Celebrating the passage of time at Ramos Pinto

Composit Ramos Pinto

Port wine used to be sold in austere black bottles with somber labels. Adriano Ramos Pinto, a maverick entrepreneur who entered the port wine trade in 1880, changed all that. He wrapped port wine with sensuous images, elegant packaging, and clever marketing.

One of Ramos Pinto’s publicity coups took place in 1922. Two pilots, Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral, planned to make the first aerial crossing of the South Atlantic, flying from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro. Ramos Pinto convinced them to take a bottle of his port wine on board to celebrate their landing in Rio de Janeiro. On the first two attempts, the airplane sunk near the coast of Brazil. But both the pilots and the bottle were saved. The third attempt was successful and the bottle was finally opened to great acclaim. This and other exploits made Adriano Ramos Pinto so famous in Brazil that a glass of port was often called an Adriano.

Tasting port wines at the cellars of Ramos Pinto in Vila Nova de Gaia is a sumptuous experience. You can try splendid tawnies, made by man with the help of God, and divine vintages, made by God with the help of man.

Tawnies are aged in 600-liter wood barrels where they acquire a golden color and the taste of dry fruits, almonds and nuts. As time goes by, some of the wine evaporates and the barrels have to be topped off. This evaporation has a whimsical name: the “angel’s share.”

A bottle of tawny is a blend of wine from different harvests. A 30-year-old tawny is made with wines that average 30 years of age, so it often contains wine that is 60, 70, even 100 years old. The passage of time is a key factor in the production of great ports. There are 4 million liters of port stored in Ramos Pinto’s cellars.  Master blenders use these nectars produced by older generations and save some barrels from the current harvests to be blended by future generations.

Vintage ports are produced from a single harvest in exceptional years. They stage for only two years in wood barrels called balseiros. These barrels are very old and very large, holding 60,000 liters of wine. They are used to smooth the tannins without imparting the taste of wood to the wine. Vintage port is bottled and stored in the dark to preserve its rich red color and the taste of fresh fruit.

Ramos Pinto also produces alluring white ports. We tried a 7-year white blend that has enticing notes of honey and citrus. There are also wonderful late bottled vintage (LVB) ports. Produced more often than the rare vintages, LVBs are aged in balseiros for 4 years and then bottled without being filtered, so they can continue to improve in the bottle.

In 1990, Ramos Pinto was acquired by Roederer, the producer of the famed Cristal champagne. But the company is managed by a Portuguese enologist, João Nicolau de Almeida, son of the legendary Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, creator of the iconic Barca Velha. In addition to wonderful ports, João Nicolau d’Almeida makes two impressive table wines: Duas Quintas and Bons Ares.

It is traditional to buy a bottle of port from the year in which one’s child is born for them to make a toast when they come of age. Buying this birthday bottle for your children is a great excuse to visit the Ramos Pinto cellars and a beautiful way to celebrate the passage of time.

Click here for the Ramos Pinto web site. The cellars are located at Av. Ramos Pinto 400, Vila Nova de Gaia near Oporto.

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Covela’s prima donna grapes

Composit Quinta da Covela

In his novel “A Cidade e as Serras” (The city and the mountains) the great 19th-century writer Eça de Queiroz describes the life of Jacinto, a wealthy Portuguese who enjoys a glamorous life in Paris. Jacinto frequents the theater and the opera, attends scientific and artistic gatherings, reads the newest books and dresses according to the latest fashion. After an earthquake damages his ancestral mansion in the Douro valley, he decides to go home to oversee its reconstruction.  Jacinto falls in love with the simple pleasures of life in the Douro and lives there happily ever after.

Sometimes life imitates art. Tony Smith was a successful journalist who lived a glamorous life in Rio de Janeiro and New York. He used to spend vacations in the Algarve where he liked to drink a wine called Covela. By happenstance, Tony learned that the estate that produces Covela was up for sale. On a whim, he made a purchase offer. Month of negotiations ensued. After he thought all was lost, he managed to buy the property together with his business partner, Marcelo Lima. Tony imagined that producing wine would be a part time occupation. But just like Jacinto, he fell in love with the Douro valley and never left.

We sat at a stone table in the end of a brilliant afternoon admiring the granite terraces where the vines are planted. The quinta, which remounts to the 16th century, has ideal conditions to produce a young white wine known as “vinho verde” (green wine). It is primarily planted with Avesso, a prized local white varietal that has the temperament of a prima donna. Too much heat or too much rain make the grapes unhappy.

Covela produces some of the happiest Avesso in the world. Its remarkable acidity and minerality make every glass of wine an aria of aromas and flavors.

Our palates were still savoring the fantastic white wine made at Covela solely with Avesso when Tony brought out an enticing rosé produced with Touriga Nacional. The grape juice was left in contact with the red skins for a short period of time, just enough to produce a gorgeous rose color. It is a perfect Summer wine, full of joy and freshness.

Finally, Tony brought us two blends of the excitable Avesso with the even-tempered Chardonnay, the “Escolha” and the “Reserva.” The Escolha has everything: an alluring perfume, a perfect body, an irresistible elegance. The Reserva is full of confidence and aristocratic charm. It is the ideal wine to enjoy in the Winter by the fireplace with a slice of cheese from Serra da Estrela.

We thanked Tony for sharing his treasures with us. “You have to return next year,” he said. “Marcelo and I just bought Quinta da Boavista.” We were speechless. This is the legendary property that belonged to the Baron of Forester, author of the famous map of the Douro river published in 1848. “Come visit me at Boavista,” Tony said with a genial smile. We surely will!

Quinta de Covela is located at S. Tomé de Covela, Baião. Click here for the Covela website. 

The delights of Vale da Estrela

Composit Queijaria Vale da Serra

Our grandfather loved cheese from Serra da Estrela, the highest mountain in continental Portugal. He used to buy most of the cheese made by a small producer. Half of this cache he offered to friends. The other half was consumed in our house, either fresh or cured with olive oil and paprika. Every day of the year there was cheese on the table.

We were delighted when Maria João Coelho invited us to visit Queijaria Vale da Estrela, her father’s new artisanal cheese workshop in Mangualde near Viseu. The first thing we noticed when we entered the workshop were the wonderful cheese aromas, so familiar from our childhood.

Jorge Coelho, Maria João’s father, showed us around. He inherited his love for cheese from his grandfather Raul, an “affineur” who procured the best Estrela cheese to sell to gourmet stores in Lisbon.

Serra cheese is made with only three ingredients: sheep milk, thistle flower, and salt. Vale da Estrela only uses milk from Bordaleira ewes, which are indigenous to Serra da Estrela. The precious milk is collected at night and processed immediately to guarantee the best results.

All the cheese is made by hand with rhythmic gestures that transform humble ingredientes into something transcendent. The whey left over from the production process is heated to make “requeijão,” a soft, ricotta-style cheese.

“We make very good cheese but our requeijão is the best in the world,” said Jorge Coelho with pride. We first admired the cheese with its firm texture and delicate taste. Then, we tried the requeijão. As professional requeijão eaters we sampled many wonderful specimens over the years. But nothing as sublime as the requeijão from Vale da Estrela with its silky texture, depth of flavor, and exceptional freshness.

You can generally find the cheese and requeijão from Vale de Serra in supermarkets throughout the country. But when there’s a special occasion in heaven these products disappear from the shelfs because angels come in disguise to get them for the tables of paradise.

Queijaria Vale da Estrela is located in Mangualde on Estrada Nacional 16, n.º 43 São Cosmado. Click here for the queijaria’s website. 

 

 

A taste of Alcobaça in Lisbon

Alcoa

Alcoa, a pastry store in the historical town of Alcobaça, has been producing magical concoctions of flour, sugar and eggs since 1957. They use ancient recipes developed by monks of the order of Cister from two local monasteries, Alcobaça and Santa Maria do Coa.

Alcoa’s pastries have always been revered in the Alcobaça region. But outside the region, only a few knowledgeable gourmets made regular pilgrimages to taste Alcoa’s delights. That all changed when Alcoa started winning top prizes in the annual competition for the best “pastel de nata.” Suddenly, Alcobaça became a destination for dessert lovers.

Neophytes journeyed to Alcoa for the “pastel de nata” only to find a new world of delights with whimsical names and exotic shapes: cornucopias, Saint Peter’s secret, fradinho (little monk), eggs of paradise, and much more. The happiness of Lisbon residents plummeted with the knowledge that these heavenly sweets were 120 km away. Luckily, the owners of Alcoa felt pity for Lisbon’s dwellers and decided to bring their sweet alchemy to Chiado. And now, happiness has returned to the capital city.

The original Alcoa pastry store is on Praça 25 de Abril, 44 in Alcobaça, tel. 262 597 474. The new store in Lisbon is on Rua Garret, 37-39, Chiado, tel 21 1367183.

Mesa de Lemos

Composit Quinta de Lemos

The most elegant place to dine in the Beira region is called Mesa de Lemos. Located near the village of Canas de Senhorim, the building is ensconced in the ancient granite boulders and looks like an integral part of the landscape. It was built three years ago by Celso de Lemos to showcase the wonderful wines he produces in the winery that also bears his name.

The restaurant tables overlook the surrounding vineyards, making us feel as if we are dining in the middle of the vines. There’s a fixed menu with optional, but indispensable, wine pairings. The delicious food is created by chef Diogo Rocha who was born in Canas de Senhorim. He draws inspirations from local traditional recipes to produce food that is elegant and satisfying.

Our meal started with a joyous sparkling wine called Geraldine in honor of Celso’s daughter. It has very fine bubbles and an elegant brioche aroma that combines perfectly with Diogo Rocha’s appetizers, a set of preparations reminiscent of a picnic in the countryside.

Next came Dona Santana, a complex red made from the four emblematic varietals cultivated in the Dão region: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Jaen, and Afrocheiro. It paired perfectly with the braised bízaro pork. The last entrée was codfish adorned with an ethereal parsley foam and paired with an elegant red wine made from a single varietal, Afrocheiro.

The dessert feast started with an interesting experimental fortified wine produced by the quinta. It continued with a cherry pudding and a salty ice cream made from requeijão, a pastry filled with a sweet bean paste and a chestnut-shaped concoction made from egg yolks.

The wines of Quinta de Lemos are diamonds that sparkle anywhere. But at Mesa de Lemos they have their perfect setting.

Click here for the Mesa de Lemos web site. The restaurant is located at Quinta de Lemos, Passos de Silgueiros, near Viseu, tel 961 158 503.

Discovering the Beira Interior wine region

Quinta dos termos 2

It was a week full of discoveries. We met Manuel Malfeito, a wonderful enologist with a gift for explaining the mysteries of wine. Manuel told us about Beira Interior, “a wine region around the Estrela Mountain that has a great future.” He introduced us to João and Lurdes Carvalho, the owners of Quinta dos Termos and off we went in search of new vinic sensations. At Quinta dos Termos we learned about two indigenous varietals that produce elegant, aromatic wines, the white Fonte de Cal and the red Rufete.

Both João and Lurdes come from agricultural families but their careers took them in a different direction. After studying engineering, they started a very successful textile business.

João inherited a farm called Quinta dos Termos with a few hectares of vines planted in 1931. His father had bought the farm in 1945 to produce wine for the local taverns. João hired someone to oversee the vineyard and sell the grapes to the local cooperative.

In 2001 Virgílio Loureiro, a well-known enologist, came for a visit. He told João and Lurdes that the farm had ideal conditions to produce great wine, some of the best in Portugal, perhaps some of the best in the world. The region is blessed with high altitude. The dry climate and the steady breeze keep the grapes free of fungi. And the large thermic amplitude during Spring and Summer produce natural acidity that allows the wines to age gracefully and gain complexity. João told the enologist that his textile business was very demanding and left him no time to devote to wine production.

A week later, Virgilio Loureiro called with a request: “Can I buy a few tons of grapes to produce some wine as an experiment?” “Where will you produce the wine?” João asked. “I could produce it at the local cooperative, but the ideal would be to buy some basic equipment and produce it right on the farm. I can send you a list of what we would need,” the enologist suggested. João ordered the equipment. Virgilio Loureiro produced the wine and staged it in oak until October 2002.

Once the wine was bottled, João took a few bottles to a favorite local restaurant. The next day, the restaurant owner called back and ordered 20 cases. A few days later, another restaurant owner called. He had tried the new wine and he also wanted 20 cases. In February 2003 the wine received a glowing review from a wine magazine.

João and Lurdes were hooked. They planted 56 hectares of vines and Lurdes started working full time at the winery. Now Pedro, one of the couple’s sons has joined her. Their goal is to showcase the excellence of the grapes with nothing added or subtracted. The cultivation and production process adhere strictly to organic principles. The harvest is manual with the grapes are loaded in small cases to avoid crushing the fruit.

One of the ironies of history is that this region far from the sea is the birth place of great navigators like Pedro Alvares Cabral, the discoverer of Brazil. The bottles of local wine these navigators took with them survived the long ocean voyages and were greatly appreciated. Five centuries later, it is our turn to discover the wines from this place that can produce great wine, some of the best in Portugal, perhaps some of the best in the world.

Click here for the website of Quinta dos Termos.

 

Mister Baga

Luis Pato Composit

Bairrada is a region in the center of Portugal with unique conditions for wine production. Close to the Atlantic Ocean, it has sandy soils like those of Bordeaux and chalky soils like those of Burgundy. The vineyards are surrounded by pine trees and eucalyptuses that infuse the grapes with delicate flavors.

The queen varietal of the Bairrada region is the indigenous baga and the king of the baga is Luís Pato. The heir to a line of Bairrada wine makers that can be traced back to 1860, he rebelled against the idea of planting foreign varietals. “Mister Baga,” as people like to call him, has been proved right: today his baga wines are served in many of the world’s great restaurants.

On our first visit, we were received by his daughter Maria Pato. She talks about her father’s wines as if they are part of the family. Her green eyes shined when she opened two bottles of wine from a vineyard called Vinha Formal. The first was a sparkling wine with an enticing brioche aroma. The second was an elegant white made only with bical, a local white varietal.

Next, we tried a 2000 Quinta dos Moínhos, a captivating red wine made with baga. It tastes to red fruit but the tannins have been tamed by the aging process, giving the wine an aristocratic feel.

We sampled a very interesting fortified wine. Luís Pato stopped fermentation before the yeast converted all the sugar into alcohol by freezing the grape must instead of following the traditional process of adding alcohol to kill the yeast.

On our second visit, Luís Pato took us to the cellar to sample some Pé Franco wines made from ungrafted vines that predate the onset of phylloxera. They are complex and have a wonderful acidity that will help them age gracefully.

Pato talked about how much he has learned over the years. “People in Bairrada used to say that baga wines are good in only two years out of ten. When it rained before the harvest, the grapes gained a watery taste which together with rot ruined the wine.” He had the idea of pruning the grapes early in the season and use the pruned grapes to make sparkling wine. “Pruning gives the grapes more space to breathe, preventing rot and allowing me to make good wines in years with rainy Summers.”

Some of Pato’s new projects, like his 19th century-style wines, are inspired by tradition. Others, like his sweet white wine made with from red grapes using hyper-oxygenation, defy tradition.

We asked him about his daughter Filipa Pato, who is also a wine maker. “Our wines are quite different, but we share a lot of information. In New York they know me better for being Luisa’s father than for my wines.” he said with pride.

Both wine makers are experimenting with sercealinho, a grape varietal that only exists in their properties. These vines have to be watched closely because they are highly susceptible to disease. Luís’s father kept a plot of sercealinho alive that shows great potential.

Pato told us that “As a wine maker I cannot stop, I have to continue to evolve and accept new challenges. I want to make wines that my grandchildren will drink in 30 years and say, wow this wine is great.”

Every time we try Luís Pato’s brilliant, original wines we wonder: is Bairrada the best wine region in Portugal and one of the best in the world?  If you’re a wine lover, visit Luís Pato’s winery to find out.

Click here for information on how to schedule a visit to Luís Pato.