This week, Portugal turned out to be the destination, and while Hades' pick was anything but a 'midweek' bottle, it's one of the most interesting reds I've had the pleasure of following over the last few years. Getting to revisit Herdade do Mouchão, albeit from the armchair, was always going to be a treat.
Like most interesting wines and wineries, Mouchão is made up of a series of paradoxes that can make describing it quite difficult. It's incredibly traditional in many respects, but trailblazing in others. This Alentejo grandee has been owned by the same family since the mid-19th century, except for 1974-1986, when it was seized by the country's military dictatorship. Electricity was only introduced in the early 1990s and the winemaking is resolutely traditional, but in the vineyard the grapes are double-trellised – an intricate, modern technique more commonly seen in New Zealand than Portugal.
But the quality of their wine speaks for itself, and the various prevailing traditions, new initiatives and historical accidents that have informed it over the years all add up to something fascinating.
I had travelled some 250 miles with Portugal buyer Joanna Locke MW and a group from across the UK wine trade to get there, coming down from the Douro Valley. It was a trip that brought the differences between these two important regions into sharp focus – the Douro filled with vineyard after vineyard and the Alentejo a vast and much more diverse mix of plantings, including olives, lavender, cereal, fruit, eucalyptus and of course, the cork trees. Indeed, it was cork that inadvertently birthed this now-famous red: it was founded by the Reynolds family as a cork farm, not a wine estate.
The main grape in this wine is also an interesting one: alicante bouschet is a dark-fleshed French crossing of grenache with petit bouschet. It was Mouchão who brought the first cuttings into Portugal, and it is they who make probably the world's finest expression of it, accounting usually for around 80% of this eponymous estate blend.
Thanks to a generously loaned but ungenerously ill-fitting pair of shorts, I managed to get to know alicante bouschet in a way I hadn't expected to upon our arrival, when I was invited to foot-tread some of it; an experience I'd liken to wading through warm treacle (albeit with more stems and pips). The stains on my legs, which accompanied me back home, paid testament to the vigorous pigment of this variety.
Tannic and husky though it is, alicante bouschet can be capable of great finesse, but it needs three things to deliver it: good plantings, good winemaking and bottle age. Needless to say, Mouchão provide the first two of these things as standard and they advise the third.
It's a grape that owner Iain Reynolds-Richardson himself admitted to us 'has very few primary aromas; but with age it gets amazing tertiary aromas and flavours.' Their 1954, I'm told, is still fresh and youthful, and many of my fellow fans might accuse me of relative infanticide by drinking the 2010 now.
That said, I don't think I've met a vintage of this wine I haven't loved, and it always seems to have a captivating energy that can be discerned at all stages of its long life. Even when we tasted the still-fermenting new vintage from one of the estate's colossal wooden tonneaux, a chest-hair tightening experience and possibly the closest wine I've found to raw coffee, it still had an invigorating vibrancy about it that's as easy to spot after a few tastes as it is hard to put into words.
The first scent that came out of the glass when pouring the 2010 this week was eucalyptus, which struck me: this was a hot topic of conversation during our visit. A study had just been published concluding that eucalyptol released into the atmosphere by trees could bind to the surface of grapes, become extracted during fermentation and release the flavour into the wine. Many in the team were sceptical, but it was remarkable to sense it so vividly on first pour, and reminded me of all the eucalyptus trees I saw at the estate. Coffee, prunes and a distinctive earthy aroma followed, but the palate was a little locked and surly. The wine needed to wake up.
On day two, everything had changed. The eucalyptus was still there but playing a peripheral umpteenth fiddle on an extraordinary nose, full of blackcurrants, blackberries, tobacco, leather and cedar. The palate was still typically tannic and structured, but reverberating with dark, succulent fruit and a newfound freshness, overlaid with pepper, black olive and hints of chocolate and aniseed on the finish.
It showed great sophistication but there was also a rustic, grippy and protein-hungry air to it – in some ways not dissimilar to France's Madiran or Cahors, but still a unique, idiosyncratic thing that reminded me why I'd been so keen to grab a few bottles of Mouchão in the first place.
Why did Hades pick this, I wondered? I confess I had my suspicions. Inevitably, some are startled by our cat's demeanour and size (oh, and name), and I'd been guilty of using a painfully wine-geeky phrase to reassure people of his incredibly affectionate nature and temperament: like red wine grapes, this cat is dark on the outside, but on the inside he's light, lovely and yes, a bit squishy. Could putting his paw on a wine made from a so-called teinturier grape – one of the dozen or so varieties in the world that's dark on the inside as well as the outside – have been an attempt to reassert his Dark Lord street cred?
Either way, I'm glad he did. During an extraordinary time, when worries and worse are on everybody's minds, a good glass is something to be doubly welcomed. I still have a few bottles for Hades to parade in the future if desired, but for now I hope everyone reading this far is doing well. I'm off to fill a paddling pool with grapes and recreate the glory days…