When I first started tasting wine seriously, I visited the Hunter Valley in Australia. At the time the most popular red grape was shiraz, and locals maintained the best shiraz wines had a “sweaty saddle” nose.
That was 1982. Since then, I have come to appreciate that “sweaty saddle” was actually a fault known as brettanomyces, often abbreviated as “brett”. The French use the term “dekkera.” The worst kind of brett, the result of a microbiological fault caused by yeast, makes a wine smell like mouse droppings or the artificial plastic aroma of a Band-Aid. Brett is often a sign of poor hygiene in the winery, indicating that measures have not been taken to kill off bad yeasts.
But small amounts of brett can improve the flavor of wine. The Oxford Companion to Wine says “a low level has been known to beguile some tasters in some wines.” Lebanon’s own ChateauMusar is known for its distinctive brett.
The Herdade do Arrepiado Velho vineyard in the Alto Alentejo region of Portugal produces a wine called Brett, in homage to the best aspects of dekkera. The 2009 Brett is made entirely from syrah, a synonym for shiraz, and is aged for 16 months in a combination of new and old French oak. Fermentation occurs naturally from the yeast on the skins.
Winemaker Ant?nio Macanita aged part of the wine in barrels used in earlier vintages. The result is a wine with multiple layers of complexity, with a strong ruby-violet color and aromas of leather – that saddle sensation we began with – combined with spices and blackberries.
The aromas are more like wet earth and mushrooms than “sweaty saddle.” Aromas of violets, often associated with the touriga nacional grape in the Douro region in Portugal’s north, give this wine elegance. It is like listening to a sad but refined song, like a fado. The tannins are ripe and firm, which means the wine needs several years in the cellar before it can be fully appreciated.
The Herdade do Arrepiado Velho vineyard was founded in 2002 and has 33 hectares of vines. Its red varietals include touriga nacional, syrah, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot. The white varietals are antao vaz, chardonnay, viognier, verdelho and riesling. All grapes are harvested by hand.
I tried the three entry-level HAV wines. The 2012 HAV rosé is a charming pink color in the glass. In the mouth, it offers pleasant acidity with just enough tannin to give the wine texture. It is a blend of touriga nacional (80 percent) and syrah.
Macanita said this rosé combined the floral aromas of touriga nacional with the berry smells of syrah, and his words are apt. It would match well with sushi.
The 2012 HAV white is made mainly from antao vaz (70 percent) with 10 percent each of viognier, verdelho and riesling. It is aged in stainless steel tanks. Antao vaz grows well in Portugal, though it does not perform so well in neighboring countries, which shows how grapes produce different results in different terroir.
This wine was made by gentle whole-bunch pressing that helped avoid any harsh phenolic compounds. The result is a soft wine, pale lemon in color, with pleasant minerality. It has aromas of ripe fruit such as pineapple with refreshing acidity.
The HAV 2012 red is 100 percent touriga nacional, aged in French oak barrels after fermentation in stainless steel tanks. It is deep purple, the result of a post-fermentation maceration of 21 days, with aromas of black fruits. In the mouth, it feels full and rich. I tasted the wine a week after it was opened and the smooth tannins and good length persisted, suggesting a wine that has potential for ageing.
The 2012 HAV riesling showed typicity for this grape variety, with a slight touch of honey on the nose. In the mouth, it offered lemon-lime acids and flavors, plus the kerosene flavors usually associated with aged riesling. It did not have much length, but the flavors appealed and it improved when chilled (the first tasting was at room temperature). This felt halfway in style between wines made from this grape in Alsace and Germany.
My favorite wine was the 2008 HAV red blend, a combination of touriga nacional (65 percent) and petit verdot (15 percent) with 10 percent each of cabernet sauvignon and syrah. It receives expensive oak treatment – 16 months in new French oak – and this shows in the mouth and on the nose.
Intense aromas of blackberries, balsamic and violets flood one’s senses. In the mouth, the wine feels full and ripe. Firm tannins from the oak give the wine excellent structure and feel. The acidity is just right, and the wine finishes with a sustained flourish. As suggested by the expensive and heavy bottle, this is a wine meant to be taken seriously.