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Portuguese winemakers deliver a surprise: good nonalcoholic wine

  • Stephen Quinn, Digital Development Editor of South China Morning Post, poses to photographer in the studio Thursday, December 29th, 2011, at the SCMP Studio on Leighton Office in Causebay Bay.

Wine without alcohol might seem a contradiction, but the world of wine needs innovation, and Portuguese winemaker Luis Bourbon has come up with an idea that is compelling in its simplicity. Bourbon joined forces with Rui Pedro Pinheiro to found Herdade da Madeira Velha Wines (HMV) in 2010. They decided HMV needed a unique selling point, something to make it stand out from the crowd.

They created an alcohol-free red that is exported to at least four countries. One of their best customers is the military in Angola in southern Africa, where soldiers like wine but cannot enjoy alcohol for a variety of reasons. HMV also exports to countries connected via language to Portugal such as Brazil.

I have tried alcohol-free wines in many countries and they invariably taste awful – sweet grape juice with no sense of vinosity. HMV’s product succeeds because it actually tastes like wine. The first version appeared last year, and Bourbon has experimented with grape varieties and sugar levels to give his wine an appropriate range of flavors and textures.

He settled on the trincadeira and aragonez grape varieties. The latter is known as tempranillo in neighboring Spain. Up to 30 percent of the water in the juice is evaporated in the process of removing the alcohol. This concentrates the flavors, but also influences the taste.

Bourbon, who has been making wine since 2002, explained that removal of alcohol changed the sense of “heat” in the wine. But adding sugar and choosing the most appropriate grape varieties made the wine more palatable. He tried a range of levels of residual sugar and found three grams per liter conveyed the wine’s flavors and also improved the wine’s texture.

HMV produces four tiers of wine with alcohol as well as the nonalcoholic red. The entry level is the red or white Monte da Roquina. These are mostly targeted for supermarkets. Both are blends of indigenous grapes and quite pleasant to drink.

The next level up features the red and white Bagaboa. I did not taste these wines and cannot comment about their quality.

When HMV was formed, the company acquired two existing brands, Zefyro and Canto. These brands belonged to the Reynolds family that arrived in Portugal in 1820 to run a cork business. They are HMV’s flagship wines.

Zefyro is available as a red, white and rosé. A colleague and I tasted barrel samples of the 2012 white, made from viognier. Half of the 30,000 bottles made each year receive oak treatment and the other half do not. The barrel sample was of the nonoaked version and was delicious: a nose of violets and grapefruit with pleasant acidity. Naturally, the wine needs time to integrate.

The 2009 Zefyro red is a blend of mostly aragonez and trincadeira, with a touch of shiraz and alicante bouschet. It has a welcome balance of acid, tannin and fruit. Decanter magazine, the British-based bible of wine, gave the previous three vintages a bronze medal, and this wine is likely to receive similar awards.

The highlight of our tasting was the 2009 Canto X. It is a big wine, full of ripe black fruits and aromas of blackberry, spices and vanilla. People who appreciate New World reds will adore this blend of mostly shiraz and alicante bouschet, with a touch of touriga nacional.

Bourbon told me he wanted to be different, to make wines that go beyond ordinary expectations. With the Canto X, he has managed to create a wine from the Old World with a New World feel. He uses new French oak elegantly, balanced with some older oak. This produces a wine that feels soft on the palate but sings of sunshine and ripe fruit, and has good length. Decanter awarded it a silver medal in 2005 and bronze medals in 2006-08. This wine also deserves a medal.

The white, the Canto V made from viognier, was not available for tasting.

The winemaker has big plans and eventually aims to produce 470,000 bottles a year. HMV’s grapes are grown in Evora, one of the best subregions in the Alentejo region. Meet an exciting new entry in the world of wine innovation.

Disclosure: Bourbon and Pinheiro took a colleague and me to an excellent restaurant near Albufeira in Portugal, the Veneza, that stocks their wines. The food was excellent and provided a chance to see how well Portuguese wines match with local food.

Stephen Quinn travels the world for his weekly wine column and hopes to convey the magic of the grape in ways that anyone can understand. To read more from Quinn, visit his website on sraquinn.org.

 
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Summary

Wine without alcohol might seem a contradiction, but the world of wine needs innovation, and Portuguese winemaker Luis Bourbon has come up with an idea that is compelling in its simplicity.

HMV's product succeeds because it actually tastes like wine. The first version appeared last year, and Bourbon has experimented with grape varieties and sugar levels to give his wine an appropriate range of flavors and textures.

Adding sugar and choosing the most appropriate grape varieties made the wine more palatable.

HMV produces four tiers of wine with alcohol as well as the nonalcoholic red.

The next level up features the red and white Bagaboa. I did not taste these wines and cannot comment about their quality.

People who appreciate New World reds will adore this blend of mostly shiraz and alicante bouschet, with a touch of touriga nacional.

Bourbon told me he wanted to be different, to make wines that go beyond ordinary expectations.


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