It was an unexpected honor–to spend a lazy afternoon with Manuel Ângelo Barros, an icon of the Douro valley. We met in the terrace of his home, sheltered from the hot sun, cooled by a timid breeze. Below, the waters of the Douro river tried to stand still so they could eavesdrop on our conversation.
The landscape reminded us that producing Douro wines is an extraordinary feat. Generations of men and women toiled in freezing Winters and scorching Summers to build the terraces that support the vines and prevent the soil from washing into the river.
Manuel’s family owned two legendary port-wine houses: Barros, the family brand, and Kopke, the oldest port-wine house, established in 1638. They also owned a portfolio of vineyards amassed over the last century. The third Barros generation decided to sell the brands and the vineyards. But once the sale closed, Manuel missed the magic of having land that turns water into wine. He managed to buy back one of the Barros properties in 2006, Quinta Dona Matilde, famous for its high-quality grapes, produced in schist soils near the river. Originally purchased by his grandfather in 1927 and named after his grandmother, the quinta is a place where Manuel spent much of his youth.
The table was set with “bola de carne,” a traditional meat pie, because Dona Matilde produces gastronomic wines that are best enjoyed with some food. Most wine makers like to explain the enological properties that make their wines distinct. Instead, Manuel filled our glasses in silence, letting the wines speak for themselves. Whenever we asked a question, he paused to reflect. Then he answered in a gracious, literary Portuguese, choosing his words with the same care he devotes to making wine.
Manuel is proud of the team he assembled at Dona Matilde. His younger son, Filipe Barros, plays a key role as marketing director. The viticulturist José Carlos Oliveira takes care of the quinta’s 28 hectares, which include 60-year-old vines that produce wines with great complexity and character. Enologist João Pissara strives to use production methods that highlight the outstanding qualities of the Dona Matilda grapes. To make the reserve red wine, he favors the traditional method of treading the grapes by foot in the quinta’s old granite tanks.
We tried two whites and two reds. Even though the estate has low altitude and a sunny exposure, the wines are balanced with great freshness and acidity. Harvesting the grapes early is key to producing these wonderful results.
Each Dona Matilda wine has a distinct voice. But they all have the same quiet intensity and aristocratic elegance that make Manuel such a pleasure to be with.
Click here for Dona Matilda’s web site.