The train to Pinhão

Trains Composit

There’s a splendid train that travels from Oporto to Pinhão. Its creaky carriages are quite modest but they have windows that offer sumptuous views of the Douro valley.

The train leaves the station at a lazy pace but then it speeds up, hoping to impress the Douro river with the power of its engines. The river ignores these antics and continues to flow with confidence and poise.

At times, it looks like the train is going to dive into the river, such is the seductive power of the blue-green waters. At other times, the train tries to keep its distance, only to fall again under the spell of the Douro and travel back to its margins. It is as witnesses of the courtship between the steel train and the molten river that we arrive at Pinhão in the heart of the Douro valley.

 

 

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. 

100 years of great ports

C0mposite Poças Wines

Making great port requires exceptional grapes and a deep knowledge of the production process. But most of all, it requires time, lots of time. Time for the nectars to lose the brashness of youth and mellow with age. That is why we cannot produce port wine by ourselves. We need our children and grandchildren to help. And if our great grandchildren can also lend a hand, even better.

The British port-wine families guarantee their longevity by leaving the business to a single son or daughter and compensating their siblings with cash. In contrast, Portuguese families generally sell their estates to divide the proceeds among the heirs. There is why there are almost no major Portuguese port houses left. The one remarkable exception is Poças, a company that celebrated 100 years in August 2018.

In 1918, Manoel Poças Júnior started buying brandy to supply port-wine producers. He was at times paid with barrels of port, so gradually he also became a port-wine merchant. In 1932, one of Manoel’s brandy clients paid a large debt with a wine estate called Quinta das Quartas. Manuel loved the estate which has granite tanks dating back to 1873.  Every week, he made the arduous trip from Oporto to Quinta das Quartas to visit the vineyards.

This passion is shared by his great granddaughter, Maria Manuela Maia, the viticulturist in charge of Quinta das Quartas and of the other two estates acquired by the family, Quinta de Santa Bárbara and Quinta de Vale de Cavalos. Even though today it is much easier to drive from Oporto to the Douro, Maria moved to the Douro valley to be closer to the vineyards.

We met with Maria in Vila Nova de Gaia, at the cellars where barrels full of precious nectars produced by past generations are stored. She shared with us some superb ports: a Vintage from 1997, a Reserva from 2014, and a Vale dos Cavalos from 2015. Our tasting ended with fireworks provided by a remarkable 1967 Tawny, full of freshness and acidity. We filled our glasses with this liquid treasure and made two toasts: to Manoel Poças for the successes of the past and to Maria for the successes of the future.

Click here for the Poças web site. To visit the Poças cellars email visitors@pocas.pt or call 223 203 257.

 

 

 

Six Senses Douro Valley

sixsenses (smaller file)

One of the most enchanting places in the Douro region is called Vale de Abraão (the valley of Abraham). It got its name from Abraão Farah, a Jew from nearby Lamego who rented the estate from João Lourenço de Seara, a squire of the king. No one knows for sure what Abraão did. Some say he was a physician, others that he was a scientist. But he must have been a remarkable person for the people of the Douro named the valley after him.

Five centuries later, the estate belonged to a descendent of the king’s squire called Laura Leitão. At the time, the Douro was remote and isolated. But Laura and her husband fell in love with Vale de Abraão and decided to make it their home. Together, they built a house and a chapel surrounded by serene gardens, graceful fountains and woods planted with exotic trees. They brought the first electrical generator to the Douro and at night their lightbulbs shined like new stars in the sky.

In the 20th century, the estate was owned by an aristocratic family from Oporto called Serpa Pimentel who lived there until the 1980s. On the other side of the valley, in the village of Godim, lived a young girl who grew up to become a writer called Agustina Bessa-Luis. Her childhood in the valley inspired “Vale de Abraão,” one of her novels.

A fire destroyed the manor house in the 1990s and the place became a romantic ruin. But the house and the surrounding gardens have since been reborn as an extraordinary hotel called Six Senses Douro Valley. It is the perfect place to connect with nature, relax and recharge.

The quality of the service offered by the 180 people on staff matches the exuberant beauty of the location. Each guest has a “gem” who serves as a guide to all the leisure opportunities available. There is much to do, from wine tastings, to helicopter tours, from cooking classes, to radical sports. But some of the best activities are the simplest: a walk in the woods, a picnic in a cabin by the river, or a lunch by the expansive pool.

Every staff member we met is terrific. Our waitress is an engineer who traded her job as a manager to work in the tranquil environment of the hotel. She spoke with enthusiasm about the excellence of the produce from the Douro valley. The head of the wine shop talks about wines with the erudition of an enologist. We asked him a few questions and soon our table was full of glasses with interesting wines for us to sample. The young chef in charge of the restaurant produces healthy, delicious food cooked with local ingredients using techniques that combine the best of tradition and modernity.

How lucky is this valley whose beauty and serenity keeps attracting such remarkable people.

The Six Senses Douro Valley is located at Quinta de Vale de Abraão, Samodães, Lamego, tel. 254-660-600. Click here for the hotel’s website. 

 

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 an hectic 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.