Food, wine, travel, music
Located in Palmela on the Setubal peninsula, less than an hour by road from Lisbon, the vineyard and winery of Pegos Claros sits quietly. There are no big signs, no monstrous barrels, no architectural marvels announcing its importance. But its modesty and simplicity belie a satisfying range of wines.
Enjoying a Mediterranean climate with Atlantic breezes from the west, the vines stretch over 40 hectares of sandy soil, integrated with a further 500 hectares of forest, including cork oaks and pines. A few white horses add to the relaxed farm setting.
Housed in a renovated old building, the cellar has modern, stainless steel tanks and five lagares, the traditional, thigh high, in this case, epoxy resin coated tanks, of various sizes, used at different times for different amounts of grapes depending on each harvest. There are French 225 and 500 litre oak barrels and walls lined with bottles – there is room for 200,000, but with the wines’ increasing profile, the space is only filled with bottles that need ageing. As wineries go, this is a neat one. All wines and vines get full attention.
Most of the red wines are still foot trodden on the first day of fermentation and attract family, friends and wine tourists to enjoy this skin staining activity. The idea is for the grapes to get gentle pressure at this first stage of production to extract good colour from the skins.
Some of the vines at Pegos Claros are more than 90 years old. The vineyard was established in 1920. Castelão is the versatile, thick skinned Portuguese grape variety which can survive dry and damp conditions throughout the country. It is used along the Duoro river for Port production. Also known as Periquita, here the sandy soil is ideal for its cultivation. Older vines have low yields, and there is no irrigation, therefor no dilution of the concentration of flavour that makes good wine. Sun hours ranging from 40-80% per day throughout the year makes for a recipe for fruit driven wine. The result is flavours unique to the peninsula and handled well, making an interesting change from other Portuguese grape varieties in the rest of the country.
José Gomes Aires manages the property and explains how the farm and vineyards are managed with minimal intervention. There are no claims to be certified organic, but the ethos is to let the vines speak for themselves and with good, sandy soil and consistent weather, there’s little worry about oidium, the fungal spores which dog producers in damper climates, and there are no great numbers of unfriendly insects either. The cork from the trees is sent to a co-op in the north of the country and may well come back to them as wine corks. The pine trees produce pine nuts and the trees are managed to strict FSC forest management certification standards.
Experimenting with buying in muscatel grapes to make white which fitted the Palmela DOC specifications, let down by growers, they decided to focus on their existing castelau grape and grow everything on site. They have never looked back.
Twenty per cent of the wines are white and are fermented in barrels of new oak. Suiting Asian dishes, these are made from their youngest vines, which at 25 years old, are still not young. 2019 was just the second harvest for the blanc de noir white, made from the red castelau, without pressure on the skins to extract colour. A depth of flavour comes from gentle oaking and maturing on the lees, bringing through fruit and a hint of minerality with a fresh finish. The oak is barely discernible. Ideal with Asian food, salads with creamy cheese and green and white beans, and of course fish – most dishes suit it well, but it is also an interesting aperitif wine.
Also good with Asian food is the rosé which is fermented in oak and has more body than rosés often do. Good with flavoursome salads with light meats and mild cheeses. A good, summery aperitif too.
The first red to be made in the last ten years was the 2014 Reserva. From 70 year old vines, it is first pressed by foot, then machine. Aiming for elegance, José says it’s good to keep drinking during and after a meal, and he’s right. With full, sunny, jammy, cherry fruit, the 2015 has enough structure to take strong food – red meat, game, pork, chicken, sausages – suiting barbecues – but drinkable on its own. The interesting flavours come from the stems which are first removed during the crushing, and then 30% of them is added back. There is no entry level wine as such which might be produced in lesser harvests in other wineries. They haven’t had a bad harvest which required downgrading their range. This one is the cheapest of the reds.
One other grape variety planted in Pegos Claros is tintinha. Added to the 90% Castelão, the Primo is so called perhaps as it’s the first blend and an experiment which has proved successful. But strictly translated, it means ‘cousin’ which they say makes sense too.
This is the only wine not be to be pressed in the lagares. Instead it goes straight into 500 litre oak barrels where it is allowed to ferment, after a manually pressing down before being bottled and kept for two years before release. “Castelão has this unusual cousin”, says José and with just 1,600 bottles produced, a rare one.
Paying a few more euros (about €28) for Grande Escolha (meaning great selection) will be rewarded. The oldest grapes of the vineyard are used, pressed by foot first, then fermentation takes place with the stems, partially in lagares. Maturing for a year in barrels of one and two year old oak delivers an interesting combination of flavours with plenty of sumptuous black cherry fruit held together by the background of understated, silky tannins. The balance is just right. Keep the 2015 for another few years for further mellowing. Good with meat, particularly roast beef and duck, it’s a good all rounder and worth the price.
Imported by Grace Campbell Wines and available in independent off licences nationwide, including O’Briens Wines, Matsons in Grange, Cork, Whelehans, Mitchell & Son, Dublin. Prices from €17.