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Cavalo Maluco

Sep. 19, 2021 1:05 PM ET20 Comments
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  • How to buy good wine on the cheap in Portugal.
  • Stumbling unawares into the number-one wine discovery of the year.
  • Walking away disappointed, in some respects, but nevertheless excited about a new prospect.

It was actually my wife's friend from business school, Gonçalo, who suggested that we try a bottle a few months ago. Gonçalo (better known as "Gonzo" to his friends) is not only NOT a wine snob, but he will be the first to tell you that he doesn't even know what he is talking about when it comes to wines. Between that and the fact that I only ever really drink white wines, Gonzo's suggestion that we buy a bottle of Cavalo Maluco wasn't particularly high on my priority list, but then another one of my wife's business school buddies, Lisa, took it upon herself to ship us not one but TWO bottles of Cavalo Maluco.

When someone ships you two bottles of Portuguese wine from Switzerland all the way back to Portugal, that should tell you something. Ever the quick study, I wasn't entirely sure what it was telling me, specifically, but there was one obvious way to find out: reach for the corkscrew. 

So many of life's questions seem to find their answer with this simple tool.

The general rule around our house is that if it's free, we drink it. This rule is so well known amongst our friends that people sometimes send me stuff like artichoke liquor for my birthday. I even once got a bottle of some kind of hooch made with fermented shrimp in a mixture of what can only be described as "other things." You ask "why do people send me this stuff?" The only answer I can think of is because they know I'll put it to good use (or at the very least, being the patient man that I am, I won't immediately pour it down the drain). 

T'was thus that we finally decided to open one of our two bottles of 2009 Cavalo Maluco. 

Those of you who drink Portuguese wines probably picked up on the fact that these two bottles were more than just one or two years old. Good wine, you must understand, doesn't tend to stick around for long here in sunny Portugal. After all, why let it sit and age when you can drink it right now

My sentiments exactly. I might not be Portuguese, but I definitely relate when it comes to the two ways that you're supposed to consume Portuguese wine: (1) early; and (2) often. 

I'll be honest. I wasn't expecting much out of the Cavalo Maluco. My wife and I let the bottle breathe a bit while we noshed on some potato chips, and then we said cheers and took a sip.

What followed thereupon was a brief "something doesn't compute" moment. We stared at one another and didn't say a word for about minute.

I think her first words were "Oh my god." Mine were probably something along the lines of "pour me some more." When you drink a wine that baffles all previously-held expectations, it can be like discovering you've landed in an alternate dimension where 2+2 equals 100.  

Or in this case, possibly more than 100. The last time I had drank a bottle of red wine quite like this was maybe fifteen years ago when I polished off a 1982 Mission Haut Brion. Cavalo Maluco was easily of the same caliber as a Chateau Margaux, but being a Portuguese wine rather than an upscale Bordeaux, I had to assume that the price was one two decimal points lower.

And (as luck would have it) I couldn't have been more right. Alas, like so many other times when I'm right, I couldn't have known that there would ultimately prove to be a significant and possibly insurmountable catch.  

My wife always says the same thing when she tastes a shockingly yummy white wine. "Spring in a bottle!" The Cavalo Maluco, however, was more like warm, black silk with rubies and black pepper in a bottle, and the longer we sat out watching the sun set and taking little sips, the more all of those surprising mixtures of flavors evolved and intensified. Licorice. Butter. Wild blackberries. Coffee. Chocolate. But there was another flavor - something else I couldn't quite identify. Something angular, structural, and - can I say this without attracting loud guffaws - something almost architectural. It was the taste of Earth, like an immense cave transformed into an underground cathedral, but not that sort of blunt mineral flavor you sometimes get with a robust red wine. No, quite to the contrary, this was something malleable yet at the same time very bright and alert, like razor blade forged from gold. I just couldn't identify what I was tasting. Not that this would deter me from topping up my glass a few times to sleuth the answer. 

I decided to regift the one remaining bottle to my friend Ray, who is by far the most appreciative wine drinker I know. I then set out to buy a few more bottles of the Cavalo Maluco 2009 which (I then assumed) shouldn't be too hard to find. Nobody seems to write about this wine. I had simply made a brilliant wine discovery that seems to have gone largely unnoticed by the cognoscenti (at least, unnoticed by everyone other than Gonzo and Lisa). 

But that was a long while ago. After weeks and weeks of wandering through a Cavalo Maluco desert void, I finally I had some success yesterday at my favorite wine store in Portugal which is the Garrafeira Nacional located down the hill in Baixa. They only had two bottles of Cavalo Maluco available. From 2014. As I suspected, the price was nowhere remotely close to a high-caliber Bordeaux. Cavalo Maluco cost 34 Euros per bottle. I bought both bottles on the spot and left. 

A few nights ago my wife and I opened one of the bottles, let it sit, and eagerly rubbed our hands together while we waited for about half an hour before pouring our first glasses. Nor were we disappointed. The 2014 Cavalo Maluco was lovely. A very robust and complex wine, something that would go wonderfully with all kinds of food, and simply stated, very very tasty. "Pleasing." That's the word I am looking for. 2014 Cavalo Maluco is a very pleasing wine.

But "pleasing" is not in the same genre as "transcendental." The 2014 Cavalo Maluco is not in the same category as the 2009.   

The problem remains that after visiting a number of shops, I just haven't been able to locate another 2009 bottle anywhere. I was even starting to rue the fact that I gave my last bottle to Ray, and contemplated whether I could maybe somehow hoodwink him into trading me that bottle for something else.  My wife (always thinking, that one is) proposed a simpler solution: "Why don't we drive to the vineyard and get bottles there?" 

This is truly one of the great wonders of living in Portugal. I sometimes forget that we can get in the car and drive for a couple of hours in search of wondrous and otherwise-impossible-to-find wines. In fact, the ability to drive out to a vineyard to buy discounted wine is a perfectly legit (and fully sufficient) reason to move to Portugal full-time. I don't know why we don't do this more often.  

The Herdade do Portocarro (where the grapes for Cavalo Maluco is grown) lies about an hour and a half south of Lisbon. One surprising thing is the location. The Herdade (which means "homestead" in Portuguese) is a few kilometers from the sea, located not too far from Comporta in a region known more for rice farming than wine production. We drove through narrow twisty roads through the cork forests, where the thick knobby bark has been peeled meticulously from the base of the trees that are then marked with white spray painted numbers.  We drove past past giant cactus plants, pine trees, silty sandy dirt paths, and past a pleasant little river town called "Alcaçer de Sal." That means  "the Salt Fortress". Everyone we saw in Alcaçer de Sal seemed to be sitting in outdoor cafes on their way to or from the local mercado. During the entire drive, we barely passed any vineyards at all. 

Google maps brought us to a dirt road with an open gate but no visible signage or markings whatsoever. We could see some heavy farm equipment and a few buildings, bounded by fences and stacks of crates.

"Uh.... do you think that this is really the place?"

We started down the bumpy dirt road until we came to a parking area marauded by some very large, and very unfriendly-looking bull mastiffs. The dogs were both surprised and unhappy to see us. One of them had some irregular and painful looking growths on her skin. All were the size of well-fed (but nevertheless hungry) calves.   

I felt an immediate need to manage my wife's expectations. "I don't care how good that wine is. There is no fucking way that I am going to set foot out of this car." 

Fortunately, all the barking eventually alerted someone who was working inside the barn, who came outside and assured us that the dogs were nothing to worry about. Once this man showed up, the dogs instantly lost all interest in us and went back to rolling in the dry dirt and chewing things. Although one mottled white female continued to hover and skulk close by, growling like a Harley Davidson whenever I made any eye contact with her. 

We explained that we were looking for the Herdade do Portocarro, and the man (we later learned his name was "Marco") congratulated us in Portuguese. "You found us!"

We next explained that we were looking for bottles of their Cavalo Maluco brand, and Marco confirmed that we were in luck because they had three vintages on hand - 2010, 2012 and 2014. Better yet, he would sell to us at a discount! My mood brightened exponentially. 

"What about the 2009? Can we buy a case of that?"

Marco shook his head understandingly. His entire body language conveyed the message. "Right. You are one of those couples who want to buy that year." It was like watching the air escape from a punctured tire. Marco, you see, didn't have so much as a single bottle of 2009 to sell us. 

However! Marco did suggest another bottle. A special bottle. A bottle that was so special that he felt it was important for us to speak to the owner of the quinta - o Senhor Pépé - whom he promptly telephoned. Moments later, o Senhor Pépé emerged and greeted us effusively in Portuguese before switching to English once he picked up on our impossible-to-disguise heavily American- accented Portuguese language skills.  

Whenever we visit vineyards, my wife and I love learning as much as we possibly can about the land, the buildings, the people who work there. We discovered that o Senhor Pépé is actually o Doutor Pépé. Having received his formal training as a medical doctor, he progressed to earn an impressive collection of advanced degrees in horticulture and wine making. He now raises rice and has two vineyards now in the Comporta region.  While Comporta is not known for wine, o Doutor Pépé rationalized that the intensity of the sun combined with the cool ocean breezes would mean far less stress on the vines - a key factor that could mean better flavor for the grapes. The complicating factor is specifically where you plant your vines. The region around Comporta has too much ground water for grape vines. So, o Doutor Pépé's solution is that he plants his vines high up on the hilltops and leaves the valleys for other types of crops. 

I sheepishly asked him about the 2009, and he confirmed that indeed, no, not one bottle is available for sale. And then he supplied me with perfectly blunt explanation: o Doutor Pépé himself has stashed them all into his private collection. In fact, o Doutor Pépé told us that whenever he finds any bottles of the 2009 Cavalo Maluco at a store... HE BUYS BACK ALL THE BOTTLES FOR HIS PRIVATE COLLECTION!!!  

Even a talented wine maker like o Doutor Pépé is sometimes surprised by how a particular vintage eventually turns out. There is some guesswork when the wine is still young, certain oracular tastes that provide only oblique hints at how the wine will develop over the years. And sometimes, it takes quite a few years in the bottle before the wine maker realizes what he's actually accomplished (only by then, most or even all of the bottles may have been sold). 

And then... once in a very, very, very long while, there is some sort of fluke of nature and a 34 Euro bottle of wine ends up tasting like a bottle that might easily cost 10 or even 100 times as much. 

O Doutor Pépé just didn't see it coming with the 2009 vintage. Nobody did. And now... the desperate scramble to locate and hoard the 2009 vintage is fully underway, lead by none other than the very mastermind behind what may be one of the great Portuguese (or possibly, continental European) wines of our time. 

Yes, of course I was disappointed to learn that the 2009 is now, roughly speaking, unavailable. Those who know me in person will not be surprised to learn that I immediately began to ponder the prospect of staging a heist. In fact, I was already dialing up Ray to recruit him as a getaway driver (or at least a lookout) when I noticed the tawny, unblinking eyes of that large, mottled white female bull mastiff. She somehow knew exactly what I was thinking and growled like a laden tractor trailer engine-breaking on a steep hill. I quickly decided to change mental topics. The growling only moderately abated.

What was that mystery Earth tone in the wine that I couldn't identify? It had started to become clearer to me once I saw the land and took note of our location. It's amazing how visiting vineyards and talking to farmers can improve your appreciation for good wine. When I asked him, o Doutor Pépé confirmed my suspicions. Sea salt! The faintest hint of ocean that is so subtle you can't guess at what you are tasting. It is dry and cool and sunny in that part of Portugal but in 2009, a few foggy days with mist blowing off the ocean maybe introduced some elements into the 2009 vintage that haven't been repeated since. 

Or at least, elements that have not been repeated until 2017, which happens to be the year and the reason for why Marco had summoned his boss out to the barn in the first place. You see, 2017 was another unusual year with some usual weather surprises and according to o Doutor Pépé, it turns out that the 2017 vintage tastes today quite a bit like the 2009 tasted many years ago. Only better. In the assured words of none other than o Doutor Pépé himself, much, much better. 

Enough better, in fact, that o Doutor Pépé had no realistic alternative but to create an entire new brand JUST for the 2017 harvest. And (as o Doutor Pépé mentioned offhand with breezy nonchalance) to (...ahem) raise the price for said bottle to 60 Euros compared to 24 Euros for the Cavalo Maluco (which the astute reader might note represents a generous 10 Euro per bottle discount compared to what a typical Lisbon wine store will charge you).

Of course by then, having discussed at length the impossibility of ever tasting anything like the 2009 Cavalo Maluco ever again, my wife and I were DESPERATE to spend 60 Euros per bottle on any bottle that o Doutor Pépé might be willing to part with. True, we never intended to spend anything like 60 per bottle when drove up that bouncy dirt road past packs of dogs the size of snarling, carnivorous donkeys, but it seems that o Doutor Pépé might have surreptitiously tucked an MBA into his extensive collection advanced degrees. 

Gloria 2017.

There are only 1,198 bottles that will ever be produced - unless and until whichever gods smiled upon the 2009 and 2017 vintages return to the sunny coast of Portugal to bestow their unpredictable blessings onto the vineyards at Herdade Portocarro. It will still be many years before the Gloria 2017 starts to come into prime drinking range. It is a wine that is designed to keep for decades, according to o Doutor Pépé, and to only improve as the years pass. Assuming one can wait that long.

My wife and I initially bought one bottle, but as the conversation with o Doutor Pépé evolved and matured, we steadily increased our purchase from one to three bottles. Two to keep downstairs in the basement, and one that I simply must, MUST, try. And the sooner the better. It's still sunny and warm weather here in Lisbon, but as the Fall approaches and we get into the right season for warm stew, liquidy goat cheeses and roasted meats, we will open one of our costly Gloria 2017 bottles and you can expect what I hope will be glowing reports. 

Until then, my plans for a Cavalo Maluco 2009 heist are (at least temporarily) on hold. 

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