Aladdin’s cave in Bairrada

Composite Caves S. João

Three brothers, José, Manuel and Albano Costa, built in 1920 wine cellars called Caves São João. They used the cellars to store the wine from Bairrada that they sold to taverns throughout Portugal.

In the 1930s, the Costa brothers ventured into wine production. They dreamed about producing wines that future generations could drink with pride. With the help of French enologist Gaston Mainousson, they learned the secrets of champagne production and started making sparkling wine in Bairrada.

In the 1950s they started producing two iconic wines: Frei João in Bairrada and Porta dos Cavaleiros in the Dão region. Made with great care, these wines were stored so that time could tame their tannins and leave only the smooth taste of the fruit.

As their wines gathered fame, the three brothers increased production and expanded storage capacity. Today the cellar holds 2.5 million bottles that preserve the rhythms of the seasons and the fruits of the toil of generations of farmers. These irreplaceable time capsules are guarded by the great-great grandchildren of the original owners.

We tried two white wines produced at Quinta do Poço dos Lobos. The first, a reserve wine from 2013 had a pale, yellow color, and a smooth taste that left our palate refreshed with notes of citrus. The second was a Poço dos Lobos colheita from 1995. What a difference three decades make! The older wine had an intense yellow color. The citrus notes were now singing with a choir of harmonious flavors orchestrated by time.

We sampled two vintages of Frei João. A red from 1980 that was rich and smooth and a white from 1986 that was still full of youth and vigor.

Our tasting ended with a brandy from 1966 that was suave and sophisticated. It is a nectar that has seen it all from the breakup of the Beatles to the fall of the Berlin wall.

Caves São João look like Aladdin’s cave, full of treasures stored away from the sun and immersed in sultry air. If a genie offers you three wishes during your visit to the cellars don’t hesitate: ask for a white Poço dos Lobos, a red Frei João or Porta dos Cavaleiros, and a bottle of 1966 brandy.

Caves São João are located at São João de Azenha in Anadia, tel. 234743118, email geral@cavessaojoao.com. Click here for their web site.

 

Love and almonds

Amendoas 2018

Candied almonds, which are popular in Portugal during Easter, were used to celebrate weddings in Roman times. Perhaps this Roman custom was inspired by a Greek legend about almonds as a symbol of love. Here’s the story.

Demophon, the king of Athens, visits Thrace where he falls in love with a princess called Phyllis. Demophon sets a day for their wedding and returns to Athens. On the wedding day, Phyllis waits for Demophon at the altar but he fails to arrive. When she dies of heartbreak, the Greek gods take pity and transform her body into an almond tree.  Demophon, who had been delayed, arrives in Thrace and learns about the tragic death of his bride. He embraces the almond tree and the branches blossom with beautiful flowers.

Finding happiness in Sintra

Market products

There’s a farmer’s market in São Pedro de Sintra since the 12th century. Nowadays it runs every second and fourth Sundays of each month. It is a great place to buy local fruits and vegetables, artisanal sausages, olives and cheese. Wood-fired ovens bake chouriço bread, filing the air with appetizing aromas.

We saw a farmer selling a small capsicum frutescens tree loaded with little red peppers.  Five centuries ago, Portuguese navigators brought this plant from South America to Africa, where the Bantu people called its fiery pepper “piri piri.” From Africa, the Portuguese took the plant to India where it changed the course of Indian cuisine.

How could we resist bringing home this symbol of the first age of globalization? “Trim the tree in March and you’ll have piri piri peppers between August to January,” advised the genial farmer. We got into the car feeling ecstatic at this unexpected find. Who knew that happiness is a piri piri tree?

The São Pedro market is located on Largo D. Fernando II, São Pedro de Sintra.

Sweet gratitude

Casa do Gato Preto

The recipe for Sintra’s queijadas was created in the 13th century by friar João da Anunciação at the Penha Longa convent. We know that the voluptuously thin crust is made with flour, lard, water, and salt. And that the indulgent filling has requeijão (a ricotta-style cheese), egg yolks, and two ingredients added in the 15th century: sugar and cinnamon. Each pastry store in Sintra has its own secret version of the recipe.

What are the best queijadas in Sintra? We’ve been pondering on this question for years, but the answer still eludes us. When we try the queijadas at Piriquita, we think nothing can be better. But then we taste the queijadas from Pastelaria Gregório and we fall in love with the crispness of the shell and the sweetness of the filling. Lately, we went to Casa do Preto and were astonished by the harmonious marriage of filling and shell.

One thing we know: these queijadas lift our minds above everyday concerns and fill our souls with sweet satisfaction. Thank you friar João!

Casa do Preto is located at Estr. Chão de Meninos 40, in Sintra, tel. 21 923 0436.

 

Quinta Dona Maria

Quinta D. Maria Winery

Estremoz is a town in Alentejo famous for its white marble. The same geological conditions that fashioned its pristine stones created limestone soils perfect for wine production. So it’s no wonder that there are so many wineries around Estremoz.

The prettiest of them all is Quinta Dona Maria. The estate, which dates back to 1718, was purchased by King João V and offered to Dona Maria, a courtesan with whom he fell in love. In the 19th century, the estate was bought by the Reynolds, a family of British merchants who came to Portugal to produce cork and wine. The current owner, Julio Bastos, inherited the estate from an aunt who married into the Reynolds family.

Bastos got his passion for wine from his father. Every year, father and son came to the harvest so that young Julio could be initiated into the mysteries of wine making. Bastos is particularly fond of Alicante Bouchet, a varietal brought to Alentejo by his family in the 19th century.

Eager to produce extraordinary wines, Bastos entered into a partnership with Lafite Rothschild. But when the Rothschild team started uprooting his old family vines to plant French varietals, Basto decided to go his own way.

He nurtured the old vines and used 17th century marble tanks to tread the grapes. The result are wines with a unique personality: rich and earthy with elegant aromas and a smooth finish.

Production volumes are low, so these wines are hard to find. If you’re traveling in Alentejo, stop by Quinta Dona Maria and take home these exquisite wines made in soils nourished by the love of the land and blessed by the richness of marble.

Click here for the website of Quinta Dona Maria.

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.

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.