WineChap is midway through a sailing trip along the Douro, to sample the region’s finest wines...
Hopping into a red 1930 Fiat 514, Partagas No 4 smoke mingling with my own port fumes, we head off to Carvalhas, the largest Quinta in the Douro. This impressive property is owned by La Real Companhia Velha, and lies on the opposite bank from the picturesque town of Pinhão with its famous railway station decorated with 1930s blue-and-white tiled panels depicting pastoral scenes and toiling vineyard workers – enough to work up quite a thirst.
We are staying as guests of Raquel and Pedro Silva Reis in Casa Redonda, the beautiful house that fronts the Quinta. With dusk settling, we set off with viticulturist Alvaro Martinho and consultant oenologist Jorge Moreira on an evening tour of the vineyards, the thickening air pungent with the scent of bruised rosemary and jasmine as our wine safari Land Rover scrunches past. “Our poor soil is our gold,” says Alvaro, stopping to pull chunks of schist from the hillside to demonstrate the ease with which vines penetrate its layers in search of water and nutrients – reaping the mineralogical benefits of deep exploration.
There should be a swear box for anyone who refers to those at the sharp end of producing wine as “passionate”, so overused is the term. Of course they are driven by passion, as it’s certainly not the money, hours or hand-care regime – yet Alvaro is more energetically enthusiastic about his vineyards than anyone I have met previously on my travels. Leaping from vine to vine, he picks a selection of leaves and almost-perfectly-ripe grapes (harvesting will begin a week after my departure) to demonstrate the varieties grown in a single vineyard destined for a field blend.
Jorge notes the difference between making wines from grapes and making them from vineyards: while recognising the distinctive and marketable character of Touriga Nacional – ideally from high altitude, north facing, more than 20-year-old vines – he argues that at 70 years or more, its fruit tastes more of the vineyard than the variety. Alvaro picks up the thread, observing how the Douro drives you mad with challenges but rewards with beauty, how its hallmarks of patience and the pursuit of quality compare favourably to today’s immediacy and mediocrity: “Touriga Nacional – not a Portuguese horse race… but often more exciting”. Where young vines offer quantity, the old offer quality – the former yield their simple charms straight away in profusion, the latter reveal a small cache of secrets more slowly and in a few well-chosen words.
Over a feast of quails in the courtyard and fine wines (including an unexpectedly convincing Gewürztraminer), Alvaro, ripe with poetic whimsy, continues his homage to the “land where the olive trees never die” with a performance of traditional Portuguese fado (songs of melancholy and woe). His is a plaintive lament for the Douro, whose story is one “pain, loss and Touriga Nacional”. As the Colheita port flows, so salsa and even tango follow suit… interspersed with multiple renditions of Hey Jude – the UK's own tribute to fado, perhaps.
The next morning we board the Friendship I and I’m delighted that among our shipmates is one of Portugal's most revered chefs: Rui Paula, at whose riverside restaurant DOC we had stopped at the previous day for a couple of magnums of Cattier Blanc de Blancs champagne. This bodes well for lunch. As we glide along the valley, David Eley and Gonçalo Correia dos Santos, Pipadouro’s founder, share the commentary, pointing out Quintas variously of renown, notoriety or neglect on either bank, as we pass them by, including famous marques such as Romaneira, Roriz and the Symington’s family base at Malvedos. All of these have been beautifully rendered on David’s map (pictured) but the presence of its author ensures I have no need to pop below deck to check off the names on the half-size version mounted in the cabin.
We approach the Valeira Dam, an imposing structure and the third of five built along the river over a 25-year period, beginning in 1961. Just as demolishing the Valeira cataract 200 years previously opened up the Douro Superior for further wine cultivation and transport right up to Barca d'Alva, so these ground-breaking dams made travel and commerce along this once-fiendishly fast, narrow and dangerous river more civilised. At the narrowest point of the gorge is a plaque to Baron Forrester who, having completed his remarkable and much lauded map of the valley in 1848, was swept away by the turbulent waters 14 years later, never to be found…
The Douro, the world’s oldest formally demarcated wine region and a UNESCO World Heritage site is unique, but heading into the Douro Superior, the landscape changes again. Wilder, craggier granitic slopes bake in this harsh environment, where it rains less than the Gobi and every day challenges its inhabitants’ resolve. Early pioneers must have been rather daunted yet correspondingly hardy as here lie some of the greatest Quintas including Vesuvio and Vargellas.
We moor up at Ferrados, to be joined by Francisco Olazabal “Vito” – owner of do Vale Meão, which, further up river and quite isolated from any other Quinta, is the last property that his three-times great-grandmother, Dona Antonia, purchased before she died. Vito, fresh from successfully shooting a colossal boar that was practically on his porch, has brought with him a bottle of his 2001, plus a large chilled box of percebes (goose barnacles – a succulent and rare marine delicacy) and a trove of wry wisdom. On the rugged and unforgiving terrain he muses that both his namesake, the Jesuit Francis Xavier, and his hallowed ancestor Dona Antonia Fereira were both intrepid explorers – one bringing God, the other grapes.
Rui prepares lunch, including fresh sardines and sweet onions, excellent with the richly satisfying Evel 2012, a new-oaked, barrel-aged yet vigorous white from the Real Companhia Velha stable. The wine is even better, however, with an exquisite cod, chickpeas, hazelnuts and Serrano ham dish that – taking from the sea, fields, forest and farm – encapsulates the best of rustic Portuguese cuisine. Pouring the 2001 do Vale Meão (fresh, floral, ferrous, fruits of the forest and a little feral) Vito muses that such cooking represents what is so important to the Douro: authenticity – well, in fact: “authenticity… and air-con”.
Vito, another devotee of Touriga Nacional, planted 20-hectares, recognising that the grape can continue to work even in the extreme heat. He praises the Brazilians, whom he says appreciate the opportunity to learn about wine because it is largely alien to their culture, unlike the Portuguese who assume – wrongly – that as they grow up with wine they are gifted an innate knowledge of the subject, like minerals in solution diffusing into a vine’s roots.
Heading back down the river we again pass the legendary Quinta de Vargellas (now Taylor's flagship) and when I ask him the secret behind the vineyard's unrivalled reputation, Vito replies gnomically: “Vargellas are the best wines because people will pay the most for them.”
Check back on November 4 and see to what vinous heights WineChap is lifted on the final leg of his Portuguese jaunt.