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.


Extraordinary Portuguese tea

CháCamélia Composit

Camellias reign supreme in the gardens of the north of Portugal. They love the rainy, temperate climate and the slightly acidic soil. The first camellias were probably brought from China by Portuguese merchants five centuries ago. These merchants also brought back some leaves that, when infused in hot water, produced an extraordinary drink called tea.

Tea is made from the leaves of a camellia shrub called sinensis. If camellias grow so well in the north of Portugal, how come no one has tried to produce tea there in the last five centuries? The answer is that tea production requires great patience, there’s a five-year lag between the plantation and the first harvest. It also demands knowledge, dedication, and the humility to accept the whims of nature. These are the same traits necessary to produce port wine. Perhaps that is why Dirk Niepoort, whose family has traded port since 1842, and his wife Nina Gruntkowski had the courage to venture into tea production.

Knowing that Dirk and Nina share a passion for tea, a friend offered them a small tea shrub. They planted it in a cold corner of their garden in Oporto and made each other a promise. If the plant survived, they would try to produce tea in the north of Portugal. The plant thrived, so in 2011 Dirk and Nina imported 200 shrubs and planted them first in their garden in Oporto and then in one of the Niepoort properties, close to sea. This year they harvested the first leaves.

Nina took us on a tour of the lush plantation. She talks about her plants with great affection. “These are my babies,” she said with pride “they will have a very happy life.” The production process is entirely organic and the leaves are harvested manually. Haruyo san and Shigeru Marimoto, a couple who produces premium organic tea in Japan, offered Dirk and Nina technical assistance. Producing tea is as complex as producing wine. But while enologists have plenty of time to make adjustments to their wines, tea leaves are processed in just four nerve-wrecking hours right after the harvest.

We tasted several premium green teas produced by the Marimotos. Some are mixed with herbs and flowers produced in Portugal, such as lemongrass, rose petals, elder flowers, and lemon verbena. They offer a wide palate of floral, grassy and nutty flavors.

We then sampled one of Dirk and Nina’s experiments: oolong tea aged in port-wine barrels. It is a blend of east and west that is enticing and new.

Finally, Nina brought out a small can, took out some leaves and brewed one more cup of tea for us. “Try it,” she said, her eyes shining with excitement. “It is the first tea made in continental Portugal.”

We closed our eyes to sip the precious liquid. It does not taste like Chinese or Japanese tea. It has the understated elegance of a great port. And it marries the exuberance of the Douro valley with the melancholic aroma of the sea. Why did we have to wait five centuries to drink this Portuguese tea? Perhaps it was the time required to wait for someone like Dirk and Nina, someone with the audacity to forsake the ordinary to strive for the extraordinary.

Click here for the Chá Camélia web site.

Perfection in Matosinhos

DCIM103GOPROWhen Oporto residents want to eat fresh fish, they drive to the nearby Matosinhos beach. The town’s main street (Rua Herois de França) and its side alleys are lined up with restaurants.

We usually go to S. Valentim and order rodovalho (turbot). We avoid appetizers so that, when the perfectly-grilled fish arrives at the table, we can give it our undivided apetite.

Each restaurant has a large charcoal grill outside maned by a master griller. This is a person with unbreakable concentration who doesn’t take the eyes off the grill until the fish is perfectly cooked.

Grilling fish is easy, unless you want to do it perfectly, in which case it takes years of experience. It is this perfection that keeps fish lovers coming back to Matosinhos.

S. Valentim is located on Rua Herois de França, 335, Matosinhos, tel. 229379204.


Time travel

A vida Portuguesa

Physicists think that traveling to the past is impossible, but Catarina Portas, a Portuguese entrepreneur, proved them wrong. Through painstaking work, she brought back to life many Portuguese products and brands that had disappeared: beautiful baskets, blankets, ceramics, glassware, pottery, toys, and much more. In her wonderful stores we can be archeologists without dealing with dust and visit the past without giving up our smartphone.

Catarina Porta’s stores are called A Vida Portuguesa (the Portuguese life). There are two in Lisbon, one in Chiado (Rua Anchieta, 11, tel.  213-465-073) and the other in Intendente (Largo do Intendente Pina Manique, 23, tel.  211-974-512). There is also one store in Oporto (Rua Galeria de Paris, 20, tel. 222-0220105). Click here for A Vida Portuguesa’s web site. 

In the footsteps of the angels


If you keep a list of ideas for fun activities, we would like to suggest a new entry: visiting a port-wine cellar.

Port wine is made in the Douro region where Summers can be very hot. So, the wine is shipped to Vila Nova de Gaia, a town adjacent to Oporto, to be stored away from the heat. There, the wine is kept in dark, cool cellars until it trades the brashness of youth for the refinement that comes with maturity.

Most port-wine houses offer tours of their cellars. The tour guides teach you to distinguish between tawny, ruby, late-bottled vintage, and vintage port. They also regale you with interesting stories and facts about port-wine production. You’ll learn, for example, that the “share of the angels” is the fraction of the wine stored that is lost to evaporation. At the end of the tour you are invited to a port-wine tasting, so you’ll also get a share of this precious nectar.

Sandman’s and Taylor’s are two of the most popular cellars to visit. Click here and here for information about their tours.     



The rustic food of Portugal is made of elemental aromas and deeply satisfying flavors. It is a cuisine of humble people; fishermen, shepherds, and farmers, who liked food that nourishes the body. In contrast, the French culinary tradition pioneered by Marie-Antoine Carême is all refinement and beauty. It is a cuisine of kings and queens who loved to feast their eyes as much as feed their belly.

Rui Paula, a Portuguese chef, spent two decades marrying these two traditions. At DOP, his restaurant in Oporto, he serves country food cooked with palatial elegance. DOC, his restaurant in Amarante, offers a similar menu. Here, the dining experience is heightened by the serene beauty of the location, on the margins of the Douro river.

If you’re traveling in the north of Portugal, don’t miss the opportunity to try these restaurants. They’ll satisfy your body and soul.

Click here for Rui Paula’s website. DOP is located at Palácio das Artes, Largo de S. Domingos, 18, Porto, tel. 22 20 14 313, email dop@ruipaula.com. DOC is located at Estrada Nacional 222, Folgosa, Armamar, tel. 254 858 123, email doc@ruipaula.com.