Drinking amphora wine in Amareleja

Amareleja Composite

Manuel Malfeito, a professor of enology at the famed Instituto Superior de Agronomia, invited us to go to Amareleja to try some wines made in amphoras. The drive from Lisbon to this small town in Alentejo takes about three hours, time fruitfully used by Manuel to lecture us about what we are about to experience.

He tells us that that we’re taking a journey back in time, to the way wines were made 8000 years ago in the Caucasus. These techniques, brought to Portugal by the Romans 2000 years ago, worked particularly well in the dry, warm climate of Alentejo where they say “while there’s amphora wine, we drink nothing else.”

Right after the harvest, the grapes are crushed, destemmed and placed in huge amphoras that hold 1,000 liters. One or two days later, the fermentation starts. The wine is stirred everyday for two weeks to make sure it doesn’t spoil. Then, the amphoras are sealed with cloth and the wine is left alone. By November, the seeds and skins have dropped to the base, forming a natural filtration system. The wine is extracted through straws inserted into an opening at the bottom of the amphoras. It comes out very slowly, first muddy and then crystal clear.

Amphora wines are now so trendy that some producers ferment the wine in stainless steel tanks and then age them in amphoras, so they can call them amphora wines. At Amareleja, amphora wines are the real deal. The locals continued to make amphora wines even when no one outside of Alentejo cared for them, so knowledge of the myriad production details has been preserved.

The arrival at Amareleja marks the end of our theory lesson. It is time to put our knowledge into practice. “We’ll try several wines, so the secret is to take small sips,” advises Manuel.

Our host, Zé Piteira, is waiting for us at his eponymous restaurant, Adega Piteira. He is tall, affable, and full of confidence. Zé introduces us to his wife Paula who heads the kitchen. The restaurant occupies a narrow building with a straw roof and a tower in the middle. It was constructed in 1938 to house Amareleja’s open-air cinema. Greta Garbo and Humphrey Bogart have been here on the silver screen.

On our table there are sausages, cheese, olives, and the best “torresmos” (pork rind) we ever tried. “Wine is all about context,” explains Manuel. “We’re going to try a white amphora wine from 2015 that is still too young but pairs well with the strong flavors of these appetizers.” The symbiosis of wine and food is indeed perfect. Our glasses have the aroma of a recently struck match that is the hallmark of great Chardonnays. The wine is made with a varietal called Roupeiro combined with a table grape called Diagalves, sometimes known as “pendura,” the Portuguese word for hanging, because it used to be hung up to dry to serve during Christmas.

Soup plates with scrambled eggs, potatoes, spinach, and goat cheese arrive. Paula brings a large pot brimming with codfish broth to spoon on our plates. This rustic, flavorful soup is a great match for the bold personality of the wine.

Zé pours from a jar of 2018 white wine taken directly from an amphora.  The contrast between the 2015 and the 2018 wines is fascinating. The 2018 is more astringent and the yeast aromas that come from the fermentation process are still present.

The varietal used to make red amphora wines in Alentejo is called Moreto. “Land good for grain is bad for wine,” says an old proverb. That is why Moreto flourishes in the poor soils of the left margin of the Guadiana river. The 2018 Piteira Moreto is very interesting and full of freshness. It is a great pairing for our next course: pork ribs seasoned with “massa de pimentão,” a magical paste made with red pepper.

For comparison, we try the 2016 Moreto. It is more refined and has a complex aroma. “Primary aromas—fruit, flowers, herbs–are pleasant during fermentation but worsen with time. That is why we say if the wine smells good, it tastes bad,” explains Manuel. “Secondary aromas—yeast, nuts and spices–come from the fermentation process. This wine has tertiary aromas—hazelnut, dried tobacco—that are acquired through aging.”

Zé comes back from the cellar with a bottle of Nativo, an amphora white wine bottled in 1999! It was made by the man who used to own the open-air movie theater, Zé’s godfather. This white wine has aged amazingly well, it is crisp and dry and has a beautiful amber color.

Dessert is a Moreto festival: Moreto ice cream accompanied by a pear cooked in Moreto wine and “encharcada” a medieval convent sweet made with eggs, cinnamon, lemon and sugar. Zé fills our glasses with a dessert wine. “In Roman times, the dry wines spoiled quickly, so aristocrats preferred this style of dessert wine. These were also the wines that  Roman gods were thought to like,” says Manuel. The wine fills our palate with the taste of spices and caramel. The Roman gods had impeccable taste!

We spent the afternoon hiking on the new wine estate that Zé Piteira has purchased, a place with panoramic views of the plains of Alentejo. Later, on the way back to Lisbon, Manuel quizzed us about everything we saw and tasted. We hope to have passed the exam, so we can take another course with him!

Adega Piteira is located at Rua da Fabrica 2, Amareleja, Moura, tel. 965 787 024.

Dona Antónia’s great grandson

Composite Quinta S. José

João Brito e Cunha is the great grandson of the legendary Dona Antónia Ferreira, the woman who shaped the future of wine production in the Douro valley.  Born in 1811 to a family of rich wine makers, Dona Antónia seemed destined to enjoy a life of leisure. Instead, she had to contend with two plagues that decimated European vineyards, the oidium in 1850 and the phylloxera in 1870. Dona Antónia rose to the occasion, making shrewd choices and taking calculated risks. She made great wine and amassed a large fortune. When she died in 1896, she owned 24 wine estates and huge wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia.

João’s grandfather was a taster for the renowned Real Company Velha. His father managed the famous Quinta do Vesuvio, which in Dona Antónia’s time produced some of the most expensive wines in the Douro valley.

We tell you this family history so that you know that João Brito e Cunha had no choice, the love of wine runs in his blood. He studied enology, first in Vila Real’s UTAD and then in Australia. He interned in Champagne and in many other wine regions. When he felt ready, he bought Quinta Dom José from his father and moved to the estate with his wife Sofia and their kids.

We arrived at Quinta Dom José late in the afternoon, just as the sun was getting tired of making the brilliant light that shines on the Douro valley. João is very intense and his energy is contagious. He wanted to show us everything, the vines, the cellars, the different viewpoints. As soon as we got into his jeep, he accelerated up the steep, treacherous road leaving being a colorful dust cloud.

We stopped on a hill top with breathtaking views of the Douro river. João wants us to understand that in a region where beauty abounds, this quinta is like no other. He shows us with pride the schist soil that preserves humidity during the scorching Summers and the vine roots that dig deep in search of water.

João drove us up to the tasting room to try his wines. The Flor de São José white Reserva is an aristocratic wine that enchants the palate with its refined elegance. The Touriga Nacional Reserva is an indulgent red, with a full body and an understated intensity. The Grande Reserva is a profound wine, full of wisdom, finesse and subtlety. The 3,400 bottles produced last year quickly sold out.

We stayed in the terrace outside the tasting room talking to João for hours. It was a warm night with a sky full of stars.  A choir of crickets sang in the background. João told us about his vines, his wines and his dreams.

Dona Antónia regretted every moment she spent away from the Douro. João feels the same way–he inherited his great grandmother’s passion for the Douro valley. And like her, João is destined to make great wine.

Quinta de São José is located on Ervedosa do Douro, tel. 93 4041413. Click here for their website. 

Caldo verde

Caldo Verde

Caldo verde (green broth) is the most Portuguese of soups. It comes in different versions but Maria de Lurdes Modesto, the doyenne of traditional Portuguese cooking, recommends a simple preparation used in the village of Marco de Canaveses.  Here’s the recipe.

Gently boil 500 grams of potatoes, 3 garlic cloves, one sliced chouriço (meat sausage) and some olive oil.  Crush the potatoes with a masher. Add the shredded Galician cabbage for just a couple of minutes (avoid overcooking the cabbage). Dress the soup with olive oil. Serve, preferably in a clay bowl, and accompany with broa, a Portuguese corn bread.

The soup has the colors of the Portuguese flag: green from the cabbage, red from the sausage, and yellow from the olive oil. You find caldo verde everywhere: in homes and restaurants, in places where fado singers gather, and in festivals and fairs. The soup is so popular that vendors in farmers’ markets have a special shredder to make the distinctive strips of Galician cabbage that are the hallmark of caldo verde.

As with many traditional recipes, the origin of this soup is lost in time. There’s no recipe for caldo verde in the cookbooks written by Domingos Rodrigues in 1680 or by Lucas Rigaud in 1780. But these chefs worked for the royal family, so they probably shunned peasant cooking. The soup is mentioned in several 19th century literary works and it is the first recipe in Culinária, an influential cookbook published in 1928 by António Maria de Oliveira Bello.

Caldo verde is often served at midnight on New Year’s eve. Its comforting taste helps everyone feel warm and optimistic about the New Year!

 

The art of growing old

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A friend brought a precious gift to a recent dinner party:  a bottle of Madeira from 1853! The wine was produced at a time when the future of Madeira looked bleak. Robert White and James Johnson in the 2nd edition of their book “Madeira its Climate and Scenery,” published in 1856, offered the following prognosis:

“The wine of Madeira, which has acquired worldwide celebrity, will soon be no more than a thing of history. In the Spring of 1852, a disease suddenly showed itself which, in process of time, destroyed the grape and ruined the prospects of the hardly-tasked cultivators. […] it is calculated that in two or at most three tears not a pipe of wine will be left in the island.”

The disease was caused by a fungus called odium tuckeri. According to White and Johnson, production dwindled from roughly 8,000 pipes in 1851 to roughly 2,000 pipes in 1854. Luckily, the discovery that oidium could be controlled by dusting the vines with sulphur saved Madeira’s vineyards from oblivion.

It was with great expectation that we broke the 165-year-old crimson seal to persuade the steadfast cork to retire from the job of guarding the priceless nectar. The wine left the bottle full of vigor, with a crystalline amber color and an enchanting aroma. No wonder Madeira was once used as a perfume in the court of Russia!

Less sweet than more recent vintages, the taste has an elegant “vinagrinho,” the name for the volatile acidity produced by the passage of time. It is a wine that has much to teach us about the art of growing old.

 

Legendary moments at Quinta da Boavista

Quinta da Boa Vista Composit

Some quintas in the Douro valley experienced one legendary moment. But Quinta da Boavista experienced two. The first came in May 1809 when Joseph James Forrester rented the quinta to work on his masterpiece, a detailed map of the Douro river. This map quickly became an indispensable reference for port-wine makers. It also made Forrester one of the most important figures in the port-wine trade. Forrester fought for the production of high-quality wines that reflected the unique terroir of the Douro valley. As a recognition for his service, king Dom Pedro V made him a Baron.

The second moment happened thanks to Marcelo Lima and Tony Smith, a duo of entrepreneurs who bought the quinta in 2013. They realized that the grapes from Boavista, grown in some of the Douro’s tallest terraces, are like precious stones. So they went in search of a master jeweler who could polish them. They knew that the ideal person would be Jean-Claude Berrouet, the enologist responsible for 44 vintages of Château Pétrus. But he had retired in 2007, took very few consulting jobs and had never worked in Portugal.

In July 2013, Marcelo and Tony brought Jean-Claude to Boavista. The enologist stood on the varanda of the house of the Baron of Forrester for a long time contemplating an iconic vineyard named Oratório (oratory) after its shape. When he finally broke the silence, he said “Ça c’est fort!” Marcelo and Tony smiled–they had found his jeweler. Since then, Jean-Claude has worked with Rui Cunha, the quinta’s resident enologist, to perfect the way in which wines from different parcels are blended. He also brought his profound knowledge of the Bordeaux oak barrel producers to choose the ideal barrels for aging the grapes from each vineyard.

When the first vintage of Oratório came out, Marcelo, Tony, and Jean-Claude sat on the terrace overlooking the vineyard. Jean-Claude took time to evaluate the color of the wine, appreciate its delicate aromas and to take a few sips. When he finally broke the silence, he said “C’est un grand vin!”

Click here for the website of Quinta da Boavista.

Great products from small producers at Comida Independente

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We fell in love with Comida Independente at first sight.  It is a new gourmet grocery store in Lisbon that has a selection of food and wines curated by its owner, Rita Santos. The shelfs of the elegant shop are filled with the best of Portugal: wines, olive oil, sausages, canned fish, salt, herbs, spices and much, much more. The store’s fitting motto is “great products from small producers.”

There are regular tastings of wines and foods that turn into exuberant gourmet parties. When we visited, Mário Sérgio from Quinta das Bageiras had everybody under the spell of his wonderful Bairrada wines. Lugrade, a famed producer of codfish, had sent their own chef to prepare tantalizing codfish cakes and other delights.

Rita hired two great collaborators: Inês Ruivo and Olavo Rosa, who graciously posed for us behind the store counter. Inês is an enologist who advises custumers on wines, food pairings and much more. Olavo has been involved in many gourmet projects in Lisbon. “I love the products we sell and the people that come to the store, we are connecting great producers with appreciative consumers,” he told us. “I am so committed to this project that I changed my name. From now on, please call me Evaristo.” This is the name of the grocery-store owner in the 1942 hit movie O Pátio das Cantigas (the courtyard of songs). The movie is about a courtyard with such a wonderful atmosphere that it creates a community. It is a fitting metaphor for Comida Independent, a grocery store destined to become a magnet for the gourmet community.

Comida independente is located at Rua Cais do Tojo 28, Lisbon, tel. 21 395 1762. To ask about upcoming events, send a message through their Facebook page located here.

 

 

Sun and rain

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We can’t blame the moon for feeling unappreciated. Its life revolves around the earth and yet people prefer sunsets to moonrises. In the first day of the year, the full moon commanded the waves to bathe the beach sand and the clouds to sprinkle the earth with their blessed water.

The sun, feeling guilty about the droughts of the old year, let the moon have its way. But in the last few minutes of the day the star sent its rays to pierce the clouds and make everything shine.

We hope the New Year will have enough rain so you can come to Portugal to see lush green fields illuminated by brilliant sunshine.