Three lessons at Quinta de Vargellas

Quinta de Vagellas

It is easy to arrive at Quinta de Vargellas because this heavenly wine estate in the Douro valley has its own train station. The old carriages stop there with a screech, huffing exhausted from racing with the river waters. It is then up to the guests to walk up the granite steps that lead to the manor house.

We sat in the porch, mesmerized by the schist terraces built by generations of workers to create the perfect environment for the exuberant vines. It was here that we learned our first lesson: that the greatest beauty is created by man in harmony with nature.

Our second lesson, was about the importance of generosity. David Guimaraens, the head winemaker of Taylor’s Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft has a very busy schedule. But he takes time to share the magic of Vargellas with his guests. He explained to us the uniqueness of the terroir and described the vines as if they were his children. We drank his words and saw the brilliance of the vineyards through his eyes, green like the Douro river.

The grapes from the quinta are used to make the famed Quinta de Vargellas Vintage and form the base of the great Taylor Vintage Ports. We walked down to the cellar to sample the port made in 2018, which is still full of vigor but promises to age gracefully.

David discussed some of the intricacies of port-wine making and told us about the new vines he is planting so that his children can continue to produce great ports.  It takes 10 years for new vines to produce usable grapes. Between ages 10 and 20, the vines are adolescents, they have some good years but are moody and inconsistent. From ages 20 to 40, they mature and acquire consistency. From ages 40 to 60, the yields are low but the quality is great. Beyond 60 years, production dwindles but the few grapes that grow are drenched with wisdom.

A lifetime is too short to plant the vines and gather the knowledge required to produce great port. And so, we learned our third lesson: life is a relay race. We have to learn  from our ancestors and add to that learning to sow the seeds of the future.

It was hard to leave Quinta de Vargellas. But the memories of our visit stay with us. And from now on, every sip of the quinta’s holly wines will take us back to this paradise in the Douro valley.

Click here to see the Quinta de Vargellas web page.

Repentina

repentina Composit

Several people recommended that we try Repentina, a humble tasca in Poiares famous for its baby goat roasted in a wood-fired oven. Its name is a twist on the word “repente” which means in a flash. We first visited the restaurant last year. When the waiter brought the menu, we said we didn’t need it, we wanted to try their famous roasted goat. Incredulous, the waiter explained that “If you want to eat baby goat, you have to call us a day ahead and reserve the order. We only roast enough meat for the people who reserved it.” Well, no wonder the locals like say that nothing is easy in the Douro valley. Disappointed, we ordered a large beef cutlet that arrived perfectly grilled accompanied by salad and a delicious tomato rice.

This year, we made sure to call ahead to secure our roasted goat servings. We were told that the best time to show up is at 1:00 pm, just as the roast comes out of the wood ovens.

We arrived at the appointed hour and sat in the dining room overlooking the Douro valley. The air was filled with enticing aromas that heralded the arrival of the roast to the table. The taste is indeed exceptional, which explains why this place in the middle of nowhere attracts so many customers.

The restaurant is run by the Cunha family. Fernando who is 82, still operates the ovens. His wife Soledade runs the kitchen together with her daughter Ana Paula. Their son Fernando junior runs the restaurant.

I asked Fernando Cunha what is the alchemy that produces such satisfying flavors. He told us that “You have to get the best ingredients, the goats have to be small and tender, the wood for the fire has to produce the right temperature, the seasoning has to be harmonious and fresh. All the details are important. Our name may be Repentina but we do not cook in a flash. We do everything slowly so we get it right.”

DOC

DOC Composit

DOC is a restaurant sited on a dock on the Douro river. With chef Rui Paula at the helm, DOC takes us on a culinary journey of aromas and flavors that harmonize with the wines of the Douro valley.

The menu has a lot of fun starters, ranging from an intense oxtail with carrot to a delicate octopus carpaccio with pomegranate. Main courses include appetizing fish and seafood rices and classics of Portuguese cuisine like codfish with corn bread, a fish stew called caldeirada, and roasted baby goat.

The dessert list offers a sampling of many miniature desserts. Our favorite is a crispy crêpe filled with crème brûlée.

The presentations are beautiful and the food is prepared with great technical skill. The role of modern cooking techniques is not to surprise or shock but to refine and enhance the traditional flavors of Portuguese gastronomy. It is this approach that makes the cuisine of Rui Paula so deliciously unique.

A trip to the Douro valley is not complete without a pilgrimage to DOC, a temple of Portuguese food on the shores of the Douro river.

DOC is located on Estrada Nacional 222, Armamar, tel. 254 858 123. Click here for the restaurant’s web site.

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.

Red gold from the Douro valley

Abílio Tavares da Silva

“God gave Douro precious wines so that people would come and find all the other treasures,” says Abílio Tavares da Silva. He is a successful software engineer who fell under the spell of the Douro valley. After going back to school to study enology at the famed UTAD in Vila Real, he uprooted his family from Lisbon to the Douro. Abílio bought Foz Torto, an estate with perfect sun exposure, and began producing wonderful wines. It was only then that he found the other treasures.

One day, someone brought local heirloom tomatoes to a gathering of wine producers. “I had never tasted tomatoes like those, so I decided to plant some tomatoes at Foz Torto. In July and August, the Douro is very hot and this heat produces extraordinary results. The plants struggle, their roots are forced to go deep in search of the last few drops of water. That is why the tomatoes are not watery; they are firm and full of flavor.”

As soon as we sat down for lunch, a beautiful plate of heirloom tomatoes arrived. Abílio had picked them in the morning to make sure they were perfectly ripe. They had a luscious red color, an intense flavor, and the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. These heirloom tomatoes are as good as fine wine.

Abílio smiled, pleased with our reaction. “It is not just the heat that produces these results,” he explained. “The soil in the Douro valley comes from sedimentary rock that was at the bottom of the ocean millions of years ago. When the rock disaggregated, it became home to a lush microbiological ecosystem that made the soil rich in micronutrients. These micronutrients make all the difference in the production of fruits and vegetables.”

After lunch, we drove to Foz Torto. In the vineyard, Abílio explained how the design of the beautiful Douro terraces evolved in response to the shortage of labor and the need to avoid soil drainage. He then showed us his fruit trees and vegetable garden. The figs, peaches and strawberries were dripping with sweetness. They are more satisfying than the most sumptuous desserts.

“In the old days, the Douro farms were self sufficient, they had wonderful orchards and great vegetable gardens. When the train came to the Douro, the farms started buying fruit and vegetables from the rest of the country and focused on the production of port wine. The tradition of growing fruits and vegetables was lost. But there’s a group of wine producers that is bringing back those old crops.”

Together with Celeste Pereira from the event company alldouro.com  and journalist Edgardo Pacheco, Abílio organizes an annual competition for the best heirloom tomato in the Douro valley. The tomatoes are tasted blind by a panel of chefs, enologist and food writers. Wine makers from many quintas participate in the event.

This year, the competition takes place at Quinta do Vallado on August 24. On August 25 there’s an agricultural market where people can taste heirloom tomatos, olive oil, fleur de sel, Douro wines, and traditional local food. If you’re on the Douro valley, do not miss the opportunity to participate in these unique gastronomical events. And if you go, please cheer for Abílio Tavares da Silva, we hope that his extraordinary heirloom tomatoes win the first prize!

To participate in the heirloom tomato competition events please email   greengrape@greengrape.pt.The events are free.

Quinta do Crasto

Composit Quinta do Crasto

In ancient times, the Romans built on the Douro valley a “castrum,” which means fort in Latin. The fort was surrounded by steep hills descending towards the Douro river with perfect exposure to the sun. Even though it was hard work to plant vines in this treacherous terrain, the Romans embraced the challenge. They knew that the vines would please Bacchus, the god of wine, and that he would reward them with great vintages.

There is no record of the quality of the wines made by the Romans on these hills. But we know that by 1615 the estate, called Quinta do Crasto in honor of the old Roman fort, was producing superior wines.

The Quinta is situated on the right bank of the Douro river between Régua and Pinhão. The views are spectacular and so are the table and port wines which regularly receive high accolades from wine critics. We think Bacchus would be pleased.

Click here for the Quinta do Crasto website.

 

An hotel in the land of silence

Composit Colmeal

As we drove on the narrow road from Figueira do Castelo Rodrigo to Colmeal, we felt we were leaving the modern world behind. All we saw ahead of us were granite hills and fertile valleys under a sapphire blue sky. Even as we got close to the hotel, the building remained invisible. Its honeycomb shape dissolves into the landscape leaving us with a pristine view of the Marofa mountain. The same view that the Neolithic people saw when they made their paintings nearby, 3,000 years ago. The same panorama that welcomed the pilgrims who followed the ancient spring that goes by the village of Colmeal, on their way to Santiago de Compostela. This water, crystalline and pure, was a blessing to the travelers. And so was the food and hospitality offered by the population of this village that dates back to the 12th century.

The new Colmeal Countryside Hotel seeks to revive this tradition of hospitality.  In the evening we enjoyed a simple meal of watercress soup, local cheese and fruit. When we asked our waiter why the soup tasted so great, he told us that one of the secrets is the local spring water. “Anything cooked with this water is transformed,” he said.

The hotel, designed by architect Pedro Brígida, is warm and welcoming. It integrates perfectly with its the surroundings, which include a manor house and a church that once belonged to the family of Pedro Álvares Cabral, the navigator who discovered Brazil.

The environment is so peaceful that we found ourselves whispering to avoid staining the immaculate silence. We sat on the terrace on a warm Summer night bathing in star light, happy to have left the modern word behind.

Click here for the hotel’s website.