Mário Sérgio, a Portuguese vigneron

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The people of Epernay, a town at the heart of the Champagne region, know more about sparkling wine than almost anyone in the world. So it is remarkable that Mario Sérgio, a producer from Bairrada, found a market for his sparkling wines in Epernay.

This success has been more than a century in the making–Mário is a 4th generation wine maker. His 81-old father still labors 10 hours a day tending to the vineyards.

Mário’s family used to sell their grapes to the famed Caves São João. In 1989, at age of 23, Mário decided to reserve the grapes to make his own wines under the label Quinta das Bágeiras. From the beginning, he paid no attention to what is most fashionable or profitable. Instead, he focused on making great wines in Bairrada.

One of the first hints that Mário was on the path to greatness came in 2001 when, in a blind tasting organized in France, the judges selected two wines: a very expensive Château Haut-Brion and a modestly-priced Quinta das Bágeiras garrafeira.

Mário shuns everything that is artificial. He uses no yeasts, no filtering, no stabilization techniques. Reds are made with old wine presses using the notoriously difficult baga varietal. Sparkling wines are all Natural Brut, an exacting style that requires that there be no residual sugar in the wine.

Just like the French vignerons, Mário buys no grapes. All his wines are produced from grapes hand picked in his properties.  He knows every parcel and plants vines only in soils that can produce excellent results. “I am often offered grapes from properties adjacent to mine. But many times, the soil and sun exposure are completely different from those of the parcels I own.”

Mário is particularly proud of the vineyard that produces the grapes for Pai Abel, a wine named after his father. He makes 2,000 bottles a year. Using a practice that is rare in Portugal, he sells 80 percent “en primeur” to lucky subscribers who buy the wine at a discount two years before it is ready for delivery.

A profound believer in the aging potential of Bairrada whites, he stored his 1994 white wine for 12 years before releasing it for sale. When he brought home a bottle to share with his wife, she told him: “There’s no market for aged white wine, you’ll never sell a single bottle.” When by the end of the meal the bottle was empty, she conceded that “maybe you’ll sell some of this wine.” Mário sent a couple of bottles to his friend Dirk Niepoort. In return, he received the biggest compliment a wine maker can give to another: Dirk asked to buy all the stock of Quinta das Bágeiras 1994 white!

Every Saturday, Mário Sérgio opens the door of his winery to visitors. If you’re a wine lover, it is hard to find a more enjoyable way to spend a Saturday than to pay a visit to Quinta das Bageiras.

Quinta das Bágeiras is located at Rua Principal nº598, Fogueira in Sangalhos (N 40º 29.109′ ; W 8º 29.969′), tel. 234 742 102, email mariosergio@quintadasbageiras.pt. Click here for their website.

 

 

Red gold from the Douro valley

Abílio Tavares da Silva

“God gave Douro precious wines so that people would come and find all the other treasures,” says Abílio Tavares da Silva. He is a successful software engineer who fell under the spell of the Douro valley. After going back to school to study enology at the famed UTAD in Vila Real, he uprooted his family from Lisbon to the Douro. Abílio bought Foz Torto, an estate with perfect sun exposure, and began producing wonderful wines. It was only then that he found the other treasures.

One day, someone brought local heirloom tomatoes to a gathering of wine producers. “I had never tasted tomatoes like those, so I decided to plant some tomatoes at Foz Torto. In July and August, the Douro is very hot and this heat produces extraordinary results. The plants struggle, their roots are forced to go deep in search of the last few drops of water. That is why the tomatoes are not watery; they are firm and full of flavor.”

As soon as we sat down for lunch, a beautiful plate of heirloom tomatoes arrived. Abílio had picked them in the morning to make sure they were perfectly ripe. They had a luscious red color, an intense flavor, and the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. These heirloom tomatoes are as good as fine wine.

Abílio smiled, pleased with our reaction. “It is not just the heat that produces these results,” he explained. “The soil in the Douro valley comes from sedimentary rock that was at the bottom of the ocean millions of years ago. When the rock disaggregated, it became home to a lush microbiological ecosystem that made the soil rich in micronutrients. These micronutrients make all the difference in the production of fruits and vegetables.”

After lunch, we drove to Foz Torto. In the vineyard, Abílio explained how the design of the beautiful Douro terraces evolved in response to the shortage of labor and the need to avoid soil drainage. He then showed us his fruit trees and vegetable garden. The figs, peaches and strawberries were dripping with sweetness. They are more satisfying than the most sumptuous desserts.

“In the old days, the Douro farms were self sufficient, they had wonderful orchards and great vegetable gardens. When the train came to the Douro, the farms started buying fruit and vegetables from the rest of the country and focused on the production of port wine. The tradition of growing fruits and vegetables was lost. But there’s a group of wine producers that is bringing back those old crops.”

Together with Celeste Pereira from the event company alldouro.com  and journalist Edgardo Pacheco, Abílio organizes an annual competition for the best heirloom tomato in the Douro valley. The tomatoes are tasted blind by a panel of chefs, enologist and food writers. Wine makers from many quintas participate in the event.

This year, the competition takes place at Quinta do Vallado on August 24. On August 25 there’s an agricultural market where people can taste heirloom tomatos, olive oil, fleur de sel, Douro wines, and traditional local food. If you’re on the Douro valley, do not miss the opportunity to participate in these unique gastronomical events. And if you go, please cheer for Abílio Tavares da Silva, we hope that his extraordinary heirloom tomatoes win the first prize!

To participate in the heirloom tomato competition events please email   greengrape@greengrape.pt.The events are free.

A widow from Colares and her extraordinary wines

Viuva Gomes Composit

About 25 years ago, we hosted a friend who’s a great wine connoisseur for a couple of weeks in Lisbon. He tried Portuguese wines from different regions and always had something nice to say. But we noticed that his enthusiasm for these wines paled in comparison to his passion for the French wines that filled his cellar.

Towards the end of his stay, we had dinner at a small restaurant that had a rare wine on its list. “This wine is amazing!” exclaimed our friend after taking a sip. “How many more bottles do you have?,” he asked the waiter. “Two,” the waiter replied. “That is perfect. I am spending two more nights in Lisbon. Can we make dinner reservations for both nights and also reserve the two bottles?”

The wine that so impressed our oenophile friend was a 1969 Viúva Gomes. Its origin goes back to 1808, the year when José Gomes da Silva built a cellar in the village of Almoçageme to produce wines in Colares, near Sintra.

The tiny Colares region is home to two unique grape varietals: the white Malvasia and the red Ramisco. These grapes survived the onset of phylloxera in the 19th century because they are planted on clay soils covered with sand that protected the roots from the deadly bug.

After Gomes da Silva died, his widow and sons continued to produce wine which they sold under the label Viúva Gomes (viúva is the Portuguese word for widow). Their company was sold in 1920 and resold in 1931. By 1988, it was once again up for sale. It was then that José Baeta seized the opportunity to buy the vineyards, the cellar and a treasure trove of vintages going back to beginning of the 20th century.

We knocked on the door of the 1808 cellar and soon José Baeta came to greet us. Visiting this building full of old bottles and ancient wine barrels made from precious woods is a voyage into the 19th century.

José spoke with great passion about the unique character of the Viúva Gomes wines. We sampled a wonderful 2016 white Malvasia that is exuberant, with hints of salt from the Atlantic Ocean. We then tried a red Ramisco from 2009. It is an alluring, intense wine with notes of dried cherries. While most wines pale in the presence of food with bold flavors, the Viúva Gomes Ramisco holds its own and helps the meal sparkle.

Only 2,000 bottles of white and 4,000 bottles of red are produced every year. “I always run out of wine to sell before the year ends,” says José Baeta. With the help of his son Diogo, José is trying to expand his production, finding the right soils to plant more vines.

Drinking a bottle of Viúva Gomes is an extraordinary experience. These are nectars  made from the rarest vines, caressed by the Atlantic winds and guarded by millions of grains of sands.

The cellar of Viúva Gomes is located at Largo Comendador Gomes da Silva, 2 Almoçageme, Colares, tel. 219 290 903 and 967 248 345, email  info@adegaviuvagomes.com . Click here for the Viúva Gomes website.

 

 

Quinta do Crasto

Composit Quinta do Crasto

In ancient times, the Romans built on the Douro valley a “castrum,” which means fort in Latin. The fort was surrounded by steep hills descending towards the Douro river with perfect exposure to the sun. Even though it was hard work to plant vines in this treacherous terrain, the Romans embraced the challenge. They knew that the vines would please Bacchus, the god of wine, and that he would reward them with great vintages.

There is no record of the quality of the wines made by the Romans on these hills. But we know that by 1615 the estate, called Quinta do Crasto in honor of the old Roman fort, was producing superior wines.

The Quinta is situated on the right bank of the Douro river between Régua and Pinhão. The views are spectacular and so are the table and port wines which regularly receive high accolades from wine critics. We think Bacchus would be pleased.

Click here for the Quinta do Crasto website.

 

Madeira rediscovered

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In 1418, on All Saints’ Day, Portuguese navigators discovered the island of Porto Santo off the coast of Africa. After more exploration, they realized that Porto Santo is part of a lush subtropical archipelago. The largest island in the archipelago was covered by dense forests so the sailors named it “ilha da Madeira,” the wooded island.

Madeira was planted early in the 15th century with vines from many varietals, including verdelho, sercial, and malvasia. The style of wine making evolved until producers learned to make fortified wines that could survive long sea voyages. The fermentation process is interrupted by adding alcohol so that the yeast does not consume all the grape sugar. The wines are then aged for at least a decade in bottles or wood barrels. Madeira producers discovered that the wine stored in barrels that returned from sea voyages in hot climates had improved in quality. So, they started refining some of their wines by exposing them to heat.

In the 17th and 18th century, Madeira wine became a major export. From East to  West, aristocrats demanded this wine full of complexity and allure.

Six centuries after Madeira was discovered, we can taste a remarkable vinegar made with Madeira wine by a great olive-oil producer called Gallo. The acidity and sweetness are perfectly balanced to create a seductive vinegar like no other. Try it while you can, for soon gourmets from East to West will demand their salads dressed with this star vinegar.

Aladdin’s cave in Bairrada

Composite Caves S. João

Three brothers, José, Manuel and Albano Costa, built in 1920 wine cellars called Caves São João. They used the cellars to store the wine from Bairrada that they sold to taverns throughout Portugal.

In the 1930s, the Costa brothers ventured into wine production. They dreamed about producing wines that future generations could drink with pride. With the help of French enologist Gaston Mainousson, they learned the secrets of champagne production and started making sparkling wine in Bairrada.

In the 1950s they started producing two iconic wines: Frei João in Bairrada and Porta dos Cavaleiros in the Dão region. Made with great care, these wines were stored so that time could tame their tannins and leave only the smooth taste of the fruit.

As their wines gathered fame, the three brothers increased production and expanded storage capacity. Today the cellar holds 2.5 million bottles that preserve the rhythms of the seasons and the fruits of the toil of generations of farmers. These irreplaceable time capsules are guarded by the great-great grandchildren of the original owners.

We tried two white wines produced at Quinta do Poço dos Lobos. The first, a reserve wine from 2013 had a pale, yellow color, and a smooth taste that left our palate refreshed with notes of citrus. The second was a Poço dos Lobos colheita from 1995. What a difference three decades make! The older wine had an intense yellow color. The citrus notes were now singing with a choir of harmonious flavors orchestrated by time.

We sampled two vintages of Frei João. A red from 1980 that was rich and smooth and a white from 1986 that was still full of youth and vigor.

Our tasting ended with a brandy from 1966 that was suave and sophisticated. It is a nectar that has seen it all from the breakup of the Beatles to the fall of the Berlin wall.

Caves São João look like Aladdin’s cave, full of treasures stored away from the sun and immersed in sultry air. If a genie offers you three wishes during your visit to the cellars don’t hesitate: ask for a white Poço dos Lobos, a red Frei João or Porta dos Cavaleiros, and a bottle of 1966 brandy.

Caves São João are located at São João de Azenha in Anadia, tel. 234743118, email geral@cavessaojoao.com. Click here for their web site.

 

Quinta Dona Maria

Quinta D. Maria Winery

Estremoz is a town in Alentejo famous for its white marble. The same geological conditions that fashioned its pristine stones created limestone soils perfect for wine production. So it’s no wonder that there are so many wineries around Estremoz.

The prettiest of them all is Quinta Dona Maria. The estate, which dates back to 1718, was purchased by King João V and offered to Dona Maria, a courtesan with whom he fell in love. In the 19th century, the estate was bought by the Reynolds, a family of British merchants who came to Portugal to produce cork and wine. The current owner, Julio Bastos, inherited the estate from an aunt who married into the Reynolds family.

Bastos got his passion for wine from his father. Every year, father and son came to the harvest so that young Julio could be initiated into the mysteries of wine making. Bastos is particularly fond of Alicante Bouchet, a varietal brought to Alentejo by his family in the 19th century.

Eager to produce extraordinary wines, Bastos entered into a partnership with Lafite Rothschild. But when the Rothschild team started uprooting his old family vines to plant French varietals, Basto decided to go his own way.

He nurtured the old vines and used 17th century marble tanks to tread the grapes. The result are wines with a unique personality: rich and earthy with elegant aromas and a smooth finish.

Production volumes are low, so these wines are hard to find. If you’re traveling in Alentejo, stop by Quinta Dona Maria and take home these exquisite wines made in soils nourished by the love of the land and blessed by the richness of marble.

Click here for the website of Quinta Dona Maria.