010 previously reviewed version, but aged for four years in oak before its release.  The added aging allowed the aromas and flavors to harmoniously blend and yielded a highly extracted and powerful wine whose near-endless complexity is matched by the wines sheer deliciousness.  An explosively aromatic nose is recognizable as soon as the cork is pulled, even from several feet away.  Loaded with notes of rich dark fruit, raisins, dates, good dark chocolate, hazelnuts, sweet figs and spices on both the nose and palate, this intensely sweet wine is well made and perfectly balanced, providing a highly pleasurable sipping experience that goes by all too quickly.  Buy all you can find and then try to control yourself by saving some for additional aging [Only in Israel].

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, 2T, 2010: Showcasing its well-deserved role as Israel’s most consistently innovative winery, the winery utilized an equal blend of Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cão to create two mirror-imaged blends – this wine, a dry table wine along with the wine reviewed below – a Port-styled dessert wine of the same grapes and blend. Named for the two “T”s comprising the wine, 2010 is the third vintage for this interesting and well-made wine. Rich, deep and expressive with a nose loaded with extracted dark fruit, lush yet powerful tannins, lush violets, some toasty oak, warm Mediterranean spices, espresso and rich baker’s chocolate. A full bodied and plush palate has plenty of nicely integrating tannins wrapped around a core of ripe blackberries and some tart raspberries, tinged with a streak of green notes, fresh-cured tobacco leaf and roasted herbs.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, T2, 2009: Rich and extracted, this dessert wine clocks in at 18.5% AbV (at least) but is well balanced with the highly extracted fruit, judicious use of oak and its accompanying nuances. I typically enjoy this wine on its own but it is a good accompaniment to nuts or rich cheeses as well. Utilizing the same blend of Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cão as the 2T above, the wine presents with a rich nose of ripe plums, blackberries, prunes, sweet cedar, rich chocolate, lavender, cigar-box tobacco and some warm herbs and an opulent, full-bodied palate with much of the same notes accompanied by more dark chocolate, roasted coffee beans and Oriental spices. Well made and in balance, this is a rich and extracted wine that provides pleasure (but I prefer the Netofa version as a more sophisticated and elegant option).

Oscar Quevedo, Douro, 2014: For decades the Quevedo family was cultivating grapes for Port and selling them to others until Portuguese legislation changed, allowing the family to produce and market wines under their own name.  Along with the delicious and great QPR Port described below, Quevedo launched a kosher dry blend of 60% Touriga Nacional and 40% Tinta Roriz which makes for great everyday drinking.  With rich red fruits, earthy minerals, notes of dark chocolate, roasted coffee beans and bountiful acidity keeping it lively, this is a great wine to enjoy with most meals and, at under $15 a worthy investment [mevushal] [Only in the US]

Porto Cordovero, Fine Ruby Port, n.v.:  A joint effort between Royal Wine Company and the highly respected Port lodge of Taylor Fladgate, this wine is a rich, sweet and fruity wine with hints of black fruit along with tantalizing hints of spices, vanilla and caramel.  Especially chilled, the 20% alcohol isn’t as noticeable as you might think (primarily due to the delectable sweetness), so take care when drinking.  Loads of dark prunes, cherries and hints of tantalizing burnt caramel leading into a long finish with hints of oriental spices.  Definitely worth trying and once opened, the bottle will last for 2-3 weeks if kept in a cool place.

Porto Cordovero, Porto Cordovero, LBV, 2004:  Rumors of this wine abounded for quite some time but it was well worth the wait.  As a Late Bottled Vintage should be, this wine is deeper, darker and significantly more complex that its younger sister – the Fine Ruby reviewed above.  Another joint effort with Taylor Fladgate provided this delicious treat of a wine offering an insight into the wonderful world of “aged port” as this wine will evolve nicely, if not for the more traditional 30 years, for at least some time.  Lots of the same aromas and flavors as the ruby including raisins, jammy blackberries, spicy wood, caramel and vanilla but somehow all presenting differently – more maturely- than the prior wine.  There is also a 2005 vintage of this wine.

Porto Quevedo, Ruby Port, n.v.:  True port, under $20 and delicious, this wine is a YH Best Buy to boot!  Made from a blend of typical Portuguese grapes including Touriga Nacional (30%), Touriga Franca (25%), Tinta Roriz (15%), Tinto Cão (5%) and Tinta Barroca (5%) (with the remaining 20% fleshed out with a host of other varietals).  Made by a relatively new house founded in 1991, the family has winemaking traditions going back decades.  While not a highly sophisticated Port, nor as complex as the Porto Cordovero LBV (2004), it is delicious and was very much enjoyed by the entire table – wine aficionados and “newbies” alike (an easy-drinking Port if you will).  Plenty of bright red fruit on both the nose and rich palate with hints of dates, hazelnut, spices, vanilla and crème brûlée with some nice dark chocolate, more spices and ripe currants on the lingering finish [Only in the US].

Shirah, Coalition, 2011:  The second year the Weiss bothers produced this unique blend and, while another successful year and maintaining the characteristically near-insane magnificent uniqueness of the Coalition, there is a distinct change in style from the 2010 vintage as one would expect from the different blend comprising the wine. The end of the line for Touriga Nacional in Shirah’s repertoire (at least for now), the blend’s impact was significantly reduced from the 2010 version. A blend this year of 60% Zinfandel, 12% each of Cabernet Franc and Merlot and 8% each of Touriga Nacional and Souza which results in a very different and intriguing wine that I enjoyed very much but may not be to everyone’s tastes.  A ripe and aromatic nose is loaded with strawberries, watermelon, tart cranberry, summer fruit, bell pepper, eucalyptus, cigar box, espresso, spicy oak, loads of black peppery notes and cloves. On the full bodied, rich and extracted palate there is more oak, near-sweet tannins, more red summer fruit and a ton of spicy notes and a streak of herbal bitterness that pleases; all backed up by an awesome core of acidity that keeps things lively.  A lingering finish with more spicy wood and minty baker’s chocolate finishes up this wine.  The wine isn’t going to get any better, so finish up any bottles you may have over the next few months [Only in the US].

Shirah, Coalition, 2010:  Similar to the Grenache utilized for their first 2008 wines, Gabe and Shimon incorporated a well-known (outside of kosher wine circles) Portuguese grape – Touriga Nacional – into a crazy expressive wine continuing their trend-setting status for mainstreaming esoteric grape varietals in the kosher wine world (a number of additional kosher wineries are now using the varietal including the Golan Heights Winery and Domaine Netofa).  A blend of Touriga Nacional (45%), Syrah (30% which was co-fermented with 4% Viognier) and Petit Verdot (25%) sourced from three different Central Coast vineyards, the wine clocks in at 14.5% AbV – low alcohol by Shirah’s initial standards.  With the majority of their wines crowd-pleasers, this is a divisive one – you are either going to love it or hate – very seldom is there going to be a middle ground.  With rich sweet red and summer fruit including watermelon and ripe pomegranate and tropical notes on the aromatic nose accompanied by citrusy overtones, loads of warm spices and green herbaceousness and a medium bodied palate redolent of somewhat incongruous summer and tropical fruit and with a plethora of (mostly warm) spices and slightly toasty oak backed by a solid structure and well-built and nicely integrating silky tannins, I came firmly down on the loving side of this one.  Drink now – recent bottles have shown some bottle variation [Only in the US].