WineChapis midway through a sailing trip along the Douro, to sample the region’sfinest wines...
Hoppinginto a red 1930 Fiat 514, Partagas No 4 smoke mingling with my own portfumes, we head off to Carvalhas, the largest Quinta in theDouro. This impressive property is owned by La Real Companhia Velha, andlies on the opposite bank from the picturesque town of Pinhão with itsfamous railway station decorated with 1930s blue-and-white tiled panelsdepicting pastoral scenes and toiling vineyard workers – enough to work upquite a thirst.
Weare staying as guests of Raquel and Pedro Silva Reis in Casa Redonda, thebeautiful house that fronts the Quinta. With dusk settling, we set off withviticulturist Alvaro Martinho and consultant oenologist Jorge Moreira on anevening tour of the vineyards, the thickening air pungent with the scent ofbruised rosemary and jasmine as our wine safari Land Rover scrunchespast. “Our poor soil is our gold,” says Alvaro, stopping topull chunks of schist from the hillside to demonstrate the ease with whichvines penetrate its layers in search of water and nutrients – reaping themineralogical benefits of deep exploration.
Thereshould be a swear box for anyone who refers to those at the sharp end ofproducing wine as “passionate”, so overused is the term. Ofcourse they are driven by passion, as it’s certainly not the money, hours orhand-care regime – yet Alvaro is more energetically enthusiastic about hisvineyards than anyone I have met previously on my travels. Leaping fromvine to vine, he picks a selection of leaves and almost-perfectly-ripegrapes (harvesting will begin a week after my departure) to demonstratethe varieties grown in a single vineyard destined for a field blend.
Jorgenotes the difference between making wines from grapes and making them fromvineyards: while recognising the distinctive and marketable character ofTouriga Nacional – ideally from high altitude, north facing, more than20-year-old vines – he argues that at 70 years or more, its fruit tastes moreof the vineyard than the variety. Alvaro picks up the thread, observinghow the Douro drives you mad with challenges but rewards with beauty, how itshallmarks of patience and the pursuit of quality compare favourably to today’simmediacy and mediocrity: “Touriga Nacional – not a Portuguese horserace… but often more exciting”. Where young vines offer quantity,the old offer quality – the former yield their simple charms straight away inprofusion, the latter reveal a small cache of secrets more slowly and in a fewwell-chosen words.
Overa feast of quails in the courtyard and fine wines (including an unexpectedlyconvincing Gewürztraminer), Alvaro, ripe with poetic whimsy, continues hishomage to the “land where the olive trees never die” with aperformance of traditional Portuguese fado (songs of melancholy and woe). His is a plaintive lament for the Douro, whose story is one “pain, lossand Touriga Nacional”. As the Colheita port flows, so salsa and eventango follow suit… interspersed with multiple renditions of Hey Jude –the UK's own tribute to fado, perhaps.
Thenext morning we board the Friendship I and I’m delightedthat among our shipmates is one of Portugal's most revered chefs: Rui Paula, at whose riversiderestaurant DOC we had stopped at the previous day for a couple ofmagnums of Cattier Blanc de Blancs champagne. This bodes well forlunch. As we glide along the valley, David Eley and Gonçalo Correia dosSantos, Pipadouro’s founder, share the commentary, pointing out Quintasvariously of renown, notoriety or neglect on either bank, as we pass them by,including famous marques such as Romaneira, Roriz and the Symington’s familybase at Malvedos. All of these have been beautifully rendered on David’smap (pictured) but the presence of its author ensures I have no need to popbelow deck to check off the names on the half-size version mounted in thecabin.
Weapproach 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 yearspreviously opened up the Douro Superior for further wine cultivation andtransport right up to Barca d'Alva, so these ground-breaking dams made traveland commerce along this once-fiendishly fast, narrow and dangerous river morecivilised. At the narrowest point of the gorge is a plaque to BaronForrester who, having completed his remarkable and much lauded map of thevalley in 1848, was swept away by the turbulent waters 14 years later, never tobe found…
The Douro, the world’s oldest formally demarcated wine region and a UNESCOWorld Heritage site is unique, but heading into the Douro Superior, thelandscape changes again. Wilder, craggier granitic slopes bake in thisharsh environment, where it rains less than the Gobi and every day challengesits inhabitants’ resolve. Early pioneers must have been rather daunted yetcorrespondingly hardy as here lie some of the greatest Quintas includingVesuvio and Vargellas.
Wemoor up at Ferrados, to be joined by Francisco Olazabal “Vito” – ownerof do Vale Meão, which, further upriver and quite isolated from any other Quinta, is the last property that histhree-times great-grandmother, Dona Antonia, purchased before she died. Vito, fresh from successfully shooting a colossal boar that was practically onhis porch, has brought with him a bottle of his 2001, plus a large chilled boxof percebes (goose barnacles – a succulent and rare marine delicacy) anda trove of wry wisdom. On the rugged and unforgiving terrain he musesthat both his namesake, the Jesuit Francis Xavier, and his hallowed ancestorDona Antonia Fereira were both intrepid explorers – one bringing God, the othergrapes.
Ruiprepares lunch, including fresh sardines and sweet onions, excellent with therichly satisfying Evel 2012, a new-oaked, barrel-aged yet vigorous white fromthe Real Companhia Velha stable. The wine is even better, however, with anexquisite cod, chickpeas, hazelnuts and Serrano ham dish that – taking from thesea, fields, forest and farm – encapsulates the best of rustic Portuguesecuisine. Pouring the 2001 do Vale Meão (fresh, floral, ferrous, fruits ofthe forest and a little feral) Vito muses that such cooking represents what isso important to the Douro: authenticity – well, in fact: “authenticity…and air-con”.
Vito,another devotee of Touriga Nacional, planted 20-hectares, recognising that thegrape can continue to work even in the extreme heat. He praises theBrazilians, whom he says appreciate the opportunity to learn about wine becauseit 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 ofthe subject, like minerals in solution diffusing into a vine’s roots.
Headingback down the river we again pass the legendary Quinta de Vargellas (now Taylor'sflagship) and when I ask him the secret behind the vineyard's unrivalledreputation, Vito replies gnomically: “Vargellas are the best wines because people will pay the most for them.”
Checkback on November 4 and see to what vinous heights WineChap is lifted on thefinal leg of his Portuguese jaunt.