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Magnificent Portugal

May 24, 2015 27 comments

Douro Valley 2Two years ago I was lucky to discover the Portugal. A beautiful country with wonderful people, great wines and delicious food. This year, I had an opportunity to experience the Portugal again, and once again I want to share my experiences with you as much as possible. There will be a few posts, as there is absolutely no way to squeeze all the impressions into one (nothing is impossible, yes, but I’m sure none of you are interested in a post with a hundred+ pictures and ten thousand words), but still please prepare to be inundated with the pictures. Let’s go.

I want to start from the wonderful trip we had on Sunday. I’m subscribed to the updates from the wine travel web site called Winerist. An email I received from the Winerist about a week before my scheduled departure contained a section about wine trips in … Douro, Portugal! How could they know, huh? This was my very first time using the service, so not without trepidation I filled up booking form for the tour called “Wine Tasting & Sightseeing in the Douro Valley” (€95 per person), requesting the specific date – actually, the only free day I had during the trip. I was informed that my credit card will be charged only after the trip availability will be confirmed with the local provider. Two days later the confirmation arrived with all the tour provider information and pickup time (the pickup is arranged at any of the hotels in Porto). The day before the trip, I got a call in my hotel room from JoÃo, who informed me that the pickup will take place next day at 9:10 am in front of the hotel’s lobby.

The next day, a red minivan showed up exactly at 9:10 am (at least according to my watch), however the first thing JoÃo did after introducing himself in person, was to apologize for arriving at 9:12 instead of 9:10 – from which I figured that we will have fun in our tour. This is exactly what happened – after picking up two more people for the total of 8 passengers, off we went to immerse into the beauty of Portuguese nature, culture, food and wine. I will not give you a detailed account of everything we heard during of almost 11 hours of out trip (we were supposed to come back at 6:30 pm, but nobody was in a hurry, so we came back very close to 8 pm) – that would make it for a long and boring post. But I will do my best to give you a good idea of what we saw and experienced.

Our first stop was at a small town called Amarante. On the way there, our guide and driver had to really work hard – out of our group of 8 people, 2 of us needed all explanations in English, and the rest of the group was from Brazil, so JoÃo had to alternate between Portuguese and English – have to say he had no issues doing that for the duration of the trip. The second problem JoÃo had to deal with was … a marathon, which forced closure of many roads, so he had to find his way around. Well, that was also a non-issue, so we successfully arrived to Amarante. Our intended destination was the church of São Gonçalo (St. Gonçalo), which had an interesting story of the saint whose name is associated with male fertility. I had to admit that I missed some parts of the explanation regarding the origins of this belief, but the bottom line is very simple. Inside of the church, there is a statue of St. Gonçalo, with the hanging rope. Any male who needs help with the  fertility, have to pull that rope twice, but not more (don’t know if it would be equivalent to the Viagra overdose?). Besides, the Priest gets very unhappy when people get crazy with that rope, so all the pulling should be done quietly and without attracting unnecessary attention. I guess that same fertility power led to the appearance of so called St. Gonçalo cakes, which you will see below – I’m assuming the picture is self-explanatory. No, I didn’t try one, nor did anyone from our group, so can’t tell you how it tastes. After leaving the church, we had around 20 minutes to walk around the town, before we had to leave to our next destination.

Our next stop was the town of Lamego, which is one of the biggest in the Douro valley. As food was an essential part of our tour, first we visited a place called A Presunteca. I would probably characterize it as a food and wine store, somewhat geared towards tourists. No, “tourist trap” would be rather diminutive, as the food and wine were genuinely good and prices were absolutely on par with any other store. We had a taste few of the local sausages and cured meets, as well as cheese. We also had an opportunity to taste some of Porto and dry wines, as well as sparkling – the Peerless sparkling wine was excellent, on par with any good Cava or Cremant. I also really liked a Niepoort Dry White Port. If we wouldn’t have to spend the next half of the day in the hot car, I don’t think I would’ve left without a nice chunk of a cured meet, but oh well…

Next we got into a race with a long (very long!) line of honking old Minis, and we lost the race despite creative local street navigation by JoÃo. We still successfully arrived to our next destination – Cathedral of Santa Maria, Lady of Remedy. According to the explanations, the beautiful structure was erected as promised by the Bishop to show a gratitude for sparring the city of Lamego from the Black Plague. There are more than 600 steps which lead to the Cathedral on top of the hill, which people seeking the cure for the illnesses often concur on their knees. We walked around the cathedral and then used the steps to get down to the town level, admiring the beautiful view and exquisite architectural elements, also with the great use of traditional Portuguese painted ceramic tiles. This place needs some serious restoration work, but it is still absolutely magnificent.

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Our next stop was for lunch. The restaurant called Manjar do Douro was located very close to the bottom of the staircase we ascended from. It was somewhat resembling a big dining hall, with many groups occupying communal style tables. The bread, cheese and cold cuts were outstanding. For the entree I’ve chosen veal, as still was suffering from the fish overload from the night before (more about it in another post). This was rather a mistake, as the meat was really chewy (well, the sautéed vegetables were excellent). We had a few wines with the meal. 2014 Incantum Vinho Branco had inviting nose of a white fruit, a bit more tamed fruit on the palate, overall very enjoyable (and added another grape to my collection, Sìria). The 2013 Incantum Douro Tinto was nice, but a bit simplistic. As JoÃo learned from our conversation that I was all into wines, he showed me a few of his favorite wines, one of them you can see below in the picture (no, we didn’t try it).

Our next stop was finally a full immersion into the wine world of Douro. After about an hour driving, we arrived at Quinta do Tedo. Vincent Bouchard of the Bouchard Père & Fils fame from Burgundy, fell in love with the Quinta do Tedo vineyards (can you blame him? take a look at the pictures), located at a crossing of River Douro and River Tedo, and he bought the vineyard in the early 1990s. 1992 was the first vintage produced by the Quinta do Tedo. The vineyards, located on the hilly slopes around the picturesque River Tedo, consist of the vines of 30 to 70 years old. Quinta do Tedo makes only red wines, but they make both dry wines and number of Port styles. Winery’s logo has a picture of the bird on it – according to the local traditions, the birds would show up to eat the grapes when they are perfectly ripe, so that bird on the label signifies perfectly ripe grapes.

Quinta do Tedo Vineyards

Douro Vineyards

TedoThe winery still uses all of the old traditions of winemaking – the grapes are harvested by hand, into the small baskets to prevent them crushing under its own weight. The grapes are fully destemmed, and then are crushed using the … feet, yes, exactly as you expected. Grapes are stomped over the course of a few days by the men. The juice flows into the tanks (no pumping), where it is fermented for two days (in case of port production) or longer, and from there on the wines are made according to the style. Ahh, and I need to mention that the vineyards of Quinta do Tedo are certified organic. Also note that it is illegal to irrigate vines in Douro, so you can say that all of the producers in Douro are using dry farming methods.

I love the fact that wine offers endless learning opportunities – every time you talk to someone passionate, you learn something new. Let me tell you why I’m talking about it. As you might know, all the wine production in Douro is regulated by so called Douro Institute (IVDP). This is a very powerful organization, which assess all the wines made in Douro, both Port and regular dry wines, to make sure that winery’s declaration is up to the right level. I was always under impression that it is IVDP then which declares vintage year for Port. Turns out I was wrong – it is actually up to the winery to declare a vintage year (however it would be an IVDP will confirm or reject the designation). 2010 was an excellent year, and many Port houses produced Vintage Port. Then there was 2011, which was not just good, but simply spectacular. But if you mention 2009, people raise their arms defensively – it was not a good year. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop Quinta do Tedo from producing delicious 2009 Vintage Port, including their single vineyard flagship, Savedra.

The learning didn’t stop there. Our guide very simply explained concept of the so called LBV, or Late Bottled Vintage Port, which has the year designation similar to the vintage port, but typically costs a fraction of price (and something which I couldn’t figure out for a while). It appears that concept of LBV is as follows. The wine is first made with the intent of becoming a Vintage Port – 2 days fermentation which is stopped with neutral brandy, then about 2 years of aging in stainless steel or neutral oak tanks. After that the port is sent to the IVDP to get the vintage approval – and if it fails to get the approval, it is aged for another 2 years or so, and then bottled as LBV. Simple, right?

Of course it was not all talking – there was also tasting. Technically our official tasting included only two types of port, but you know how that works – once the passion starts talking, the tasting becomes “no holds barred” event.

We started with two of the dry wines. The 2011 Quinta do Tedo Tinto Douro was what can be called a “BBQ Wine” – nice fresh fruit profile, with some depth, but limited power, allowing for easy sipping. But the second wine was the whole different story. 2011 was so good that the winery simply decided to skip the Reserva level, and to make Grand Reserva only. Wine spent 22 month in French oak. The level of finesse on that 2011 Quinta do Tedo Grand Reserva Savedra Douro was unparalleled, something which you really have to experience for yourself – elegant dark fruit, spices and touch of fresh herbs on the nose (you can smell the wine for the very, very long time). On the palate, the wine is multilayered, dark, full-bodied and powerful, and it combined firm structure with silky smooth goodness. At €25, it can be only classified as a steal – or definitely a tremendous value, if you prefer that definition.

We also tasted 2010 Quinta do Tedo LBV, which was absolutely delicious, with good amount of sweetness and fresh acidity, making it perfectly balanced; Quinta do Tedo 20 Years Old Tawny had beautiful complexity with hazelnut and almonds, and dry fruit sweetness. Elegance of 2009 Quinta do Tedo 2009 Vintage was simply outstanding – fragrant nose and very balanced palate. That was one delicious tasting, that is all I can tell.

We need to round up here – and I thank you if you are still reading this. Good news is that after that tasting where I think we spent double the time versus the original plan we went back to the hotel, with one last stop to suck in the greatness of the Douro River – so no more words here, just a few pictures.

Douro Valley 4

Douro Valley

Douro valley 5

Douro Valley 2

And we are done (can you believe it?). If your travel will take you to Portugal, I would highly recommend that you will give the LivingTours a try – I think this is the best way to explore that magnificent country. Also keep in mind that Winerist offers a variety of the wine tours in many regions, so do check them out.

As for my Portugal escapades – I’m only getting warmed up. Prepare to be inundated further. Until the next time – cheers!

Port Barrels and Harvest

October 20, 2013 16 comments

There are days when everything goes wrong. And then there are days when everything goes right (hmm, which one do you prefer?). And sometimes the bad day just … changes in the middle, and becomes a great day (yes, the worst case scenario is when the best day becomes a complete disaster, but let’s not go there, okay?).

My day didn’t start all that well. During the trip to Portugal, I had one and only one free day when I could take a drive along the Douro river and visit some wineries. Before the arrival, I asked the hotel to reserve the rental car, which should be automatic (yeah, I know, it is a substantial handicap – never learned how to drive the manual) and have GPS. Hotel’s email said “no problems, all arranged as you requested”.

We arrived at the Europcar rental pretty much as planned – a little bit after 9 am. I figured we will get a car, drive for about 2 hours, and will have enough time to visit 3 wineries. For some reason, the lady at the counter took about 40 minutes to do the paperwork. Finally, we get portable GPS, and then we are doing the walk around of a small car (I’m happy – my preference in Europe is to drive the compact car, as in the end of the day you need to park the car somewhere, and small car is a lot easier to deal with). All the little scratches are noted, we get inside. I put the key in the ignition, stat the car, and … oh shit, I can’t drive it – it is a stick-shift. I’m walking back to tell the lady that this is not the car which was requested, and that I can’t drive this car (meanwhile, I’m literally swearing at myself for not asking from the beginning about type of the transmission the car has – pretty much an hour of time is wasted). The lady (to be honest with you – I had a sneaky desire to avoid her from the first minute I saw her), proudly tells me that I got the car I requested. And after I explained that I can’t drive stick-shift, and I need an automatic car, she also happily informed me that there is nothing she can do.

Luckily, the second agent is free now, and I plead my case to her (the perspective of simply spending the day aimlessly wandering around Porto somehow doesn’t excite me even for a second). She at least tells me “let me see what I can do” – I also see the face of her colleague (the first lady) clearly expressing the hope that I would just walk away, not drive away in one of their coveted automatic cars.

The girl who is trying to help us is making a quick call and then tells me that yes, she has a car – but it will cost twice as much (€140). At this point, again, we have no choice, so yes, thank you, this is wonderful, can we have that car as soon as possible? Well, not so fast, she says – the car must be washed and re-fueled. My plea that dirty car will be just fine, and that I know how to fill the car, dies in vein. “It will be only 15 minutes”, she says. Finally, one hour later, we are presented with the white behemoth. We get in, and we pretty much have to start driving immediately as we are blocking someone’s private garage entrance, and the person who is trying to get out is not very happy with that. I barely manage to get this car to move, as some genius designed the parking on/off knob to be a separate button to the left of the steering column, functionally co-located with the parking brake…

I pull to the other side of the street and try to operate GPS – you see, that winery, called a “Quinta” in Portugal (which simply means “a farm”), doesn’t have a street address. The genius of the car design definitely had its say on GPS, as in that particular GPS you can’t enter a zip code, nor you can find a POI, as it only allows you to search for the places located right around you, and not at a distance of 140 km… Anyway, while I’m about to go back and to say that I’m not driving that piece of sh.. anywhere, my friend manages to enter just the town for our destination, and he also manages to calm me down (thank you, Sumit!), so off we go…

Once we get to the highway, my mood is improving (I actually love driving). Once we get off the highway (which is about 25 miles down the road), and we hit the small road going mostly along the river, I’m in nirvana… And who will not be, when this is what you see all around:

After driving for about 2 hours, we arrived to the town of S. Joao da Pesqueira (our destination). It is really time for lunch, and we are so behind our planned schedule. We managed to find an open restaurant – on Sunday,  outside of the tourist area, food gets a little tricky. While in the restaurant, I’m desperately trying to get the Google maps on my Blackberry to work. We are asking for the directions – no such luck, as we also don’t have the detailed map of the S. Joao da Pesqueira, the town where the Quevedo, our destination, is located, and there is clear and present language barrier. I don’t really remember what I had for lunch, as I was all worried that we will not make it (yep, that little worried child inside got completely out of control).

After the lunch, based on the glimpses of GPS navigation, our waitress’ hand gestures and common sense, we continue driving forward. About 5 minutes later, we see this:

DSC_0911And the happy day didn’t stop from there on.

Here are the few pictures of what were looking at once we stepped out of the car:

As we were walking in, we were quickly greeted by Oscar, who I met during my previous visit to Porto. Oscar represents a fifth generation of the winemakers in Quevedo family, which had being making Port wines for about 300 years. Quevedo makes about 750,000 bottles of Port per year, and with Oscar’s efforts (in addition to being a winemaker, he also heads up all the export operations for Quevedo), about 97% of what they make is being exported. We also met Claudia, Oscar’s sister, who is in charge of making decisions on the final blend of the Port. You see, outside of Vintage, Late Bottled Vintage and Colheita Ports, which are all made out of the single vintage grapes, absolute majority of the Port wines are blends – and Claudia has the final say on deciding what goes into the bottle.

Actually, the day we arrived was right in a middle of the harvest, so Oscar was completely torn between talking to us, accepting incoming grapes (which requires assessment, weighting, calculating), and also taking care of the other groups of visitors ( mostly locals, if I’m guessing correctly). Nevertheless, Oscar gave us a full tour of the winery and a cellar tasting!

As it was the harvest time, we were lucky enough to see the full process of grapes being unloaded, destemmed by the machine and then going into the fermentation tank. I have the pictures for you down below, but while looking at them, you need to imagine a scent of freshly crashed grapes filling the air…

There is a lot of stainless steel at the winery. And of course they have their own bottling line.

After seeing all around the winery, we finally made it to the cellar – and this is where all the fun began.

Oscar brought 3 glasses, and we went from the barrel to the barrel, tasting the different port wines, right from the barrel! We started from 2010 Port, which Oscar said might become a LBV or Colheita – the determination will be made later on (for more on the Port classification and terminology, you can take a look at my earlier post here):

2010 Quevedo Port, may be LBV, may be Colheita

2010 Quevedo Port, may be LBV, may be Colheita

This 2010 Port was perfectly fresh, with blueberries and blackberries, great power, perfect acidity, and just bright and uplifting character.

Next we moved to the 2003 Colheita:

2003 Quevedo Colheita

2003 Quevedo Colheita

2003 was a very hot year, but still it was declared a vintage year by many Port houses – which means that overall quality of the grapes was very high. This Port scaled more towards mature, dried fruit, like figs and may be dried apricots, but it was very balanced and still perfectly fresh.

Next up – 1996, and I finally managed to take a picture of Oscar’s hands pouring the Port:

The best you can see in the cellar - Port is getting into YOUR glasss!

The best you can see in the cellar – Port is getting into YOUR glass!

1996 Quevedo Colheita

1996 Quevedo Colheita

This 1996 Port was outstanding, mature, with perfect medley of dried fruit, figs, raisins, and excellent supporting acidity – I would gladly drink this every day ( who wouldn’t!).

And then there were two gems. First, 1970 White Port. Many people, even in Portugal, don’t know that aged white Port exists. Meanwhile, this Port of absolutely, unquestionably spectacular:

1970 White Port

1970 White Port

Elegant, complex, somewhat reminiscent of the mature Pedro Ximenez sherry, but with the dialed back sweetness, perfectly mature fruit, hazelnuts and, believe it or not, still very refreshing and all around spectacular – this wine is definitely a candidate for the Wine of 2013. I really can’t put any “Drinkability” rating on this wine – this simply is something to be experienced.

And we finished with 1974 Colheita, which was in the final blending stages, to be bottled next year (2014)  to commemorate 40 years:

This Port will be bottled next year

This Port will be bottled next year

There will be only 700 bottles produced. This Port was absolutely spectacular, very much on par with the white port we had before – very complex, with good amount of dried fruit, that nuttiness which only well aged Port or Jerez can demonstrate, all with still very present acidity. Same as the previous wine, this was really an experience, not just a sip of wine.

That’s was the end of our amazing tasting. We went for a walk around the vineyard, soaking up the sun and beginning of the autumnal beauty, enjoying the rest of the day which started ohh so not great.

I want to thank Oscar very much for finding the time in his extremely busy day and letting us experience those incredible wines. I also waht to thank my friend Sumit for bearing with my morning craziness and finally getting us to our destination. Let’s raise the glass for any day to become a perfect day, no matter how that day started. Cheers!

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