Tumbler Full of Wine

Paul Blow

Sometimes I get a craving to drink wine from a tumbler in a casual, European style. We make such a fuss over wine in the United States that we forget it can step out of its role as a fetishized luxury beverage and just be another drink.

I have to find the right wine for the tumbler, which is not always as easy as it sounds. First of all, it’s got to be red. Then it’s got to be plain, simple, fruit-forward, and unadorned with too much oak and pretense. It’s got to be inexpensive. As I rummage through my wine collection at home, it can be tough to find a bottle that hits the mark. I’ve accumulated lots of Spanish and California stuff, which gets mostly ruled out because it has too much oak and pretense. I have a couple of cases of nice Burgundy, but of all wines that’s one you don’t want to drink out of a tumbler—the aromatics are too important. Some simple Italian wine like Montepulciano d’Abruzzo would be nice, but I don’t have any. Recently I stumbled across a couple of bottles—a regular and a reserve—of Portuguese dry reds that an importer had given me to try from the house Quinta do Crasto. “The cheaper one might be a good tumbler wine,” I thought.

I popped the cork of the 2006 Quinta do Crasto Douro and filled up three knuckles of my tumbler. The wine was perfect. Dark, inky, and ripe, it was tight with the flavors of end-of-season wild blackberries and the skins of black plums. There was some spice and sweet, but also grainy tannins. True, the wine was one-dimensional. But there was simple, honest fruit and no hint of oak. By the end of the The Daily Show with Jon Stewart I had drunk the whole bottle.

Do Crasto is known primarily as a port house, but like many of the other famous names producing sweet wine from along the Douro River, it’s transitioning to dry, red table wines. Such wines have always been made in the region, but the vast success of the port trade in the past 400 years or so has meant that almost all of the best grapes from the steep, rocky slopes go into the famous fortified dessert wines. This is changing now. As sweet wines become less fashionable, more of the good grapes are going into red wines that are allowed to ferment dry. The results have been highly encouraging.

The port grapes from the region—Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Francesa—are thick-skinned varieties that develop lots of dark pigment as they roast on the terraces of the impossibly steep banks of the Douro. But the intense summer heat allows these skin tannins to get very ripe without having the absurdly high sugars of overripe American wines. The grapes are made into wines that are dense with tannin, though not bitter and astringent.

As for Douro table wines, some vintners have made some very fine, internationally styled ones such as the Chryseia and Post Scriptum, made by the famous Symington family, owners of Warre, Dow, Graham, and Quinta do Vesuvio. Quinta de Roriz is another big name in excellent Douro table wines. And Quinta do Crasto even makes a Reserva Old Vines version of the wine I liked; it’s aged for 18 months in French and American oak barrels and costs $40. I tried it the day after I had my tumbler wine. It was nice but didn’t blow me away. (It certainly didn’t seem like the 95-point Wine Spectator wine I heard it was from this funny Wine Library TV review.) I prefer my tumbler of $16 Douro red. Ideally, I’d prefer it to be a few dollars cheaper, but that’s the fault of the low dollar, not the wine.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.