The generosity of cork oaks

Cork Trees Ravasqueira

Cork oaks are generous trees. They provide homes to the birds that nest on their branches and nourishment to the black pigs that feed on their acorns. The bark of the oak tree is manually stripped to produce cork, a natural material known since ancient times for its versatility. Pliny the Elder writes in his Natural History that the bark can be used to make anchors, drag-ropes, and shoe soles. The bows and keels of the ships used by Portuguese navigators were made of cork.

After each stripping, the oak bark grows back. The first stripping generally occurs when the tree is 25-year old. Subsequent strippings follow a nine-year cycle. Trees are marked with a number that indicates the time of the last stripping. It takes 43 years for the bark to be thick enough to produce wine corks. So, most wine corks come from oaks that are much older than the wine they protect.

Cork oaks live for roughly two centuries. Their roots make them resilient to winds and droughts so they can grace the landscape of Portugal with their generosity and beauty.

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.

A dinner in grape country

País das Uvas

Paulo Laureano recommended that we try O País das Uvas for dinner. “Sopa de Cardo (thistle soup) is one of their specialties,” he said.

The name of the restaurant, which means The Grape Country, is a literary reference. It is the title of a book by Fialho de Almeida, a writer born in 1857 in Vila De Frades, the Vidigueira village where the restaurant is located.

The restaurant is full of ancient amphoras inscribed with messages left by patrons praising the food and the hospitality. António Honrado told us that this place has been a tavern for more than a century. He bought it 17 years ago with his wife Jacinta to turn it into a restaurant.

In the early days, Jacinta’s mother was in charge of the cooking. But she was advanced in age and the work was hard. One day, Jacinta told her mother that they had hired a new cook who had come during the night to prepare the most popular dishes on the menu. Jacinta’s mother worried that hiring a new chef would worsen the quality of the food. But upon trying the different dishes she exclaimed: “They taste exactly like my cooking! Who prepared them?” “I did,” confessed Jacinta. Since that day, Jacinta has been the chef at O País das Uvas.

We ordered the famous Thistle Soup and Cozido de Grão, a traditional chickpea stew made with cabbage, carrots, potatoes, meats, and sausages. Both dishes have bold, satisfying flavors that made our taste buds fall in love with the simple ways of Alentejo.

After dinner, António and Jacinta invited us to see their discovery. When they did some construction on the restaurant, they uncovered a cellar that is many centuries old. It has a well-preserved clay-tile floor, graceful arches and a water well. They restored the cellar and devoted it to producing amphorae wine with the help of Paulo Laureano.

We bid farewell to António and Jacinta, promising to return. Then we went out into the warm Summer night, enchanted by the honesty of the food and the warmth of the people of Alentejo.

O País das Uvas is located at Rua General Humberto Delgado, nº19, Vila De Frades, Alentejo, tel. 284 441 023.

Paulo Laureano

Paulo Lauriano

Now we know how it feels to go from purgatory to heaven. After many hours of delays in Newark, we arrived in Lisbon and drove to Vidigueira to meet with Paulo Laureano, a famous Portuguese enologist. The encounter was five years in the making because he is a busy man and our schedules never intersected.

Paul greeted us at the door of his winery with the easy smile of a man who has found his place in the world. Many harvests ago he graduated in enology in Évora. After an internship in Australia, he was invited to teach at the university. But soon he became involved with so many wineries that he left academia to practice enology full time. He bottled the first wines under his name in 1999. Since then, he has produced a steady stream of remarkable nectars.

Our visit started with a tour of the winery. “There is no technology here,” he says proudly. “Our work is all done in the vineyards. We use old vines and we harvest the grapes by hand, that is our secret.”

Paulo is passionate about the terroir of Vidigueira. He explains to us how the hard schist soils give minerality and freshness to the wines. How the winds travel from the sea to Vidigueira to bring humidity. How the slopes of the terrain create different exposures to the sun. How the varietals change when planted in this soil. And how the indigenous varietal Tinta Grossa creates wines like no others.

Since wines cannot be understood without drinking them, Paulo took us to a tasting room that overlooks the vineyards. We started with a white wine produced from old vines made from Antão Vaz, Arinto and Fernão Pires. We would have been happy continuing drinking it, but there were more wines to taste.

Paulo showed us two wonderful wines he makes for the U.S. market. When his long-time U.S. distributor visited with his little daughter, Ema, the girl asked whether she could have her own vineyard. Remembering this endearing moment, Paulo called the white and red blends Ema’s vineyard.

Next. our glasses filled with an Old Vines Private Selection white. It showcases the brilliance of the Antão Vaz from Vidigueira. “Antão Vaz can be heavy and boring but here in Vidigueira it is always interesting and elegant,” says Paulo.

It is time for two more reds. The Old Vines Private Selection is smooth and refined, an harmonious combination of Aragonês, Trincadeira, Alicante Bouchet and Touriga Nacional.  Our tasting ended with fireworks: we tried one of the 5,000 bottles of Tinta Grossa produced in 2015. It is a remarkable wine full of depth and character.

Wherever you are, if you see a bottle of Paulo Laureano’s wine grab it without hesitation. And then you too can have a taste of these heavenly wines made in the unique terroir of Vidigueira.

Paulo Laureano’s winery is located in Monte Novo da Lisboa, Vidigueira, tel. 284-437-060.

 

 

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.