There is an old Portuguese saying that goes: “Para lá do Marão, mandam os que lá estão”, which can be translated into something like “Beyond the Marão, it is those who live there that are in charge”. This saying reflects a hard truth about the Trás-os-Montes region. Situated beyond the Marão and Alvão mountains, and just north of the Douro, this remote region has been somewhat forgotten and left to its chance. With hot and dry summers and very cold winters, it is a hard place to live. Mountainous, the soils are predominantly granitic or schistose and difficult to cultivate.
This hard land has shaped its people. Strong-witted and resolute, they have thrived in a land forgotten by God and the Devil. My father is one of them, and so I happen to know a thing or two about these people. And I admire them. They are genuine and hard-working, do not take anything for granted and have an innate resilience. But beneath this thick skin, they are warm-hearted and very hospitable. So much so that they take offense if you refuse their hospitality. And they treat you like family once you walk through the doorway.
With its unique rusticity, this region hides true gems, like the ancient city of Bragança, the roman city of Chaves (Aquae Flavia), the hot springs of Vidago (home to one of the most beautiful hotels in Portugal - Vidago Palace - well worth a visit), Douro Superior and the Douro International Natural Park.
Wine-wise, the Trás-os-Montes Demarcated Region is divided into three sub-regions: Chaves, Valpaços and Planalto Mirandês. It must be noted that some parts of the geographical region known as Trás-os-Montes are, in fact, included in the Douro Demarcated Region (Douro Superior). It is thus not surprising that the wines from Trás-os-Montes are little known, as it has always been shaded by the Douro Superior.
It can be argued, and I partially agree, that the limits between Demarcated Regions set centuries ago are somewhat arbitrary, not reflecting a real difference in terroirs, and therefore in wines. While I believe this may sometimes be the case, there is a uniqueness to the wines of Trás-os-Montes that I will try to explain. I believe it is impossible to really understand and appreciate the wines from this region without visiting it and knowing its people. Nonetheless, I believe I have done some justice to the region with the first two paragraphs. And here, for me, lies the true uniqueness of these wines.
The reds tend to be more rustic, closed and vegetal than the ones from Douro Superior, and beg for pairing with the strong flavors of the local gastronomy. The main grape varieties used are: Trincadeira, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Bastardo (the latter unique to the region). I was able to confirm this in a recent tasting of red wines from Tras-os-Montes, which I bring to you firsthand in this post.
This tasting was held at Tio Pepe, one of those sacred wine sanctuaries I regularly attend, and was organized by Luis Cândido, in partnership with the team from Imperdiveis, a wine-dedicated program that runs in the local television (Porto Canal). Pedro Nunes, the presenter and an inveterate wine lover, invited me and the Executive Chef from Porto Palacio (one of the finest hotels in Porto) for a blind tasting of five red wines from this region.
As mandated by the occasion, each one of us tasted the wines in silence, and then combined our opinions and scores to sort the wines.
A bit closed on the nose, some chocolate and vanilla notes, along with red and black fruits and an undertone of leather and vegetal (only a hint). On the palate unbalanced, wood still not integrated, good fruit but not much else, a bit short on the palate. Did not like it.
A bit less extracted than the others, and thus with lighter color. Fruity nose (mostly red fruits) and a dash of spices. On the palate it is very round, and again marked by good quality fruit. Fine tannins. Medium finish. Clearly more new-world style and in my view, it does not reflect what the region should be.
Closed on the nose, definitely a vegetal, earthy side, as one would expect from the region, together with red fruits and a bit of spices. On the palate it is medium to full-bodied, with fierce tannins, well-integrated wood and on the whole coming together nicely. Good fruit and a nice acidity to it. Solid wine, even if not overwhelming. Maybe 85-86/100.
Beautiful bouquet, with a nice combination of vegetal notes (humus, earthy character) and red fruits. A bit more Douro-style, in that it is more fruity and spicy than others (except for B), but still retaining the spirit of the region. On the palate very elegant and balanced, with a nice acidity and a dash of minerality; beautiful finely grained tannins. My favorite. Maybe 87/100.
Very closed in the nose, leathery and vegetal, a hint of petrol. On the palate rustic and restrained, with good quality wood still not quite integrated. Apart from that, it already displays a good balance between fruit and acidity, as well as a salty minerality. The tannins are still fiery, but in a good way. A prototypical wine from this region. Now maybe 86/100, but maybe 89-90 in 5 years time.
Wines C, D and E were clearly a step-up from wines A, B and showcase the potential of this region to produce distinctive terroir-driven reds, with a clear gastronomical profile. There is still some work to be done, but on the whole a great tasting!
Curiously, my opinions on each wine were similar to the ones of my fellow tasters, which was kind of a surprise as there rarely is so much consensus in wine tastings! So, here goes the final list, with the wines revealed:
5th Place - Wine A: Valle Pradinhos Reserva 2011
A classical producer from the region. A bit of a let-down, to be honest.
4th Place - Wine B: Valle Madruga Touriga Nacional & Touriga Franca 2015
A new project which, in my view, should opt for a more terroir-driven approach.
3rd Place - Wine C: Quinta do Sobreiró Reserva 2014
A solid wine, still a bit rough on the edges, but with great potential. Much impressed.
2nd Place - Wine E: Quinta do Arcossó Reserva 2011
Trás-os-Montes to the bone, still a bit rough on the edges, but great wine nonetheless. Still very young, this one will become a great wine in a few years!
1st Place- Wine D: Flôr do Tua Reserva 2014
Great wine, and a great surprise. Relatively unknown, and would never say it was from 2014, as the tannins are very fine and already tamed. The best wine to drink now.
Of note, all the wines were priced between 5 and 10 euros (retail price), and the winner was the cheapest wine in the lineup. Yes, you read correctly, 5 euros. Can you believe that?!
Again, this time in writing, Luis Cândido and Pedro Nunes, thank you so much for the invitation.
Keep Trás-os-Montes on the watchlist in the years to come!