Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?

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According to an old British tradition, vintage port wine is served in a decanter passed at the end of the meal from right to left. When someone forgets to pass the decanter, instead of saying. “Would you mind passing the port,” the British like to ask: “do you know the Bishop of Norwich?”  They will then explain that the bishop was a very nice fellow except for his annoying proclivity to forget to pass the port decanter. Henry Bathurst, the Bishop of Norwich from 1805 to 1837, often fell asleep at the table, interrupting the flow of port that fueled the conversation.

The British port-wine merchants and producers gather every Wednesday for lunch at the Feitoria Inglesa, an elegant 18th century building in Oporto. It is a place where the slightest hesitation about passing the port results in a lecture about the Bishop of Norwich.

One day, two members of the Feitoria Inglesa conspired to invite the current bishop of Norwich to lunch. The bishop arrived incognito. One of the conspirators failed to pass the port and was promptly asked by his neighbor, “do you know the Bishop of Norwich?” He responded “I do, in fact I can introduce you to him because he is sitting at the table!” The bishop rose and told the guests that he was indeed the Bishop of Norwich and that he always passed the port.

The art of growing old

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A friend brought a precious gift to a recent dinner party:  a bottle of Madeira from 1853! The wine was produced at a time when the future of Madeira looked bleak. Robert White and James Johnson in the 2nd edition of their book “Madeira its Climate and Scenery,” published in 1856, offered the following prognosis:

“The wine of Madeira, which has acquired worldwide celebrity, will soon be no more than a thing of history. In the Spring of 1852, a disease suddenly showed itself which, in process of time, destroyed the grape and ruined the prospects of the hardly-tasked cultivators. […] it is calculated that in two or at most three tears not a pipe of wine will be left in the island.”

The disease was caused by a fungus called odium tuckeri. According to White and Johnson, production dwindled from roughly 8,000 pipes in 1851 to roughly 2,000 pipes in 1854. Luckily, the discovery that oidium could be controlled by dusting the vines with sulphur saved Madeira’s vineyards from oblivion.

It was with great expectation that we broke the 165-year-old crimson seal to persuade the steadfast cork to retire from the job of guarding the priceless nectar. The wine left the bottle full of vigor, with a crystalline amber color and an enchanting aroma. No wonder Madeira was once used as a perfume in the court of Russia!

Less sweet than more recent vintages, the taste has an elegant “vinagrinho,” the name for the volatile acidity produced by the passage of time. It is a wine that has much to teach us about the art of growing old.

 

The Yeatman hotel

Composit Yeatman

There’s no better place to appreciate the beauty of Oporto than sitting in great comfort at the Yeatman hotel, sipping a glass of chilled Taylor’s Chip Dry white port before dinner.

The hotel was built by the descendants of the Yeatmans, a British family that started trading port wine in 1838. Draped around a hill in Vila Nova de Gaia, near the cellars where priceless vintage ports are stored, the hotel offers exuberant views of the river Douro and the city of Oporto.

A stay at the Yeatman is an initiation into the secrets of Portuguese wine. Each room is decorated by a different wine producer. The public spaces are adorned with artisanal artifacts and objects that highlight the connections between wine making and the history of Portugal.

The Yeatman’s main restaurant has two Michelin stars. Here, the exquisite food prepared by chef Ricardo Costa harmonizes with extraordinary wines curated by enologist Beatriz Machado, a graduate of the University of California at Davis.

The hotel organizes wine tastings, wine masterclasses, and weekly vinic dinners hosted by wine producers. These activities combine with the perfect location to make the Yeatman the perfect pairing for wine lovers visiting Oporto.

The Yeatman is located at Rua do Choupelo, (Santa Marinha), in Vila Nova de Gaia. 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.

A glass of Jampal wine?

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André Manz, a Brazilian soccer player turned entrepreneur, was searching for a place to build offices on the outskirts of Lisbon. He liked a small village near Mafra called Cheleiros. There, he bought the Orchard of the Holy Spirit (Pomar do Espírito Santo), named for its proximity to the Holy Spirit chapel. His wife Margarida fell in love with the orchard and convinced André to use it to build their home and locate the offices elsewhere.

When they moved to Cheleiros, an elderly lady called Dona Celeste told André that in the old days everybody in the village made their own wine. There were 43 wine presses in a village with only 800 people. André said that it would be cool to produce wine and Dona Celeste seized the opportunity to sell him her abandoned vineyard.

When enologists came to study the old vines, they concluded that the red grapes were “castelão” but they couldn’t identify the white grapes. André told Dona Celeste about their difficulties and she replied “Young people don’t know anything! Those grapes are jampal.” This is a grape varietal that was considered extinct. It produces small grapes so, in years gone by when quantity trumped quality, farmers replaced it with higher-yielding varietals. The wine institute sent technicians to certify that the grapes are indeed jampal and André became the world’s sole producer of jampal wine.

In the first few years, André bottled the wine in plain bottles. He gave a few to his friends and consumed the rest in his household. On the occasion of an important lunch, André decided to put some labels on the wine. He called it Dona Fátima, the name of his mother in law. When the bottles arrived at the table, Dona Fátima was delighted. “Why did you name the wine after me?” she asked André with curiosity. “Because of its acidity,” quipped André.

When Julia Harding and Jancis Robinson were working on their book, The World of Grapes, they contacted André to see if they could get a bottle of jampal wine. They liked it so much that they included it in their selection of the 50 best Portuguese wines.

Since then, it has become very hard to buy one of the 6,000 bottles of Dona Fátima produced every year.  If you see one in a wine store make sure you get it. If not, drive to the village of Cheleiros, to try one of the world’s most unique wines.

Click here for Manzwine’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.

Mário Sérgio, a Portuguese vigneron

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The people of Epernay, a town at the heart of the Champagne region, know more about sparkling wine than almost anyone in the world. So it is remarkable that Mario Sérgio, a producer from Bairrada, found a market for his sparkling wines in Epernay.

This success has been more than a century in the making–Mário is a 4th generation wine maker. His 81-old father still labors 10 hours a day tending to the vineyards.

Mário’s family used to sell their grapes to the famed Caves São João. In 1989, at age of 23, Mário decided to reserve the grapes to make his own wines under the label Quinta das Bágeiras. From the beginning, he paid no attention to what is most fashionable or profitable. Instead, he focused on making great wines in Bairrada.

One of the first hints that Mário was on the path to greatness came in 2001 when, in a blind tasting organized in France, the judges selected two wines: a very expensive Château Haut-Brion and a modestly-priced Quinta das Bágeiras garrafeira.

Mário shuns everything that is artificial. He uses no yeasts, no filtering, no stabilization techniques. Reds are made with old wine presses using the notoriously difficult baga varietal. Sparkling wines are all Natural Brut, an exacting style that requires that there be no residual sugar in the wine.

Just like the French vignerons, Mário buys no grapes. All his wines are produced from grapes hand picked in his properties.  He knows every parcel and plants vines only in soils that can produce excellent results. “I am often offered grapes from properties adjacent to mine. But many times, the soil and sun exposure are completely different from those of the parcels I own.”

Mário is particularly proud of the vineyard that produces the grapes for Pai Abel, a wine named after his father. He makes 2,000 bottles a year. Using a practice that is rare in Portugal, he sells 80 percent “en primeur” to lucky subscribers who buy the wine at a discount two years before it is ready for delivery.

A profound believer in the aging potential of Bairrada whites, he stored his 1994 white wine for 12 years before releasing it for sale. When he brought home a bottle to share with his wife, she told him: “There’s no market for aged white wine, you’ll never sell a single bottle.” When by the end of the meal the bottle was empty, she conceded that “maybe you’ll sell some of this wine.” Mário sent a couple of bottles to his friend Dirk Niepoort. In return, he received the biggest compliment a wine maker can give to another: Dirk asked to buy all the stock of Quinta das Bágeiras 1994 white!

Every Saturday, Mário Sérgio opens the door of his winery to visitors. If you’re a wine lover, it is hard to find a more enjoyable way to spend a Saturday than to pay a visit to Quinta das Bageiras.

Quinta das Bágeiras is located at Rua Principal nº598, Fogueira in Sangalhos (N 40º 29.109′ ; W 8º 29.969′), tel. 234 742 102, email mariosergio@quintadasbageiras.pt. Click here for their website.