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A Wine Lover's Diary, part 134 (April 23, 2007)

Saturday, April 14: Deborah and I to the airport to fly to Oporto. The carrier is SATA in an Airbus 310. We are traveling Business Class. They offer champagne, which turns out to be Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut. The stewardess asks us if we want fish or chicken. Deborah asks what kind of fish? She looks puzzled and replies, "It's white." We settle for Happy Feet but we both take melatonin and manage to sleep for a few hours before waking to a bad cup of coffee and a bun of some kind. We arrive at 8:30 am to fog lying on the landscape like smoke. Joana Mesquita, the public relations person for Amorim, meets us at the airport and after a quick espresso we drive to the Douro Valley. We talk about cork and if any producers in Portugal are using screwcaps. Joana says Sogrape has been bottling their Mateus Rosé under screwcap for the Japanese market. She is not a fan of plastic corks, calling them "a piece of petroleum in a bottle." Joana is learning Chinese (Mandarin). She had her honeymoon in China and is fascinated by the culture. She speaks an idiomatic English (uses expressions such as "goose bumps") and speaks French, Italian, German and Spanish. We are staying at a wine hotel owned by Amorim, the world's largest cork producer – Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo, a property of 120 hectares, 85 of which are planted to vineyards. As soon as I enter I have the feeling I have been here before. The quinta was a former Burmester property which I visited some 20 years ago. It is beautifully situated above the river. Across the river is Quinta do Crasto. I remember taking photos of the 1758 marker designating the property as a Port area. By noon I am getting hungry. Joana and I have a glass of 3 Pomares 2006 (a blend of Rabigato, Viosinho and Gouveio – aromatic, fresh with a dry, minerally, pear flavour; a little short). Then we sit down to lunch. Air-dried black pig, bread with the estate's olive oil, followed by mushroom sautéed with lardons, the shredded duck with rice, and chocolate mousse for dessert. The wines: Quinta Nova Douro Reserve 2005, newly bottled, and Quinta Nova Grande Reserve 2005 (spicy blackberry, licorice and dark chocolate flavours.) This was followed by a glass of Quinta Nova Vintage Port 1997, which tasted a touch corked. Slept for two hours. Deborah and I walked around the property and took photos. At 6 pm the sun is still hot. A glass of 3 Pomares outside before dinner. We are served olive in small square plates and two types of cheese, one goat, one sheep's milk. Then what looks like a long egg roll stuffed with tuna, corn and pickles alongside two spears of white canned asparagus. Accompanying this a newly bottled Quinta Nova Grainha 2006 – a barrel-fermented version of the 3 Pomares. The oak ageing gives the wine more complexity and length. Joana tells me the wine is still in barrel and will be bottled soon. It's delicious. For dessert, a crème caramel with a glass of Bermester Colheita 1996 (bottled in 2004) – very fresh and still ruby coloured with a rich sweet cherry flavour, very elegant with lively acidity. Joana gave us a tour of some of the eleven rooms on the property, each furnished in a different style. In bed before 10 o'clock. Awoke at 1 am to a barking dog and then again at 4 am to the same. Eventually fell back to sleep until 7 am.

Monday, April 16: After breakfast Anna, the viticulturist at Quinta Nova, drove us around the vineyards in her truck. The tracks are narrow and steep with precipitous drops. Saw the demarcation stone dated 1758. Visited the olive oil production house, which is now a museum. Back for a tasting of the Quinta's wine with Louisa Amorim and the quinta's winemaker, Francisco Montenegro.

  • 3 Pomares 2006 (3 Orchards), Grainha 2006, 3 Pomares Rosé 2006 (Touriga Nacional) – strawberry and orange peel flavour with a rose petal note, rich soft mouth feel.
  • Then Grainha 2005 aged in American oak – bitter chocolate and black cherry flavour. Louisa tells us that they have a co-production venture with Beyers Truter in South Africa. They are sending a Touriga Nacional to him and he will blend it there with Pinotage.
  • Quinta Nova Reserva 2005: elegant, spicy, smoky blackberry, full-bodied with a floral, pomegranate, evident tannin.
  • Quinta Nova Grande Reserva 2005: purple colour, very elegant, violets, blackberry; great balance, good acidity, ripe tannins.
  • Quinta Nova LBV 2003: intense, sweet mulberry and chocolate flavours.
  • Quinta Nova Vintage Port 2005: very fresh and forward, raisiny, chocolate flavours, fruity but firm with soft tannins.

After lunch Joana drove us to Quinta do Crasto, one of the Douro Boys' quintas. The Douro Boys was a term coined by a British wine writer for an association of five young winemakers and we will visit them all on this trip. Miguel Roquette, whom I have met several times, is in the Maldives on vacation, but we are shown around the property by his brother Tomas. (I speak later to Miguel by phone and he tells me he has just landed a shark.) Tomas shows us where they are going to build a ten-room guest house. We tour the winery and Tomas tells us that the cost of foot treading in lagares is 25% of the price of a bottle of wine or Port. They only make red wines here. Crasto has a joint venture with Jean-Michel Cazes of Chateau Lynch-Bages to make a wine called Xisto, produced here in conical fermenters from fruit from a vineyard in the Upper Douro, 20 kilometers from the Spanish border. They are thinking of building a Xisto winery there although there are currently no roads. They own 2 kilometers of vineyards along the river. The grapes in the Upper Douro ripen 15 days earlier than they do at Crasto, which means they will be able to use their winery more efficiently.

We taste in the lab with a large window that overlooks the valley.

  • Crasto Douro 2005: dense purple ruby with an earthy, mulberry nose; sweet, chunky fruit, sweet berry and dark chocolate flavours, firm structure (no oak).
  • Quinta do Crasto Reserva Vinhas Velhas 2004: dense purple; spicy oak, mulberry, minerally, violets, tobacco leaf nose; mouth-filling sweet fruit with a chocolate note; well balanced.
  • Quinta do Crasto Touriga Nacional 2004: this is the best red I have tasted on this trip so far. Dense purple colour; peppery; blackberry, violets, vanilla oak; rich, intense, beautifully integrated with a soft mid-palate mouth feel but finishes firmly.
  • Quinta do Crasto Vinha do Ponta 2004: A 90-year-old vineyard with a field blend of 25 varietals. Deep purple colour; spicy, cedar, Christmas cake nose; rich, sweet fruit (blackberry and chocolate flavours), great balance with a tannic lift on the finish.
  • Xisto Roquette e Cazes 2004 (Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Francesca): deep purple, vanilla, cedar, sweet blackberry; medium-bodied, spicy, leaner with a cigar box note. A touch green on the finish (young vines?). Tomas tells us that Jean-Michel Cazes said, "Let's produce a wine with the sun of Portugal but with a Bordeaux touch." 32,000 bottles were produced.

We ended the tasting with a cask sample of Quinta do Crasto Touriga Nacional 2005 – a heft wine, rich and chunky. Drive to Regua to visit another of the Douro Boys, Quinta do Vallado in the Lower Corgo, where Vito Olazabal's son Francisco is the winemaker. The wines here are well made, rustic and flavourful. Vallado makes an excellent 10-year-old Tawny Port. Drive to Dirk Niepoort's new winery under construction, Quinta do Napoles. The box-like concrete structure will be softened with schist walls to resemble the old Douro terraces. Dirk wants to make it the world's first solar-chilled winery. I should have asked him what he meant by this. Dirk's sons, 15 and 11, are visiting from Switzerland. Dirk takes me into the lab with his winemaker, Luis Seabra and Jorge Poeira, the winemaker at Quinta de la Rosa, to blind taste four white wines, one of which is a blend Dirk has been commissioned to make for Portugal's leading rock star. The one I like best is the 2006 blend for Redoma. Then we go into the barrel room and Dirk – who is always pushing the envelope – hands me a glass of his Riesling which has a Sauvignon Blanc-like grassy note. This is followed by a Touriga/Sousoa blend and then a Pinot Noir. Next, back to the lab to taste Jorge's own wine Poeira 2004, La Rosa 2004, Niepoort Vertente 2005 and Poeira 2005. We moved in to dinner, where we started with Redoma 2005 (elegant, spicy pear, great balance.) Dirk is a great Burgundy lover and he opened a bottle of Groffiere Pere et Fils Chambolle-Musigny Les Sentieres 1999, a great wine. He disappeared again and returned with a decanter. The wine looked like a light tawny with a deposit. It turned out to be a Muscatel 1900, still very much alive, spicy, minty with lively acidity.

Tuesday, April 17: Joana drives us to Quinta do Vale de Maria. Christian Van Zeller is not there but his gorgeous winemaker, Sandra Tavares, a former top model, very tall and statuesque, shows us the vineyards that slope down to the Rio Torto. In the barrel cellar we taste VZ 2006, a lovely white wine, Van Zeller 2005 (the winery's introductory red made from the five Port grapes), Casal de Loivos 2005, and Vale de Maria 2005, made from a field blend of 40 varieties. Then into the small lab to taste the bottled wines: Quinta do Vale de Maria 2004, CV 2004, the LBV 2002 and Vintage Port 2003. Sandra is a very talented winemaker.

Joana dropped us at Pinhao train station, where we took the train for an hour's trip to Pochino in the Upper Douro to visit Vito Olazabal at Quinta do Vale Meao. We had to run across the train tracks because we were on the wrong side of the tracks. The driver stopped the train for us to do so. Vito, the great grandson of Dona Antonia Ferreira, is at the station to meet us in a truck that is thick with dust inside. He drives us up the Meao mountain to show us a site on the north side where he plans to plant a five hectare vineyard in a bowl of schist, to counter the effects of global warming. He shows us the Barco Velha vineyard adjacent to his property. We visit the winery, the largest traditional building in the Douro. At the house we meet Vito's winemaker son Francisco, who is known as Chito. On the terrace we drink Quinta de Porrais 2005 and 2006. Viito tells us about a civil servant who tried to count the number of grape varieties in Portugal. He reached 130 and died before he finished the project. At lunch, we started with Vale Meao's second wine, Meandro 2004 – one-third each Touriga Nacional, Tinta Francesa and Tinta Roriz (flavours of damsons, cedar and licorice, firm structure). Next the Quinta do Vale Meao 2004 – the first vintage of this wine was 1999 (very dense purple-black colour with an intense blackberry and chocolate flavour). The 2005 vintage that followed was more open and accessible. Then Vito poured the 2000 vintage, which is very elegant and balanced, a wine that could only come from the Douro, muscular and slightly rustic but silky with a lovely mouth feel. With the Serra cheese we had the Quinta's 2004 Vintage Port. Still closed and tight. After lunch Vito showed us around the house, whose rooms are still furnished with the antiques that Dona Antonia had placed there and inventoried each piece. The attic contains a wealth of old artifacts that one day, he says, will be made into a museum.

After lunch, which lasted until 5:20 pm, we drove to our hotel in Espinho, a former fishing village twenty minutes from Oporto. Then to dinner at Café Ina, Rua do Padroa 100 (www.cafeina.pt), where we are joined by Joao Nicolau de Almeida, the winemaker from Ramos Pinto, who is a cousin of Vito Olazabal (everyone in the Port trade seems to be related). With his father (who created Barca Velha), Joao Nicolau selected the five grapes that are now most commonly used in the production of Port. We have an excellent meal with Ramos Pinto's Dos Quintas white wines. Ten years ago I did a ten-part TV series on Port and I stayed a couple of nights at Ramos Pinto filming there.

Wednesday, April 18: How different the Portuguese wine industry is from a decade ago. Especially the Douro. Then it was the English Port companies that drove the industry. Now it is the young rising winemakers, mostly Portuguese, who are the engine. They are outward looking, cosmopolitan and full of confidence. They travel and exchange ideas. This shift is best exemplified by the Douro Boys who promote their wines at pool parties during Vinexpo. They are, according to Joana Mesquita, all great dancers. The Douro's wild and crazy guys. Today we visit Amorim, Portugal's largest cork producer with 25% of the world cork market. They sell 3 billion cork units a year, which is 50% of their business. The original factory, opened in 1932, is 25 kilometers south of Oporto. Carlos de Jesus, the director of communications and marketing, gives us an overview of the company. The main threat to the cork industry in Portugal is screwcaps and plastic stoppers. He acknowledges that the cork producers were slow to react to the "cork taint" problem but says, "You could stop selling cork today and you would still have TCA (cork taint) problems. It goes much beyond cork." He cites the examples of Gallo and Chateau Montalena, who had chlorine problems in their wineries that tainted their wines in 2003. Amorim has built a new factory the size of 7 football fields to defeat the TCA problem – a problem that they first took seriously in 1996. Last year, he tells us, 134 cork companies closed as global wine producers went over to the plastic stoppers or screwcaps. The cork industry will only survive once they have convinced wine producers that they have effectively eradicated the problem of TCA. But ultimately, cork when it works is the best closure for wine and consumers prefer it to what Joana refers to as "a piece of petroleum in a bottle." Studies have shown that screwcaps cause sulphur taint because they are not permeable and plastic corks, apart from being difficult to remove or reuse, cause oxidation. Then there are the environmental effects. Cork is a natural product whose production emits far less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than plastic stoppers and screwcaps. But ultimately it all comes down to cork taint, so what, I ask Carlos, is the company doing to deal with the problem? He says that it all begins with the raw materials, their selection and storage, cleaning with steam and peroxide, hygienic storage and the use of ozone, quality control both by chemical analysis and by computer.

Our next "seminar" is from Dr. Paul Lopes on the "ingress of oxygen through different closures into wine bottles." Plastic, it has been shown by four studies around the world, is the most permeable; cork allows micro-oxygenation, while screwcaps are the least permeable. We have lunch in the Founder's house on the property that dates back to 1874. The wine at lunch is Vale Meao's Meandro 2003. After lunch we drive over to Vila Nova de Gaia to see Rupert Symington at Graham's office. Rupert invites us to take tea in the garden, which has a stunning view of the river and Oporto on the northern bank. Deborah and Joana go shopping for a suitcase to carry the wines we have acquired – 8 bottles plus a bottle of Quinta Nova olive oil – while I have a tasting in the lab with Rupert. Altano 2005 (an entry-level Douro red), Altano Reserva, Post Scriptum (the second wine of the Symington/Bruno Prats co-venture) Quinta do Roriz Prazo do Roriz 2004 and 2005. The Symongton family now have 23 properties under their management since they have acquired Cockburn's. Rupert takes me to the other side of the lab, where his uncle, Peter Symington, has set out a horizontal tasting of 2005 Ports from the following quintas: Malvedos, Bom Fim Cavadinha, Madelena, Roriz, Vesuvio, and Senhora da Ribeira, plus Dow's Senhora da Ribeira 2004 and Quinta do Vesuvio 2004. The 2005s show real terroir differences. I was taken with the forward, floral character of Madelena and the coffee bean/chocolate flavours of Senhora di Ribeira. We talk about the ratio of table wine to Port in the Douro now and Rupert tells me that it's about the same, at 10 million bottles each category. We tour the Burmester cellars, which the Symingtons have acquired. Back to the hotel to change before being picked up by Carlos de Jesus to go to dinner at a fish restaurant in Espinho. The sunset is spectacular. We are joined by the president of Amorim's cork division, 39-year-old Antonio Amorim. We talk cork all night and he quizzes me about Canadian consumers' closure preferences and whether we are finding less cork taint in wines over the past few years. I tell him about our experience as wine writers at Vintages' tastings and the judging panels at the Ontario Wine Awards. He's pleased to hear that the incidence of cork taint is going down,

Thursday, April 19: Carlos de Jesus picks us up at the hotel to drive us to Croche to see Amorim's new plant. We visit the cork forests and see the stripped trees marked with a number corresponding to the year when the bark was harvested. A tree can only be stripped every nine years once it has reached 25 years of age. Cork for wine stoppers are only taken after the third harvest, which means that the trees are at least 52 years old. Cork is a very patient industry. An amazing sight at the Amorim plant is to see piles of cork bark up to 20 feet high sitting on cement waiting to be processed – steamed to become flat planks, cut into strips, then into lengths for the corks to be punched out. Nothing is wasted; the pieces left over from the punching operation are ground down into pieces for conglomerate corks and champagne corks. Discs are produced for champagne corks and twin tops. The dust left over from the process is burnt as fuel to heat the water to steam the planks.

Lunch nearby at Monte dos Arneiros, an agri-tourism hotel. Wine with lunch, Sociedade Agricola Gabriel Francisco Dias et Irmas 2002. One of the dishes at lunch was migas – bread, cilantro and chopped-up carrot and green pepper, fried in olive oil. Dinner tonight, our last in Portugal on this trip, with Carlos at Café In, a fish restaurant on the River Targus. At a neighbouring table a man pours Coca Cola into his glass of a Douro white wine. A great meal of mussels and sea bass. The wines: Vinho do Seminario Vinho Verde 2006, made by the owner of the restaurant (he should stick to restaurants – the wine tasted like dry cider with an oxidized note) and Solar de Serrado Alvarinho 2005 (delicious). When the dessert trolley arrived, Carlos referred to it as the "chariot of temptation."

Friday, April 20: The Novotel beds are not comfortable. After breakfast, Deborah and I walk over to the department store, El Corte Inglese, and window shop before packing and taking a taxi to the airport. Sogrape seems to have the monopoly of wines aboard SATA. Arrive in Toronto on time. Good to be home in fine weather.

 

 

 

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