André Estácio Pinto poured a glass of miniscule-production Vinho Verde from Calçada, made from some of the oldest vines in the Minho, and loosed a disclaimer: “It’s not a perfect wine.”
“No problem,” I answered. “I’m not a perfect wine writer.”
Whereupon, André and I reveled in our combined humility over a plate of Indian Brook Rainbow Trout at Café ML on Maple and Lahser, hosted by W. Gillett Johnson, the large, self-confident and buff importer of Calçada.
Turns out there was far more flavor than flaws in Pinto’s spectacular Vinho Verde—a concentrated, rich wine with a strong mineral and citrus tang—and I suspect that what he meant by ‘not perfect’ had more to do with it being a purely natural wine, made from some of the oldest vines in Vinho Verde, the largest DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) region in Portugal. It expresses only what the land wants it to express, not some contrived set of ‘improvements’ a winemaker might be going for.
Perfection, in these circumstances, is not necessarily a consummation to be wished.
Not that anything was lost in André Estácio Pinto’s translation; he’s an intense, focused Portuguese gentleman, whose English (like his old-vine VV ) does not strive for perfection, only expression. I’m not sure the same holds true for Bartholomew Broadbent, Esq., the Virginia-based wine importer who suggests that this wine—or at least, wines of its ilk—should not be called ‘Vinho Verde’ at all. A pusher of fizzy, inexpensive, meh Vinhos, Broadbent declares, “These are Portuguese table wines from Vinho Verde. They’re serious wines, but they are not Vinho Verde.”
Interesting point, except that it’s wrong. The only criterion set for the legal use of the label-brightener ‘Vinho Verde’ is geographic, and Calçada qualifies. Style and price point are irrelevant, much as Broadbent—former head of Christie’s wine department and importer of non-serious, eight dollar Vinhos—might prefer it otherwise.
A better quote about the subject came from André Pinto when Café ML’s sommelier fell in love with the wine and asked about the price.
“I have no idea,” he responded. “We make so little of it, we’ve never sold a bottle.”
This exclusive sip is not the only Vinho Verde produced by Calçada, obviously; Detroit was a whistle stop on a multi-city promotional tour for the rest of the stock—the presentation of bottle was a special favor done for me (and the sommelier) by W. Gillett Johnson and company, and it was well appreciated. Among Johnson’s talents (and passions) is finding rare but representative wines from regions whose reputations (in the United States, anyway) are often forged from available imports. The better wines from these appellations may never even make it to our shores, and this was an example. W. Gillett Johnson loves nothing more than turning on wine writers to some unexpected nonpareil from a familiar region, and turning preconceptions upside down.
He and I had a similar conversation about Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Those available to most Americans are overtly grass-gorged, grapefruit-glutted blockbusters that miss the subtle majesty of the best versions, which are as complex and pure of Sauvignon Blanc articulation as any top Sancerre.
The focus of our confabulation this evening remained on the Minho, however; the damp, delightfully dramatic province that surrounds the Vinho Verde demarcation. In fact, so wet is Minho that it’s greener than Ireland, and that’s said to be the origin of the ‘verde’, the green.
Certainly the wine isn’t; it can be white, pink or red.
The Calçada label is owned by Adega do Salvador in association with the Agrimota-Sociedade Agrícola e Florestal; Adega is owned by the Mota Family; Pinto is the chief executive, but only in the way that an Iberian CEO could be: Food and drink occupy the central role in his conversations, not business. The society has the capacity to produce a million liters of wine a year, but Pinto would rather tarry over the intricacies of preparing Rojões à Moda do Minho, a local specialty made with boneless pork marinated in Vinho Verde, lightly seared and stewed with potatoes and chestnuts and—a key ingredient for the signature taste—pig’s blood.
Had Rojões appeared on the the Café ML menu, Pinto might have paired with Lago Cerqueira, also produced by Adega do Salvador in Vinho Verde—it’s a blend of regional varietals, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Barroca, and offers a forward, peppery, smoky profile, juicy and grapey, made in the simple, acidic style of Minho reds.
Pinto also poured his mainstream white Vinho Verde, lemony and bright with a slight tongue-prickle and an undertone of peach—the kind of VV that apparently floats Broadbent’s boat. At around $10 a bottle, it is Portal da Calçada’s entry-level Vinho Verde; clean, fragrant, acidic and unabashedly friendly.
Incidentally, the list of allowable grapes in Vinho Verde white may be better left to the theory section of the Master Sommelier exam, but for the record they are legion, with Alvarinho, Arinto, Avesso, Azal, Batoca, Loureiro, and Trajadura the leaders in a much larger legal pack.
Calçada white’s partner in pink is sheer delight; a rosé with all the verve and moxie of a top Tavel, a premiere Provençal, the best of Bandol. Luscious with honey, sweet with strawberry and watermelon and bubblegum pink, the wine is make from a single varietal, Vinhão. One of the favored Port varietals (often known as Souzão), Vinhão is a deeply colored, acidic grape that can produce as sensational a natural blush as it can a fortified blockbuster.
Both of these wines make excellent foils to the local mountain cheese called Queijo Serra da Estrela; originating in the highest point in continental Portugal, the cheese is flavored with the cardoon flowers found only at this altitude.
André Estácio Pinto speaks with eloquence and authority about Portuguese cuisine in general, and regional specialties of the northwest in particular, so it’s no wonder the restaurant at Casa da Calçada, Largo do Paço restaurant, boasts a coveted Michelin star—an honor bestowed so rarely that Chef Paul Bocuse—who, arguably, created the concept of nouvelle cuisine—said, “Michelin is the only guide that counts.”
Alas, we must report that thus far, a Michelin star has eluded Café ML, but by virtue of their pouring Calçada, a strikingly delicious taste of rural Portugal in urban Birmingham, I suppose we could award them an honorary galaxy and not be far off the mark, at least in an imperfectly perfect universe.