A recent tasting in Northern Virginia sponsored by the Portuguese embassy amply illustrated the contention that Americans can find wines of distinction -- both red and white -- from this ancient country. There were nine selections from two of Portugal's leading producers, Caves Velhas and Carvalho Ribeiro Ferreira.
The outstanding wine of the evening was the red 1961 Garrafeira from Carvalho, Ribeiro & Ferreira. Garrafeira means private cellar and is the special reserve or special bottling from a winery. The 1955 edition of this wine had won plaudits and the 1961, with its haunting bouquet and mellow taste, is a worthy successor. Two other reds that stood out were 1972 Romeira from Caves Velhas and 1972 Dao Conde de Santar from Carvalho, Ribeiro & Ferreira. The white 1973 Dao from Caves Velhas was my favorite among the whites.
The wines were accompanied by two excellent Portuguese cheeses, Serra, a sheep's milk product, and Ilha, a cheddar-style cheese from the Azores. aThe Portuguese also took the opportunity to show some travel films, using the subtle pitch that the dollar has remained a strong currency in their country, allowing vacation dollars to go further.
Another stimulus for the tasting may have been the notable sag in wine exports from Portugal to the United States. Largely on the strength of sales of two brands, Mateus and Lancers, Portugal has ranked behind only Italy and France on the American market. But these standbys have declined in popularity to the point that imports were down 30 percent in the first three months of this year. The higher quality Portuguese wines, the best of which have a fullness of style and elegance that invites comparison to fine French wines, have not been widely promoted in this country and often are available only sporatically. Generally speaking, they have been -- and remain -- good bargains.
Most Portuguese wines go well with summer fare and rose fanciers should look beyond Lancers to the very good Monte Estoril rose produced by Carvalho, Ribeiro & Ferreira.
Riding on the success of their import campaign with Premiat wines from Rumania, Monsieur Henri Wines has launched a nationwide sales effort for Trakia wines from Bulgaria. Through an exclusive contract with the Bulgarian Government, Monsieur Henri will market Trakia pinot chardonnay and Trakia cabernet sauvignon. Officials of the company said the deal was concluded after visits to Bulgaria had impressed them with the modern technology used in winemaking there and gained assurances of ample supply and price stability.
Officials of Forman Brothers, the local distributor, said the wine should sell locally in the $2.50 range. While neither wine is overly complex, both show varietal characteristics and appear to be well made.The chardonnay, in particular, should appeal to persons looking for an inexpensive white with signs of breeding.
The introductory tasting was held at the Bulgarian embassy two weeks ago. The chardonnay is in retail stores now and the cabernet should follow sometime during the coming month. While Bulgaria is the fifth leading exporter of wines in the world, most of its production has stayed in Europe. The label, however, emphasizes the brand. Trakia, which is meant to invoke memories of the ancient kingdom of Thrace, birthplace of Alexander the Great and of wine, according to the Bulgarian ambassador in a charming speech of welcome.
Hubert Trimbach, who directs sales for one of the outstanding family wine firms of Alsace, came to town last week with what amounts to good news from French vineyards in this time of inflation: Prices on Alsacian wines will not rise when the 1979 wines are released, thanks to the large and successful harvest, he said.
With an inflation rate of 12 percent, "realistically that is a price drop," he said. Unfortunately, small crops and bad weather in 1977 and '78, plus rising demand for the dry whites of Alsace in West Germany (where the best whites are sweet) had led to dramatic price rises after 1976. So even the promise of price stability will do little to bring the fine French riselings and gewurztraminers back into the bargain wine category.
But Trimbach and his American importer, Chateau & Estates Wines, think they have found an alternative. They have planned a promotion of Trimbach sylvaner and pinot blanc wines. These two white wines, from grape types less distinguished than the riseling, will sell for under $5.
Trimbach acknowledged that the 1977 Alsace wines were not very successful, "thin in texture," he said. The '78's "will have fuller body," he promised and the well-balanced '79s promise to be even better although the crop was nearly 25 percent greater than normal. He compares the '79 vintage at this point with the fondly remembered wines of 1973.