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 12, 2012

Touriga Nacional - Landenberg, PA, USA

If the category "Portuguese wine grapes" ever came up on the Family Feud, I'd be willing to bet almost anything that Touriga Nacional would be the number one answer by a fairly substantial margin.  Touriga Nacional is known as the Queen of Grapes within Portugal and is that country's answer to Tempranillo or Sangiovese.  It is THE main quality grape used in the production of Port and, in more recent years, has taken on a larger role in the production of dry table wines in the Douro and Dão regions of Portugal.  While it may not be a household name right now, it is a grape that is fairly well known to experienced wine drinkers and which can be had quite easily from virtually any shop.  So why write about it here?  Because this particular bottle came from grapes grown in Pennsylvania.

Before we get to that, let's talk a little about the grape itself.  Despite Touriga's reputation as the highest quality wine grape in Portugal and despite the fact that Touriga Nacional and Portuguese wines are practically synonymous at this point, it wasn't that long ago that the grape was on the brink of extinction.  The vine is prone to poor fruit set and, when the fruit actually does set, it sets into a small number of small clusters with small berries.  This means that the wines made from these grapes are uniquely deep in color and intensely flavorful and aromatic, but it also means that the vines produce pitifully small yields, which is not a quality that growers are enamored of in the vines that they cultivate.  Despite that, by around 1900, Touriga Nacional was thought to cover over 90% of the vineyard land in the Dão.  As we've seen so many times, though, once Phylloxera came to town, everything changed.  After the scourge had decimated their vineyards, many growers decided to plant higher yielding vines that they could get more juice (and therefore more wine) from.  The vine was perilously close to disappearing in the mid 20th Century but it hung on.  Today it only accounts for about 2% of the vines of the Douro Valley and possibly up to 20% of the vines of the Dão.  Given its rising popularity on the international scene, its plantings are increasing and the vine is finding its way south through Portugal, but not all that quickly.  It is currently planted on about 3500 hectares (about 9000 acres) throughout Portugal.

The name Touriga may come from a village in the Dão called Tourigo, where the grape is thought to have originated.  The Nacional part means exactly what you'd think, and I'd be interested to find out how it got tacked on at the end.  There are a host of other Touriga grapes such as Touriga Franca, Touriga Branca and Touriga Fêmea which, as far as I can tell, aren't related to one another, but the two most widely planted are Nacional and Franca.  Touriga Franca used to be known as Touriga Francesa, which means French Touriga basically, though the grape doesn't appear to be from France.  My guess is that both grapes were thought to be from around Tourigo, but, for some reason, Touriga Franca was thought to have come from France before then, while Touriga Nacional was thought to be indigenous to the area.  The Nacional was tacked on to indicate that it was a native Portuguese grape as opposed to a grape imported from another country that happened to land near Tourigo.  As for the other two Tourigas, Branco means white, so you can guess how that it got its name, while a synonym for Touriga Fêmea (while means "female Touriga") is Touriga Brasileira, which may indicate that the locals thought there may be some kind of connection with Brazil (which was a Portuguese colony for many years).  All of that is conjecture, though, and I'd be interested to hear from anyone who may know more.

Touriga Nacional is grown outside of Portugal, but like most Portuguese wine grapes, it hasn't made a big splash anywhere outside of its home country.  There is some grown in Spain, Australia and a very little bit is grown in the United States.  The grape really seems to thrive in the intense heat and poor, rocky soils of the Douro valley, so when my sister gave me a bottle of Touriga Nacional from a winery in Pennsylvania for Christmas, I was pretty surprised.  The winery is Paradocx Vineyards and they're located in Landenberg, PA, which is in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania, very near Wilmington, Delaware.  My only prior exposure to this winery was when my wife went to a wine festival in Pennsylvania with her siblings a few years ago and came home with a paint can full of 3.5 liters of wine.  I've written on other sites about my frustration with wineries trying to grow grapes that are climactically poorly suited to their region, and while I don't necessarily want to run through that argument again, it certainly looked like this might be a prime example of that phenomenon.  It turns out that Landenberg isn't that much different from the Douro Valley in terms of latitude, but I don't know enough about the climates of the two regions to be able to say how similar or dissimilar they are (my gut tells me Portugal is hotter and drier, but I wouldn't swear to it).  I'm certain that the hills of Southern Chester County Pennsylvania aren't as steep and rocky as the vineyards of the Douro, though, so I was curious to see what the wine would be like.

As I mentioned, my sister in law gave me a bottle of the 2010 Paradocx Vineyards Touriga Nacional, which it looks like retails for about $29 on the winery's website.  In the glass the wine was a pale ruby color that looked more like Pinot Noir than Touriga Nacional.  As mentioned above, the berries of Touriga Nacional are very small which usually produces a very deeply colored wine, but I could easily see through this wine, which wasn't necessarily a promising start.  The nose was nicely aromatic with spicy, dusky red cherry and raspberry fruit with a bit of wild strawberry, tea leaves and damp earth.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity and low tannins.  There were flavors of spicy cherry and raspberry fruit with strong black tea and damp earth notes.  The more I smelled and drank this, the more concerned I was that maybe I just had Pinot Noir on the brain, but my wife confirmed most of my taste sensations.

This is kind of a hard wine to talk about.  It wasn't a bad wine as far as wines go.  If I had been served this without any idea of what it was, I would have found it quite enjoyable and probably would have guessed that it was a cool climate Pinot Noir based wine.  With no information other than the juice in the glass, I would say it was a decent wine but not necessarily something I'd rush out to buy again.  But if you consider it as an example of a wine made from Touriga Nacional grapes, it feels like the conclusion that you come to about its quality has to be radically different.  As an example of a Touriga Nacional wine, it's a very bad wine as it lacks virtually all of the characteristics that you would expect to see in a wine made from that grape.  It is light and delicate where Touriga is brawny and intense.  It is marked by low color, low tannins and red berryish fruit where Touriga is deeply colored, fiercely tannic and loaded with black fruits.

So is the wine good or bad?  What can we really say about this wine?  When we had no information, we found it enjoyable, but learning additional information about the wine has prejudiced us and caused us to think about it in a different, more negative light.  Is our first sensation of enjoyment the most important one or should our critical estimation arrived at after considering all of the important facts of the matter be privileged?  Has the additional knowledge poisoned the well, so to speak, or has it given us a deeper perspective and allowed us to see something closer to the truth?

1 comment:

Marc said...


I am a PA resident, winemaker and Certified WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) student who teaches wine classes at local colleges and small businesses in the state.

I wanted to comment on your assessment of the above wine from Paradocx. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident of one wine grape being poorly suited to its terroir, but more or less a state-wide problem I've noticed since my early days drinking wine at Chaddsford winery in PA, almost eleven years ago.

It seems that the wonderful agricultural tradition of our state has managed to take a blanket approach to wine making, treating every grape as they do vegetables and fruit: If you can plant it in the ground, and it grows here, then it is good.

Sadly, there is little to no such thing in PA as Site selection when it comes to having your own winery. As a result, almost all of the wine produced here in the state has the same exact watery, weak and off-character profile you mentioned above.

Why anyone thought it was appropriate to plant Touriga Nacional in souteastern PA is beyond me. I suppose they deserve an A for effort, but honestly, PA wine makers still have a long way to go before the quality of our wines are worth a mention.

The finger Lakes Region of NY is finally starting to "get" the concept of Site selection for Riesling and other cool-weather grapes and is now receiving accolades and awards for making world-class wines. I only hope that we can take note and make better efforts to figure out what works here in Pennsylvania. I have not lost hope for the state yet, but we definitely need to do a little more work in finding our own varietals.