Vitor Claro’s handcrafted wines

Sometimes, we dream of having lunch at chef Vitor Claro’s restaurant in Paço de Arcos, near Lisbon. It is a place with a generous view of the ocean where the chef cooks with a lightness that surprises and delights. The menu offers codfish brandade with fresh tomatoes, partridge soup with foie gras, cauliflower with parmesan, sole in chickpea broth, shrimp ravioli with mushrooms, fried dough with chickpea puree, and much more.

Then, we wake up and remember that the restaurant is closed. A feeling of disappointment is followed by the joyful realization that Vitor Claro is now a wine maker and we have some of his bottles in our cellar!

Vitor was not a wine aficionado before meeting Dirk Niepoort, the legendary producer from the Douro Valley. The first time Vitor went for dinner at Dirk’s house, he found a glass of 1986 Chateaux Margaux waiting for him. This glass of wine opened the door to a new life. 

In 2010, while working in Alentejo, Victor fell in love with the wines from Portalegre. He managed to rent an old vineyard in this region to make wine with a friend who is an enologist. But one month before the harvest, his friend abandoned the project. Vitor called Dirk Niepoort to ask for help. Dirk told him “this is the best that could have happened to you.” Then, like a Zen master, Dirk said: “let the grapes do the work.” Vitor harvested the grapes, put them in barrels, crushed them gently and waited. 

Two years later, he bottled the wine under the label Dominó. It was such a success that Vitor decided to close the restaurant to devote himself full time to wine making. He convinced his wife Rita to leave her architecture practice to work with him. The couple embraced a simple life style, sharing the toil and joy of winemaking. They do all the work themselves with the help of some seasonal workers. 

Today, Vitor’s wines are handcrafted using grapes from old vines rented in different parts of Portugal from Beira Interior to Carcavelos. Total production is only 20,000 bottles per year. When the wine does not appeal to Vitor’s refined senses, he does not bottle it. 

The lightness that Victor pursued in his cooking became the hallmark of his wines. They have bright flavors that interest the palate but never over power it. Instead, they surprise and delight.

Quinta de Ventozelo

There is a new jewel in the Douro valley called Quinta de Ventozelo. The setting is not new, the estate has produced wine since the beginning of the 16th century. But there are 29 new gems–luxurious rooms with magnificent vistas located in various houses throughout the quinta. Some houses have old roofs built with the same schist used to brace the terraces that hold the vines. Others are built out of giant balloons that once stored 80,000 liters of port wine. 

The sprawling estate is the perfect place to create wonderful memories. Of the rolling hills descending towards the river to bade in its green waters. Of the breeze caressing the silvery leaves of the olive trees. Of the restful silence punctuated only by the sounds of nature. Of the joy of sitting outdoors at sunset savoring a glass of wine in the company of friends. 

You can drive to the quinta, but it is much more spectacular to take the boat from Pinhão and arrive at the dock by the river. Arriving is the easy part. Leaving is hard to do. 

Quinta de Ventozelo is located in Ervedosa do Douro, S. João da Pesqueira. Click here for the quinta’s website.

The incomparable wines from Colares

One of the coolest places you can find during the Portuguese Summer is the cellar of the wine cooperative of Colares, a bucolic town near Sintra. It is a place where large barrels fashioned out of exotic woods from Brazil rest, protected by thick walls that keep the temperature cool.  

The wines these barrels store are cool in attitude. They come from a unique “terroir” near the ocean where two varietals, Malvasia and Ramisco, grow on sandy soils. The roots of the vines have to stretch deep into the sand to find the moisture necessary to stay alive. 

All this toil paid off in the 19th century when phylloxera decimated European vines. Protected by sand, the vines of Colares escaped the bug’s voracity. 

These hard-working vines produce wines with exuberant tannins that need to be tamed. The reds age in barrels for almost a decade before bottling. Once bottled, both reds and whites continue to age beautifully, enjoying remarkable longevity.

Francisco Fezas, the resident enologist, told us that Adega Regional de Colares is the oldest wine cooperative in Portugal. The local wine makers got together in 1931 to buy the 19th-century cellar owned by a famous wine merchant, José Maria da Fonseca. In 1938, the government gave the cooperative the monopoly of production in order to guarantee the quality of the wine produced in Colares. The cooperative sold the wine to different distributors who bottled it under brands like Chitas, Adega Beira Mar and Viúva Gomes

In the 1960s, Colares had more than one million hectares of vines that produced more than one million liters of wine. Then, the vines were attacked by a foe more formidable than the phylloxera: urban sprawl. Many farmers succumbed to the temptation of selling their land to property developers who wanted to build houses near the ocean. As a result, the cultivation area dwindled to a paltry 23 hectares which produces a mere 18 thousand bottles, making Colares one of the world’s rarest historical wines. 

Francisco’s first harvest in Colares was in 1999, at a time when the cooperative was struggling financially and the future looked dim. Since then, there has been a remarkable renewal that preserves the future of the incomparable wines from Colares.

Adega Regional de Colares is located at Alameda Coronel Linhares de Lima, nº 32 in Colares, tel. 219 291 210, email geral@arcolares.com.. Click here for the adega’s website.

Four generations of Ramilo wines

Ramilo

After serving as a soldier in Africa, Manuel Ramilo returned to Portugal in 1895 severely ill. His godfather arranged for him to spend his final days in a tranquil village near Mafra called Alqueidão. Against all odds, Manuel recovered and married a wealthy woman he met in the village.

In 1937, Manuel started producing wine to sell to local taverns. His son, Manuel junior, and his grandson Belmiro expanded the business, buying grapes from local producers to make blends to sell to restaurants.

One day, Belmiro and his sons, Pedro and Nuno, had lunch with a friend who inquired  about the future of the family business. Belmiro replied that the future was uncertain because his kids were not interested in wine making. Shortly after this conversation, Nuno decided to study enology. Soon his passion for wine flourished to the point where he abandoned his job as a bridge engineer to work full time at Ramilo wines.

Nuno focused on the 10 hectares of vineyards owned by his family. Two hectares are planted in the sandy soils of Colares. Eight are planted in the clay, rocky soils surrounding Alqueidão, the place where it all started. It was there that we met with Nuno.

The day was foggy and humid, conditions that are normal in this region because of the proximity of the Sintra mountain and the Atlantic Ocean.  In the old days, everybody in Alqueidão made wine. The best vineyards are planted on steep slopes that face south and are sheltered from the ocean winds so grapes can reach the ideal level of maturation.

Enologists Virgílio Loureiro and Manuel Malfeito worked with Nuno to create wines that preserve the character of this unique terroir. The results are outstanding. We tried a wonderful white wine made from vital, a grape that was once overlooked because it is not very aromatic. It has a minerality that is deeply satisfying. Next, we sampled a wonderful red made from old Castelão vines that is full of salinity and vigor. Both wines come from vines planted in Alqueidão.

Nuno went to the cellar and brought back a bottle with a painted label. It was a 2017 white Malvasia from Colares. Few plants grow on sand because the soil does not retain enough moisture, explained Nuno. But farmers in Colares discovered that they could grow vines on the dunes near the ocean if they dug the sand until they found clay soil where they could plant the roots. Planting and caring for these vines is hard work. But hiding the roots three meters below the surface had a big payoff: when phylloxera devastated the European vineyards in the 19th century, the vines of Colares survived unscathed.

After breaking the wax capsule of the old-fashioned bottle, Nuno gently coaxed the cork out of the bottleneck. As soon as the yellow wine colored our glasses, we fell under the spell of its delicate aroma. The character and complexity of this Colares left us speechless. Since it was released, Nuno’s phone has not stopped ringing. He quickly sold most of the 1,200 bottles produced. Revista dos Vinhos, an influential Portuguese wine magazine, included it in its list of the top-ten Portuguese wines.

It was a privileged to try this rare nectar, the perfect wine to make a toast to the four generations of Ramilos who made it possible.

Ramilo wines is located in Alqueidão, tel. 219 611 453, email info@ramilowines.com. Click here for Ramilo’s web site.

Bel canto wines at Herdade da Calada

Herdade da Calada

Herdade da Calada is a sprawling estate near Évora, owned by a French couple, Marie and André Jean-Claude Penauille. Founded in 1854 by the descendants of the Duke of Lancaster, the estate is planted with vineyards, olive trees, cork oaks, and pasture fields nurtured by a network of lakes that save the increasingly precious rain water.

The wines are made by Eduardo Cardeal, an enologist born into a family of winegrowers from the Douro valley. He brought to Alentejo a gentle style of wine making that seeks to preserve the aromas and character of the fruit. It produces elegant wines with relatively low alcoholic content and round tannins. To achieve these results, the quality of the grapes is key. The yields need to be low and the maturation has to be perfect. Eduardo spends much of his time in the vineyard examining the evolution of the grapes. He harvests in the middle of the night to ensure that the grapes are cool before they enter the winery through the roof, ushered by gravity.

The results are exceptional. In a region known for operatic wines, Herdade da Calada offers wines that sing with the elegance of bel canto.

Herdade da Calada is located at Estrada de Évora-Estremoz km 12 (EN 18), Évora, tel. 266-470-030, email geral@herdadecalada.com. Click here for the wineries web site.

The wines of Wine & Soul

Quinta da Manoella

We spent a bright Winter morning with Jorge Serôdio Borges in Vale de Mendiz. He met us at Wine & Soul, the winery where, together with his wife Sandra Tavares da Silva, he is making some of the Douro’s most iconic wines. Jorge showed us the granite tanks where the hand-picked grapes are treaded by foot, just like in the old days. Then he asked with boyish excitement “Would you like to see the vines?” Of course we did.

He drove us through the winding road that leads to the old vineyard that produces the grapes for the famous Pintas. The vines are planted on a steep incline. We wondered why these grapes are so special–is it the constant vertigo sensation they probably feel? Jorge explained that the high altitude and the cool nights help balance the intense sun exposure to produce grapes that are consistently great. Before we left, he showed us how the ground between the vines is planted with cloves that help retain the nitrogen in the soil.

Next, we went to Quinta da Manoella. Jorge seems to know every tree and every creek. He talked about the numerous fruit trees they planted, the mushrooms that grow in the forest, and the olive groves that make tangy olive oil. In his view, biodiversity is key for the sustainability of the region and the quality of the wines. Finally, he showed us the cellars which are full of old oak barrels beautifully restored, ready to receive precious vintage ports.

Visiting the two Wine & Soul estates gave us a new appreciation for the wines they produce. It is amazing how much knowledge, work and passion it takes to produce great wine.

Click here for information about how to visit Wine & Soul.

L’and vineyards

L'and Vyneards

We arrived at L’and Vineyards blinded by the midday Alentejo sun. It was soothing to step into the cool shade offered by this elegant hotel surrounded by vineyards.

There are no normal hotel rooms at L’and. Each guest stays in a expansive suite that has an outdoor tub and fireplace. The ceiling on top of the bed opens at the touch of a button to reveal the star-studded Alentejo sky.

Early in the morning, we saw the first sun rays arriving at the vineyards. We then took a swim in the resplendent pool.

The service is seamless, the food delicious. We felt completely at home in this spacious, gracious hotel in the heart of wine country.

L’and vineyards is located in Montemor-o-Novo in Alentejo, tel. 266-242-400. Click here for their website.

 

 

The yellow house farm

Quinta da casa Amarela

We called Laura Regueiro, the owner of Quinta da Casa Amarela (the yellow house farm), to apologize for being a little late. It is easy to misjudge travel times in the Douro valley. Distances are short but the narrow, winding roads make us slow down and admire the landscape. “You don’t need to rush,” Laura said gracefully, “take your time to enjoy the beautiful drive.”

As soon as we arrived, she came to greet us with her husband, Gil. They taught history in Oporto for almost three decades. Every Saturday, they packed their bags and their children, Gil junior and Sónia, to drive to Quinta da Casa Amarela for the weekend. In 1979, the couple moved to the Douro valley to focus on producing wine.

The quinta, located in Vale de Cambres, belongs to the Regueiro family since 1875. It was from Vale the Cambres that the first Douro wines were exported to England in the 16th century. Initially, the wine was called “vinho de embarque” (shipping wine), later it was renamed port wine.

“Port is the supreme expression of the Douro valley,” Laura explains. “My grandfather used to say that port wine is so perfect that we should kneel before drinking it to show our reverence.”

“In 2000, our son convinced us to produce table wines; or “tranquil wines” as the Douro people sometimes call them,” said Laura. We tried a wonderful rosé with impeccable acidity and a sublime reserve white with tropical fruit aromas, great freshness and persistence in the palate. The wine labels are decorated with ladybugs. Laura loves these colorful insects because they help control the pests that plague the vineyards. This control is particularly important because some of the vines are about 80-years old. They produce extraordinary grapes that lend complexity and character to the wines.

The production process, managed by Jean-Hugues Gros, a French enologist who moved to the Douro valley, relies on traditional methods. The grapes are still treaded by foot to the sound of an accordion, just like in the old days. But the wines are modern, interesting and elegant. The reserve red wine is a great examplar of the quinta’s style.

Laura loves gathering friends around the dinner table. Her duck rice is legendary. “Food and wine stimulate great conversations,” she says. When Paulo Rodrigues from Quinta do Regueiro came for lunch, he brought some bottles of his green wine made with Alvarinho grapes. During lunch, Laura mixed the Alvarinho with her white wine. The results were so interesting that they created a wine called II Terroir that combines grapes from their two quintas. Laura is also collaborating with a maverick wine maker from Alentejo called Paulo Laureano. Their PL/LR wine marries grapes from the plains of Alentejo and the Douro mountains.

We stayed until late talking to Laura and Gil as if we had known them forever. Happily married for 50 years, they are preparing the 6th generation to continue the work that began in 1875: to turn some of the best grapes in the Douro valley into wines that are perfect to gather friends around the dinner table.

Quinta da Casa Amarela is located at Riobom in Lamego, tel. 254-666-200, email quinta@quinta-casa-amarela.com. Click here for their website.

 

 

The magic of the harvest

Harvest at Monte da Ravasqueira

Most days come and go without leaving a trace. But the harvest day we spent at Monte da Ravasqueira in Alentejo is unforgettable.

The sun, disappointed that we didn’t stay by the hotel pool worshiping its radiant glory, sulked behind clouds. It was just as well. The star’s temper tantrum brought cooler temperatures and created softer shadows that made the fields of Alentejo look like paintings. Monte da Ravasqueira was gorgeous, its white and blue buildings contrasting with the colors of the vines, already changing from their Summer greens to the browns and yellows of the Autumn season.

Mário Gonzaga, our genial guide at Ravasqueira, equipped us with straw hats, gloves and scissors. Then, we followed enologists Pedro Pereira Gonçalves and Vasco Rosa Santos, the magicians who turn grape juice into wine, through the glorious fields. On the way to our vineyard, we passed by the famed Vinha das Romãs, a plot planted with Touriga Franca and Syrah that produces wines with hints of the pomegranates that once grew there.

We received a large box and were assigned a row planted with Petit Verdot. An accordion player made our work lighter by serenading us while we picked the grapes. Wine grapes are very different from table grapes. Their berries are small, so they have much more skin than water, resulting in more intense flavors and aromas.

Once our box was brimming with fruit, we walked over to the winery where Mário talked about the wine-production process. The grape juice has to be kept at 16 degrees Celsius so that the yeast in the grapes starts the fermentation process that turns fruit sugar into alcohol. The cellar was filled with strong wine aromas. “These are primary aromas,” explained Mário. “They need to be abundant at this stage because some will dissipate over time. The yeast-like secondary aromas are produced by the fermentation process. The tertiary aromas come from aging. The estate’s best wines age for three years in oak barrels and two years in bottle.”

As we walked back to the center of the estate, Mário showed us a Roman marble tombstone shaped like a wine barrel. “We think that here lies our first enologist,” says Mário. “He wanted to sleep forever close to his vineyards.”

The country-style lunch was wonderful: salads made with fava beans and chickpeas, duck rice, and a mille-feuilles of red berries for dessert.  We tried to pick our favorite wine. The beautiful rosé, the enticing family reserve white? The luscious red from Vinhas das Romãs? It is impossible to decide.

There was much more to see and do during the afternoon. As the sun began to set, we were greeted by a choir from Alentejo. Three rows of farmers sang in harmony about love and loss, work and rest, food and wine.

Dinner was a feast. Our appetite was wetted with the stunning Ravasqueira sparkling great reserve. Then, an intense red Alicante Bouschet paired perfectly with the savory coriander soup and a delicious codfish with cornbread. The dessert, an irresistible chocolate praliné, came with a glamorous late harvest and a luxurious port-style wine made at Ravasqueira.

The following day, it was time to go back to normal life. But we couldn’t bear to lose the state of enchantment we felt in Alentejo. So we said a silent incantation to keep the magic going: “we’ll return to the harvest.”

Monte da Ravasqueira is located near Arraiolos, tel. 266-490-200, email ravasqueira@ravasqueira.com. Click here for information about how to schedule a visit.

The Dão wine region

Dão

The Dão river lends its name to one of the most important wine regions in Portugal. Demarcated in 1908, it has granitic soils and remarkable indigenous varietals like the red Touriga Nacional and the white Encruzado.

Dão wines are full of character, much like the people who live in this area. They can be brash when they’re young, but they age beautifully, acquiring elegance and complexity.

It is not unusual to find Dão wines that keep improving for several decades. The legendary 1964 vintage is a great example of this longevity.

Some say that the least happy people in heaven come from the Dão region. For they regret having left behind a few great bottles of wine.