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.

 

A great beginning

Chip Dry Port

Beginnings are hard. We don’t know how to pen the first sentences of a novel, compose the introduction of a sonata, or craft the opening scene of a play. But we do know an elegant way to start a dinner party. Get a bottle of Taylor Chip Dry port and chill it in the fridge. When the guests arrive, pour everyone a glass of this marvelous white port. Then,  toast to a great beginning.

The magic of a dinner at the Yeatman

Yeatman restaurant

At the end of our dinner at the Yeatman last November, chef Ricardo Costa gave us an envelope sealed with wax stamped with the hotel’s Y symbol. We brought the envelope home where it’s been sitting on our desk. A couple of days ago, we woke up to the sight of grey skies and the sound of howling winds. We reached for the envelope and broke the seal, hoping to summon some of the magic of our Fall evening at the Yeatman. Inside, we found the dinner’s menu.

We recalled that our meal started softly, with a cup of tea made from kombu, an Asian algae. Then, there were oysters with foie gras and an apple gel that accentuated their  briny taste. They harmonized with a glass of bright, sparking wine from Murganheira. The meal continued merrily with a miniature piece, three inventive combinations of algae and tuna.

This preamble was followed by a chicken oyster–a small oval cut with intense flavor. It was delightfully roasted, seasoned with dehydrated chili pepper, served with a mushroom broth and topped with a cheese sauce.

Beautiful slices of lírio, a fish from the Azores, arrived on top of a cylinder bathing is sea foam and decorated with pearls.  The pearls, cylinder and foam were all made of cucumber. The delicate flavors paired perfectly with a glass of Quinta de Baixo Vinhas Velhas, a great white wine made by Dirk Niepoort from old vines in Bairrada.

The white wine refreshed our palate so that we could fully appreciate the next course: a succulent lobster with cauliflower puré and a whimsical bloody Mary made from lobster jus. Then, more of our favorite flavors gathered on the plate: xarem, a polenta-like preparation popular in Algarve, topped with a corn cream, a cockle called berbigão, black-pork prosciutto, egg, and a coriander broth.

A refined bouillabaisse arrived at the table, meticulously prepared with imperador fish accompanied by small, flavorful shrimps from the Portuguese coast and dehydrated algae. What would Marcel Pagnol think if he saw Marseille’s rustic bouillabaisse  prepared with the artistry of a Cartier jeweler?

A glass of a great red from the Dão region produced by Quinta do Perdigão heralded the arrival of the luxurious meat dishes. First, succulent veal with spring onions, Jerusalem artichokes. Then, crispy roasted piglet with spices and tropical fruits.

The meal ended with a delightful persimmon filled with pistachio sorbet topped with a cream of vanilla and saffron. But this was a deceptive ending  because soon another pleasing dessert arrived: blueberries with mascarpone ice-cream and kafir limes. And just when we thought it was time to leave, our waiter arrived with a serving cart full of irresistible chocolates, caramels and nuts. It was an epic dinner!

We finished reading the menu and looked up. The wind had waned and the sky was blue.

The Yeatman is located at Rua do Choupelo, (Santa Marinha), in Vila Nova de Gaia. Click here for the hotel’s website. 

 

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. 

100 years of great ports

C0mposite Poças Wines

Making great port requires exceptional grapes and a deep knowledge of the production process. But most of all, it requires time, lots of time. Time for the nectars to lose the brashness of youth and mellow with age. That is why we cannot produce port wine by ourselves. We need our children and grandchildren to help. And if our great grandchildren can also lend a hand, even better.

The British port-wine families guarantee their longevity by leaving the business to a single son or daughter and compensating their siblings with cash. In contrast, Portuguese families generally sell their estates to divide the proceeds among the heirs. There is why there are almost no major Portuguese port houses left. The one remarkable exception is Poças, a company that celebrated 100 years in August 2018.

In 1918, Manoel Poças Júnior started buying brandy to supply port-wine producers. He was at times paid with barrels of port, so gradually he also became a port-wine merchant. In 1932, one of Manoel’s brandy clients paid a large debt with a wine estate called Quinta das Quartas. Manuel loved the estate which has granite tanks dating back to 1873.  Every week, he made the arduous trip from Oporto to Quinta das Quartas to visit the vineyards.

This passion is shared by his great granddaughter, Maria Manuela Maia, the viticulturist in charge of Quinta das Quartas and of the other two estates acquired by the family, Quinta de Santa Bárbara and Quinta de Vale de Cavalos. Even though today it is much easier to drive from Oporto to the Douro, Maria moved to the Douro valley to be closer to the vineyards.

We met with Maria in Vila Nova de Gaia, at the cellars where barrels full of precious nectars produced by past generations are stored. She shared with us some superb ports: a Vintage from 1997, a Reserva from 2014, and a Vale dos Cavalos from 2015. Our tasting ended with fireworks provided by a remarkable 1967 Tawny, full of freshness and acidity. We filled our glasses with this liquid treasure and made two toasts: to Manoel Poças for the successes of the past and to Maria for the successes of the future.

Click here for the Poças web site. To visit the Poças cellars email visitors@pocas.pt or call 223 203 257.

 

 

 

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.