“My wines are made for the table” can sound clichéd. But not from Vitor Claro, one of Portugal’s leading young chefs. Highly rated for his food and wine matching instincts, Claro has recently opened his own restaurant in Lisbon, “Claro!” Suffice to say it has a particularly impressive wine list.
Such is his passion for wine that, since 2010, he has juggled the demands of the kitchen with making his own wines in Portalegre, Alentejo – a barrel each of white and red. And what singular, exciting wines they are! I’m very grateful to Julia Harding MW for including his maiden white, Dominó Monte das Pratas Branco 2010, in her 50 Great Portuguese wines. I suspect otherwise I may never have come across this exceptionally interesting and atypical Alentejo field blend of Alicante Branco (Palomino Fino), Fernão Pires, three types of Muscatel, three types of Arinto, Rabo de Ovelha, Pérola. Nor would I have thought to catch up with Claro when I visited Alentejo (and his restaurant) in November.
So how did his adventures in winemaking start? Referring to Evora – Alentejo’s “capital” – as Portugal’s Lyon, Claro enthused “it has the most brilliant food.” Because Alentejo was one of the country’s poorest areas, he says people learned to cook with left overs – soups and migas, for example. This creativity around food, together with local specialities like black pig and the region’s proximity to Lisbon drew him to the region. And for wine, he alighted on Portalegre. Located in the Serra de S. Mamede (mountains), it’s unique selling point is that it’s Alentejo’s coolest, most elevated sub-region and is unusually blessed with aged vines. Perfect then for fine wines fit for the table.
Having first checked out a friend’s family’s vineyard, Claro became hooked on finding his own vines. Knocking on doors, “because everyone has a vineyard there,” he eventually came across two farmers with very old (c. 90 years) vineyards at around 650-750m. He says, because the cooperative is slow to pay, it was easy to persuade them to sell him the fruit instead.
As for making the wine, Claro’s best laid plans went seriously awry when, just one month before harvest, his winemaker partner pulled out, leaving Claro with little option but to make the wine himself. Or at least, with a little help from phone-a-friend Dirk Niepoort, whom he says taught him all he knows about fine wine and, with balance in mind, inspired him to cook more delicately too. Although, as he laughingly recounts, Niepoort said he was crazy, the acclaimed Port/Douro winemaker very soundly advised the chef to buy just one ton of grapes (so he wouldn’t go bust) and give it a shot.
The wines were made in Portalegre at Altas Quintas, whose cellar master sent Claro samples at least once a month. Taking his lead from Niepoort, who said “nothing can go wrong if you’ve got good grapes,” Claro adopted a minimalist approach – “I left the grapes and let them do everything…just let them be on their own.” Admitting that, in the beginning, it was a bit hard (and for the cellar master at Altas Quintas who was told “to look after it, but not touch it”), it all came good in the end. In fact, having shown the wine blind to his mentor, it’s now being distributed by Niepoort Projectos in Portugal – the ultimate endorsement. As was the cellar master’s compliment when the wine was bottled in mid-2011. Saying “I won’t forget the day,” Claro recalls “he looked at me and smiled and said for me this is what I call wine –what I drink at home. This is my kind of wine.”
True to his philosophy (and much to my delight and delectation) Claro didn’t bring his wines to our interview. Instead, we enjoyed them over a fabulous lunch in Portalegre at Tomba Lobos, one of Alentejo’s best restaurants (check out my pictures here). And I had a second opportunity to taste the wines when Claro subsequently invited me to dinner at Claro! with his wine-mad pals, whose number – lucky me – included Mário Sérgio of Bairrada’s Quinta das Bageiras armed with a box full of museum releases.
Below, you’ll find my notes on both Claro’s and Mário Sérgio’s wines, the latter of which Claro beautifully matched to a bespoke menu.
Dominó Monte das Pratas Branco 2011 (Vinho Regional Alentejano)
In this vintage, Claro included more Muscatel, which currently dominates on floral nose and fresh, bone dry palate. Muscular and intense (but not dense), long and clean, it’s a contrast with the funkier, more inwardly-focused, leavened 2010. Though he reckons it will integrate with time, Claro tells me he plans to revert to the style of the 2010 for the 2012 vintage. At any rate, for now the 2011 is a powerhouse, which worked brilliantly with (pictured) sashimi of mackerel (probably the freshest I’ve ever tasted), which Claro brought with him to Tomba Lobos. Not least because he’d liberally seasoned it with zestily fresh ginger (perfect with the Msucatel) and a dash of soy, coriander and cayenne. (Click here for my note on the 2010 vintage).
Dominó Tinto 2011 (Vinho Regional Alentejano)
This blend of 80% Tinta Francesa (which some say is Grand Noir, others Alicante Bouschet) and other varieties, including white grapes, has a lovely bright ruby/plum hue. It’s a delicate, shy even, dry red, perfumed with well-defined red cherry fruit. Less fruity than fruit-scented, such is its restraint. With an aura of calm and a firm but fine underpinning of tannin, I reckon this will benefit from another year or so in barrel to open up and flesh out a tad. But with no discernible oak, it’s a guileless red of lovely purity. Again, groundbreaking for Alentejo.
Quinta das Bageiras Espumante Bruto Natural 1989
Mário Sérgio had held back just 300 bottles of this sparkling blend of 70% Maria Gomes, 30% Bical, which spent 22 years on lies! Served in a Burgundy glass, it was perfectly vinous, very pure, fresh and clean on the attack, with yellow plums, hints of flor, biscuit, oyster shell and iodine on a long, persistent, finely wrought finish – a perfect match with a shellfish reduction. Exquisite.
Quinta das Bageiras Colheita Branco 1994
Sérgio has heaps of this wine because, when he tried to sell it door-to-door, restaurants only wanted the latest 1995 release. Their loss, because this is a phenomenal wine, with terrific line, length and purity beneath its oilskin nose. It shows zesty grated lime and bitingly fresh, verging on tart, mouthwatering nectarine and peachskin notes. A lipsmacking tour de force.
Quinta das Bageiras Garrafeira Branco 2001
A richer wine from a top notch vintage, which shows white peach, with hints of toast and crème brulee. It’s beautifully balanced by fresh, seamlessly integrated acidity. With its sweeter fruit, it was the better match for scallops on a leek vinaigrette made with Bageiras’ very own, fruity, aged wine vinegar.
Quinta das Bageiras Pai Abel Branco 2010
Made from younger vines, this textured, peachy white is fresh and silky with hints of butterscotch and vanillin oak. A long, langorous arc of flavour. Perfectly paired with a fried egg on cep duxelles with chives.
Quinta das Bageiras Garrafeira Tinto 2008
On its own, this Baga is almost grapey such is its fresh, vibrant, raw even youth. With a firm, powdery chassis of tannins, its potentially explosive power is currently well-trammelled. It worked surprisingly well with (scarily visceral) hake roe dressed with Bageiras’ wine vinegar, lots of pepper and parmesan. Perhaps because the tannins shared the granular texture of the roe, while the wine’s minerality and freshness echoed the flavours of the sea, making for a clean finish.
Quinta das Bageiras Garrafeira Tinto 2001 (magnum)
With several more years under its belt and from this highly rated vintage – Sérgio reckons his best to date – the 2001 is in magnificent form. Sweet, ripe, dark berry and cherry fruit is fleshy yet well defined and elegant, with smoky, mineral nuances and long-chain, lingering tannins of just lovely, melting sucrosity. Outstanding.
Quinta do Canto 1995
This so put me in mind of fine, mature Burgundy with its soaring incense, sweet, ripe red and plum fruits and cool tang of clay. There’s a hint of pine needles too – a regional signature note, as are the firm tannins. But they’re ripe and yielding too, making this wine a fine match for Claro’s expertly roasted blue fin tuna belly with rosemary.
Quinta das Bageiras Garrafeira 1997
Less powerful than the 2001, but again, showing sweet red cherry fruit, smoke and minerals, well supported by firm but ripe tannins. Pine needle notes again play well to the rosemary in the tuna dish. Very good.