Portugal Trip Report PICTURES ADDED

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Portugal Trip Report PICTURES ADDED

Postby Oswaldo Costa » Tue Jan 19, 2010 7:30 pm

This turned out much longer than I intended, so I am attaching a Word doc at the end for downloading. Pictures will follow sometime tomorrow. Many thanks to Joe Moryl for paving the way and helping to establish Bairrada as our main objective.

We arrived in Lisbon on December 26.

To a Brazilian, being in Portugal, the “old country,” is an experience strangely familiar. Our pronunciation of Portuguese is different, perhaps not quite Texan v. Cockney, but maybe Staten Island v. English toff. There’s an old Brazilian joke of being in a taxi in Portugal and having the driver turn and ask “what the hell language is that you’re speaking that I can understand everything you’re saying?” The Portuguese are also known for being literal in their use of language. When I was here last, over ten years ago, I called a store and asked if they closed on Sundays. The employee said “No.” I replied “Oh, good, so you’re open?” She again replied “No.” I said “Sorry, come again?” She replied “well, we don’t close on Sunday because we don’t open in the first place.” Contemporary versions that happened during this trip: Question: “How long is the drive from Porto to Lisbon?” Answer: “Depends how fast you drive.” Question: “On what floor is the permanent collection on display?” Answer: “We don’t have a permanent display of the collection, but works from the permanent collection are on display on the ground floor.” But I digress. In the style of architecture, and in the names of people and things, written on signs and plaques everywhere, there is so much of what I see in my native Rio de Janeiro. It’s scary how much of what I thought was Brazilian turns out to be Portuguese. Yet everything is also slightly different, generating a series of small double-takes at every corner. On the streets, one sees the old Portugal, represented by ruddy faced agricultural physiognomies, blending awkwardly with the new underclass of immigrants from Angola and Mozambique. After years of totalitarian backwardness under Salazar, Portugal has been playing catch up to the rest of Europe, especially since entering the EEC. While it has comparatively little to give the world in terms of industry or commodities (short of that spongiform rod used to imperfectly seal bottles of fermented grape juice), it has a rich and very particular culture to be explored, and the people we met during the trip were nothing short of wonderful.

After dropping our bags at the hotel, we visited the charming but dilapidated Alfama and Chiado districts of downtown Lisbon, where we hit all the tourist must-sees. My favorite was Castelo de S. Jorge, the ruins of a large Moorish castle overlooking Lisbon and conquered by King Alfonso I, the first king of Portugal, in 1147, an important step towards taking the country back from the Moors. The only weird thing we did was look for the Texas Bar Lisbon. Years ago I saw a Wim Wenders movie in which one of the characters wore a t-shirt saying Texas Bar Lisbon; I found the juxtaposition so incongruously compelling that I had to have it, and determined to buy that t-shirt if ever in town. Alas, after years of pining, we found the site in a dark and seedy alley, but a year ago it changed names and was converted into a disco. Not a victimless crime, but I felt like a crimeless victim.

Lisbon is very hilly, so we got back to the hotel exhausted. But tourists like Marcia and me are troopers, so after quick showers we headed for dinner at a well-regarded restaurant called Faz Figura, near the River Tejo’s dockside. Service was impeccable and we both had, as a main course, a Portuguese staple called Cataplana, a fish stew made in a homonymous pot composed of two hammered brass saucers clamped together. Amazingly good. The wine list had exemplars from most Portuguese appellations, but producers were mostly on the modern side. With our appetizers, we had glasses of vinho verde (2008 Quinta de Azevedo) that had some crispness, but was not satisfying because too lacking in body. Do I have the right to ask a vinho verde to have body? Perhaps as much as I can expect a featherweight to throw a decent punch.

Our main wine was a red made from Baga (2005 Quinta do Foz do Arouce Vinhas Velhas de Santa Maria 14.0%), chosen to experience the work of one of the Bairrada wineries that we decided not visit because of insufficiently traditional credentials. Sour cherry, vanilla and rosemary aromas. Nice grippy tannins, good acid/sweet balance, light bitter finish, but way too much vanilla. Damn new wood; makes it harder to experience what’s particular about a grape while pushing the gestalt towards generic Bordeaux.

December 27 saw us headed towards the Gulbenkian Foundation, which has two museums, one of more recently acquired contemporary art, and one of the founder’s own collection. The contemporary wing had an exhibition of Portuguese art from the 70s, mostly installations and conceptual art, echoing what was going on elsewhere in the US and Europe. I found it dismal and dated, partly because the exhibition space, a cavernous 70s hangar-like industrial temple, is inhospitable for anything other than an automotive parts show. In a funk, and without much enthusiasm, we segued to the founder’s collection, and I’m glad we did. Maybe because Gulbenkian was an Armenian immigrant, his collection eclectically combines east and west with unforced political correctness, like a one-man Metropolitan Museum of Art. Amazing exemplars of Greek, Roman, Persian, Chinese and European art, all beautifully displayed, make a forceful argument for beauty as transcendental, rather than cultural; any suspicion of transitoriness seemed attenuated by centuries of acceptance, like polymerized tannins.

Recharged, we moved on the National Museum of Ancient Art, where mostly Portuguese art is on display, together with an amazing Bosch depiction of hell, a Piero della Francesca, and a few other highlights. Next we visited a wonderful late gothic monastery called the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, where Vasco da Gama and Camões are buried, and the iconic tower called Torre de Belém from which Portuguese navigators set off in the 15th and 16th centuries to lay claim to half the world. Before entering, we went to a nearby shop that sells the most famous version of a famous Portuguese custard delicacy called Pastel de Belém (the district is also famous because it was here that Jeronimo had his last stand against Custard).

Semi-catatonic with exhaustion, we went back to the hotel for a rest, but soon trooped off for dinner at a quay-side seafood restaurant called 5 Oceanos (5 Oceans). Generous portions of excellent codfish and vongole risotto accompanied by a much better vinho verde (2008 Soalheiro Alvarinho 12.5%; mineral and white flower aromas; good weight, simple but tasty fruit, seemed like it could use more acidity, but was very good and balanced with food) and a good red made by Alvaro Castro (2006 Quinta da Pellada Reserva Dão 13.0%; nice cherry, light vanilla, hickory bacon and sage aromas; velvety mouth feel, good acidity, light and elegant tannins, went very well with our food).

December 28 arrived full of expectations because it was the day of our visit to Colares, the westernmost European appellation (next appellation west of that is the North Fork), in frank decadence as a result of changing tastes and encroaching real estate expansion by suburban Lisbon. It is also notable for being entirely planted with ungrafted vines because it is right by the seaside and a layer of sand covers the clay and calcareous soil (phylloxera is allergic to sand). First we took a commuter train to hillside city of Sintra, where there is a lovely royal palace that saw considerable action from the XIVth to the XVIIth centuries. It is full of gorgeous ceramic tiles, including a particularly special one showing grape vines in relief. One sees traces of the Moorish domination everywhere in Portuguese esthetics, particularly in such beautifully patterned and omnipresent ceramic tiles. Since many Muslims feared that the depiction of the human form was idolatry and therefore a sin, Islamic ornamental energies focused historically on designs and calligraphy, instead of figures, resulting in dazzling geometric patterns that predated Op Art and Constructivism by a cool millennium. Because of this influence, a people known to be somewhat predisposed towards melancholy – the national music, the Fado, is guaranteed to make anyone slit their wrists from induced depression – paradoxically decorate their facades more than perhaps any other.

For lunch, at a local wine bar platonically called A Loja do Vinho (The Wine Store) we had a good cheese plate accompanied by our first ever Colares wine (2004 Adegas Beira Mar Casal da Azenha Colares 12.5%; leather and red berry aromas; herbal and pruney, with good acidity, good density and sweet finish; before food, the acid and sweetness seem to be in separate rooms, but with cheese everything comes together and analytic faculties surrender to pleasure; wow, can’t get enough of this). After walking around the picturesque town, we took a cab to nearby Colares, where we visited the local coop, the Adega Regional de Colares. Alas, there was wine to be tasted; only by previous appointment with an operator that conducts tasting tours. But they had, incredibly, bottles for sale going back to 1931, with prices higher than €100 only for vintages more than 40 years old. Next we took another cab to the nearby seaside town of Azenhas do Mar, where we had a hard-won (because of the holiday crush) appointment with Antonio Bernardino Paulo da Silva, third generation owner of Adegas Beira Mar. Antonio was recommended by David Lillie, who used to sell Antonio’s wines at Garnet. Azenhas do Mar is poised on stunningly beautiful craggy cliffs from which a precipitous descent into the foaming and steel gray Atlantic leaves you breathless with vertigo. Antonio was only able to give us half an hour because he had just arrived from a trip and had a meeting to catch at the Adega Regional de Colares where he is treasurer (he even showed us the summons so we wouldn’t think he was making it up). But he was extremely gracious, giving us a quick tour (which included large 19th century oak casks made of, incredibly, Brazilian oak), showing off his wines’ medals (he cares), and answering a few questions. The red grape used in Colares is called Ramisco and the vines are grown very close to the sandy soil to catch the heat from the sand. Below that layer of sand, that can be anywhere from 50 centimeters to 5 meters (he said “three men tall,” and since the average Portuguese is 170 cm, I just rounded the sum down) deep and serves to keep the bug at bay, there is clay/calcareous soil that feeds the ungrafted rootstocks. Yeasts are ambient. Fermentation is floating cap for 4/5 days. No maceration. Antonio avoids new wood and uses as little SO2 as he can (he said the wines show 10mg total at bottling per hundred liters, but that can’t be right; 10mg per liter is already lower than most). Malos happen in the spring when temperatures rise, and a touch of SO2 is used to protect the musts during the winter. Colares is a stable microclimate and vintage variation is small. According to Antonio, Colares wine is to be served at 22C, higher than usual, to liberate the aromas. Because of time constraints, we didn’t taste any wine, or waste any time, but Antonio made up for it by giving us a few bottles to try later. If, on one hand, our visit to Colares was dismal because we tasted no wine (a first), we came away with booty and greatly enjoyed the rugged uniqueness of the appellation.

Antonio gave us a ride back to Colares from where we took a cab to Sintra, and from there the train back to Lisbon. That night we had dinner at Travessa, an elegant restaurant in an old convent for which we had high expectations, since it was recommended by several guides and blogs. The wine list was the first let down: mostly wines from the Douro or Alentejo, in other words, a choice between modern and QPR. I asked the sommelier why he didn’t have any Colares, or even Bairrada, and he replied that they don’t sell. With resentful irrationality, I exclaimed “all the more reason to feature them!” which only drew a puzzled look. After discussing oak-free and sufficiently acidic options (he tried to steer us away from a particular wine by saying “it’s a monovarietal, and blends are more complex,” we settled on a white (2008 Domingos Soares Franco Verdelho Coleção Privada Setúbal 12.5%; pleasant mineral, white flower and citrus aroma; fresh, but needs more acidity to be crisp; decent weight) and a red (2004 Donzel Reserva Douro DOC 13.0%; blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca and Tinta Amarela; sour cherry, gunpowder and chocolate aromas; velvety smooth, decent acidity, short finish, no personality to speak of; alas, lower alcohol and little wood are no guarantee of pleasure) that were disappointing. The food was fine but a bit too delicate, as if walking on tip toes, or under a fog of SO2.

On December 29 we flew to Madeira, just short of two hours from Lisbon, on a large jet filled with tourists. It was extremely windy upon arrival, making for the bumpiest approach I’ve ever experienced, and a landing met with relieved general applause. The airport lies almost at the tip of the island, so it felt like we were landing on an aircraft carrier: water, water, water, and then, suddenly, land. Madeira is actually quite big, with a population of over 200,000 and several towns. It is shaped like a single very large and extra wide mountain, with an extensive plateau at the top that, admirably but irrationally, is uninhabited because protected park land. All you see there are animals grazing and tourists gazing (because picking so much as a flower can earn you a €300 fine). The slopes, on the other hand, are full of winding roads, with considerable edifications on the lower levels.

After dropping our bags at the hotel, we boarded a mini van for the capital, Funchal. It seemed like a good idea, when we booked this cameo in the middle of our trip to Portugal, to go with an excursion, but soon we began to regret it. I won’t bore you with the details, but the rest of the first day, spent in downtown Funchal tourist traps, ending with dinner at a dismal restaurant featuring traditional music and dancing, was a drag. Included with dinner were 2008 Carmin Terras d’el Rei Branco Alentejo 12.0% (very dilute) and 2007 Carmin Terras d’el Rei Tinto12.5% (just quaffable). We tasted an acceptable Verdelho (medium dry) Madeira earlier that afternoon and before the meal at the restaurant.

December 30 was dedicated to a full day trip around the island. This time, the excursion aspect seemed to pay off, with lots of beautiful scenery that we might not have otherwise known enough to visit. Madeira is essentially an extinct volcano, its vines (also sugar cane and bananas) cultivated on terraces carved out of very steep slopes, where everything has to be done by hand, with no help possible from animals. According to our guide, the younger generations have not been interested in following their parents’ agricultural footsteps, and have mostly moved abroad or to Funchal, where half the island’s population has already concentrated. Wherever we drove, we saw houses boarded up and abandoned, and vine terraces untended. The situation is not helped by the structure of production: the Madeira houses, who buy their grapes from small famers, most of whom own much less than an acre, are not as exposed as the growers, who bear the bulk of the economic downside in bad harvests (like the current one). At this rate, there may be very little new Madeira wine made in a few generations because of the pincer effect of unrewarding economics and the toughness of life on the land.

Our lunch at a tourist trap restaurant in Porto Moniz came with another pair from Alentejo: 2008 Real Lavrador Branco 12.5% and 2007 Real Lavrador Tinto 12.5%, both quaffable. After more sightseeing and stunning views from some of the island’s highest peaks, we returned to the hotel, where we had dinner. Faced with an uninspired wine list, we chose a 2004 Campolargo Bairrada Tinto 13.0% because it was from another Bairrada winery that we won’t be visiting because of insufficiently traditional credentials. This was 100% pinot noir, fully destemmed, cold maceration. Sweet cherry aromas; good acidity, good weight, good acid/sweet balance; simple, but tasty; not modern in oak, alcohol or low acidity, only in choice of grape; could use some stems in the mix, but has definitely some pinosity.

January 31 featured more sightseeing and lunch at a quay side restaurant where we drank 2007 Herdade dos Grous Tinto Alentejo 14.0%, a blend of Aragonês, Syrah, Alicante Bouschet and Touriga Nacional. Label says “fermented in lagares” and “spends 9 months in French oak.” Ripe cherry, spice, plum and mocha aromas and flavors; good level of acidity, but tastes unnatural (as in not integrated). But it is neither hot nor oaky, so it’s otherwise agreeable.

During the afternoon we strolled around Funchal and visited a hotel designed by Oscar Niemeyer. Later we stopped by what may be the city’s best wine store, Diogos, on Av. Arriaga. The manager, Américo Pereira, taught us about Madeira and perfected our notions of which ports are oxidative and which are not (in a nutshell, they are all oxidative except the LBVs, which are semi-oxidative, and the vintages, which are not). Taking a shine to us, he pulled out, from a faraway closet, a magnum of 1983 Niepoort Colheita and poured us glasses. Yummy. I’m beginning to warm to oxidation. As spoils, we picked up a 1969 D’Oliveira Sercial because that’s Marcia’s birth year, and a 1988 D’Oliveira Terrantez because it’s such a rare grape (as well as my birth year, ha!).

At the hotel, the wine served for their New Year’s Dinner was a 2008 Herdade das Anforas Monte das Anforas Alentejo 13.5%, a decent QPR available at Astor. But the acidity again tasted unnatural. Américo, the wine store manager, told us the previous afternoon that most Alentejo wines are acidified. That certainly seems true of the ones we tasted. After dinner we went to a belvedere where Madeira Island’s famed fireworks display, reputed to be one of the world’s best, was unleashed in the general vicinity of midnight. Almost 100,000 fireworks in eight minutes. Many were fired from the coastline right below our location, so they blazed above our heads and, spent, showered cinders upon our unsuspecting scalps. The final flurry was so intense that I actually feared some precipitate accident, but we survived.

The first morning of 2010 started with another dull buffet breakfast and was followed by bleary-eyed sightseeing up dizzying mountain peaks. For our last Madeira lunch, back at the hotel, I rescued a forgotten bottle of 1996 Quinta de Pancas Cabernet Sauvignon Vinho Regional Estremadura 12.5% that had been sitting on the wine rack for a few days. At €14, there was little downside, not to mention being able to turn it down if corked or whatever. To my delight, it was in fine, with mature leather, cherry and tar aromas, good acidity and weight, and ideal alcohol. Bingo.

In the evening we returned to Lisbon and arrived pretty late, crashing at the hotel a little after midnight. Our first dinner of 2010 was a miserable little sandwich served by SATA airlines. But the following evening’s dinner more than made up for it.

On January 2nd we visited the excellent contemporary art collection of a Brazilian attorney living in Lisbon who prospered by betting on Madeira when it took off as an offshore corporate tax haven twenty years ago. He and his wife then took us to lunch at his favorite Portuguese restaurant, whose name I neglected to note, where we ate well, if not memorably, and drank two bottles of Quinta do Carmo white, floral and pleasant in a blandly modern and acid lacking way. During the afternoon we bought some Portuguese soap to take home, since it’s the best we know.

For dinner, we had one of those memorable experiences that trips like these are made for. We went to the quaintly named Nariz de Vinho Tinto (Red Wine Nose), a restaurant recommended by Frommer’s in way that sounded just right: “the owner, Antonio Ignacio, pays as much attention to the wine list as he does to seasonal ingredients.” Antonio was terrific throughout the evening, enjoying the opportunity to talk about old v. new Portuguese wine. I tried to make clear that we didn’t want any high fallutin’ newfangled tenderfoot garbage, just some old-fashioned Portuguese traditional. After showing him our pictures of Colares, the genial Antonio became totally dedicated to our well-being, spending more time at our table than at all the others combined. When I asked for a Vinho Verde by the glass to start things up, he opened one, then a second, then a third, just to see which one we preferred. Something only an owner can do, obviously, but still remarkable. And totally winsome:

2008 Morgadio da Torre Alvarinho Vinho Verde 12.5%
Vibrant floral and citrus aromas, good weight but needs a touch more acidity and has too short a finish.

2006 Foral da Rainha Loureiro Vinho Verde 11.5%
Muted nose, but rich mouth flavors, floral and peach. Good weight, in a demi sec style, nice bitter finish but needs more acidity.

2006 Foral da Rainha Loureiro Seco Vinho Verde 12.0%
A dry version of the preceding. Muted nose, with some citrus. Good weight, correct acid/sweet balance, decent finish. Our choice for the evening.

The amuse bouches of cherry tomatoes soaked in olive oil, sliced sausages, fresh olives, and roasted peppers were uniformly delicious. As appetizers, we ordered a Portuguese azeitão cheese (the molten kind, where you slice off the top) and a pâté as appetizers, both excellent. As a main course, we shared a pork dish with creamy chestnut sauce, superb. With the latter, Antonio served us his last bottle of 1999 Casa de Saima Reserva Bairrada 12.5%. Casa de Saima is one of the producers we are going to visit in Bairrada, and the 1999 is unlikely to be tasted at the winery, so this made me happy.

1999 Casa de Saima Reserva Bairrada 12.5%
A blend of Baga and Touriga Nacional. Attractive cherry and old leather aromas. Smells older than its years because very slightly oxidative, but so slight as to be a plus. Lovely mouth feel, perfect acid/sweet balance. A treat.

We left on cloud nine after one of those wine-food epiphanies that become the stuff of private folklore. And the price was more than right, €64, all included.

On Sunday, January 3, we said goodbye to Lisbon and headed for Coimbra, a historic university center. Along the way we stopped for a quick lunch in the medieval fortress-town of Óbidos, a Portuguese St. Paul de Vence, except attractive. In Coimbra, the truly vinous part of our trip began, focusing on the Bairrada and Douro DOCs. I was curious to see if my preconceptions would be borne out: that Bairrada suffers from poor marketing but is of greater interest to someone with a natural wine bias because it is more traditional, not to say backward, while the Douro was able to leverage Port marketing savvy and distribution channels to place their recently developed, modern style wines at the top of the Portuguese fine wine charts when its terroir, while ideal for Port, produces dry reds and whites that have to be “corrected” in most vintages. Of course, the reality was to prove far more nuanced.

For dinner, we went to the luxurious restaurant housed in a former royal summer retreat called Palácio do Buçaco, built in the Manueline style, the Moorish influenced Portuguese version of late Gothic. This was one of the visits I was most looking forward to because the restaurant is well-known for its proprietary red and white wines, only available there, and in vintages dating back to the 1940s. Its grapes are purchased from surrounding estates (exactly which, and in what proportion, is a closely guarded secret, adding to the mystique) and vinified in their own cellar. These wines are considered icons in Portugal, traditional in style and “legendary,” according to Hugh Johnson, for their longevity and uniqueness.

After a long and winding road we got to the palace, dimly lit, as befits tougher economic times. Set in the middle of a dense forest, it emerged from the mist like a ghost castle, eerily beckoning our wallets to their doom. Once safely inside, we marveled at the ornate, drippy sandcastle interior, not minding the slight air of musty decadence, much as one might disregard a touch of brett. We chose our dishes, mine centered on pork, the Bairrada delicacy, hers more eclectic (and wiser). I then turned my attention to the wine list and only had eyes for the proprietary stuff, where the whites went back to 1944, the reds to 1945, and many were available in half bottles. Prices, of course, got exponentially higher the older the vintage, so I ordered a half bottle of the 2001 white (€18) and a full bottle of the 2001 “Reserva Especial” red (€60), that being the only vintage in which that distinction appeared (the waiter said it was special because the grapes were picked earlier; while that made little sense as a reason for being special, it promised more acidity). When the waiter arrived with the white, Marcia says he tried to show it to me, but I was too busy with my notebook to notice. So he just plunked it into the ice bucket and came back a minute later to offer me a pour. It seemed fine, so I said OK, without noticing that it was the wrong vintage:

2007 Palácio do Buçaco Branco Reservado Bairrada 13.0% 375ml
100% Bical. Light gold. Lovely acacia and mineral aromas. Caramel and oak flavors with good weight. Slight oxidative note. Light bitterness. Could use a touch more acidity. Reminiscent of white Bordeaux.

I was musing about how eight years in a half bottle had generated some oxidation when I turned the bottle to read the alcohol level and saw that the vintage was 2007. I called the waiter and, to his credit, he immediately took it away and came back with a 2001. The color was deep amber and the aroma was heavily oxidative, so I turned it down as oxidized. The waiter made a comment about how that was proper for the age, which I, of course, said was not true, since I have tasted many older whites without oxidative notes, etc. In short, a classic situation where the waiter tries to flummox the client, but no cigar, buddy. He came back with another 2001 half bottle, with lighter color, and I accepted, despite showing some oxidation, because Marcia hates it when I seem on the verge of making a scene. Scene, what scene?

2001 Palácio do Buçaco Branco Reservado Bairrada 13.0% 375ml
100% Bical. Nutty oxidative aroma. Good weight, caramel sweetness, could use more acidity. Pleasant, in a savagnin kind of way. Less oaky than 2007 because already somewhat integrated. Confirms the white Bordeaux vocation.

2001 Palácio do Buçaco Tinto Reserva Special Bairrada 13.5%
Blend of Baga and Touriga Nacional. Oak, leather, prunes and cherry aromas. Good acidity, good weight, good balance, but slightly hot. Fine, but reminiscent of red Bordeaux. At this point the penny dropped and I understand that the palace guard must see Bordeaux as the gold standard/Platonic ideal. They don’t do a bad job, but it’s not what I’m looking for in my Bairrada.

But we went away reasonably happy with our Buçaco experience, in a Last Year in Marienbad kind of way. My food was so-so. Marcia’s was better. The wine was good, but copy-cat. The whole thing wasn’t cheap in absolute terms, but not unreasonable for the level of decadence. Service was courteous, bordering on the supercilious, but insufficiently observant: we had to ask for extra bread, and I poured the wine myself half the time (oh, crime of crimes). We didn’t finish either of our bottles, never a good sign, but we took both away in a thermal doggie bag provided by our waiter (his finest moment), not so much for the wine but for the labels, their quaint design redolent of days of Eeyore. During the next two days, we heard from two Bairrada producers that the original winemaker died in 2000 and that the wines were not the same after that. If only we had known, we might have splurged a little bit more for a taste of the real thing. Hindsight is 50/50, the other half being foreknowledge.

On Monday the 4th, the first business day on the decade, we rolled up our sleeves and went to work. Three appointments, more than what I usually schedule, but I was into getting our hands as muddy as possible (the name Bairrada comes from barro, meaning mud or clay, a reference to the local soils). With the help of Marcia’s iTouch and GoogleMaps (note the discreet product placement), we survived a labyrinthine path to Luis Pato in Amoreira da Gândara, where we were greeted by the lively and gracious Sara Rodrigues e Matos, who showed us around the winery until Luis Pato’s arrival.

Thanks to the relatively little know Baga grape, a sort of Portuguese answer to Nebbiolo, Bairrada could be the finest wine region in Portugal for dry reds of proven longevity, but suffers from low esteem and visibility in comparison to the Douro and Alentejo, the country’s biggest success stories. As the exception to this rule, Pato is known as the ambassador of Bairrada. While his charm is indeed that of a diplomat, he speaks his mind with persuasiveness and humor, and we felt constructively well treated. As a chemical engineer, he seems to have a confident grasp of how substances interact, and shows greater readiness to experiment than the average enologist.

Pato’s top of the line Quinta do Ribeirinho, a 100% Baga red made from ungrafted vines with tiny yields, is protected from phylloxera by a layer of sand covering the clay-calcareous soil (as in Colares). He is currently experimenting with ungrafted rootstocks planted directly on clay-calcareous soil, but they may not survive. The experiment, nevertheless, has already shown that 100% clay-calcareous soils produce finer fruit that those covered with sand.

The Quinta de Ribeirinho is his only wine aged 100% in new oak. Asked why, he said it was the only one that had enough structure to withstand new wood without acquiring its taste. Asked “but why new wood in the first place?” he said that he doesn’t use new wood to impart taste. New wood has two advantages compared to older wood: it causes greater natural micro-oxygenation because the pores are fully open; and it imparts more wood tannins, and the interaction between wood tannins and grape tannins causes improved polymerization (longer fibers).

All Luis Pato’s grapes are 100% destemmed. The reds ferment with ambient yeasts, the whites with inoculated. As an experiment, he is adding small amounts of white musts to the lagares used for red wine crushing. At bottling, reds show a total of 30-50mg/l of SO2, whites show 70-80mg/l. Tannins are natural anti-oxidants and Baga is very tannic, requiring less SO2 than Touriga Nacional.

All grapes are hand-picked. Starting this year, some machine harvesting will be employed for some sparklers. A few years ago Pato uprooted all his Cabernet Sauvignon to plant Portuguese white varietals. All grapes cultivated are indigenous: Baga and Touriga Nacional for reds, Bical, Sercial, Maria Gomes and Sercialinho (a hybrid of Sercial and Alvarinho) for whites and sparklers.

Since I had written to Pato about my interest in wines made from ungrafted vines, we started at the top, always a refreshing change of pace:

2009 Luis Pato Quinta do Ribeirinho Pé Franco barrel sample
From Burgundian barrel. Still finishing malos. Cherry and reduction aromas. Shows malolactic frizziness, good weight, lovely fruit, and a touch of eucalyptus. Good acidity (according to Pato, sandy soils generate more malic acid than clay-calcareous soils).

2009 Luis Pato Vinha Barrosa barrel sample
From 80+ year old Baga vines. White wine must added (0.5-1.0%). Malos finished. Very fresh cherry aromas. Vibrant, acidic, tannic, lovely balance and harmony. This barrel was new, but will be blended with others that are not. French wood (Allier) but Portuguese cooper (Dias & Cia.). Pato just bought the rest of this vineyard, so it will become a monopole starting next year.

2009 Luis Pato Vinha Formal Touriga Nacional barrel sample
10 year old vines. Second vintage. Only two 650 liter barrels/900 bottles. White wine must added (Bical, from the same vineyard) to this vintage (2008 had none). Cold maceration. Cherry and reduction aromas. Tannic, with additional hints of violets.

2009 Luis Pato Vinha Pan barrel sample 13.2%
100% single vineyard Baga from Vinha Panasqueira. Second use barrel. Muted nose, showing reduction, but mouth feel is sweet and floral. Lovely.

2009 Luis Pato Vinha Formal (branco) barrel sample
100% Bical. Second use barrel. Mineral, white flower and peaches. Creamy mouth feel. Could use a touch more acid (underwent malos).

We went up to the tasting room, where we tasted three sparklers and two whites:

2008 Luis Pato Baga Espumante Bruto (rosé) 12.0%
100% Baga. Strawberry, raspberry, mineral aromas. Good body. Tasty.

2008 Luis Pato Vinha Formal Espumante Bruto (white) 13.0%
Blend. Single vineyard. Mineral and white flower aromas, with some caramel. Serious acidity but candied sweetness, like Turkish Delight. Asked about this, Pato said it’s from the Touriga Nacional in the blend.

2008 Luis Pato Maria Gomes Espumante Bruto 12.0%
95% Maria Gomes 5% Arinto. Mineral, floral aromas. Less acidic, less “aggressive.” Attractive.

2008 Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas (vinho branco) 12.5%
Spends four months in used barriques. A blend of Bical, Sercial and Sercialzinho (a hybrid of Sercial and Alvarinho). Nose is closed, with some funk. Good weight, sweet finish, needs a touch more acidity.

2008 Luis Pato Vinha Formal (branco) 12.8%
100% Bical from clay-calcareous soils. Bottle had been open six days (in fridge). Lovely aromas of peach and white flowers. Excellent weight, ideal light bitterness, higher acidity than previous but could still use a bit more for ideal balance.

Pato told us about how he bought the Vinha Formal vineyard based on a 150 year old report by a Portuguese enological surveyor containing a map highlighting it as being one the few in Bairrada that could produce “vinhos de embarque” (embarkation wines), meaning those with enough stuffing to survive the long ship journey to Brazil. At this point, Pato had to leave, and left us in Sara’s hands for the remaining reds.

2007 Luis Pato Vinho Tinto Vinhas Velhas 12.7%
100% Baga. Spends 15 months in French oak, second and third use. Cherry and herbs. Good weight, pleasant medium tannins, nice final bitterness.

2005 Luis Pato Vinha Pan 13.0%
100% Baga from 29 year old vines. Bottle open ten days in the fridge. Ripe cherry aromas. Lovely mouth feel, good balance, oxidation beginning to show.

2003 Luis Pato Vinha Barrosa 13.5%
Leather, cherry, funk. The word “decadent” flashes on the teleprompter. Good acidity for the vintage. Tannic, powerful, lovely.

2009 Luis Pato Abafado Molecular
A new dessert wine made by Filipa and Luis Pato using crio-extracted Baga. 500 ml bottle open five days in the fridge but without cork. Intense aromas of raspberry and violets. Fresh and lively, attractive sweetness, powerful tannins.

In addition to the good vibes and being on the receiving end of Luis Pato’s generosity, our visit was instructive because of the insight into his philosophy, his particular way of being from Bairrada. The sale of sparklers is the winery’s main source of revenue and allows it to do well while developing ways to increase the visibility of the harshly tannic Baga grape, at the other extreme of facility. While Pato only uses indigenous varieties and ambient yeasts for the reds, he also uses new French oak (in differing proportions) to make his Bagas smoother and earlier drinking, in a manner reminiscent of what Luciano Sandrone does with Nebbiolo. As long as the wines don’t taste of wood, I have no problem with this, but they cannot be called traditional. Before the “ends justifies the means” gang asks “who cares as long as they taste good?”, these wines may taste better than the old wood Bagas up to age ten, but it’s too early to say which will taste better in the long run (and in wine, of course, the best things come to those who wait). But while Piemontese wineries and their clients have Dolcettos and Barberas to keep them happy while waiting for their Nebbiolos to mature, Bairrada product lines seem to have something of a hole in their mid-palate. Touriga Nacional and lesser know varieties like Jaen and Sizão could be used to plug this hole. But as mono-varietals, not to soften Baga. Like, hey, does anyone with tradition soften Nebbiolo with Barbera?

Our next appointment was at Casa do Canto, a very traditional producer that was once the largest in the area, but is now considerably reduced after distribution among the founder’s heirs. After locating it in the town of Ancas, not an easy task, we went to lunch at the only restaurant in town, called Retiro, one of those unpromising joints where the name appears embossed on a plastic sign under a Coca-Cola logo. But we quickly became buddies with the owner, José Castro, who brought us the house red in an unmarked bottle. The food was the closest thing to homemade: delicious fried batter cod, bay leaf rice, and breaded pork cutlets, with a perfectly seasoned green salad. All for €15, including wine and gossip (as we shall see).

When I mentioned we were about to visit Casa do Canto, he said that we were drinking their wine, but since he had bought it for less than wholesale, the bottle had to be unmarked. Someone asked us who else we were going to visit. I said Bágeiras and Saima. He bent down and said “the gentleman sitting at the table behind you, Dr. Carlos Almeida e Silva, used to be the owner of Saima, but he and his wife, Dona Graça, split up, and now the whole winery belongs to her.” I asked him “gee, what happened?” He said, bending down even further, “since we are among gentlemen, I’ll tell you: he is a doctor and didn’t want to mix the two businesses, so he put all the property in her name and then she threw him out.” People are the same everywhere. Things look rough for doctor-winemakers in Bairrada at the moment. We had intended to visit Quinta de Baixo, a traditional winery owned by eye surgeon João Alberto Póvoa, but a look at their site showed that it had new owners and a new style.

2007/8 Casa do Canto restaurant red (no label)
Simple cherry aromas, very fruity and fresh, but with gritty tannins, unusual. Like a Beaujolais with cojones, most commonly unknown as CojoBojo (language shapes thought, so must use images anyone can relate to).

At Casa do Canto, we were green harvested by an elderly and affable husband and wife team who take care of the place in the owner’s absence. We had been told that the owner, Dona Maria Alexandra, is 94 years old and had two sons. The first, who was responsible for the winery’s excellence, died twenty years ago. The second, who manages the business, had taken his mother to the Douro, where they own another winery. But we were told that he is dedicated to other interests and, indeed, the place looked dire, but with racks and racks of bottles from vintages going back decades. They had no wine for us to taste, but we bought a 1995 Garrafeira (their top bottling), from one of the finest Bairrada vintages of the last quarter century, for €10, and a 1992 Garrafeira, which the husband claimed to be their best wine from the last 20 years, for €20. These prices are, of course, ridiculous in terms of carrying costs, but the last laugh won’t be heard until we open them bottles.

Our next appointment was with Paulo de Souza, son of Sidónio de Sousa, another traditional producer. Sidónio de Sousa has been bottling under his name since 1990, but leased his vines to others before that. Paulo kindly came to pick us up at a meeting point, and took us in his car to visit their vines. From there we went to the winery, where we had an interesting and wide-ranging discussion about winemaking, wine marketing and wine politics. As with many Bairrada producers, the reds have three tiers: Colheita, Reserva, and Garrafeira. Here the Colheita and Reserva have shorter macerations (3/4 days) and the Garrafeira (made in special years) slightly longer (5/6 days). In a poor vintage, like 2006, they just don’t bottle, and sell the wine wholesale.

Following a tour of the premises, we sat down to taste some down home real true Bagas, trodden in lagares, fermented without temperature control, with stems and ambient yeasts, aged in 80/90 year old Portuguese oak 4,000 liter casks, bottled unfined and unfiltered, with no acid or sugar added, and total of 30-40 mg/l of SO2 at bottling.

2005 Sidónio de Sousa Reserva Tinto Bairrada 14.0%
100% Baga from 15 year old vines. Raspberry aromas, slightly jammy. Fierce tannins and mouth-puckering acidity overwhelm the fruit before food. With cheese, sausage and bread, the balance becomes very good. But not for the faint of heart.

2000 Sidónio de Sousa Garrafeira Tinto Bairrada 13.0%
100% Baga from 80/90 year old vines. Elegant dark cherry aroma, but somewhat closed. Strong tannins, mouth tingling acids, powerful structure, good acid/sweet balance, very fine.

1997 Sidónio de Sousa Garrafeira Tinto Bairrada 14.5%
100% Baga from 80/90 year old vines. Vibrant aromas, animal, powdered chocolate, caramel, vanilla. Paulo emphasizes that they never use new wood, but people often think they it in their Bagas after a certain age. Peppery, excellent acidity, powerful structure, well integrated alcohol. Still young, with a decade or two ahead of it. My only caveat: the acidity, while vibrant, seems a bit separate from the fruit; I would have suspected addition if Paulo hadn’t said they never do it.

1990 Sidónio de Sousa Reserva Tinto Bairrada 13.0%
To our great honor, at this point Paulo came back with a bottle of the first wine they bottled under their name, the 1990 Reserva. He wanted to show us what happens with Baga tannins when they mature. Still young in color. Attractive secondaries, with leather and cinnamon. The tannins have become smooth and round, the wine retaining its balance, with excellent acidity and a sweet finish. Luvly.

Palates exhausted, we drove back to the hotel, but then found the energy for an end-of-day stroll up to the medieval hilltop part of Coimbra, where the beautiful old university sits. Dinner was pork rolls in our room with Buçaco leftovers in plastic cups, like a bad outtake from an even worse movie, Sideways.

Marcia was showing signs of fatigue on Tuesday morning, January 5, but the show must go on. We checked out of the hotel and drove to Sangalhos for an appointment at Quinta de Bágeiras (despite the accent, it is pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable), a winery started in 1990 by Mario Sergio Alves Nuno, using grapes from vines previously owned by his parents and grandparents.

At the beginning of all these appointments there is a certain amount of friendly banter that could be called the sussing out phase, like dogs sniffing each other (private parts exempted), where you exchange ideological greeting cards and determine what kind of idiot (or not) you’re dealing with. Once that is satisfactorily out of the way, you can move on to a greater or lesser waste of your time (or not), depending on the chemistry of the preliminaries.

The chemistry, in this case, was considerable, and Mario Sergio hosted one of our longest and most engaging visits. Bágeiras and Sidónio de Sousa share the same enologist, Rui Alves, who was not present, but Mario Sergio seemed so knowledgeable that I was surprised he even needed one. Like Sidónio de Sousa, Bágeiras did not bottle any wine in 2006 (before that, the last year in which no reds were bottled was 1993). Their reds also follow the Colheita, Reserva and Garrafeira tiering system. The currently available Garrafeira is the 2005 because it evolved faster than the very acidic 2004, that won’t be released until late 2010/early 2011. Red grapes are trodden in cement lagares without destemming, by foot during the first two days, then with a utensil known as a “maço” (mace) or “macaco” (monkey) that looks like a large pestle. Fermentation lasts 5 to 8 days. At 1,020 of density, equivalent to 2/3 degrees of alcohol (“fermentation is not allowed to die in the lagar”), red wines are transferred to casks, where they spend 14 to 18 months. After that, they age longer in bottles. Lagares are not used for whites, which go to a press that extracts juice directly from bunches. Reds are neither fined nor filtered. Whites and sparklers are fined. Reds are bottled with approximately 50mg/l total SO2 and whites with 70/80 mg/l. Reds are never acidified, only whites and sparklers (as needed), always in the must before fermentation. Yeasts are ambient. A minimum of herbicides and pesticides are used, the latter because Baga is susceptible to moths. Malos always take place in winter, in stainless steel for whites and sparklers, in used wood casks for reds. After the tour, we sat down to taste the following:

1994 Quinta de Bágeiras Vinho Branco Bairrada 12.0%
60% Maria Gomes, 30% Bical, 10% other varieties like Rabo de Ovelha (Sheep’s Ass) and Sercial. Vinified in stainless steel and bottled filtered. Mature aromas of white flowers and herbs. Fruit somewhat past its prime, so acidity dominant. No trace of oxidation. Opened to show how long lived Bairrada whites can be.

2002 Quinta de Bágeiras Gran Reserva Espumante
Maria Gomes and Bical. Attractive aromas of quince, brioche, guava and yeast. Green acidity, light bitterness, excellent balance, very dry.

2007 Quinta de Bágeiras Garrafeira Vinho Branco Bairrada 14.0%
50% Maria Gomes, 50% Bical. Spends 7/9 months in old wood. Reticent, with some pain grillé. Lovely weight, perfect acid/sweet balance, additional white flower notes. Subtle and elegant. Excellent.

2005 Quinta de Bágeiras Garrafeira Vinho Tinto Bairrada 14.0%
80% Baga and 20% super mature Touriga Nacional (the Garrafeira is normally 100% Baga). Bright and lovely cherry aroma. Lovely mouth feel, powerful but not overwhelming tannins, excellent acid/sweet balance. Very classy. I always thought that super mature means less acid, but Mario Sergio said that was not necessarily so, and didn’t happen here.

As a souvenir, Mario Sergio gave us something remarkably simple that he invented to prepare older corks for extraction, a short rod made of wood, tapering at one end. He explained that older corks tend to crumble because they stick to the interior of the neck. By placing this rod over the cork and hammering it down lightly for just a millimeter, the cork unhinges from the glass, allowing it to be pulled whole with any conventional corkscrew. Something to try.

Bairrada is famous for its roast suckling pig, made with crispy skin, and served with slices of orange (to neutralize the fat) and baked potatoes. There is a string of warehouse size restaurants along the wine route that specialize in this, so many that one wonders how they survive. Sara from Luis Pato said that these were all too touristy, and we should go to Restaurante Mugasa in Fogueira-Sangalhos for an authentic experience. So there we went for lunch, and it was good and not as heavy as I feared. Traditionally, the wine of choice for piglet is a Bairrada sparkler (apparently because it doesn’t clash with the orange), so I ordered Sidonio de Sousa’s version, a red sparkler made from Baga:

1999 Sidónio de Sousa Super Reserva Espumante Bruto 12.5%
Cherry and eucalyptus aromas. Tannic, good acidity, light bitter finish, fine bubbles but not too frizzy. Interesting because different, but rather austere, perhaps too dry. In the end, doesn’t make an eloquent case for tannic red sparklers.

We finished lunch just in time for our final appointment, at nearby Casa de Saima. I was psyched for the visit because Luis Pato had hosted a small tasting in São Paulo last year in which a 2001 Casa de Saima Garrafeira had been my favorite. I was also curious to meet Dona Graça Maria da Silva Miranda, the Xantipa who had kicked out her Socrates (proving the unified field theory, there was a famous soccer player in Brazil in the 80s called Socrates who was a medical doctor, but I digress). The surprised employee who greeted us came back to say that Dona Graça had forgotten about our appointment and was just starting her lunch, so could we come back in an hour? With infinite tenderness I said I’m sorry, but this is our last appointment in the region and from here we drive to the Douro, so please thank the massa, but we gotta go. She went back in and out comes Dona Graça. We cross embarrassed apologies for her slip-up and my intransigence. After a quick sniffing session she takes us into the winery for a brief tour. I learn that they inoculate everything, destem 100%, but don’t fine or filter. She doesn’t know the SO2 levels. Besides the native varieties, she says they have some syrah and merlot, both of which end up as 10% of the Colheita and Reserva bottlings (the Garrafeira is 100% Baga). But, she says, never cabernet, because she doesn’t like the way it tastes (“peppery”) and “you have to meet the consumer to a certain extent but you can’t give him something you don’t like.” Hmmm, what kind of pro am I dealing with here? At this point she asks her beleaguered employee to put three reds, a white and a sparkler in a box and says “I am in the middle of a business meeting, so how about you take a bottle of each and try them at the hotel or back home in Brazil, wouldn’t that be better?” As an evangelist for slow home drinking and avowed enemy of hurried serial sips, I am pleased to agree to this bittersweet mixture of generosity and expulsion.

Back in the car, Marcia and I are rolling our eyes, giggling with incredulity at how surreal these visits can be. Sure beats staying at home watching TV. At Brazilian prices, we have just been given a US$400 bribe to get out of her hair. And it makes perfect commercial sense. Notes on these wines will be added to this report when we try them, but I can anticipate that we opened the white a few days later in our Douro hotel room and it was actually quite lovely. Thank you, Dona Graça.

While our visit hardly covered enough wineries to form a complete Bairrada picture, I came away convinced that this is a region deserving far more attention from all refugees from Terminator wines. Baga could very well hold its own against Nebbiolo as a grape of the patient, or a grape that rewards patience, and Bairrada could occupy a niche similar to that occupied by Burgundy and Piedmont in their respective countries, one of more difficult wines made by atomized small producers. I found it encouraging that five producers – Luis Pato, Sidónio de Sousa, Quinta das Bágeiras, Filipa Pato, and Alexandre Almeida (current winemaker at Palácio do Buçaco) – recently formed a kind of I ♥ Baga association called Baga Friends to promote the grape and its varietals. According to Mario Sergio of Bágeiras, 2002 was weak in Bairrada and 2006 worse, but 2007/8/9 are all very good to excellent, particularly 2009, so the timing is right. At the São Paulo tasting mentioned above, Ambassador Luis Pato was generous to the competition, showing his 2005 Vinha Barrosa next to a 2003 Bágeiras Garrafeira and a 2001 Saima Garrafeira, a setup in which the latter were likely to show better (and did, at least in April, 2009). In Bairrada, there is no fight between traditionalists and moderns, perhaps because there is so little to fight over. Perhaps traditionalists hope that Pato’s contribution to the region’s visibility will be a tide that raises all ships.
Last edited by Oswaldo Costa on Fri Jan 22, 2010 6:58 am, edited 3 times in total.
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Oswaldo Costa
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Re: Portugal Trip Report (long!) - pictures to follow

Postby Oswaldo Costa » Tue Jan 19, 2010 7:34 pm

After our profitably unsuccessful visit to Casa de Saima, we set off in our feeble rental for the Douro, Portugal’s most prestigious wine DOC and also the world’s oldest (created in 1756). The Douro valley is bounded on all sides by mountain ranges, sheltering it from moderating Atlantic influences and making temperatures extremely hot in the summer, particularly close to the river. By extremely hot I mean over 40C/110F. Enough to fry an egg on the stones, according to Miguel Roquette from Quinta do Crasto. In much of northern Portugal, a thin layer of earth covers a bed of granite, inhospitable for agriculture, but the Douro River, the selfsame Duero of Ribera fame, cuts a mighty swath across the granite and, between the villages of Barca d’Agua and Regua, that reveals an underbelly of schist, often referred to as slate, but different (slate is a magazine). The silvery schist is foliated vertically, like a mille-feuilles turned sideways, allowing moisture to infiltrate and roots to insinuate. Douro viticulture starts where the schist starts, and ends where it ends.

While the Douro bisects Portugal horizontally from the Spanish border to the Atlantic, it winds restlessly, both margins exchanging exposures every couple of hundred yards. Southern exposures, being warmer, tend to be used for Port, while other, cooler exposures tend to be used for dry wines.

It was blustery and raining when our road began its descent into the Douro valley. After a bend, the river appeared, slithering majestically like an olive green snake, its surface coarsely ruffled by the squalls. The weather became fine a day later, making the skin smooth as glass, but the river seemed angry the day we arrived, despite the many locks that have tamed its once formidable fury. Our hotel was in the small but centrally located town of Pinhão, and our room had a beautiful view of the river. But the general air was one of melancholy. This being the lowest point of the low season, many restaurants were closed, and the unusually severe cold was keeping people off the streets. The Douro may be the most beautiful winegrowing region we have ever visited, but the desolation subtly compromised the beauty of everything we saw. When not visiting the three producers we scheduled, we seemed uncharacteristically at a loss for where to go and what to do.

That evening, after a short walk around Pinhão, we stayed in the room and enjoyed a monastic snack of cheese and bread accompanied by a red given to us by Luis Pato:

2007 Trepa Vinho de Mesa 13.5%
An interesting blend of grapes from the Douro’s Quinta do Popa and Bairrada’s Vinha Panasqueira, combining Touriga Nacional and Baga, hence the acronym. Both wineries share the same enologist (Pato), and the label says that combining wines from different regions was a tradition that disappeared with the modern emphasis on DOCs. Blackberry and eucalyptus aromas, tending towards ripeness. Good weight, vibrant acidity and mouth puckering tannins. Goes well with food. Marcia starts sneezing after an hour, an indication of more than minimal SO2.

Wednesday, January 6: Visit to Niepoort
When I wrote to Dirk Niepoort requesting an appointment, I may have been inelegant by saying that I was interested because of his decision to switch from inoculated to ambient yeasts in 2004. His enologist, Luis Seabra, replied that Dirk would be travelling, but graciously invited us to lunch at the winery. Dirk is perhaps the most visible of the five “Douro Boys,” an informal group whose considerable winemaking skills extend to competent marketing and effective self-promotion. While Alentejo and Estremadura are the volume leaders of Portugal, the Douro Boys have transformed the Douro into the premier winemaking region for high-end dry wines.

We spent the morning driving around the region, entering small hamlets so quiet as to seem uninhabited (when breaking eggs to make hamlets that supply manual labor, if you can call feet manual, for the lagares, the quintas use the whites to fine their wines and the yolks to make a stunning variety of egg-based desserts that carry, in restaurants, the generic designation “Conventual” because they were developed by nuns in convents). At noon, we arrived at the Quinta de Nápoles and found it, too, deserted. The Quinta is a compound of five or six closely clustered one or two story houses built in a tastefully modern combination of iron beams and layered schist exteriors. We heard voices inside one of them so I knocked. The voices continued, so I knocked again and entered slowly. A radio was broadcasting a talk show, but there was nobody listening. After more knocking about the place we managed to locate the housekeeper, who took us to Gabriela Santos, who gave us a very good tour.

Gabriela told us about how the Niepoort winery began in 1842, and Dirk was a member of its fifth generation. Before him the Niepoorts had no quintas, buying their port from others and bottling it in Vila Nova de Gaia, like many Port houses. Dirk changed all that by buying the old and dilapidated Quinta de Napoles in 1987, and then the adjoining Quinta do Carril in 1988, both in the central and most prestigious region of Cima Corgo. Gabriela told us about the different colors of schist and how nearly all older Douro vineyards contain dozens of varieties growing side by side, generating complexity and diversity (as a result, old vine varietal bottlings are rare). All white grapes come from the Alto Douro region, where higher altitudes, cooler temperatures and the beginning of granitic soils result in greater acidity. She showed us the original two story schist house, beautifully renovated and transformed into a public tasting room, and showed us around the new winery, finished in 2007.

It’s not as if I’ve visited a million wineries but I have never been so impressed. Carved into the mountainside by Austrian architect Andreas Burghardt, you hardly notice its structure. Below the ground level loading dock, where Cor-Ten I-beams frame walls of layered schist with minimalist simplicity, lie the pharaonic chambers of the winery, filled with cutting edge technology, like the sleek lair of a design conscious Bond villain. Combining esthetics with functionality, everything operates by gravity, and descends as you move to the next step. After the grapes are sorted and destemmed on the loading dock, they go down an ingenious stainless steel chute that rolls across the length of the fermentation chamber and deposits them into any of a long row of shining steel vats where mechanical pressing takes place, followed by temperature controlled fermentation (maximum set at.27C). Whites use pneumatic presses and do not undergo malos, so sterile filtering and inhibiting doses of SO2 are used.

From the massive fermentation hall we moved to cooper heaven, a series of smaller, adjoining chambers, all spotless, filled with barrels proudly imprinted with a pantheon of famous names like François Frères, Allier Vosges, Radoux, Seguin-Moreau, and Taransaud. All toasts are light or medium (never high). Natural wine fans may wince at legions of new French oak barrels like vegetarians at a meat plant, but the efficiency with which Niepoort and his architect have implemented their objectives is admirable.

At this point, Gabriela handed us off to Luis Seabra, Niepoort’s enologist since 2004. We could tell from the stains on his hands and nose that he had been busy tasting. Seabra cuts a handsome figure, polite intelligence laced with a dose of steeliness. Handing us a pair of glasses, we began tasting from a sequence of barrels:

2008 Red (will probably end up in Vertente) barrel sample 12.5-13.5%
Unspecified blend. Fresh, herbaceous, cherry aromas with a mineral touch. Good acidity, attractive mouth feel. Very nice. All reds come from schist soil, in this case, red and yellow. Seabra explains to us that there is also blue schist, poorer, that generates more austere and structured wines.

2008 Red (will probably end up in Redoma) barrel sample
A barrel containing Tinta Amarela from older vines. Light reduction, earthy and chalky aromas. Lovely mouth feel, good weight. Curious banana flavor. Seabra says this may be due to green tannins.

We talk about the challenge of choosing the right time to pick, arguably more complex here than anywhere else. Since each vineyard contains a different mix of sometimes dozens of varieties, the only way to determine the optimal moment of average ripeness for each vineyard is to keep tasting a representative sample of grapes and rely on past experience.

2008 Red (will probably end up in Batuta) barrel sample
Unspecified blend. Fermentation and maceration for two months in stainless steel, floating cap, closed after fermentation ends. From more austere blue schist soils. Not giving much aroma at this point, just some minerality. Good weight, classy structure, but not much to get excited about at this point.

Next we moved to what I consider Niepoort’s two most interesting wines, the ones I most wanted to taste:

2008 Niepoort Charme barrel sample
First vintage 2000. 100% whole clusters foot trodden and fermented in lagares. Old vine Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz, and some others. Short maceration. Funky aromas, animale, violets. Very fresh and lively, fruity, yet nervy. Lighter than the preceding three, yet somehow deeper. Smooth and elegant.

Charme is sold in Burgundy bottles and is Dirk’s tip of the hat to what appears to be his favorite region. Too bad Charme is rather expensive, because it manages to appeal to the Burgundy esthetic in a more interesting way than other non-French pinots I’ve tasted. How ironic, yet fitting, that the secret to making good pinot outside France might be to use altogether different grapes and terroir. This could also be seen as scary evidence that cellar techniques (like maceration times and stem inclusion) can dictate the final result more than grape and terroir. Perhaps I have to give enologists more credit than my attraction to the idea of “soil to bottle” would like.

2007 Niepoort Robustus barrel sample
From two vineyards, one facing west, the other east, the latter higher and cooler. 30% whole cluster, 45 day maceration, floating cap with closed lid, no pump-overs. Will spend four years in old 100/2000 liter Slavonian oak Garbelotto casks. Fabulous aroma, exotic cherry, eucalyptus and pine resin. Great acid/sweet balance, vibrant tannins.

2008 Niepoort Robustus barrel sample
60% whole cluster, 55 day maceration. Muted nose, chalk powder. Lovely mouth feel, fresh, acidic, slightly green tannins, yet very attractive. Will also spend four years in old 100/2000 liter Slavonian oak Garbelotto casks, scheduled for release in 2012.

Jamie Goode’s blog has interesting information about Robustus, Niepoort’s first dry red (see http://www.wineanorak.com/dinnerwithdirk2006.htm): in 1990, hoping to avoid the fast ripening effect of southern exposures, Dirk made a wine from north facing vines from the recently purchased Quinta do Carril, but it was judged too acidic and tannic, and was never launched. In 2004, the pendulum having swung in favor of such a profile, Dirk relaunched Robustus by repeating, according to Goode, many of the same ‘mistakes’ made in 1990. I was most curious to try this because its reintroduction dates from 2004, the same year that inoculation was discontinued and Seabra was hired. I’m not sure what the causal links were, but the year obviously marked a sea change at the winery.

After these two, there was no point in tasting more reds, so we started to walk towards the dining room for lunch. Along the way, we tasted a barrel sample of 2008 white port, the only port vinified at Quinta de Nápoles. 100% whole cluster, oxidative, smells of walnuts and honey; tastes delicious in a discretely sweet way, with harmony and balance. A revelation to us, and a perfect aperitif. Up one floor, and we taste a sample of 2009 Niepoort Riesling, from schist soils 800 meters high, vinified in a temperature controlled stainless steel tank at 11C. By keeping the temperature that low, fermentation that would ordinarily take five days takes five months. According to Seabra, this technique only works for whites, and the slower extraction generates fresher aromas and better acidity. This Riesling had sweet peachy aromas, and tasted like a cross between Riesling and Moscato (only because still fermenting, says Seabra). I’ll be interested to see what this tastes like when ready.

At this point, Seabra showed us the terraces behind the winery, with spectacular views of the Rio Tedo, a Douro tributary, and took us to lunch in the compound’s dining room, in one of the small houses we had encountered upon arrival. Gabriela joined us there, along with Nicholas Delaforce, Niepoort’s enologist in charge of Port, who drove over from the different quinta where Port is handled, and a shy lab technician whose name I didn’t catch. I’ll try to summarize several observations from Seabra:

All Niepoort vineyards are organic and selection is massale. It is true that acid must often be added in the Douro, but it wasn’t in the 2008s that we tasted earlier in barrel. He prefers to add acid once only, in the must, because any excess will form crystals and drop out. He agreed that acid, when added, often tastes poorly integrated.

The switch from inoculated to ambient was not just to make the wine more authentic. Purchased yeasts require nutrients and behave like junkies, stopping fermentation when food runs out and restarting when more is given, generating roller coaster fermentation.

While the open pores of new wood allow for greater natural micro-oxygenation, Seabra doesn’t believe, like Luis Pato, that wood tannins bind with grape tannins to improve polymerization. He also doesn’t believe that a wine needs “structure” to withstand new oak, otherwise how could pinot noir withstand new wood? It only occurred to me later that pinots aged in new wood are most likely fermented with whole clusters so they have enough structure to handle it. When I suggested that all that new oak might make these top Burgundies tough to drink for a long time, he disagreed, saying that he had tasted several young DRCs that were fresh and approachable. Pathetically disadvantaged in the DRC department, I let the matter drop.

We talked about how 2003 was a polarizing vintage, pleasing to many critics but unpopular in the blog and message board world. Seabra said that all the 2003 that he had tasted lately seemed to be aging poorly, with unbalanced structure. Over time, he believes, the vintage characteristics will trump whatever you do in the cellar.

Delaforce talked about the challenge of producing, year after year, a balanced and consistent style of tawny and ruby, in contrast to the vintage Ports, that can express their particular year.

Over a lunch of “rancho,” a delicious Douro stew containing meat, pork ribs, lard, chorizo, pasta, potatoes, collard greens and carrots, we drank:

2008 Niepoort Tiara Douro 12.0%
From 60+ year old vines of Codega do Larinho, Rabigato and others, planted at 550+ on schist and granite soils facing east, vinified for five months at cool temperatures. Very nice acacia and mineral aromas. Fresh, good weight, slightly more sweet than acid.

2005 Niepoort Redoma Tinto
A blend of Tinta Amarela, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, and others. Closed. Some aroma starts to appear towards the end of the meal, a slightly stewed blackberry, very ripe. Mouth feel, however, is lovely and fresh. Hard to judge at this point, but could become very good.

At this point Delaforce asked us if we wanted him to open a half bottle of 05 or 07 vintage port to accompany dessert and a cheese plate. We went with 2005 (he graciously gave us the 2007 to go).

2005 Niepoort Vintage Port
Few Port houses declared in 2005, says Delaforce. Closed, but mouth shows delicate fruit, vibrant acidity, fine tannins. Quite lovely.

Niepoort 10 Year Tawny (just bottled)
Nutty aroma, lovely peppery piquancy. Delaforce says this is from the “aguardente” (the grape spirit that is added to fermenting wine to make it Port), and will tone down with time.

Even in Dirk’s absence, the hospitality at Niepoort, with all the senior employees assembled for our benefit, was really quite impressive, and set a standard that other visits will be pressed to match. Though Dirk was absent, he seemed everywhere, in the esthetics, in the winemaking choices, in the way people said his name. My impression is that the dependable profitability of the Port side of the business allows Dirk to experiment on the dry side, while indulging a Falstaffian appetite for the finer things in life (i.e., Burgundy). Jamie Goode’s blog contains reports of visits to Niepoort in which, in addition to keeping tabs on the evolution of Niepoort wines, Jamie gets to drink many reasons for envy. While the wines are technological to a significant degree, nowhere did I taste poorly integrated oak or that stewed taste of hot climate grapes that seems to characterize the modern profile, and would be so easy to achieve in the Douro. They are mostly light on their feet, with good, natural tasting acidity.

That night we stayed in again and had cold cuts, cheese and bread with the 2008 Casa de Saima Reserva Branco that Dona Graça of Casa de Saima had given us. Took no notes, but it was fresh and lovely, with good acidity and very tasty fruit.

Thursday, January 7: Visit to Jorge Moreira/Poeira
Niepoort and Crasto are relatively large wineries, so I wanted to balance that by visiting a smaller producer, Jorge Moreira, known for breaking the mold by trying to make more acidic, less international styled wines. It was not easy to find Moreira’s quaintly named Quinta da Terra Feita de Cima (Quinta of the Land Made from Above), so we were unfashionably late. Our conversation was animated and engaging, and Moreira came across as a brainy but intuitive inventor, intense and creative. Previously at Real Companhia Velha, he felt that many of the new Douro red wines were similar, and were being made with a port mentality, using grapes with excessively sunny southern exposures. They had unbalanced intensity when young, and aged uncertainly, when not poorly. Believing that higher acidity was the key to better aging, he began to make wines using vineyards facing north, with less direct sunshine and longer maturations. His first effort, the 2001 Poeira (Dust), was an immediate success, something he modestly credits to being there at the right time, when tastes were changing and people were looking for something different (he is also enologist at Quinta de la Rosa, whose wines have been receiving good notices).

Moreira talked about how expensive it is to cultivate the steep inclines of the region; everything has to be done by hand. The Douro cannot compete with Alentejo and Estremadura in terms of cost, so their only option is to go for quality. He talked about his struggle, every year, to keep alcohol levels down. The alcohol level of the current vintage (2009) was looking high because summer had been too hot, and even north facing vines experienced dehydration. Even so, he says his musts rarely require acidification (2003 was the only year in which he had to do it). Like many, he says he wants to bring out the character of each vintage, realizing its potential to the fullest extent. But he says he is definitely not a purist and has no qualms about intervening. This apparent contradiction generated much semantic sorting out, both during our conversation and, later, between me and Marcia in the car (“If you child is musical and you get her piano lessons, is that a “correction”? No, but if you want your child to be balanced, perhaps you should get her lessons for those areas in which she is not naturally gifted.”). Moreira wants to create wines that are balanced and reveal the character of the vintage, even if these are at odds; for that, there are years in which he has “to do nothing” and years in which he has “to do everything.” He is particularly driven to prevent defects like brett or premox. Every vintage is vinified differently and he approaches each without preconceptions. For example, in 2002 he used no barriques and the malos took place in wood, while in 2003 he used 60% barriques and the malos took place in stainless steel. To symbolize that changing aspect, the symbol on the Poeira label is a knot, and every year it’s different.

All Moreira’s wines are manually sorted and foot trodden in cement lagares. Large lagares increase the danger of contamination, so he has to be extremely careful and fermentation has to start quickly. There is risk of brett becoming dominant instead of being dominated; also of volatile acidity, and other dangers. Total SO2 for reds at time of bottling runs at 70/80mg/l. Asked about yeasts, he replied that he inoculates. Pressed to elaborate, he said that he can’t leave something like that to chance. Even when he doesn’t inoculate, he prefers to say that he does because if you do it just once, from that point on you will never know, even if you never do it again, what proportion of native v. non-native yeasts did the trick. That was definitely food for thought, and made me understand that while Niepoort may have stopped inoculating in 2004, that doesn’t mean that his fermentations were performed by native yeasts. Clearly, ambient ≠ native, and begs the further, perhaps unanswerable question (applicable to all immigrants) of how much adaptation time is required before the descendants of inoculated yeasts can legitimately be called native.

2005 was the first vintage Moreira was truly happy with. It was a dry and balanced year, and alcohol came to 13.5%. But he doesn’t like the way it is aging. He was initially dubious about his 2003s, but they were drinking well in 2007. He really likes his 2007, but expected most people not to like it because it has a vegetal aspect. But it got good reviews, and is practically sold out, mostly overseas. I expressed my hope that a certain transfer of power was happening from critics to blogs and message boards but Moreira said this was still marginal, at least in Europe. He railed against the disequilibrium generated by critics. Depending on reviews, wines can go from overstocked to sold-out in a day, and he gave us several examples of things that had happened to producers he knows. He believes that, to survive, the larger producers have to “hold hands” with critics, particularly now, when demand is very weak because of the recession.

We went to Jorge’s cellar to look for a bottle of 2007 Poeira. As he searched, he kept bringing out bottles of chateauneuf-du-papes from 2000 and 2001 and complain about brett. Apparently a local shipper went bankrupt and Jorge had to accept wine as payment. Many have turned out to be bretty, so his intolerance for that defect was running high during our visit. Not finding any 2007 Poeira, Jorge opened a bottle of Pó de Poeira, his second wine:

2007 Pó de Poeira Douro 14.0%
Aged in used oak. Initially closed, opens a little after a few minutes, with a bit of simple cherry. Good mouth weight, slightly bitter finish, light vegetable note, good acid/sweet balance, good natural acidity.

Jorge commented on how the weather in 2007 was unprecedented. It rained very lightly, but throughout, so there was no hydric stress and maturations were prolonged, with substantial acidity. Wines had concentration without too much alcohol. In 2004, 2006 and 2009, on the other hand, there was dehydration. The decision of when to pick is the single most important task of a Douro enologist, he said, because of the bewildering variety of varieties with which they make their non-varietals (this one’s for the Norse God Grammar Patrol). Moreira decides when to pick based on intuition, by tasting the grapes and the seeds, applying whatever knowledge is transferable from previous vintages.

Moving on to the small cellar, we tasted a few barrel samples. The first two we tasted were likely to end up in the 2009 Poeira, and contained grapes picked ten days apart. I guessed wrong, Marcia guessed right:

2008 Poeira barrel sample #1
Ripe cherry aroma mixed with reduction. Fresh and fruity, excellent balance, nice CO2.

2008 Poeira barrel sample #2
Nose is closed. Thick and chewy, quite acidic. Has 1.5% more alcohol!

At this point Moreira surprised me by saying that he avoids certain grapes that he considers “bad.” Among these, he includes Tinta Barroca, Bastardo, and Tinta Roriz. When I protested that the last is Tempranillo, he says he thinks the clones in Spain are different, because those he likes.

2009 Souzão barrel sample
As an example of a grape he likes, we tasted from a barrel of 100% Souzão, a first for me. Aromas were knock-out lovely, with loads of crushed violets. Good acidity, and less concentrated than wines made from standard Douro grapes. I enjoyed this very much and could easily see this doing well as Portuguese answer to lighter aromatic grapes like Gamay, Poulsard, Trousseau, Pineau d’Aunis, etc.

Frustrated that he couldn’t find a 2007 Poeira to open, Jorge called a warehouse in a nearby village and arranged for us to pick one up there to take home. A welcome gesture, that will allow us to test drive it slowly, in ideal settings.

It being Marcia’s birthday, we had a fancy dinner at the luxurious hotel restaurant. I wanted to take the occasion to try a Barca Velha, but prices in Portuguese restaurants are prohibitive, so we submitted to the by-the-glass recommendations accompanying the prix-fixe menu. I didn’t take notes, but we started with a nice Moscatel de Favaios, sweet, but with good acidity, then a 2007 Altano Douro (white), fresh but acid-challenged, a 2007 Quinta do Vallado Douro (white), thick and showing some premox, a basic 2007 Quinta do Crasto, correct but uninspiring, and an agreeable João Ramos Portugal tawny.

Friday, January 8: Visit to Quinta do Crasto
Several years ago I went to one of those Wine Spectator extravaganzas (where you spit the world’s most highly rated wines) and met Miguel Roquette, who was pouring for Quinta do Crasto. Miguel lived in Rio de Janeiro as a child, loves Brazil, wishes he could live there, and can turn on a Brazilian accent at will. He is also very charming, and his dynamism is surely a major factor in the winery’s visibility. I was looking forward to seeing Miguel again, and hoped to understand what makes them tick. Crasto’s 2000 Vinha da Ponte and 2001 Douro Reserva were my Portuguese benchmarks at their respective price levels during my early, point-driven days, but my palate has moved towards greater acidity and less oak and ripe fruit flavors. Crasto, on the other hand, has remained faithful to their style, prizing consistency, rigorous quality control and slow, incremental improvements. They would never do anything as radical (and apparently risky) as switching from inoculated to ambient yeasts, like Niepoort did in 2004. Perhaps because, unlike Niepoort, they don’t have an established Port business that could allow them to take greater risks with their dry wines, on which their survival depends.

Our appointment wasn’t until 11AM, but the drive is tricky, so we checked out of the hotel and set off for the hills. Crasto is on the north side of the Douro, in a particularly elevated area near the town of Gouvinhas, and we made several stressfully vertiginous hairpin bends (I finally understood the term “hairpin”!) and wrong turns before finally getting there. While not quite as steep as the slopes on Madeira, these are challenging enough to visit, so I can imagine how difficult it must be to harvest them.

Miguel Roquette was scheduled to arrive from Porto at around lunchtime, so we were originally going to be taken around by enologist Manoel Lobo. But Lobo was busy with visiting Australian winemaker Dominic Morris, who has been overseeing Crasto’s table wines since 1994 (Morris has his own winery, but the opposing hemispheres allow him to perform double duty, and he has been making the long trek three or four times a year since then). So we were taken around by Catia Barbeta, who was thorough and knowledgeable. First she showed us the Port lagares, where destemmed grapes are foot-trodden by the villagers of Gouvinhas, who also do the harvesting. Unlike most Douro houses, that make a full range of ports, Crasto only makes a vintage and an LBV.

Catia then showed us the chamber where the reds are fermented, in large, temperature-controlled steel vats. Interestingly, there is no maceration. The wines are fermented dry and immediately transferred to barrels. The only exception is Xisto, made in collaboration with Jean-Michel Cazes, owner of Chateau Lynch-Bages, a friend of Miguel’s father, Jorge Roquette. Xisto is made by Lynch-Bages’s enologist, using Portuguese grapes, and is the only wine there that macerates, for up to 20 days after fermentation. Ports use ambient yeasts, but all table wines are inoculated with yeasts and malolactic bacteria. At Crasto, there is a strong emphasis on quality control and dependability. They want a single yeast, quick and safe, to be responsible for all fermentations. Once dry, wines are transferred to different steel vats for malos, and from there they go to barrels, assembled in neat rows in a gigantic warehouse, like a Chinese emperor’s terracotta army. Crasto uses a mixture of predominantly French but also American oak, always new or, at most second or third use, and predominantly medium toast (Catia says that the definition of medium varies from cooper to cooper). Different French sources are used for variety (I noticed Quintessence, Taransaud, Seguin-Moreau). Crasto also uses American oak “because its tannins are softer.” Barrels are topped up every 15 days. Wines are racked every six months, at which time barrels are cleaned, a lot of work for the sake of hygiene. All wines are bottled with inert gas.

Crasto’s top vineyards, Vinha da Ponte (2 hectares) and Vinha Maria Teresa (4.5 hectares), have many centenarian vines and somewhere between 30 and 40 varieties. A DNA study is underway to identify them all, but this is slow work. In special years, these generate single vineyard bottlings, otherwise they go into the Reserva. Vinha da Ponte sees 100% new French oak while Vinha Maria Teresa sees 70/80% new French. The Xisto collaboration, intended as a “Portuguese wine with a French accent,” also sees 100% French oak, and is the only red that is fined (with egg albumen). All Crasto wines are filtered, some more, some less. Crasto uses four gauges, and wines go through some or all, in succession.

The choice of when to pick is made by periodically collecting random samples, starting in August, and sending them to the lab for analysis. There are no preset targets, it depends on the weather conditions. There are years in which the maturities of the different varieties coincide, and years in which they don’t. The decision of whether to bottle the single vineyards as such depends partially on that. There was no Vinha da Ponte was made in 2005, a relatively good year, because of maturity disparities. Crasto has no recipes, but aims for consistency of profile.

Catia then took us to the oldest house in the compound, where there is a dining room. We passed by Jorge Roquette, the owner, who greeted us warmly. Catia then took us through a selection of recently bottled Crasto wines. Whenever the word Quinta appears on the label, the grapes are entirely home-grown. If it says just Crasto, some are purchased. According to Catia, with every passing year the proportion of purchased grapes is becoming smaller and smaller.

2008 Crasto Douro (white) 12.5%
Only the second vintage of Crasto’s first venture into white wine, underscoring how commercially dependent they are on dry reds. From a vineyard leased in Murça, at a higher altitude (600m). Blend of Gouveio, Roupeiro and Rabigato, aged in stainless steel. Pleasant citrus and white flower aromas. Served chilled, shows excellent balance and acidity, with a touch of residual CO2 for freshness (reminiscent of Ceretto’s Roero Arneis, where the same is done). After it warms in the glass, the sensation of acidity begins to flag, but this is a commendable effort. Catia tells us that Rabigato is there for acidity, while the other two provide fruity aromas.

2008 Flor de Crasto Douro 12.5%
Blend of the four main Douro grapes – Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Roriz – from young vines. No wood. Simple cherry aromas. Light tannins, slightly green. Acid tastes a little unnatural. Needs more time in bottle.

2008 Crasto Douro 13.5%
Same blend, except from 30/40 year old vines. Cherry and earth aromas. Good balance, some structure. Acidity adequate, but also tastes a little unnatural.

2007 Quinta do Crasto Douro Reserva Vinhas Velhas 14.5% (from half bottle)
A blend of 30/40 varieties from 70 year old vines. This sees wood, some of it American, and shows it. Jammy cherry aromas with an animal note. Good mouth weight, good acid/sweet balance, but the acidity, again, appears separate. The oak is not overbearing, but needs time to integrate. Way too young to judge, but not giving much complexity today.

At this point, Miguel Roquette arrives and we exchange greetings and promise to chat later. On the subject of monovarietals v. blends, Catia tells us that Crasto is planting new vines, one variety per parcel, at a newly acquired 130 hectare property called Quinta da Cabreira, near Foz Coa. In special years, Crasto produces two monovarietals – the Tinta Roriz, last made in 2003, and the Touriga Nacional, last made in 2006 - which sell for prices similar to the Vinha da Ponte and Maria Teresa, even though the vines, at age 40, are several decades younger. This is attributable to the scarcity of older vine varietal bottlings in the Douro.

2005 Roquette & Cazes Xisto Douro 14.0%
First made in 2003. Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz, from purchased grapes, each vinified separately. Nose shows an elegant package of judicious oak, cherry, fat, and meat. Good body, good balance, well integrated wood, attractive fruit. Drinking very well now.

2004 Quinta do Crasto LBV Port 19.0%
Nice, pruney aroma, but none of the oxidative notes I was expecting. Excellent mouth feel, vibrant acidity, very tasty.

We are done, but an enjoyable coda awaits. Miguel reenters and says that he spoke to his father and they’d like us to stay for lunch with them and their enologists, Dominic Morris and Manuel Lobo. At the table, Jorge Roquette talked warmly about the gratitude the family feels towards Brazil for receiving them so well when they fled the revolution that overthrew the 48 year old Salazar dictatorship in 1974. At the other end of the table, Miguel and the others were talking about critics and scores, speculating about why Mark Squires might have scored the 07 Reserva higher (94) than the more pedigreed 07 Vinha Maria Teresa (93). In addition to these lofty scores (the 07 Vinha da Ponte got 95), the winery is running high because the 05 Reserva was recently declared #3 in the Wine Spectator’s Top 10 Wines of 2008. This was not the time to get on my soapbox and rail against critics and points, but I couldn’t help wondering how addictive it must be, like adrenaline, to receive such high scores. Not to mention profitable. I also couldn’t help wondering what that might do to one’s willingness to take risks.

The delicious lunch was accompanied by a 07 Reserva, followed by a 07 Maria Teresa. Both young and oaky, years away from their prime, but the latter is clearly in a different league. I had a chat with my neighbor, Manuel Lobo, about acidification. He said they sometimes acidify the must, but they work hard to make the grapes come to the sorting mat with the correct acidity by “managing the amount of hydric stress through irrigation.” Interesting. He also said that they don’t filter. I mentioned the four filters. He qualified by saying that the pores were wide gauge. Manuel said that the objective was to make wines that aged well but could also be drunk young.

After lunch, Miguel took us to see the famous swimming pool on the edge of a cliff and talked about how quality control was essential for Crasto, otherwise a single slip up could destroy what had taken them years to build. I was surprised to note how a structure that appeared to me so solid could appear to them so vulnerable. Miguel said that their fundamental objective is to produce the best Touriga Nacional in the world.

As we were leaving, Miguel gave us some books, including one about the Douro Boys that shows how competent they are at putting out the word. We left with the warm wind of hospitality blowing in our sails. As for the wines, my palate has changed, and perhaps I am now too hopelessly in the quirky, artisanal camp. While these wines may no longer be what I am most interested in, I admire the competence and consistency with which the Roquettes have built their business.

The drive to Porto was uneventful, but the landscape was stark, like a lunar surface, barren and chalky, with scattered blocks of pale granite, as if quarried and randomly disposed by bored giants. That evening, we stayed in and ordered a cheese plate from room service. It was cold enough outside to chill a souvenir from Niepoort by leaving it out on the terrace for a few hours:

2008 Niepoort Redoma Branco Reserva 12.8%
Austere aromas of white flowers laced with anis. Aged in French oak, but doesn’t show it. Good body and freshness, good acid/sweet balance, very satisfying with cheese.

We spent Saturday, January 9, walking around Porto, known to the English as Oporto, because the Portuguese always put the article “o” before writing or saying the name of the city. Equivalent to someone hearing “She’s going to the Catskills” and thinking that the place is called Thecatskills. The district where the Douro flows into the Atlantic is full of beautiful old buildings, and my jaw was dropping right and left at the lovely ceramic and Art Deco façades. We crossed the bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia, where the Port warehouses are located and the old Port boats moored. In one of Porto’s main squares, I was surprised to see a large equestrian statue of Peter I, the mercurial Portuguese prince who rebelled in 1822 against his father, King John VI of Portugal, and declared Brazil’s independence from the mother country. Eight years later he abdicated in favor of his son, Peter II, and went back to Portugal to prevent the crown from leaving the family. He eventually became Peter IV of Portugal, king of a country against which he had rebelled, and from whom he had spirited away its most important colony. Stranger than fiction.

That evening we went to dinner at Shis, one of Porto’s top restaurants, beautifully positioned over a beach facing the Atlantic, yards from the water. The view would have been lovely if it wasn’t pitch black. The wine list, alas, was bipolar, as usual, featuring trendy and expensive Douros at one end and workhorse Alentejos at the other. There was only one Bairrada, a 2003 Luis Pato Vinha Pan, and a handful of Dãos. From among the latter we chose a 2000 Touriga Nacional, inexpensive, that could only cost so little relative to its age because Dão is so direly unfashionable.

2008 Deu la Deu Alvarinho Vinho Verde Monção (by the glass)
Mineral and white flower aromas. Decent weight, but needs more acidity.

2008 Quinta da Bacalhoa Catarina Setúbal (by the glass)
Lovely white flower aroma. Better balance than preceding, pleasant light bitter finish.

2000 Quinta dos Carvalhais Touriga Nacional Dão 12.5%
Light ruby. Lovely mature cherry and leather aromas. No oak in sight. Excellent acid/sweet balance, good weight, but light on its feet, with supple tannins.

Sunday, January 10, our last day in Portugal, began with a visit to the Serralves Foundation, an important contemporary art center in a building designed by Portugal’s most famous architect, Alvaro Siza. Beautiful, spare and full of elegant angles, though I find the volumes less than ideal for displaying art (not enough reliance on the golden rule). On the same grounds there is a lovely, and completely empty, pink Art Deco mansion, where the original owner used to live, definitely worth a visit.

On the way to Lisbon, we stopped at the remarkable Alcobaça Monastery, where Peter I of Portugal is buried next to Inês de Castro, a Galician noblewoman with whom he had a storied and adulterous love affair that captures the Portuguese imagination to this day. In 1355, while Peter was the heir apparent, Afonso IV, his father and king of Portugal, had Inês assassinated because the prince’s scandalous liaison with a foreigner threatened to split the kingdom. Devastated, Peter never forgave his father or loved anyone else again. When he became king in 1357, it has become the stuff of legend that he propped Inês’s mummified corpse next to him so that the nobles assembled for the coronation could kiss the hand of the woman who should have been their queen. Peter then had her buried at Alcobaça and positioned his own tomb across from hers so that they would see each other the moment they rose on Judgment Day.
Last edited by Oswaldo Costa on Wed Jan 20, 2010 1:52 pm, edited 1 time in total.
"I went on a rigorous diet that eliminated alcohol, fat and sugar. In two weeks, I lost 14 days." Tim Maia, Brazilian singer-songwriter.
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Re: Portugal Trip Report (long!) - pictures to follow

Postby Oswaldo Costa » Tue Jan 19, 2010 7:36 pm

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"I went on a rigorous diet that eliminated alcohol, fat and sugar. In two weeks, I lost 14 days." Tim Maia, Brazilian singer-songwriter.
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Re: Portugal Trip Report (long!) - pictures to follow

Postby Tim York » Wed Jan 20, 2010 5:52 pm

Great report, Oswaldo. I'll download so as to read at my leisure and look forward to the pics. I haven't been there for about 15 years and would look to go again. Germaine is a big fan of Lusitano horses and I have never got in much wine visiting.

I remember some wonderful fresh fish at a restaurant overlooking a tumultuous Altantic near Cascais but on our last visit Germaine was struck down by food poisoning which I attribute to some weird ice cream we ate at a horse show in Lisbon (I felt nauseous but no more) and spent 3 days in bed at a lovely Quinta hotel in Sintra.

I hope that you have positive experiences with the Colares bottles you have brought home. My only two experiences have been undrinkable; curdled cabbage and rotten cheese. But I will try again when I have the opportunity.
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Re: Portugal Trip Report (long!) - pictures to follow

Postby Joe Moryl » Thu Jan 21, 2010 2:24 am

Wow, where to begin? Thanks for writing all of this up - it stirred many memories of my recent trip. For starters, a few random observations on the first parts:

Despite the differences in Brazilian Portuguese it must have been a lot easier for you to chat about wine with the locals. I always try to brush up on the local language when I travel (and all the Portuguese CDs I could find taught the Brazilian flavor), but I was utterly hopeless in your language. Reading comprehension wasn't the big problem, but to speak and understand I was hopeless. Nevertheless, nearly everyone was kind and patient when it came to the babbling American.

Sounds like you met with a lot of mediocre wines in restaurants - especially in Madeira. Those wines you had in the tourist trap place were from CARMIM, which is the co-op in Monseraz, and sell for very cheap prices here in NJ. I was often dining alone so wound up drinking the house wine or a half bottle more often than I would have liked - sometimes those turned out to be unexpectedly tasty (like the Dao from the Penalva do Castelo co-op, which I saw in a supermarket the next day for 2 euros!). Hmm, you must really like crisply acidic wines, based on your comments on the '08 Soalheiro Alvarinho - I didn't find that lacking in acidity at all.

Pity about your search for Colares. A winemaker I met in the Douro waxed sentimental about Colares and Ramisco and told me I should get my ass down there before it is all gone. In planing my trip I came across an article in Portuguese that dealt with (from what I could tell) the difficulties of getting to visit and taste at the Colares co-op - clearly not doing wonders for the reputation of that wine.

The Bucaco Palace didn't strike me as a place that I would like to eat at, and I wound up having a couple good meals in Coimbra proper. One was memorable feijoada de javali at a quirky little place called Ze Manel de Ossos, accompanied by an unlabeled bottle of a toothsome local red - like your Casa do Canto restaurant red; my lack of Portuguese kept me from finding out more about the wine. Also, a more upscale meal at A Taberna, where I had great cabrito washed down with a wine from Quinta do Mouro in the Alentejo (which was superb - not chosen because of a lack of local options, but because I wanted to try it).

Glad you enjoyed Bageiras. I think the '05 Garrafeira red was one of the finest wines of the trip. While you don't mention it, their sparkling red was the best I tasted in Bairrada as well. First, I was shown a bit of everything by Bernardo, who was fetched because of his command of English, but knew the wines well. We then went into the a room next to the old still (in operation - did you see that old thing?) and tasted through everything. A group of restaurant people from Aveiro were already there having a jolly time, and I joined them for some pleasant banter. Mario Sergio came by to sit with us, bringing some chestnuts to roast on the fire in the still. A great way to spend the afternoon.

Unfortunately, I had to be in Lisbon that night and was supposed to stop by Saima on the way out. So my visit was somewhat abbreviated too, but for different reasons. I probably had stayed too long at Bageiras to fully appreciate what I tasted at Saima - I wish their wines were available here in the US. While I didn't get a CARE package at Saima, I was blown away by the generosity of wineries in Portugal - several places insisted i take bottles with me in lieu of opening a fresh bottle during a slow period. This has seldom happened in other wine regions that I have visited.

More comments later....

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Re: Portugal Trip Report (long!) - pictures to follow

Postby Oswaldo Costa » Thu Jan 21, 2010 7:03 am

Joe Moryl wrote:Despite the differences in Brazilian Portuguese it must have been a lot easier for you to chat about wine with the locals. I always try to brush up on the local language when I travel (and all the Portuguese CDs I could find taught the Brazilian flavor), but I was utterly hopeless in your language. Reading comprehension wasn't the big problem, but to speak and understand I was hopeless. Nevertheless, nearly everyone was kind and patient when it came to the babbling American.

Indeed, there were many moments when I thought or said to Marcia "gosh, if we didn't speak the same language, how could we possibly..."

Joe Moryl wrote:Pity about your search for Colares. A winemaker I met in the Douro waxed sentimental about Colares and Ramisco and told me I should get my ass down there before it is all gone. In planing my trip I came across an article in Portuguese that dealt with (from what I could tell) the difficulties of getting to visit and taste at the Colares co-op - clearly not doing wonders for the reputation of that wine.

We'll be tasting the ones I brought over the coming months and I'll be posting notes. Tim's comment got me scared! :lol:

Joe Moryl wrote:Glad you enjoyed Bageiras. I think the '05 Garrafeira red was one of the finest wines of the trip. While you don't mention it, their sparkling red was the best I tasted in Bairrada as well. First, I was shown a bit of everything by Bernardo, who was fetched because of his command of English, but knew the wines well. We then went into the a room next to the old still (in operation - did you see that old thing?) and tasted through everything. A group of restaurant people from Aveiro were already there having a jolly time, and I joined them for some pleasant banter. Mario Sergio came by to sit with us, bringing some chestnuts to roast on the fire in the still. A great way to spend the afternoon.

Yes, we tasted in that quaint little older room, with a small distillery. Mario Sergio asked if we preferred to taste a sparkling or a white and we chose the latter. Sorry you didn't get to interact with him more, great guy.
Last edited by Oswaldo Costa on Fri Jan 22, 2010 6:55 am, edited 1 time in total.
"I went on a rigorous diet that eliminated alcohol, fat and sugar. In two weeks, I lost 14 days." Tim Maia, Brazilian singer-songwriter.
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Re: Portugal Trip Report (long!) - pictures to follow

Postby Bob Parsons Alberta » Thu Jan 21, 2010 3:10 pm

Just started going through your post here Oswaldo. Love it!
I am somewhat familiar with Pato, having tasted some of the gems here in Edmonton. Big fan of the sparkling Baga.
Will read on, congrats.
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Re: Portugal Trip Report (long!)

Postby Oswaldo Costa » Fri Jan 22, 2010 6:20 am

Lisbon and Sintra.pdf
Lisbon and Sintra
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"I went on a rigorous diet that eliminated alcohol, fat and sugar. In two weeks, I lost 14 days." Tim Maia, Brazilian singer-songwriter.
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Re: Portugal Trip Report (long!)

Postby Oswaldo Costa » Fri Jan 22, 2010 6:56 am

Colares Obidos Coimbra Bairrada.pdf
Colares Obidos Coimbra Bairrada
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"I went on a rigorous diet that eliminated alcohol, fat and sugar. In two weeks, I lost 14 days." Tim Maia, Brazilian singer-songwriter.
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Re: Portugal Trip Report (long!)

Postby Oswaldo Costa » Fri Jan 22, 2010 6:57 am

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Re: Portugal Trip Report (long!)

Postby Oswaldo Costa » Fri Jan 22, 2010 6:58 am

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Re: Portugal Trip Report (long!) - pictures to follow

Postby Brian Gilp » Fri Jan 22, 2010 10:29 am

Thanks for such a detailed report. I only read the Niepoort visit so far but downloaded and printed the rest to read later.

Oswaldo Costa wrote:2005 Niepoort Redoma Tinto
A blend of Tinta Amarela, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, and others. Closed. Some aroma starts to appear towards the end of the meal, a slightly stewed blackberry, very ripe. Mouth feel, however, is lovely and fresh. Hard to judge at this point, but could become very good.

I have consumed probably 20 bottles of the 2001 Redoma over roughly the past 2 years. When we first started drinking it, it quickly went to the top of my list of favorite wines and I went out and bought 3.5 cases for the cellar. Then it seemed to go into a dumb period where it just did not have the same depth of flavor. Opened a bottle last night and my old friend was back and maybe better than before. Assuming that this is not bottle variation and considering the number of bottles and consistency I don't believe it is, I would assume that the 2005 is not really showing what its got and will not for another 2-4 years.
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Re: Portugal Trip Report PICTURES ADDED

Postby Bob Parsons Alberta » Fri Jan 22, 2010 1:21 pm

Excuse me but how does one open the pic attachments? I clicked but nothing came up.

Ok, just figured it out!!
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Re: Portugal Trip Report (long!) - pictures to follow

Postby Joe Moryl » Sun Jan 24, 2010 12:40 am

Oswaldo Costa wrote:.....Yes, we tasted in that quaint little older room, with a small distillery. Mario Sergio asked if we preferred to taste a sparkling or a white and we chose the latter. Sorry you didn't get to interact with him more, great guy.

Oh, I did get to talk with him a fair bit, mostly about the vineyards - some of the Baga that goes into the garrafeira is over 100 years old - and various matters. Struck me as a lovely and dedicated man.

I'm enjoying your photos, especially the ones from Porto, which is just such an atmospheric town with lovely colors and textures everywhere. It's funny, but some of the photos I took are almost the same as yours (like the azuela-clad church in Porto). Here is my version of of one of a barca rabelo with Porto in the background:
Portugal2009_1008(017).JPG (173.28 KiB) Viewed 4632 times

From the lack of observations on Port I'm guessing you are not a big fan? Anyway, my visit to the Douro was the first Portuguese wine region I visited after kicking around the cities for a week. Picked up the rental car and somehow found my way out of Porto with the destination of Quinta de Macedos, on the Rio Torto, maybe 5 km south of Pinhao. On the way I had a hearty lunch in Regua and when I saw this I knew I finally was in a serious wine region:
Portugal2009_1009(002).JPG (170.01 KiB) Viewed 4632 times

I can only imagine how desolate Pinhao is in the middle of winter. If I were to return and wasn't staying at a Quinta I'd try to locate myself near Regua or Lamego just so I could get a decent meal. After reading about your visit to Niepoort I regret not being organized enough to arrange a visit - it seems like you were shown genuine hospitality. I need to confess that I haven't had many of their table wines (more experience with the Port) because they mostly fall in a price range that is the 90th percentile and above of what I normally drink. Charme may have a Burgundian styling but at the asking price I will opt for the real thing.

Interesting that they prepared this dish "rancho" for you at Niepoort. When I arrived at Macedos, Paul Reynolds, the owner, asked me what sort of food I would like for dinner and I told him that something "typical" would be my preference. While I don't recall if it was called rancho, it appears I was served the same thing, the Macedos version having veal as the main meat. I think you would have enjoyed a visit at Macedos, which is a small, hands on place. Here is a nice shot of some schist in one of Paul's older vineyards:
Portugal2009_1010.JPG (280.33 KiB) Viewed 4632 times

The views along the one-car wide road winding through the Torto valley out to Macedos are jaw droppingly beautiful - crazy vine covered terraces at every turn:
Portugal2009_1011(005).JPG (253.13 KiB) Viewed 4632 times

While in the Douro I did manage to taste or visit at Pacheca, de la Rosa, Vallado, Portal and Fonseca's Quinta do Panascal before moving on to the Minho. It would be interesting to get up to the Douro Superior (the bit between Pinhao and the Spanish border) - if you think the Cima Corgo is melancholy and desolate.... Enough for now - thanks for the photos!
Last edited by Joe Moryl on Sun Jan 24, 2010 11:53 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Portugal Trip Report PICTURES ADDED

Postby Oswaldo Costa » Sun Jan 24, 2010 6:39 am

Thanks, Joe, great minds photograph alike! :lol: We definitely have memories to treasure.

Yes, while I appreciate Port, anything but small doses will knock me out. Our "thing" is really the table wines, though the white Port at Niepoort was a revelation (I didn't mention it, but we had a glass of Kopke white Port for lunch in Porto and it wasn't nearly as good).
"I went on a rigorous diet that eliminated alcohol, fat and sugar. In two weeks, I lost 14 days." Tim Maia, Brazilian singer-songwriter.
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Re: Portugal Trip Report PICTURES ADDED

Postby Bob Parsons Alberta » Fri Feb 12, 2010 6:41 am

Oswaldo, last night at the ESO fundraiser I was pouring CARM and Crasto. I managed to taste the `05 Reserva from Portal and thought it was a magnificent red from the Duoro. I will be posting some TNs asap, including a great LBV from Smith Woodhouse. The `95!

Jamie Goode reviews Portal here.......>

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Re: Portugal Trip Report PICTURES ADDED

Postby Roy Hersh » Sat May 21, 2011 8:40 pm


I just found your trip report and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your read!

Thank you.

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