The maker of Barca Velha

Luís Sottomayor, the enologist who makes Barca Velha, an iconic Douro valley wine, is uncomfortable with his fame. He misses spending August in quiet solitude amidst the vines at Quinta da Leda, the large estate that produces most of the grapes used in Barca Velha. Today everybody wants to talk to him, journalists, sommeliers, and wine enthusiasts. They all want to discover the secret of Barca Velha.

Luís says the style was created by the legendary Fernando Nicolau de Almeida when he produced the first Barca Velha in 1952. Nicolau de Almeida traveled the Douro valley in search of grapes that could make an exceptional table wine and found them in a region called Douro Superior. He blended grapes from high altitudes that have acidity and freshness with those from low altitudes that have maturation, body, and color. This marriage of acidity and structure created a sublime wine that can age and improve for decades. 

Barca Velha is made with the best grapes that Sogrape, Portugal’s largest wine company, has in Douro Superior. The parcels are vinified separately and stored in casks. Then Luís creates a blend from the different barrels. If the resulting wine meets his exacting standards, he bottles it. Then the wait begins. He samples the wine with his team for four, five, six, sometimes seven years before deciding whether to label it Barca Velha or Reserva Especial. Since 1952, there have only been 20 vintages of Barca Velha and 17 of Reserva Especial. 

Luís says that some decisions are challenging but he was lucky to learn with the two masters who made Barca Velha before him, Fernando Nicolau de Almeida and José Maria Soares Franco. Luís was hired by Soares Franco in 1989 and became responsible for Barca Velha in 2007. 

“For how long should we store a Barca Velha?” we ask. Luís smiles and says he doesn’t like waiting too long to pull the cork from the heavy bottles that guard the precious wine. “Open it when you’re with good friends,” he recommends. Luís is a hunter, so he loves to pair Barca Velha with partridge or duck. “But the wine also can be enjoyed without food, especially by the fire on a cold winter night,” he says. 

We asked Luís about another remarkable Sogrape wine called Legado (the Portuguese word for legacy). “Barca Velha has a consistent style and is the expression of a large terroir,” says Luís. “Legado is the opposite. It comes from a small terroir– a vineyard planted in 1910 with eight hectares that produce only six or seven tons of grapes. Each vintage is a different chapter of the life of that vineyard.”

Luís grew up on a farm near Porto. His father, who studied enology in Dijon after the 2nd World War, worked in a port wine company. From an early age, Luís dreamed about being a winemaker. Now he makes wines that people dream about drinking.

Belmiro

Belmiro is the kind of restaurant that is increasingly hard to find in Lisbon. It does not prepare food to look good on Instagram. It does not seek originality for its own sake. Instead, it cooks classics of the Portuguese cuisine with good-quality, seasonal ingredients. 

The restaurant is named after Belmiro de Jesus, an old hand who’s been a chef at places like Salsa & Coentros. Belmiro is famous for his mouthwatering “empadas,” small pies with delightful fillings. And he is a virtuoso at cooking partridge and hare. He prepares them with rice, in “açorda,” with beans, and much more. The menu is seasonal, it changes to reflect what’s fresh in the market. If you can’t decide what to choose, a good rule of thumb is to order anything cooked in a “tacho” (a saucepan). 

We like to go to Belmiro with friends and ask the chef to prepare a few entrées we can all share. Accompanied by some good bottles of wine, the meal always turns into a party. 

Belmiro is located at Paço da Rainha 66, Lisbon, tel. 21 885 2752.

The professor’s partridges

The best partridges we ever tasted were cooked by a professor. His name is Emídio Gomes. He is the rector of the UTAD, the university that trained many of the star enologists who work in the Douro valley. 

Emídio learned to cook while studying in France on a meager scholarship. He asked his grandmother to teach him some of her recipes so that he could eat at home. Cooking was so relaxing that he continued to cook regularly after returning to Portugal.

Emídio’s stewed partridges are renowned throughout the Douro valley. The professor generously gave us his grandmother’s recipe and allowed us to share it with our readers. 

The recipe starts with an admonition: “If the partridges are good, make sure you don’t ruin them.” Here’s the rest. 

Remove the feathers and the tripes of the wild partridges and cut them into pieces. Marinate them for twelve hours in a small amount of white wine, laurel, parsley, and a little thyme.

Heat a cast iron pot. Pour a generous amount of olive oil. The quality of the olive oil is paramount. Choose an olive oil with low acidity, ideally from the Douro valley. Slice enough onions to cover the bottom 2 inches of the pot. Slowly sweat the onions. Remove the thyme, laurel, and parsley, and place the partridges in the pot. Add a small amount of water to prevent the stew from drying.

Cover the pot with the lid and slowly stew the partridges for four to five hours. Monitor periodically to ensure the stew does not dry; add small amounts of water as necessary. Season with salt towards the end of the cooking period. After the first four hours, regularly pierce the meat with a fork. The partridge is ready when the meat offers no resistance. Serve with white rice and toasts.

Like a top scientific paper, the recipe requires high-quality content and flawless execution. And in the end, the results look deceptively simple.

Casa da Volta

A close friend called us with a lunch invitation. “Meet me at my house, and we’ll drive together to the restaurant,” he said. “Where are we going?” we asked. “A place in Cascais that is worth getting to know,” our friend answered. That is how, on a warm winter Saturday, we visited a small village near Cascais called Areia. 

The restaurant occupies the first floor of a spacious house. It is managed by a charming young Iberian couple, Vera Rente from Portugal and Javier Marquez from Spain. They met in Barcelona, where Javier apprenticed as a chef. 

Vera told us that when she brought Javier to visit Sintra, he started dreaming about having a restaurant in this region. In late 2019 they opened Casa da Volta

Our meal started with an elegant “Ajo Blanco,” a white gazpacho made with almonds that came with green grapes and delicate shrimp from the coast of the Algarve. Large slices of rustic bread allowed us to scoop up every ounce of the delicious soup. 

Soon we were tasting another delight: lightly grilled slices of a fish called Sarda dressed with a green piriñaca sauce that perfectly harmonized with the fish. 

The service, orchestrated by Vera, is seamless. Much thought and care go into crafting every detail of the dining experience.  

Our culinary journey continued with brioche and shrimp served in American sauce. It is lovely to see this traditional sauce, invented by the French chef Pierre Fraysse em 1860, come back into use. 

We were trying to elect our favorite dish when the choice became harder with the arrival of a majestic blue lobster cooked with mushrooms and spinach.  

And there were more marvels: a perfectly cooked mullet, so fresh we could taste the sea. And then hearty slices of deer paired with parsnip. 

The meal ended on a sweet note with a warm almond cake with a soft inside and a crumble made from banana and passion fruit.

We asked Javier how they endured the Covid period. “We were lucky because we could cook with amazing produce and live in this region that is paradise,” he replied. That sentiment sums up what Casa da Volta is: a place where a young couple is cooking the food of paradise.

Casa da Volta is located at Rua São José, Areia, Cascais, Click here for their website.

The timeless Quinta do Seixo

Quinta do Seixo in the Douro valley is a place of timeless beauty. Here’s how Henry Vizetelly described it in his book “Facts about Port and Madeira,” published in 1880:

“It occupies the spurs and slopes of a mountain, one side of which bounds the Douro, and the other the Rio Torto valley. Scattered over the heights above are the white cottages of the village of Valença, the vineyards of which produce a considerable quantity of first-class wine. The buildings of the Quinta do Seixo , which is entered through an imposing gateway, surmounted by the armorial bearings of its owner, are very extensive. The casa is both commodious and well arranged, and has a certain air of pretension about it, while the lagares and the adega are on a scale proportionate to the extent of the surrounding vineyard.”

This description remains remarkably apt. The main house still offers spectacular views of the surrounding vineyards, some of which are centenarian. But Vizetelly would be amazed to see that inside the traditional building, there’s a state-of-the-art winery. 

Our guide explained what makes the Douro different: the stone terraces built to support the vines, the “field blends” made from varietals planted together in the vineyards, the poor soils that force the plants to struggle, making the berries small but full of flavor, and the methods used to produce tawnies, vintages, and late-bottled vintages. 

She also told us about Georges Sandeman, the Scottish merchant who founded Sandeman in 1790. The company quickly became the largest port-wine shipper. Its mysterious logo, created in 1928, was inspired by its two product lines: ports from Portugal and sherries from Spain. It is a silhouette of a man wearing a Spanish hat and dressed in the cloak used by students in Coimbra, Portugal’s oldest university.

At the end of the tour, we tasted four wines—first, a harmonious white Vinha Grande with fine tannins and a pleasing acidity. Then, an exuberant red Callabriga made with grapes from the Callabriga hill, which was originally planted by the Romans. Next, a delicious 2019 Vintage Port from Quinta do Seixo that tastes even better with a view of the vines that produced it. And, finally, a great Sandeman Vau port wine from the 1999 vintage.

A visit to Quinta do Seixo is a delightful introduction to the wonders of the Douro valley.

Click here for Quinta do Seixo’s website.

Fire and rain

On the last day of the year, there were fireworks on the beach. People enjoyed the impressive pyrotechnics. But the ocean did not stand still to stare at the sky; its waves kept rolling on the sand. 

On the first day of the new year, there was copious rain. The ocean, created by millions of years of precipitaton, rejoiced like a child who sees her mother after a long absence. The waves danced, and we watched in awe how a coastline known for its sunny days could be so beautiful in the rain.

We wish you a joyous New Year and hope you come to see the beauty of the Portuguese coastline, rain or shine.

Chocapalha’s fascinating wines

Some of our favorite wines come from an estate near Lisbon called Chocapalha. It has a privileged location. The Montejunto mountain protects the land from cold winds and the Atlantic breeze lends the wines an enticing freshness and acidity. The farm, which is known for its wines since the 16th century, has a hilly terrain with different sun exposures and soils rich in clay and limestone.

Chocapalha belonged since the 19th century to the family of Diogo Duff, a Scottish noble who came help the Duke of Wellington fight the Napoleonic troups. Paulo Tavares da Silva, a retired Portuguese Navy officer, and his Swiss wife Alice bought the estate from the Duff family in 1987. 

The journey to the glorious wines produced today was long and arduous. There was a modern winery to build, laborers to hire, new vineyards to plant, sustainable practices to implement, and many other tasks. When we first met Paulo, he told us that a visiting producer tried to discourage him by quoting a French aphorism: “wine is an easy business; only the first 200 years are hard.” But he and Alice were not deterred. They were driven by a passion for the land and a desire to create a legacy for future generations. For this reason, they paid from the start close attention to environmental issues. They want to see that the soil is alive, the vineyards are healthy, and the birds and animals are thriving. 

The family worked so hard that success came much sooner than anticipated. Alice and Paulo enlisted two of their daughters, Sandra and Andrea, to work at Chocapalha. Sandra, a renowned enologist, took time from Wine & Soul, the project she has in the Douro valley with her husband, to oversee the planting of the vineyards and the making of the wines. Andrea left a lucrative career in finance to manage the estate. Paulo works tirelessly in the vineyards. Alice graciously receives the many guests that visit the farm. 

The wines speak for themselves: they are pure and refined, produced with minimal intervention so that each glass can take our palate to the sunny hills of Chocapalha. 

There are many wines to try. There’s a Castelão with the elegance of a Pinot Noir and a Viosinho with the charm of a Chardonnay. Vinha Mãe has rich tannins and great concentration; it is a perfect companion for a cold winter night. The CH white, made with Arinto from old vines, is an aristocratic wine with subtle salinity. The wine is an homage to Alice (CH is the symbol of Switzerland, her homeland). The red Guarita, named after the farm’s sentry house, is an homage to Paulo. Produced with Alicante Bouschet, it is a symphony for the palate.

When you visit Chocapalha, you can taste their wines, visit the picturesque vineyards, and get to know a family passionate about creating some of the world’s most fascinating wines.

Chocapalha is located at Aldeia Galega da Merceana, 50 km from Lisbon. You can schedule a wine tasting by emailing chocapalha@chocapalha.com. Click here for their website.

Holiday cheer

The farmers market was bustling. The baker ran out of cornbread; the vegetable stalls were out of Christmas cabbages. At home, thick slices of salt codfish were soaked to be cooked and doused with fragrant olive oil. In a country with so many splendid wines, it’s hard to elect one to grace the table. But the choice was made. Pumpkin fritters and other delights are ready to be served. And most of all, there are friends and family coming to enjoy each others’ company in this beautiful corner of the world called Portugal.

Twin wines from Bairrada?

Luís Pato, the famous Bairrada winemaker, is always doing something new. One of his recent projects is a white wine made from a rare grape called Sercialinho. This varietal was created in the 1950s by crossing two iconic grapes: Sercial, used in Madeira wine, and Alvarinho, used in vinho verde (green wine). João Pato, Luís’ father, planted this new varietal about half a century ago on the sandy soils of his Quinta de Ribeirinho. Luís always loved the grape’s aromas, which resemble those of Alsatian Rieslings. For years, he has used Sercialinho to add acidity and aroma to his renowned Vinhas Velhas (old vines). In 2013 Luís made a single-varietal Sercialinho in his father’s honor. He started producing it regularly with great results since 2019. “I’m the world’s sole producer of Sercialinho,” Luís told us with pride.

But Sogrape, Portugal’s largest wine producer, also launched to great acclaim a Sercialinho wine produced in Bairrada (in Quinta de Pedralvites). It is part of their “Séries Ímpares” created to showcase unique varietals and terroirs. 

DNA analysis revealed that Sogrape’s Sercialinho is a cross of Vital and Uva Cão. Is this the same varietal that João Pato planted? Are the two Sercialinhos identical twins, fraternal twins, or homonymous strangers? It is a mystery. What we do know is that they’re both spectacular wines!

Dining by candlelight at Quinta Dona Maria

We arrived late in the afternoon and waited outside the imposing marble gate. Before we could say ‘abracadabra’ or some other incantation, the gate opened, welcoming us to Quinta Dona Maria, a magnificent wine estate in Alentejo. 

Isabel Bastos came to greet us. We walked with her to the palace’s chapel and sat down to hear her recount the story of Quinta Dona Maria. The estate was a gift from King John V to Dona Maria, a lady of the court with whom the king fell in love. Dona Maria left no descendants, so the property was sold in a public auction upon her death. The Reynolds, a family of merchants from southern England, purchased it. They renamed the estate Quinta do Carmo in honor of an image of the Lady of Carmo they bought for the chapel in 1752. The estate currently belongs to Júlio Bastos, Isabel’s husband, who descends from the Reynolds family. 

Júlio’s grandfather started producing fine wines on the estate. The project was so successful that in a blind tasting with the Rothschilds held in the late 1980s, the wines from Quinta do Carmo tied with Lafitte Rothschild. Impressed by this feat, the Rothschilds proposed Júlio Bastos a partnership. But the two winemakers had different objectives and approaches. Júlio is passionate about the old vines planted with the traditional varietals of Alentejo, most of all Alicante Bouschet, a varietal brought by the Reynolds from France to Alentejo. The Rothschilds wanted to replant the vineyards with French varietals that could appeal to the international market. Eventually, the two parties separated. In this process, the Rothschilds kept the brand Quinta do Carmo, so Júlio renamed his wines and estate Quinta Dona Maria. 

We walked to the wine cellar to see the 18th-century marble tanks where the grapes are still crushed by foot treading. The tanks were brimming with grapes that were starting the fermentation process that transmutes earthly grape juice into heavenly wine. Isabel served us an enticing rosé with pleasing fruit notes and refreshing acidity. Next, we tried a delightful white Viognier that shows how much this French grape shines in the soils of Alentejo. The tasting ended with pomp and circumstance provided by two sumptuous Dona Maria red reserves from 2005 and 2008.

It was time to go to the palace. The large door creaked as it slowly opened to show us rooms lit by candlelight that made us feel like we were back in the 18th century. Júlio joined us for dinner. His love for the land, food, and wine of Alentejo were evident throughout the meal. 

The dinner, prepared by Filipe Ramalho from Páteo Real and Beatriz Tobinha, the palace’s resident chef, was a memorable feast. It started with Filipe’s famous tart made from chestnut-flower sausage, pears cooked in wine, quince marmalade, and chard. Then there was a slew of appetizers: tomato and watermelon salad, roasted peppers with bacon, slices of the brilliant sausages made at Salsicharia Canense, plates with savory Alentejo cheeses, and chickpeas with pickled codfish salad. A rich white Dona Maria reserve delicately aged in oak was an enthralling gastronomical companion.

Next came the main dishes: cação (a fish popular in Alentejo) in coriander sauce, pheasant in escabeche sauce and marinated carrots, and duck croquettes with black garlic mayonnaise. A splendid Dona Maria red reserve from 2017 made from old vines complemented the food with its festive taste of berries and hints of spices. 

The dessert was an almond and pumpkin tart paired with the famed Júlio B. Bastos Alicante Bouschet, named after Júlio’s father. The wine’s acidity, tannins, and fruit sing to the palate in perfect harmony.

Glancing at the watch, we saw the two hands pointing to midnight. We knew from fairy tales that it was time to leave. We thanked Isabel and Júlio for their warm hospitality and drove back to our hotel. We slept peacefully but woke up wondering: was the dinner at Quinta Dona Maria a dream? 

Click here for the website of Quinta Dona Maria.