A perfect blend in Alentejo

Composit Monte da Ravasqueira- 2Sometimes you have to look far to find what you have near. The enologist Pedro Pereira Gonçalves left his homeland in search of a new world, first in Australia and then in Chile. But he found his calling back in Portugal at Monte da Ravasqueira, in the heart of Alentejo.

The estate was purchased by José Manuel de Mello, a successful entrepreneur, in 1943. He turned the 3,000 hectares into a family retreat where he bred Lusitano horses and planted vines, cork and olive trees.

What attracted Pedro to the property, still owned by the Mello family, are its unique virtues. Twelve dams help create a micro climate with cooler temperatures.  And even though the Atlantic Ocean is 120 km away, it cools the nights because there are no mountains in its way. While most of Alentejo is flat, Ravasqueira has slopes with different sun exposures that produce diversity in sugar and acid levels.

Pedro uses high-resolution aerial photographs to study each individual vine so that grapes can be combined into ideal blends. The result is wines that are truly made in the vineyard.

We tried some great examples. An enticing 2015 dry premium rosé with delicate fruit flavors and rich minerality. A 2014 premium white, aged in contact with the lees, that combines freshness with complexity. An elegant 2014 red called Vinha das Romãs, made from vines planted where an ancient pomegranate orchard once grew. The pomegranate roots are still there, lending the wine unique flavors and aromas.

Our wine tasting was followed by an appetizing lunch during which the Ravasqueira wines proved their ability to pair perfectly with food. The feast started with a gazpacho and continued with two traditional main courses: codfish with cornbread and roasted goatling.  The finale was a “mille feuilles” layered with artisanal jams made on the property, accompanied by exuberant port-style fortified wines.

Monte da Ravasqueira is a perfect blend of passion and technique, of tradition and modernity. It is a place where the Atlantic breezes join forces with the Alentejo sun to create exquisite wines.

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 gift of friendship

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We have a friend who’s always there for us when we need wise advice, a word of encouragement or someone to intercede for us. As if these prodigious gifts were not enough, every time he visits us, he brings wonderful wines. His latest present was a bottle of Syrah 24.

The wine is produced by José Bento dos Santos in a magical 17th century farm near Lisbon called Quinta do Monte d’Oiro (golden hill farm). The wine is a result of the friendship between Bento dos Santos and famed Rhone Valley producer Michel Chapoutier.

Chapoutier offered Bento dos Santos an extraordinary gift: a large collection of cuttings from Chapoutier’s old Syrah vines in Hermitage. These precious vines were planted in parcel 24 at Quinta do Monte d’Oiro.

In an estate that produces noble wines with meticulous care, the Syrah made with the fruit from parcel 24 is treated like royalty. And it shows. Syrah 24 is a graceful, elegant wine, perfect to celebrate the gift friendship.

Click here for the Quinta do Monte d’Oiro website.

In vino veritas

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In Roman times, wine making was a simple affair. The grapes were crushed and stored in large clay amphoras where the fermentation occurred naturally. The skins, seeds, and stems were stirred. Then, the pomace fell to the bottom of the amphora, acting as a filter so that the wine, extracted through a spigot, ran clear.

Wine makers in Alentejo are using old amphoras, too large to be made in modern ovens, to revive these ancient ways of making wine.

We’ve been looking forward to trying these wines. After our recent visit to Esporão, we finally got our chance—we brought home a bottle of their amphora-made Moreto wine.

Drinking it was a grand occasion. After all, this was the kind of wine with which Caesar celebrated the conquest of Gaul, the wines with which Mark Anthony wooed Cleopatra. We closed our eyes and sipped the precious liquid. It tasted pure and clean. Suddenly, the Romans adage ‘in vino veritas,’ in wine truth, had a new meaning.

Gold from Bombarral

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“In Bombarral, each generation produces brandy for the next,” explained Ana Reis, one of the heirs of Quinta do Sanguinhal, a wine estate in Bombarral that dates back to 1871. We were standing in a room full of contraptions that were used to distill brandy a century ago. After distillation, the precious liquid sleeps for decades in oak barrels before it emerges with a beautiful orange color and a bouquet of alluring aromas.

The Bombarral region has ideal conditions to produce fine brandies. Everyone there seems to have an old casket of brandy at home to share with friends on special occasions.

If you don’t have friends in Bombarral, you can buy the wonderful brandy made by Ana Reis’ family at Quinta das Cerejeiras. It has a smooth taste, full of depth and wisdom. We love drinking it in the Winter, imagining the sunshine of the ancient Summer that produced this liquid gold.

Click here for information about the wines and brandies produced at Quinta do Sanguinhal and Quinta das Cerejeiras.

Tasting moscatel in Setúbal

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No one knows for sure how moscatel, a white grape from Egypt, arrived in the Setúbal peninsula, near Lisbon. What we know is that moscatel took to the region, producing wines that are perfect to start or end a meal. Over the years, the grape mutated into a new varietal—purple moscatel—that only exists in Setúbal. It is sweeter and more aromatic than its white cousin.

Moscatel wines are produced in the same way as port wine. The grapes are fermented for 4 or 5 days. The fermentation is then arrested before the yeast turns all the sugar into alcohol by adding “aguardente vínica” (brandy) to kill the yeast. The result is a fortified wine that is sweet and has 17 to 18 degrees of alcohol.

A great way to learn about moscatel is to visit José Maria da Fonseca’s winery in Azeitão. Founded in 1834 by a mathematician turned wine maker, it is one of the oldest wine companies in Portugal.

After one of his moscatel wines won a prestigious prize in Paris in 1855, Fonseca decided to export his wines to Brazil. A ship loaded with barrels of moscatel crossed the Atlantic. But the wine did not sell in Brazil and the ship returned with most of its original cargo. The sea voyage did wonders for the wine: in nine months the wine seemed to have aged 15 years, gaining complexity and depth. This moscatel, known as “torna viagem” (round trip), continues to be produced today with barrels carried by Sagres, a beautiful sailboat owned by the Portuguese navy.

José Maria da Fonseca ’s moscatel cellar contains bottles from every vintage since 1880 except for 1936-37 and 1939-40 when production was disrupted by the Spanish civil war and the Second World War, respectively.

It is great fun to do a blind tasting of moscatel wines at José Maria da Fonseca’s. Everybody has preconceptions about which wine will be their favorite. Some are sure they will favor the rarer purple moscatel or the older vintages. Others think that they will prefer the newer wines. Surprises abound. You will learn a lot about moscatel and a little about yourself.

Click here for information about visits to José Maria da Fonseca’s winery.

 

Wine heritage at Sanguinhal

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The Quinta das Cerejeiras Reserva is a smooth, beguiling red wine that has enlivened many of our dinner parties. So, it was with great anticipation that we drove to Bombarral, 70 km north of Lisbon, to meet the producer of this precious nectar.

We were received by Ana Reis. She is the great-granddaughter of a wine legend: Abel Pereira da Fonseca who, early in the 20th century, owned more than 100 taverns in Lisbon. In 1926, Pereira da Fonseca bought three estates in Bombarral (Sanguinhal, Cerejeiras and São Francisco) to venture into wine production. Almost a century later, these “quintas” remain in his family, producing wines that every year earn more accolades and awards.

Bombarral is the Napa valley of Portugal, a region near the ocean with exceptional conditions for wine production. The soils have a high clay content and the Montejunto mountain joins forces with the Atlantic breezes to create a microclimate with mild summers and temperate winters.

We started our tour in the shade of an old cork tree to learn about the production of cork in Portugal. Then, we stepped into the wine cellar. The temperature was a few degrees lower and the air was perfumed with voluptuous aromas. The ancient oak barrels are full of precious brandies and fortified wines. Produced decades ago, they wait in the dark for the perfect moment to be brought to light. “This is barrel #6, we’ll later try some of its content,” promised Ana with a twinkle in her eyes.

Next, we visited the distillery, the place where the magical “aguardente” (fire water) was once produced. Grapes were crushed and distilled to make brandy (“aguardente vínica”). The stems and remnants from brandy production were then distilled to make “aguardente bagaceira,” which is what Italians call grappa. Nothing was wasted: the leftovers from this second distilling were used to fertilize the land.

We toured the vineyards near the house which are planted with muscatel grapes. There is a rose bush in every row. Roses are very sensitive to diseases like mildew, so they give advanced warning of any problems that might affect the grapes.

The quinta is full of memories of times gone by: ancient mulberry trees whose leaves were once used to make silk, a romantic 19th-century garden, old vines with varietals like carignan, brought by French peasants during the Napoleonic invasions.

Our final stop was the “adega,” the place where the wines from the three quintas were produced until 1960. It has large stone tanks and wooden presses built in 1871. We sat at a table, sampling Portuguese cheeses and sausages while listening to Ana speak with eloquence and passion about the secrets of wine making.

There was a treasure trove of wines for us to try. The feast started with Sottal, a flirtatious, light aromatic wine made with muscatel grapes. Next, we tried the Cerejeira Seleccionado Rosé, a perfect Summer companion, fruity, full bodied with a gorgeous color. Things got serious with the 1998 Quinta do Sanguinhal DOC, a wine of great depth and charm. We then fell in love with the white Quinta da Cerejeira Reserva. After a 40-year hiatus, this wine, made with chardonnay and aged in oak, was brought back into production two years ago. Its smooth, elegant flavors left our palates in a state of bliss.

After trying several other interesting wines, we tasted the content of barrel #6, a Quinta de São Francisco licoroso. It is a sweet, fortified wine with great complexity, the perfect ending to a perfect wine tasting.

The great poet Fernando Pessoa made a living as a translator. In the middle of the afternoon he would often take a break and tell his workmates he was going to see Abel. He then walked to one of Abel Pereira da Fonseca’s taverns to enjoy a glass of wine.

The wines from Sanguinhal, Cerejeiras and São Francisco inspire conversation, friendship and, if you’re lucky, immortal poetry.

Click here for information on how to book a visit or a wine tasting at Quinta do Sanguinhal. 

 

 

Elegant food at L’and

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We arrived at L’and blinded by the midday Alentejo sun. It felt great stepping into the cool shade offered by this elegant hotel surrounded by vineyards.

Chef Miguel Laffan came to meet us. We asked him how he felt relocating from Cascais, a cosmopolitan beach near Lisbon, to this secluded place in the interior of Alentejo. “I came to focus on food,” he told us. “Here there are no distractions. But it took two or three years for the people of Alentejo to trust and accept me. Now, they say that I am a chef from Alentejo!”

The meal began with a small round cheese made from sheep milk in nearby Arraiolos. It was Laffan’s way of saying that this simple cheese is as good as the high cuisine on the menu. No wonder the locals adopted him as one of their own.

A beautiful bread box offered us the choice between old and new traditions: Alentejo bread was paired with new breads made from local products—carob, seeds, and olives.

Next, came a set of delightful appetizers: a glass of tomato, pepper and strawberry gazpacho, a codfish “rissol” covered with bread crumbs soaked in cuttle fish ink, ceviche with oyster and turbot accompanied by a banana cream, and a croquette made with alheira and bergamot orange.

Laffan came back to our table and we talked about his approach to cooking. “I like to use local ingredients, but I am not a fundamentalist. What is important to me is to cook food that I enjoy eating. I admire the lightness of Asian cooking but I do not do fusion. Instead, I let that lightness inspire me to create something different here in Alentejo.”

We had scallops “Brás” style, an adaptation of the traditional codfish Brás-style recipe and Alentejo pork loin cooked slowly and served over a bed of cauliflower, peas and asparagus. Both were masterpieces of taste, aroma, texture, and presentation.

The desserts were a manga panna cotta beautifully decorated with beet flowers and fresh raspberries combined with raspberry mousse, merengue, and foam. Coffee came with wine gelatins and irresistible chocolates.

The following day, we saw in the Vila Viçosa ducal palace the menus of the banquets offered by king Dom Carlos and queen Dona Amélia. They are handwritten in French by the queen and illustrated with watercolors by the king. Portuguese recipes share the table with many preparations from France and elsewhere. These foreign recipes were probably viewed as more elegant than the rustic food of Portugal.

Today the royal couple would not need to look across borders for culinary elegance and refinement. They could find it at L’and in the cuisine of Miguel Laffan.

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