Tasting old white wines with Manuel Malfeito

“White grapes come from a rare mutation of red grapes that probably occurred in Egypt in the 3rd millennium BC. Because of their rarity and the intense aromas of varietals like Muscat and Malvasia, white wines quickly gained the preference of rulers and aristocrats. In ancient times, old white wines were particularly prized. If a white wine survived the passage of time and was still drinkable, it was a great wine,” said Manuel Malfeito, a professor of enology, as a way of introduction. 

Manuel insists on always tasting blind. “Tasting wine is tricky because our brain is an analogy machine, it starts asking: where did I try a wine like this one? And that is when we get in trouble. It is best to taste blind so we have no preconceptions.”

After dispensing these instructions, Manuel retreated to fill our glasses in the kitchen, so we had no chance of getting a glimpse of the bottles that guarded the precious nectars about to be served. He brought the glasses to the table and our sensorial work began. 

The first wine had a pale-yellow color and a seductive citrus flavor. “Is it a high-altitude wine from the Douro region?” one of the friends asked. Manuel revealed nothing. Later, we learned that this wine was relatively young: it was a 2018 Serenada produced by Jacinta Sobral in Alentejo. It has a mature taste because it staged in the bottle for 9 months, 15 meters deep in the ocean near Sines. After the identity of the wine was revealed, we tasted it again and detected salty notes. Our brain is easily influenced by the information we feed it!

The second wine had a bright, luminous yellow color. Its aroma was discreet, almost imperceptible. But its taste was sumptuous, reminding us that wines are made to be drunk, not to be described. Yes, we can talk about the wine’s minerality and flint stone aroma. But words pale in comparison with the liquid radiance of this wine. It turned out to be everybody’s favorite. Later, we learned that this crowd-pleaser was a 2008 Quinta de Chocapalha magnum made by Sandra Tavares da Silva in her family estate near Lisbon. 

The third wine was an elegant mineral wine that has great acidity and persistence in the mouth. This joyous nectar turned out to be the 2015 D. Graça produced by Manuel Malfeito and Virgilio Loureiro in the Douro valley. 

The fourth wine tasted like an old sherry or Madeira; it was dry and evolved. It turned out to be a wine produced by Mário Sérgio at Quinta das Bageiras in 1989!  

The fifth wine was a vivacious old wine with aromas of dried fruit and beeswax. It was dried and had a pleasant acidity. Where was it made? We would never guess. It was a 1996 Tapada dos Coelheiros, a famous estate in Alentejo, a warm region that is not expected to produce this type of wine.

The tasting ended with another outstanding wine: a 1995 Poço dos Lobos made from Arinto, a grape that is famous for producing wines that age well. This wine was no exception. It has a long, seductive finish and a bright freshness with notes of orange peel.

What did we learn from another master class with Manuel Malfeito? That we should taste wines without preconceptions in order to better discover and appreciate their qualities. And that the occasion makes the wine. The best wines are always those we share with friends! 

An oyster feast

After his masterclass on olive oil, Edgardo Pacheco left behind some tasting glasses. When we asked him for the easiest way to return them, he answered with an invitation: “Do you want to join me for an oyster tasting?” How could we say no?

We met at JNcQuoi, an elegant restaurant in Lisbon’s Avenida da Liberdade. Edgardo introduced us to Rui Moreira, the president of the Portuguese aquaculture association, and two oyster producers, Hugo Castillo from Aquanostra and Pedro Ferreira from Exporsado. They are part of a small group of entrepreneurs who are passionate about oysters. Their mission is to take advantage of Portugal’s unique maritime terroir to produce exquisite oysters. Most of their production is exported to France, but their oysters are increasingly popular in Portuguese bars and restaurants.

We learned that Portugal has an oyster variety called Gryphoea Angulate that, by happenstance, became popular in France. In 1868, a French ship called the Morlaisien departed from Setúbal loaded with Portuguese oysters. The ship was caught in a storm and sought refuge in Gironde, a port in Bordeaux. By the time the storm cleared, the oysters had spoiled and were thrown overboard. Some of the oysters were still alive and propagated in French waters. When, in the 1920s, an epidemic decimated the oyster variety cultivated in France (Ostrea Edu­lis), local oyster farmers and merchants embraced the Portuguese oysters. Known as “les Portugaises,” they were both produced in France and imported from Portugal. Unfortunately, in the 1970s, an epidemic infection combined with environmental pressures increased the mortality rate of the Gryphoea Angulate. For this reason, most Portuguese producers currently grow an oyster variety from Japan called Crassostrea Giga.

The oysters consumed in restaurants around the world come from oyster farms. Wild oysters are generally scrawny and insipid. The French call them “rabbit ears” because of their large elongated shells. 

Oysters are raised in ocean water inside bags. They live on the microscopic algae in seawater, so no feeding is required. Still, oyster farming is a lot of work. Just like champagne bottles undergoing remuage, oyster bags need to be turned daily. This turning creates small fractures in the edges of the shells that result in rounder shells. It also produces better-tasting oysters, perhaps because the mollusk gets fatter when it does not grow a large shell. 

A waiter interrupted our conversation by announcing the arrival of two large trays of oysters seemingly floating on crushed ice. “We will first taste the oysters with water,” instructed Edgardo, “and then pair them with a couple of wines.” 

We picked up one of the shells and held it for a moment to admire its sculptural beauty. Then, we tasted the delicate mollusk. It has the exhilarating taste of the sea! But, unlike sea water, oysters sate our appetite leaving us deeply satisfied.

There were oysters from seven producers and four regions: Aveiro (António Sá and Ilha dos Puxadoiros), Sado (Aquanostra and Exporsado), Alvor (Alvostral and Ostraselect), and Ria Formosa (Francisco Frazão).

These oysters vary in fatness, texture, iodine content, sweetness, and saltiness. Larger oysters are sweeter because they have a bigger muscle, which is the sweetest part of the mollusk.  Some oysters have more iodine than others because of differences in the terroir where they are raised.

Jonathan Swift famously wrote that “It was a brave man who first ate an oyster.” It was also a desperate man. Oysters are notoriously difficult to open. Hugo Castillo gave us small knives that made us feel like pirates and taught us how to open an oyster without using a power drill. It does get easier with practice. 

Once our oyster was open, Hugo told us to clean it, discarding the water that is mixed with debris. Then, we cut the nerve and flip the mollusk to improve its appearance on the shell. A couple of minutes later, the oyster magically replenishes the shell with water. It can do this trick up to seven times, which is one of the reasons why oysters survive for about ten days in a cold environment outside the ocean. 

José de Brito, a Portuguese oyster merchant, discussed the best way to eat oysters in his 1957 book “Oysters, Culinary and Health” (As Ostras na Saúde e na Cozinha). His advice is as relevant today as when it was written: “Oysters are best eaten raw so that their nutrients and delicate seafood taste remains intact. A little lemon juice, a dash of pepper, and, for those who like it, a little butter and we have a delicious dish. Accompanied by a cold, dry white wine, it is a culinary treat that can satisfy even the most refined palates.” 

But which white wine should we choose? Luckily, Diogo Yebra was there to help us. Diogo is the sommelier at JNcQUOI, as well as the producer of some interesting garage wines called Vinhos à Parte. Diogo explained that, with their salty, strong umami taste, oysters overpower most wines. It is difficult to find a harmonious marriage where neither the wine nor the oysters are dominant in the palate. Champagne and chardonnay are standard choices. 

Instead of a chardonnay, Diogo served Druida, a white wine made in the Dão region with a local varietal called encruzado. Produced with grapes grown in granite soils, it has a minerality and acidity that complement the flavors of the oysters. It was an inspired choice. 

Next, we tried Sílica, a sparkling blanc de noir from Bairrada made with baga, a red varietal.  It is full of freshness, with citrus aromas that accentuate the taste of the oysters and cleanse the palate. Another terrific choice. 

We learned many lessons from this oyster tasting orchestrated by Edgardo. But, the most important takeaway is that Portugal is a paradise for oyster lovers. The quality of the oysters is exceptional and the price is modest. Pair them with a suitable white Portuguese wine and you have a ready-made culinary feast!

Edgardo Pacheco wrote some great articles about oysters in the August 28, 2021 edition of Fugas, a magazine about food, wine, and travel published as part of Público, a daily newspaper. If you read Portuguese, click here to access the articles.  

The natural wines of Herdade do Cebolal

Seven years ago, we booked a table at Boi-Cavalo in Lisbon and chef Hugo Brito told us that dinner included a pairing with wines from a great family winery in Alentejo called Herdade do Cebolal. The wonderful food and wine turned the dinner into a party in which everybody talked to each other as if we were longtime friends.

We experienced the same festive feeling during a memorable lunch at the Lamelas restaurant in Porto Côvo. The spectacular food prepared by chef Ana Moura was accompanied by wines from Herdade do Cebolal. What is it about these wines that hang out with chefs who know how to turn meals into celebrations?  

Ana told us that Herdade de Cebolal is a stone’s throw from the restaurant, so we called the winery to see whether we could go by for a visit. We were received by enologist Luis Mota Capitão. The winery has been in his family since 1880. His great-grandfather made wines and vinegars to sell to doctors for medicinal use. 

Luís also wants his wines to be good for us. He avoids as much as possible using chemicals in wine production. And he is passionate about creating an ecosystem that is healthy and sustainable. The 20 hectares of vineyards are surrounded by 65 hectares of forest planted with cork and holm oaks, carob and lime trees, and many other species. He uses algae, including sargassum harvested in Porto Côvo, to fertilize the land because he believes it produces superior grapes. Luís encourages animals to roam the farm. There many bees, as well as chicken, hares, and sheep. Even foxes, lynxes, wild boars, and saca-rabos (Egyptian mongese), which are often considered a nuisance in other farms, are welcome at Herdade de Cebolal. “They all have a role to play and this land belongs to them too,” says Luís. Later, as we were leaving the herdade, we saw a large wild boar crossing the road. 

Luís’ grandfather used to age the wines he served at Christmas time inside a water well. Inspired by this experience, Luís started aging wine in bottles immersed in sea water. The wines age faster and something magical happens, perhaps because of higher pressure, cooler temperatures, and less oxygen. 

The herdade has many different types of soils and sun exposures. Luís says that the best way to illustrate this diversity is to go to the cellar and try some wines from the barrels. We first sampled a white from a vineyard planted in sal gema (rock salt) soil. It has great persistence and acidity. Then, we tried a complex white from “vinha do Rossio,” a vineyard planted by Luis’ great-grandfather 82 years ago. His grandfather added to the vineyard resulting in a mixture of 13 varietals, include some rare species like Tamarez and Tália. Next, we tasted an elegant blend of Arintos that is bright and fresh.

We moved from the cellar to a terrace overlooking the vineyards to try two fascinating reds: a clarete (claret) and a palhete. The clarete is made from Castelão, a grape popular in the Setúbal region. The palhete is made from a mixture of white (Antão Vaz) and red (Aragonês) grapes. These are highly enjoyable wines that can quench the thirst on a hot summer day. In old times, when drinking water was unsafe because of possible contamination with pathogenic bacteria, these were the wines preferred by farmers. Their alcohol content is relatively low (12.5 for clarete and 10.5 for palhete) but high enough to kill any pathogens.

Luís brought us some food to pair with the next two wines: a plate with wonderful sausages made in Alentejo from black pork, small cups of stewed chicken gizzards, an assortment of cheeses, and a delicious honey made from esteva (rock rose) and tojo (gorse). 

A 2017 white made from Fernão Pires and Arinto paired perfectly with the cheeses. Then came the grand finale: a red called Caios, which was the name of Luis’ great-great-grandfather. It is produced only in exceptional years and it includes grapes from vines planted by different generations: Alicante Bouchet planted by Luís, Petit Verdot planted by his father and grandfather, and old vines brought from Saint-Émilion by his great-grandfather.

The sun had long retired and the Alentejo stars shined brightly on the vineyards. Luis kept talking with revolutionary zeal about the legacy he wants to leave to future generations: a way of producing wine that is good for us and good for the earth.

Herdade de Cebolal is located at Vale das Éguas. Click here for their website (in Portuguese).

Vitor Claro’s handcrafted wines

Sometimes, we dream of having lunch at chef Vitor Claro’s restaurant in Paço de Arcos, near Lisbon. It is a place with a generous view of the ocean where the chef cooks with a lightness that surprises and delights. The menu offers codfish brandade with fresh tomatoes, partridge soup with foie gras, cauliflower with parmesan, sole in chickpea broth, shrimp ravioli with mushrooms, fried dough with chickpea puree, and much more.

Then, we wake up and remember that the restaurant is closed. A feeling of disappointment is followed by the joyful realization that Vitor Claro is now a wine maker and we have some of his bottles in our cellar!

Vitor was not a wine aficionado before meeting Dirk Niepoort, the legendary producer from the Douro Valley. The first time Vitor went for dinner at Dirk’s house, he found a glass of 1986 Chateaux Margaux waiting for him. This glass of wine opened the door to a new life. 

In 2010, while working in Alentejo, Victor fell in love with the wines from Portalegre. He managed to rent an old vineyard in this region to make wine with a friend who is an enologist. But one month before the harvest, his friend abandoned the project. Vitor called Dirk Niepoort to ask for help. Dirk told him “this is the best that could have happened to you.” Then, like a Zen master, Dirk said: “let the grapes do the work.” Vitor harvested the grapes, put them in barrels, crushed them gently and waited. 

Two years later, he bottled the wine under the label Dominó. It was such a success that Vitor decided to close the restaurant to devote himself full time to wine making. He convinced his wife Rita to leave her architecture practice to work with him. The couple embraced a simple life style, sharing the toil and joy of winemaking. They do all the work themselves with the help of some seasonal workers. 

Today, Vitor’s wines are handcrafted using grapes from old vines rented in different parts of Portugal from Beira Interior to Carcavelos. Total production is only 20,000 bottles per year. When the wine does not appeal to Vitor’s refined senses, he does not bottle it. 

The lightness that Victor pursued in his cooking became the hallmark of his wines. They have bright flavors that interest the palate but never over power it. Instead, they surprise and delight.

Quinta de Ventozelo

There is a new jewel in the Douro valley called Quinta de Ventozelo. The setting is not new, the estate has produced wine since the beginning of the 16th century. But there are 29 new gems–luxurious rooms with magnificent vistas located in various houses throughout the quinta. Some houses have old roofs built with the same schist used to brace the terraces that hold the vines. Others are built out of giant balloons that once stored 80,000 liters of port wine. 

The sprawling estate is the perfect place to create wonderful memories. Of the rolling hills descending towards the river to bade in its green waters. Of the breeze caressing the silvery leaves of the olive trees. Of the restful silence punctuated only by the sounds of nature. Of the joy of sitting outdoors at sunset savoring a glass of wine in the company of friends. 

You can drive to the quinta, but it is much more spectacular to take the boat from Pinhão and arrive at the dock by the river. Arriving is the easy part. Leaving is hard to do. 

Quinta de Ventozelo is located in Ervedosa do Douro, S. João da Pesqueira. Click here for the quinta’s website.

The incomparable wines from Colares

One of the coolest places you can find during the Portuguese Summer is the cellar of the wine cooperative of Colares, a bucolic town near Sintra. It is a place where large barrels fashioned out of exotic woods from Brazil rest, protected by thick walls that keep the temperature cool.  

The wines these barrels store are cool in attitude. They come from a unique “terroir” near the ocean where two varietals, Malvasia and Ramisco, grow on sandy soils. The roots of the vines have to stretch deep into the sand to find the moisture necessary to stay alive. 

All this toil paid off in the 19th century when phylloxera decimated European vines. Protected by sand, the vines of Colares escaped the bug’s voracity. 

These hard-working vines produce wines with exuberant tannins that need to be tamed. The reds age in barrels for almost a decade before bottling. Once bottled, both reds and whites continue to age beautifully, enjoying remarkable longevity.

Francisco Fezas, the resident enologist, told us that Adega Regional de Colares is the oldest wine cooperative in Portugal. The local wine makers got together in 1931 to buy the 19th-century cellar owned by a famous wine merchant, José Maria da Fonseca. In 1938, the government gave the cooperative the monopoly of production in order to guarantee the quality of the wine produced in Colares. The cooperative sold the wine to different distributors who bottled it under brands like Chitas, Adega Beira Mar and Viúva Gomes

In the 1960s, Colares had more than one million hectares of vines that produced more than one million liters of wine. Then, the vines were attacked by a foe more formidable than the phylloxera: urban sprawl. Many farmers succumbed to the temptation of selling their land to property developers who wanted to build houses near the ocean. As a result, the cultivation area dwindled to a paltry 23 hectares which produces a mere 18 thousand bottles, making Colares one of the world’s rarest historical wines. 

Francisco’s first harvest in Colares was in 1999, at a time when the cooperative was struggling financially and the future looked dim. Since then, there has been a remarkable renewal that preserves the future of the incomparable wines from Colares.

Adega Regional de Colares is located at Alameda Coronel Linhares de Lima, nº 32 in Colares, tel. 219 291 210, email geral@arcolares.com.. Click here for the adega’s website.

Was Christopher Columbus born in Cuba, Alentejo?

Adega Monte Pedral

Last Summer, we visited Cuba, a small town in Alentejo. We were attracted by the legend that this hamlet of white-washed houses is the true birth place of Christopher Columbus. The navigator called Cuba the large Caribbean island he discovered in 1492. Why did he choose such an unusual name? Was it to honor his hometown?

We asked a local where to go for lunch. He smiled and pointed to a building on the other side of the road. A large sign read “Adega da Casa de Monte Pedral.”

As soon as we entered the restaurant, we heard voices singing in harmony. A group of locals was sharing a glass of amphora wine and singing traditional Alentejo songs called “cante.”

We sat at a corner table in the spacious dining room full of old wine amphoras. Our waiter asked whether we would like to try the wine that the singers were drinking. Of course we did! It came with a bowl of terrific olives and a plate of splendid prosciutto made from black pigs raised in Alentejo on a diet of acorns. The white wine was deliciously refreshing and devoid of affectation.

Our meal started with a soup made from beans, sausages, black pork, and “tengarrinhas,” a wild thistle abundant in the region. The flavors blended perfectly, to create a deeply satisfying taste and aroma. Our main course was culinary perfection: grilled black pork with a lettuce and mint salad and olive “migas,” a bread-based accompaniment.

José Soudo, the restaurant owner, said farewell to the singers and started making the rounds. He stopped at every table to talk to the diners, using a small glass to try the wine they were drinking. José told us that the building used to be the home of a wealthy family. He bought it four decades ago and turned it into a restaurant that quickly became part of the community. It is a place where the locals stop before lunch and dinner to drink a glass of wine and sing a few songs. His son is the cook. “You have to come back to try his other specialties, tomato soup, purslane soup, lamb stew, and much more,” said José.

The house came with six large amphoras which José used to make 3,500 liters of wine to drink with his friends. Over time, he accumulated 28 amphoras, so now he has enough amphora wine to serve in the restaurant.

We left confident that Cuba is not Christopher Columbus’ hometown. After all, if he was born in a place with such enticing wine, satisfying food and harmonious singing why would he ever leave?

Adega da Casa de Monte Pedral is located at Rua da Fonte dos Leões, Cuba, tel. 936 520 036, email geral@casamontepedral.pt. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

Four generations of Ramilo wines

Ramilo

After serving as a soldier in Africa, Manuel Ramilo returned to Portugal in 1895 severely ill. His godfather arranged for him to spend his final days in a tranquil village near Mafra called Alqueidão. Against all odds, Manuel recovered and married a wealthy woman he met in the village.

In 1937, Manuel started producing wine to sell to local taverns. His son, Manuel junior, and his grandson Belmiro expanded the business, buying grapes from local producers to make blends to sell to restaurants.

One day, Belmiro and his sons, Pedro and Nuno, had lunch with a friend who inquired  about the future of the family business. Belmiro replied that the future was uncertain because his kids were not interested in wine making. Shortly after this conversation, Nuno decided to study enology. Soon his passion for wine flourished to the point where he abandoned his job as a bridge engineer to work full time at Ramilo wines.

Nuno focused on the 10 hectares of vineyards owned by his family. Two hectares are planted in the sandy soils of Colares. Eight are planted in the clay, rocky soils surrounding Alqueidão, the place where it all started. It was there that we met with Nuno.

The day was foggy and humid, conditions that are normal in this region because of the proximity of the Sintra mountain and the Atlantic Ocean.  In the old days, everybody in Alqueidão made wine. The best vineyards are planted on steep slopes that face south and are sheltered from the ocean winds so grapes can reach the ideal level of maturation.

Enologists Virgílio Loureiro and Manuel Malfeito worked with Nuno to create wines that preserve the character of this unique terroir. The results are outstanding. We tried a wonderful white wine made from vital, a grape that was once overlooked because it is not very aromatic. It has a minerality that is deeply satisfying. Next, we sampled a wonderful red made from old Castelão vines that is full of salinity and vigor. Both wines come from vines planted in Alqueidão.

Nuno went to the cellar and brought back a bottle with a painted label. It was a 2017 white Malvasia from Colares. Few plants grow on sand because the soil does not retain enough moisture, explained Nuno. But farmers in Colares discovered that they could grow vines on the dunes near the ocean if they dug the sand until they found clay soil where they could plant the roots. Planting and caring for these vines is hard work. But hiding the roots three meters below the surface had a big payoff: when phylloxera devastated the European vineyards in the 19th century, the vines of Colares survived unscathed.

After breaking the wax capsule of the old-fashioned bottle, Nuno gently coaxed the cork out of the bottleneck. As soon as the yellow wine colored our glasses, we fell under the spell of its delicate aroma. The character and complexity of this Colares left us speechless. Since it was released, Nuno’s phone has not stopped ringing. He quickly sold most of the 1,200 bottles produced. Revista dos Vinhos, an influential Portuguese wine magazine, included it in its list of the top-ten Portuguese wines.

It was a privileged to try this rare nectar, the perfect wine to make a toast to the four generations of Ramilos who made it possible.

Ramilo wines is located in Alqueidão, tel. 219 611 453, email info@ramilowines.com. Click here for Ramilo’s web site.

Bel canto wines at Herdade da Calada

Herdade da Calada

Herdade da Calada is a sprawling estate near Évora, owned by a French couple, Marie and André Jean-Claude Penauille. Founded in 1854 by the descendants of the Duke of Lancaster, the estate is planted with vineyards, olive trees, cork oaks, and pasture fields nurtured by a network of lakes that save the increasingly precious rain water.

The wines are made by Eduardo Cardeal, an enologist born into a family of winegrowers from the Douro valley. He brought to Alentejo a gentle style of wine making that seeks to preserve the aromas and character of the fruit. It produces elegant wines with relatively low alcoholic content and round tannins. To achieve these results, the quality of the grapes is key. The yields need to be low and the maturation has to be perfect. Eduardo spends much of his time in the vineyard examining the evolution of the grapes. He harvests in the middle of the night to ensure that the grapes are cool before they enter the winery through the roof, ushered by gravity.

The results are exceptional. In a region known for operatic wines, Herdade da Calada offers wines that sing with the elegance of bel canto.

Herdade da Calada is located at Estrada de Évora-Estremoz km 12 (EN 18), Évora, tel. 266-470-030, email geral@herdadecalada.com. Click here for the wineries web site.

The wines of Wine & Soul

Quinta da Manoella

We spent a bright Winter morning with Jorge Serôdio Borges in Vale de Mendiz. He met us at Wine & Soul, the winery where, together with his wife Sandra Tavares da Silva, he is making some of the Douro’s most iconic wines. Jorge showed us the granite tanks where the hand-picked grapes are treaded by foot, just like in the old days. Then he asked with boyish excitement “Would you like to see the vines?” Of course we did.

He drove us through the winding road that leads to the old vineyard that produces the grapes for the famous Pintas. The vines are planted on a steep incline. We wondered why these grapes are so special–is it the constant vertigo sensation they probably feel? Jorge explained that the high altitude and the cool nights help balance the intense sun exposure to produce grapes that are consistently great. Before we left, he showed us how the ground between the vines is planted with cloves that help retain the nitrogen in the soil.

Next, we went to Quinta da Manoella. Jorge seems to know every tree and every creek. He talked about the numerous fruit trees they planted, the mushrooms that grow in the forest, and the olive groves that make tangy olive oil. In his view, biodiversity is key for the sustainability of the region and the quality of the wines. Finally, he showed us the cellars which are full of old oak barrels beautifully restored, ready to receive precious vintage ports.

Visiting the two Wine & Soul estates gave us a new appreciation for the wines they produce. It is amazing how much knowledge, work and passion it takes to produce great wine.

Click here for information about how to visit Wine & Soul.