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.

 

 

A superb vermouth

Soberbo Vermouth

The Summer winds brought a wonderful gift, a vermouth called Soberbo, the Portuguese word for superb. It is made with white port by Poças, a centenarian port-wine house, according to an updated version of a 1930s recipe.

The sweetness of the white port balances the bitterness of the aromatic herbs to create an harmonious vermouth. Enjoying a glass of this nectar is the perfect way to prepare our palates for an elegant dinner.

Click here for the Poças web site.

Provesende, a fairy tale village

ProvesendeIn the first half of the 18th century the production of port wine was in dire straits. Inferior wines were often mixed with sugar, spices and elderberry juice to be sold off as port wine. In 1756, the Marquis of Pombal, the autocratic prime minister of King Dom José, created the Royal Company to regulate the production of port wine in order to protect its authenticity.

Pombal sent officials to define the boundaries of the Douro region and classify all its vineyards, creating one of the world’s oldest demarcated wine regions. Vineyards classified as “vinho de ramo” could only produce wine for domestic consumption. Vineyards classified as “vinho de feitoria” could export their wine. These classifications had an enormous impact on property values.

The officials charged with classifying the vineyards and regulating the port-wine trade settled in a small village called Provesende. Over the following decades, the village experienced a construction boom. Large land owners built imposing manor houses so they could spend time in Provesende and rub shoulders with government officials.

The memories of the parties hosted in these mansions have faded in time. What we have left is a charming village that belongs in a fairy tale.

The elegant intensity of Dona Matilde’s wines

Quinta D. Matilde Composit

It was an unexpected honor–to spend a lazy afternoon with Manuel Ângelo Barros, an icon of the Douro valley. We met in the terrace of his home, sheltered from the hot sun, cooled by a timid breeze. Below, the waters of the Douro river tried to stand still so they could eavesdrop on our conversation.

The landscape reminded us that producing Douro wines is an extraordinary feat. Generations of men and women toiled in freezing Winters and scorching Summers to build the terraces that support the vines and prevent the soil from washing into the river.

Manuel’s family owned two legendary port-wine houses: Barros, the family brand, and Kopke, the oldest port-wine house, established in 1638. They also owned a portfolio of vineyards amassed over the last century. The third Barros generation decided to sell the brands and the vineyards. But once the sale closed, Manuel missed the magic of having land that turns water into wine. He managed to buy back one of the Barros properties in 2006, Quinta Dona Matilde, famous for its high-quality grapes, produced in schist soils near the river. Originally purchased by his grandfather in 1927 and named after his grandmother, the quinta is a place where Manuel spent much of his youth.

The table was set with “bola de carne,” a traditional meat pie, because Dona Matilde produces gastronomic wines that are best enjoyed with some food. Most wine makers like to explain the enological properties that make their wines distinct. Instead, Manuel filled our glasses in silence, letting the wines speak for themselves. Whenever we asked a question, he paused to reflect. Then he answered in a gracious, literary Portuguese, choosing his words with the same care he devotes to making wine.

Manuel is proud of the team he assembled at Dona Matilde. His younger son, Filipe Barros, plays a key role as marketing director. The viticulturist José Carlos Oliveira takes care of the quinta’s 28 hectares, which include 60-year-old vines that produce wines with great complexity and character. Enologist João Pissara strives to use production methods that highlight the outstanding qualities of the Dona Matilda grapes. To make the reserve red wine, he favors the traditional method of treading the grapes by foot in the quinta’s old granite tanks.

We tried two whites and two reds. Even though the estate has low altitude and a sunny exposure, the wines are balanced with great freshness and acidity. Harvesting the grapes early is key to producing these wonderful results.

Each Dona Matilda wine has a distinct voice. But they all have the same quiet intensity and aristocratic elegance that make Manuel such a pleasure to be with.

Click here for Dona Matilda’s web site.

 

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. 

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.