The maker of Barca Velha

Luís Sottomayor, the enologist who makes Barca Velha, an iconic Douro valley wine, is uncomfortable with his fame. He misses spending August in quiet solitude amidst the vines at Quinta da Leda, the large estate that produces most of the grapes used in Barca Velha. Today everybody wants to talk to him, journalists, sommeliers, and wine enthusiasts. They all want to discover the secret of Barca Velha.

Luís says the style was created by the legendary Fernando Nicolau de Almeida when he produced the first Barca Velha in 1952. Nicolau de Almeida traveled the Douro valley in search of grapes that could make an exceptional table wine and found them in a region called Douro Superior. He blended grapes from high altitudes that have acidity and freshness with those from low altitudes that have maturation, body, and color. This marriage of acidity and structure created a sublime wine that can age and improve for decades. 

Barca Velha is made with the best grapes that Sogrape, Portugal’s largest wine company, has in Douro Superior. The parcels are vinified separately and stored in casks. Then Luís creates a blend from the different barrels. If the resulting wine meets his exacting standards, he bottles it. Then the wait begins. He samples the wine with his team for four, five, six, sometimes seven years before deciding whether to label it Barca Velha or Reserva Especial. Since 1952, there have only been 20 vintages of Barca Velha and 17 of Reserva Especial. 

Luís says that some decisions are challenging but he was lucky to learn with the two masters who made Barca Velha before him, Fernando Nicolau de Almeida and José Maria Soares Franco. Luís was hired by Soares Franco in 1989 and became responsible for Barca Velha in 2007. 

“For how long should we store a Barca Velha?” we ask. Luís smiles and says he doesn’t like waiting too long to pull the cork from the heavy bottles that guard the precious wine. “Open it when you’re with good friends,” he recommends. Luís is a hunter, so he loves to pair Barca Velha with partridge or duck. “But the wine also can be enjoyed without food, especially by the fire on a cold winter night,” he says. 

We asked Luís about another remarkable Sogrape wine called Legado (the Portuguese word for legacy). “Barca Velha has a consistent style and is the expression of a large terroir,” says Luís. “Legado is the opposite. It comes from a small terroir– a vineyard planted in 1910 with eight hectares that produce only six or seven tons of grapes. Each vintage is a different chapter of the life of that vineyard.”

Luís grew up on a farm near Porto. His father, who studied enology in Dijon after the 2nd World War, worked in a port wine company. From an early age, Luís dreamed about being a winemaker. Now he makes wines that people dream about drinking.

Chocapalha’s fascinating wines

Some of our favorite wines come from an estate near Lisbon called Chocapalha. It has a privileged location. The Montejunto mountain protects the land from cold winds and the Atlantic breeze lends the wines an enticing freshness and acidity. The farm, which is known for its wines since the 16th century, has a hilly terrain with different sun exposures and soils rich in clay and limestone.

Chocapalha belonged since the 19th century to the family of Diogo Duff, a Scottish noble who came help the Duke of Wellington fight the Napoleonic troups. Paulo Tavares da Silva, a retired Portuguese Navy officer, and his Swiss wife Alice bought the estate from the Duff family in 1987. 

The journey to the glorious wines produced today was long and arduous. There was a modern winery to build, laborers to hire, new vineyards to plant, sustainable practices to implement, and many other tasks. When we first met Paulo, he told us that a visiting producer tried to discourage him by quoting a French aphorism: “wine is an easy business; only the first 200 years are hard.” But he and Alice were not deterred. They were driven by a passion for the land and a desire to create a legacy for future generations. For this reason, they paid from the start close attention to environmental issues. They want to see that the soil is alive, the vineyards are healthy, and the birds and animals are thriving. 

The family worked so hard that success came much sooner than anticipated. Alice and Paulo enlisted two of their daughters, Sandra and Andrea, to work at Chocapalha. Sandra, a renowned enologist, took time from Wine & Soul, the project she has in the Douro valley with her husband, to oversee the planting of the vineyards and the making of the wines. Andrea left a lucrative career in finance to manage the estate. Paulo works tirelessly in the vineyards. Alice graciously receives the many guests that visit the farm. 

The wines speak for themselves: they are pure and refined, produced with minimal intervention so that each glass can take our palate to the sunny hills of Chocapalha. 

There are many wines to try. There’s a Castelão with the elegance of a Pinot Noir and a Viosinho with the charm of a Chardonnay. Vinha Mãe has rich tannins and great concentration; it is a perfect companion for a cold winter night. The CH white, made with Arinto from old vines, is an aristocratic wine with subtle salinity. The wine is an homage to Alice (CH is the symbol of Switzerland, her homeland). The red Guarita, named after the farm’s sentry house, is an homage to Paulo. Produced with Alicante Bouschet, it is a symphony for the palate.

When you visit Chocapalha, you can taste their wines, visit the picturesque vineyards, and get to know a family passionate about creating some of the world’s most fascinating wines.

Chocapalha is located at Aldeia Galega da Merceana, 50 km from Lisbon. You can schedule a wine tasting by emailing chocapalha@chocapalha.com. Click here for their website.

Twin wines from Bairrada?

Luís Pato, the famous Bairrada winemaker, is always doing something new. One of his recent projects is a white wine made from a rare grape called Sercialinho. This varietal was created in the 1950s by crossing two iconic grapes: Sercial, used in Madeira wine, and Alvarinho, used in vinho verde (green wine). João Pato, Luís’ father, planted this new varietal about half a century ago on the sandy soils of his Quinta de Ribeirinho. Luís always loved the grape’s aromas, which resemble those of Alsatian Rieslings. For years, he has used Sercialinho to add acidity and aroma to his renowned Vinhas Velhas (old vines). In 2013 Luís made a single-varietal Sercialinho in his father’s honor. He started producing it regularly with great results since 2019. “I’m the world’s sole producer of Sercialinho,” Luís told us with pride.

But Sogrape, Portugal’s largest wine producer, also launched to great acclaim a Sercialinho wine produced in Bairrada (in Quinta de Pedralvites). It is part of their “Séries Ímpares” created to showcase unique varietals and terroirs. 

DNA analysis revealed that Sogrape’s Sercialinho is a cross of Vital and Uva Cão. Is this the same varietal that João Pato planted? Are the two Sercialinhos identical twins, fraternal twins, or homonymous strangers? It is a mystery. What we do know is that they’re both spectacular wines!

Dining by candlelight at Quinta Dona Maria

We arrived late in the afternoon and waited outside the imposing marble gate. Before we could say ‘abracadabra’ or some other incantation, the gate opened, welcoming us to Quinta Dona Maria, a magnificent wine estate in Alentejo. 

Isabel Bastos came to greet us. We walked with her to the palace’s chapel and sat down to hear her recount the story of Quinta Dona Maria. The estate was a gift from King John V to Dona Maria, a lady of the court with whom the king fell in love. Dona Maria left no descendants, so the property was sold in a public auction upon her death. The Reynolds, a family of merchants from southern England, purchased it. They renamed the estate Quinta do Carmo in honor of an image of the Lady of Carmo they bought for the chapel in 1752. The estate currently belongs to Júlio Bastos, Isabel’s husband, who descends from the Reynolds family. 

Júlio’s grandfather started producing fine wines on the estate. The project was so successful that in a blind tasting with the Rothschilds held in the late 1980s, the wines from Quinta do Carmo tied with Lafitte Rothschild. Impressed by this feat, the Rothschilds proposed Júlio Bastos a partnership. But the two winemakers had different objectives and approaches. Júlio is passionate about the old vines planted with the traditional varietals of Alentejo, most of all Alicante Bouschet, a varietal brought by the Reynolds from France to Alentejo. The Rothschilds wanted to replant the vineyards with French varietals that could appeal to the international market. Eventually, the two parties separated. In this process, the Rothschilds kept the brand Quinta do Carmo, so Júlio renamed his wines and estate Quinta Dona Maria. 

We walked to the wine cellar to see the 18th-century marble tanks where the grapes are still crushed by foot treading. The tanks were brimming with grapes that were starting the fermentation process that transmutes earthly grape juice into heavenly wine. Isabel served us an enticing rosé with pleasing fruit notes and refreshing acidity. Next, we tried a delightful white Viognier that shows how much this French grape shines in the soils of Alentejo. The tasting ended with pomp and circumstance provided by two sumptuous Dona Maria red reserves from 2005 and 2008.

It was time to go to the palace. The large door creaked as it slowly opened to show us rooms lit by candlelight that made us feel like we were back in the 18th century. Júlio joined us for dinner. His love for the land, food, and wine of Alentejo were evident throughout the meal. 

The dinner, prepared by Filipe Ramalho from Páteo Real and Beatriz Tobinha, the palace’s resident chef, was a memorable feast. It started with Filipe’s famous tart made from chestnut-flower sausage, pears cooked in wine, quince marmalade, and chard. Then there was a slew of appetizers: tomato and watermelon salad, roasted peppers with bacon, slices of the brilliant sausages made at Salsicharia Canense, plates with savory Alentejo cheeses, and chickpeas with pickled codfish salad. A rich white Dona Maria reserve delicately aged in oak was an enthralling gastronomical companion.

Next came the main dishes: cação (a fish popular in Alentejo) in coriander sauce, pheasant in escabeche sauce and marinated carrots, and duck croquettes with black garlic mayonnaise. A splendid Dona Maria red reserve from 2017 made from old vines complemented the food with its festive taste of berries and hints of spices. 

The dessert was an almond and pumpkin tart paired with the famed Júlio B. Bastos Alicante Bouschet, named after Júlio’s father. The wine’s acidity, tannins, and fruit sing to the palate in perfect harmony.

Glancing at the watch, we saw the two hands pointing to midnight. We knew from fairy tales that it was time to leave. We thanked Isabel and Júlio for their warm hospitality and drove back to our hotel. We slept peacefully but woke up wondering: was the dinner at Quinta Dona Maria a dream? 

Click here for the website of Quinta Dona Maria.

What’s your favorite Madeira?

If you’re looking for a fun holiday activity for your grown-up friends, we have just the thing: a Madeira wine tasting. We suggest starting with the four classic styles, each named after the white grape varietal used in its production: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey. 

These wines have a combination of sweetness and acidity that enchants the palate. But each style is distinct. Sommeliers often serve the dry Sercial and medium-dry Verdelho as aperitifs and the medium-sweet Bual and sweet Malmsey as dessert wines. 

Madeiras are fortified wines. Winemakers add neutral vinic alcohol at 96 degrees to stop the fermentation process through which yeast converts grape fructose into alcohol. As a result, not all fructose is converted into alcohol and the wine retains some residual sugar. Fortification has been used since the mid-18th century to give Madeiras the endurance they needed to survive long sea voyages.  

Francisco Albuquerque, Blandy’s winemaker, says he generally stops the Sercial fermentation after ten days. For Malmsey, he suspends the fermentation after two days, so there’s a lot more sweetness left in the wine. Perhaps that is why, according to Shakespeare, the Duke of Clarence, condemned to death for treason against his brother King Edward IV, asked to be drowned in a cask of Malmsey. 

Shippers discovered that Madeiras improve when they cross the equator in the hulls of sailboats. To mimic this effect, producers expose Madeiras to heat. For superior Madeiras this exposure happens in warm cellars, where the wines age for several years in old American oak casks before they’re ready for our enjoyment. The longer they stay in oak barrels, the more complex they become. 

So, which Madeira do you favor? And which do your friends prefer? It’s great fun to find out! 

Susana Esteban’s thrilling wines

Susana Esteban agreed to present her wines at the Arraiolos Pousada in September. It was an act of generosity because the harvest was in full motion, and she’s a perfectionist. Like the photographer Cartier-Bresson, she’s always looking for the decisive moment. The moment when the grapes are perfectly ripe to be gently harvested by hand, when the fermentation has run its course and worked its magic, when the oak barrels have refined the wine without changing its temperament.

As soon as Susana started talking, the sun set as if sensing that another star had arrived. Her Portuguese is seasoned with a charming accent–she was born in a Spanish region called Galicia. After graduating in enology, she decided to do an internship in the Douro valley, a place that was then remote and isolated. She stayed and worked in the Douro during her formative years. Then, like the swallows, she went south in search of something new– vineyards where she could develop her style and make wines that can age and evolve for many decades.

She made her first wine in 2011. It is called Procura, the Portuguese word for search. Susana found what she was searching for in the hills of São Mamede in Portalegre–centenarian vines full of character. They needed a lot of care, but Susana nursed them back to health with patience and affection.

Susana is cloning the old vineyards to preserve their genetic material and pass it onto the new vineyards that she is planting. None of her vineyards, new or old, are irrigated. The thirsty vines produce low quantity but high quality. 

We first tried a rosé made from Aragonês and purple muscatel that is pleasantly aromatic and light in alcohol–a perfect summer drink. 

Then, we tasted an exquisite white wine made in amphoras called Tira o Véu (removing the veil). The first time Susana made it, in 2019, she witnessed a rare phenomenon: a veil formed on top of the amphora. It is a film created by yeast highly prized in the production of sherries. No one knows what makes it occur, but every year the veil returns to make this wine more seductive and mysterious.

Next, we drank an alluring red wine made with Touriga Nacional and Aragonês. For Susana producing wine is an adventure, so she calls it Aventura. We’re lucky to be part of this thrilling experience that results in a wine full of freshness and minerality.

Finally, we tried the wonderfully harmonious 2016 red Procura. It combines a field blend with Alicante Bouschet from ancient vines aged in oak to round the tannins. It is a “vinho de guarda,” a wine with great longevity that will improve and surprise with the passage of time. We’re so lucky that Susana found the vineyards she was looking for!

Howard’s Folly

It is great fun to visit Howard’s Folly in Estremoz. The restaurant, winery, and art gallery are a joint venture between Howard Bilton, a British financier, and David Baverstock, a legendary winemaker. 

After studying enology in his home country, Australia, David worked in France and Germany. Before returning home, he vacationed in Portugal and met his future wife, Maria Antonieta. He returned to Australia to work in the Barossa Valley, where Maria joined him. But Maria was homesick, and in 1982 the couple came back to Portugal. David worked in the Douro valley until 1992, when he became chief winemaker at Herdade do Esporão in Alentejo. He felt at home in the endless plains that reminded him of Australia. His thirty harvests at Esporão helped establish Alentejo as an important wine region.  

Howard’s Folly is an exuberant place. It occupies a large building that was once a “grémio da lavoura,” an agriculture association. There is art everywhere. Sewing machines turned into miniature tractors bought in the local market, pig sculptures, and much more.

David shows us the winery with its colorful walls painted by a graffiti artist. Freshly picked grapes are arriving to be sorted, crushed, and cooled with dry ice. 

We head to the restaurant. The food, prepared by chef Hugo Bernardo, is Portuguese with a whimsical British twist. The butter has a strong umami taste because it is mixed with Marmite, a salty yeast extract popular in Britain. 

David opens a delightful white wine called Sonhador (dreamer), made from old vines planted in the hills of São Mamede in Portalegre. It is an excellent companion for the codfish and chips that soon arrived at the table. Then we try the Winemaker’s Choice, a velvety red that pairs beautifully with a delicious shitake mushroom salad.

Lunch ends with a glass of 1991 Carcavelos. The wine, produced at Quinta dos Pesos by the Manuel Bulhosa family, was stored in barrels and almost forgotten. David and Howard convinced the family to sell them some barrels so that David could make a blend. The result is spectacular.  

David retired from Esporão and was planning to take it easy. But Ravasqueira convinced him to join them as chief winemaker. And that is lucky for us. We’ll be able to enjoy many more of David’s harvests to come!

Howard’s Folly is located at Rua General Norton de Matos in Estremoz, tel. 268 332 151.

Alentejo’s star wine grape

In the middle of the 19th century, Henri Bouschet crossed Petit Bouschet, a combination of Aramon and Teinturier de Cher conceived by his father, with Grenache. The new varietal, Alicante Bouschet, produces wines with a beautiful dark-red color. 

Over time, the French lost interest in Alicante Bouschet. But the grape found its home in Alentejo, where it flourished and transformed, becoming one the region’s most emblematic varietals. 

Alicante Bouschet was first planted in Alentejo at the end of the 19th century by the Reynolds, a British family that purchased Herdade de Mouchão. It is the star of the wines made by Julio Bastos, an heir to the Reynolds family, at Quinta Dona Maria

The photo shows some beautiful Petit Verdot (on the right) and Alicante Bouschet (on the left) grapes picked at Monte da Ravasqueira. Like Petit Verdot, most red grapes have white pulp. That is why we can make white wine from red grapes (“blanc de noirs”). If we extract the red-grape juice and avoid contact with the skins, the result is a white wine. If we allow for some skin contact, we get a rosé.  

Both the skin and pulp of Alicante Bouschet grapes are red. This type of grape is called tintoreira (dyeing) because it gives color to the wine. But it has much more to offer: enticing aromas, structure, concentration, and aging ability. Open up a bottle of Alentejo wine, and you’ll see!

Tasting Malvasias in Madeira

Prince Henry the Navigator was an early-day venture capitalist. He financed expeditions on small boats called caravels to find new lands, keeping 20 percent of the resulting profits. His first big success came in 1419 when his navigators discovered an island covered by a laurel forest. They named it Madeira, the Portuguese word for wood.  

The prince brought sugar cane from Sicily to Madeira, where it thrived because of the abundance of water and subtropical climate. The island became Europe’s leading sugar producer until the first half of the 16thcentury, when Brazil supplanted it.

Prince Henry was also interested in wine, in part because of its use in liturgic services. The best 15th-century wine was made in Crete from a white varietal called Malvasia Cândida and produced with overripe grapes. 

The Jesuits planted Malvasia Cândida from Crete in a small region of Madeira called Fajã dos Padres. Today, this varietal is rare on the island. It was superseded by Malvasia de São Jorge, a hybrid created in the 1950s by Leão Ferreira de Almeida and generally used to make Madeira Malmsey. 

Manuel Malfeito, our friend who’s an enology professor, brought to Madeira a bottle of fortified wine made in Crete from Malvasia Cândida so we could compare it with Malmsey. “Perhaps this is the first time in 500 years that a wine from the original Malvasia Cândida is drunk on the island of Madeira!” said Manuel with glee. 

How do the two wines compare? The wine from Crete is pleasant and intensely sweet. The Madeira Malmsey has much more depth because of its acidity. This acidity comes in part from Madeira’s volcanic soils, which are rich in iron, manganese, and magnesium. 

It is the combination of sweetness and acidity that makes Madeiras so exquisite. Each glass of Madeira wine is a gift from a prince.

Casa Cadaval

Manuel Malfeito, our friend who teaches enology, invited us to meet a German countess. We traveled to Ribatejo, a region near Lisbon, where Teresa Schonbörn, countess of Schonbörn and Wiesentheid, lives in Casa Cadaval. It is a sprawling estate with 5,000 hectares of agricultural land that has been in Teresa’s family for 11 generations. 

Teresa was born in Germany and studied in Switzerland and England. But her Portuguese mother made sure she spent her vacations in Portugal. The memories of those carefree summers probably played a significant role in her decision to live in Cadaval.

The property was the dowery of the countess of Odemira when she married the 1st duke of Cadaval in 1660. The countess brought a herd of mares from one of her estates in Alentejo, starting a tradition of breeding pure-blood Lusitano horses at Casa Cadaval that continues to thrive. 

Teresa invited us into her Mercedes for a tour of the estate. Her three dogs came along for the ride. Our first stop was a field where the estate’s famous Lusitano horses roam free. Teresa stopped the car, and the horses came to greet her. She addressed each one by name as if they were part of her family. 

A flock of herons followed us on the way to the vineyard that is the estate’s ex-libris. It has 70-year-old trincadeira vines planted by the countess’s parents. When we returned to the car, the dogs sat on our laps, teaching us about the terroir by covering our clothes with the sandy soil.

Next, Teresa drove us to a field covered by a flock of storks. We stopped to admire their elegant dance. The storks rehearse their flight maneuvers for three straight weeks before flying to Africa. There are no signs of modern civilization around us, only majestic pines, oaks, and holms. We could well be in a different century. Archeologists discovered, in these fields, silex from 7,000 years ago. They also found many shells of pre-historic cockles (berbigão) that lived on a river delta.

Cadaval has produced wine since the 17th century. The property is near a village called Muge. Tong in cheek, the countess calls the new wine they make Moujolais Nouveaux. 

We tried a few wines with Tiago Correia, the estate’s enologist. The first was a 2016 Riesling with a flint aroma. The grapes were harvested early in the season, resulting in low alcohol content and enticing acidity. Manuel noticed the influence of the Berlengada, the cold wind from the Berlengas islands.

Next, we sampled a delicate Pinot noir that filled our palate with joy. Finally, we tried a 2017 Trincadeira old vines. It has a vibrant, fresh taste that is enticing. Made only in exceptional years, it bears the hallmarks of Casa Cadaval: understated elegance, aristocratic charm, and remarkable longevity.

Click here for Casa Cadaval’s website.