A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Fernão Pires (Maria Gomes) - Ribatejo, Portugal

Pop quiz time: what is the most widely planted white grape in Portugal?  If you're having trouble coming up with a Portuguese white grape at all, you probably have some pretty good company.  If you had asked me this same question when I started writing this blog, I would have guessed Alvarinho, but really only because that would have been the only grape that I knew.  I discovered that Fernão Pires was the most widely planted white grape in Portugal after I bought my first bottle, and I was definitely surprised.  I know that the Portuguese are crazy about blends and finding a varietal wine from Portugal is tough as it is, but finding a varietal Fernão Pires was pretty difficult for me and by the time I had tracked one down, I had actually seen a lot of varietal bottlings from a host of other grapes.  The important thing, though, is that I was able to find one (along with an interesting dessert wine as well), so without further ado, let's talk a little bit about Fernão Pires.

Fernão Pires is grown throughout Portugal though most of the plantings are concentrated in the central and southern regions.  The Ribatejo region, located just east of Lisbon in the center of the country, is where most of the plantings of Fernão Pires can be found (in fact, Fernão Pires makes up 40% of the total plantings of this region).  Ribatejo is a voluminous area in terms of total production, standing second only to the nieghboring Estramadura region, and it's because most of the vineyards are planted on very fertile alluvial soils in the river plains of the Tagus River (which is sometimes called the Tejo river, hence the Ribatejo name).  Fertile soils equal high yields which generally means low quality, and that equation holds true here as only about 5% of the production of the Ribatejo finds its way into DOC wines.  As in nearly all valleys, there are high quality sites away from the valley floors where better wines are made, but most of these sites are planted to the red varieties Castelão and Trincadeira, with only a few producers planting white grapes on these sites.

The grape is also grown in the Barraida region, which we are familiar with from our look at the Baga grape, though it is typically called Maria Gomes there.  In 1999 a team of scientists analyzed four different grapes, three of which were called Fernão Pires but which were grown in wildly different geographical regions of Portugal (Vinho Verde, Ribatejo and Oeste which is just West of Ribatejo on the Atlantic coast), and one called Maria Gomes and found that the four grapes were genetically identical, which means that Fernão Pires and Maria Gomes are synonyms for the same grape (Lopes, M.S., Sefc, K.M., Eiras Dias, E., Steinkellner, H., Laimer da Camara Machado, M., da Camara Machado, A. (1999) "The use of microsatellites for germplasm management in a Portuguese grapevine collection."  Theoretical Applied Genetics, (99) 733-739.).  This blog seems to think that the Fernão Pires name comes from a 16th Century Portuguese merchant, pharmacist and explorer named Fernão Pires de Andrade who was apparently instrumental in opening up trade channels with China, establishing a Portuguese embassy in Beijing, and then so insulting the Chinese that the two nations refused to do business with one another for about 40 years.  His Wikipedia biography doesn't mention grapes or wine at all, so I'm not sure if he's really the source of the name of the grape or not.

I'm also not sure about the source of the grape's other name, Maria Gomes.  There are two different women named Maria Gomes who have awesome life stories, but I'd be surprised if the grape was named for either of them.  The first is Maria Gomes Valentim who was the oldest verified living person in the world for about a month in May of 2011 until she passed away.  She was 114 years 347 days old at the time of her death, making her one of the 30 oldest people in history.  The other person was Maria Teresinha Gomes who pretended to be a general in the Portuguese army for over 20 years while she swindled her neighbors out of their savings in a series of investment scams.  Why is that a big deal?  She did it while posing as a man, even living with a woman at one point who was unaware of her gender until after it was revealed during her trial.  She was arrested and put in prison for three years. She died a free woman in 2007, though she was too poor to pay for her own funeral at the time.

It seems odd that the two most common synonyms for this grape are both names, one male and one female, but I can't see to find anything that would indicate that it's more than a coincidence.  It seems likely that Fernão Pires was named for Fernão Pires de Andrade, but the best evidence that I can find for it is that Fernão Pires de Andrade is the only other result you get from Google when looking for information about the Fernão Pires grape.  It's solid correlative evidence, but it's not enough for me to positively conclude that the grape is named for the man.  Maria Gomes is a much more common name and I can't find anything to link the grape to any individual with that particular name.  If anyone has any ideas, I'm open to hearing them.

I was able to find two different wines, one table wine and one fortified dessert wine, made from the Fernão Pires grape.  The table wine was the 2008 Quinta do Alqueve from Ribatejo which I picked up for about $8 from my friends at Curtis Liquors.  In the glass, the wine was a pale silvery lemon color.  The nose was reserved with some white pear, lemon rind and a touch of herbaceousness.  On the palate the wine was on the lighter side of medium with medium acidity.  There were flavors of lemon citrus, white pear and fennel bulb with a slightly chalky, slightly stony kind of minerality on the finish.  This is probably the kind of wine that is best within a year or two of the vintage, even though Wikipedia informs us that it can be held for 2-3 years before drinking.  I didn't hate this wine, but it really didn't do much for me and I found little in it to distinguish it from pretty much any other white wine at this price point.  It wasn't bad, it just wasn't very interesting.  I'm actually sitting here having a really hard time even remembering this wine not because I shotgunned it straight out of the bottle but because it just didn't have a lot of character to it.  If you refuse to pay more than $10 for a bottle of wine, you'll probably find a lot to like here, but if price isn't really a concern for you, then I'd be hard pressed to find a reason to recommend this to you.

The second wine that I found was the NV Quinta da Alorna "Abafado" 5 Years bottling which I picked up from my friends at the Spirited Gourmet in Belmont for about $12. This wine is also from Ribatejo, but in 2009 the Ribatejo region became known simply as Tejo.  According to the winery's website, this wine is made from 100% Fernão Pires grapes.  The grape must is partially fermented and then spiked with brandy while there is still quite a bit of sugar left in order to arrest the fermentation (the final ABV for the wine is 17.5%).  The wine is then aged in old oak barrels for five years before being bottled.  In the glass, the wine is a pale tawny bronze color.  The nose is somewhat aromatic with dominant notes of raisins and brandy with a touch of something nutty.  On the palate the wine is on the fuller side of medium with medium acidity and medium sweetness.  There are flavors of raisins, burnt sugar, toasted nuts and something just a bit smoky.  It tastes a bit like someone took a box of Thompson Seedless raisins, soaked it in brandy overnight and then lit it on fire.  It's not as rich and complex as an aged Tawny Port or a good Madeira, but it is very good and is much better and more interesting than those things that are just labeled "Tawny Port" or "Madeira."  The $12 price tag is for a full-sized 750 mL bottle, so this does represent a good, interesting value for those who like these oxidative fortified dessert wines (and I definitely do).  I love drinking these kinds of wines with my homemade southern-style pecan pie, though anything with sugar and nuts is going to be slam dunk with this.

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