Three Days in Pinhão

If there was one word to describe our visit to the Douro Valley last fall it was “sun-dappled”.  I don’t recall seeing light in so many nuanced colors and rays of intensity as we did driving through the spectacular Douro Valley.  Breath-taking slopes and stone-walled terraces dotted the rugged landscape with vines clinging to every last angle in unpredictable patterns illustrating their quest to survive.

And survive they do.  The Douro has some of the heartiest grapes on the planet which are able to withstand ever-increasing summer temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and scant rainfall.  The same grapes that go into world-renowned Ports (Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinto Roriz, Tinta Cão, and Tinta Barroca among many others) are also made into exceptional dry red wines as well.

These grapes are special because of their heartiness which in turn produces dense dark color, racy acidity despite the heat, and tannins that run the gamut from austere to fine-grained.  All of these attributes contribute to wonderful wines which are truly unique as these grapes are rarely seen together outside of Portugal.

The Vintage House

The Vintage House

It was for these reasons that, after an exhilarating week in Porto, my Dad and I headed out to the Douro for a few days to get a glimpse of the countryside where these grapes are grown.  While staying in the rustically posh Vintage House doesn’t exactly constitute “country” living, we had the best of both worlds by walking the hot dust-filled streets during the day and relaxing by the meandering Douro on our balconies at night – sipping Douro reds of course.

The Vintage House

The Vintage House

The Vintage House is owned by The Fladgate Partnership and is a sister property to the stunning Yeatman hotel in Porto.  Located right on the Douro River and literally steps from the Pinhão train station, this hotel offers old-world charm and class in brilliant shades of royal blue and yellow.

The Library Bar

The Library Bar

A highly acclaimed restaurant, the Rabelo Restaurant, is located onsite and you can step back in time at the Library Bar filled with dark wood, oversized leather chairs, and a brooding fireplace. It’s one of a handful of upscale places to stay while exploring Pinhão and the Douro Valley and well worth the experience.

The other positive about this hotel is its location.  The river proximity has obvious perks with the many boat cruises that depart right outside the hotel but you can also walk to several wineries nearby.  Quinta do Bomfim (vineyard that supplies Dow’s brand grapes) is literally 5 minutes away while Quinta das Carvalhas is just across the river bridge and offered some of the best wines of the entire trip.

Quinta da Roêda

Quinta da Roêda

Quinta da Roêda, the unbelievably steep vineyard that provides the grapes for the Fonseca brand, is about a 25-minute walk through some of the most stunning countyside we’d ever seen (it’s also quite an ascent on the way there but the return trip is much easier).

We also got incredibly lucky by staying at the Vintage House during their annual harvest party (last weekend of September in 2017).

Harvest Party

Harvest Party

This was an amazing event held outside on their sweeping hotel grounds along the river where 40-50 winemakers from all over the area came in to show their wines.

We got to try many wines we’d never heard of and may never see again as well as talk to the people who made them.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a wine geek like me that wants to know all the details about a wine and how it’s made in such an unusual region.

Some harvest party wine highlights were the Morgadio da Calçada Mimi Espumante Bruto (a lean but luscious sparkling wine), 2015 Quinta do Besuvio Pombal do Vesuvio, Dona Berta Reserva Tinto 2013 (medium-bodied red fruit delight), and Lavradores de Feitoria Três Bagos 2009 (full-bodied menagerie of black/red fruit and smoky finish).

However, the best find of all were the wines from Wine & Soul (established in 2001 by Sandra Tavares da Silva and Jorge Serôdio Borges:

2016 Guru Douro White made from a field blend of Viosinho, Rabigato, Códega do Larinho and Gouveio, this elegant wine tasted of pear, grapefruit, and zesty minerality.  Five months aging in new French oak contributed to its textured and creamy mouthfeel.

2015 Pintas Character – a decadent red field blend of 30 Douro grape varieties lush with plum and black cherry flavors, silky tannins, and long lively finish.

Jorge and Sandra of Wine & Soul

Jorge and Sandra of Wine & Soul

2015 Manoella made from 60% Touriga Nacional, 25% Touriga Franca, 10% Tinta Roriz, and 5% Tinta Francisca bursting with cranberry, currant, clove, and mocha flavors backed by fine-grained tannins and a lingering spicy finish.

2015 Pintas Vintage Port made from 40 indigenous grape varieties, this wine was dense purple in color with concentrated notes of violet, cassis, wet stone, and brambly raspberry.  A cascading drawn-out finish highlighted robust but regal tannins and savory spice.

The harvest party also had fabulous local food of course – cheese, meats, soups, olives, pork right from a suckling pig that was roasted that day, and desserts galore.

Suckling Pig

Suckling Pig

 

As night fell, a full moon came out and local dancers and musicians streamed in to perform harvest dances and sing.  These are the kind of immersive experiences that teach you about a region like nothing else really can – truly memorable!

So needless to say, there is plenty to do for 3 days in Pinhão.  Nearby wineries will also come by boat and pick tourists up for a visit to their locations down or upriver which offers two experiences for the price of one (boat ride plus winery visit).

Rabelo boat

Rabelo boat

We enjoyed the two-hour Douro River cruise so much that we did it twice.  Sitting in a classic rabelo boat that sits almost at water level, you can see the Douro from a vantage point like no other.  The first thing I noticed (besides the jaw-dropping scenery) was the complete lack of commercialism.  Each winery (quinta)had a lone stately sign way up on the hill denoting their name and that was it. No other billboards, buildings, or signs in sight.

Every bend of the river was mesmerizing with vines growing horizontally on terraces (socalcos or patamares) and vertically (vinha ao alto) up the hills.  The former are older trellis styles while the latter is a more modern attempt to prevent erosion and improve drainage on steep slopes up to 30 percent gradient.

We visited Quinta do Bomfim which has a fascinating 90-minute tour followed by several different tasting menus of various Ports which you can enjoy out on their expansive patio. We tried the Vintage Port tasting which included the Dow’s 1985 Vintage Port, Quinta do Vesuvio 1995 Vintage Port, and the Graham’s 2000 Vintage Port.  While all were exceptional, the 1985 stole the show with its dried cranberry, apricot, orange peel, and spicy tobacco notes backed by racy acidity and surprisingly dry finish.

Quinta da Roêda also offers a 60-min tour followed by a Port tasting overlooking the incredible sloping vineyards.  Here we tried a flight of the 2012 Quinta de Roêda Port, Croft 10 Year Old Tawny, Croft 20 Year Old Tawny, and the Croft Reserva Tawny Port.

The last day of our stay we went to Quinta das Carvalhas intending to do the 2-3 hour agricultural tour which goes into great depth on the vineyard and growing practices (one of the few of its kind) but had to shorten that to a tasting only due to time constraints.  However, the tasting alone was terrific.

While sitting right at the river’s edge, we sampled a mixed flight of 2015 Branco White (medium-bodied white wine made from Viosinho and Gouveio grapes), 2015 Tinta Francisca (elegant and medium-bodied red), 2014 Touriga Nacional (the blackberry-scented red power grape of Douro), 2014 Vinhas Velhas (old vines), and 10 Year Old Tawny Port all of which were fantastic.

The Vinhas Velhas was exceptional tasting of black and red berry, spice, and dusty herbs with brilliant structure and velvet-glove fisted power.  I’d not had Carvalhas wines before and now have them on my list of favorites.

If you visit Pinhão, it’s a 2-hour drive from Porto along some of the most impressive scenery you may ever see and well worth the trip.  There are a handful of restaurants and shops in the small town and some of the wineries also offer meals.

We found one of the neatest experiences was at a tiny

Port cake

Port cake

family-owned shop (Restaurante Rufete) eating the national favorite Bacalhau (white fish with huge bones), mountains of steamed vegetables, and a sumptuous home-made Port cake (yes there is Port in it and it was the owner’s grandmother’s recipe). Cooking doesn’t get much better than Grandma’s recipe for anything. Nor was I aware Port could be used in cake which was a gustatory revelation.

You can also take a boat cruise from Porto to Pinhão or a train so there are many travel options and all offer incredible scenery at every turn.  The Douro Valley is definitely a more rustic experience than Porto but absolutely worth every minute to see the birthplace of the grapes for some of the world’s most famous wines.

Quinta da Roêda

Quinta da Roêda

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Porto’s Many Charms

Porto’s Many Charms

Porto

Porto

It’s rare when you visit a place you immediately fell in love with for the second time and feel the same rush.  My recent trip to Porto and the Douro Valley was all that and more with still-recurring wistful feelings of “saudade”, the haunting Portuguese word (not translatable in English) for longing for something or someone that is no longer near you.

Besides the eye-grabbing adobe-topped buildings of Porto

Francesinha sandwich

Francesinha sandwich

and the sweeping beauty of the Douro River, Porto offers a wealth of richness in cuisine, dry wines (not just Port), and incredible culture and history.  I had no idea what a gastronomic place Porto is: teeming with fresh fish and vegetables, amazing bread, cheese, and sausages, and my new favorite splurge meal – the francesinha sandwich.  The latter is a seemingly crazy blend of beef, pork, and ham smothered with cheese and a tomato-based sauce made of whiskey, bourbon, wine, and beer.  While it sounds bizarre, it’s truly incredible and ends up tasting somewhat like a spicy barbecue sauce atop a pizza burger.

Portugal is, of course, best known for its world-renowned Port, a fortified sweet drink made in both wood and bottle-aged styles.  The history of Port is one of the most unique wine stories around dating back to the mid-17th century.  The grapes were grown 70 miles up the Douro River in the Douro Valley where they were also made into base wines for Port using traditional processes of foot-treading in granite lagares and fortification with 77% alcohol grape spirit to preserve some sugars thus creating Port’s natural sweetness.

Granite Lagares

Granite Lagares

The wines were stored for the winter and then, when spring arrived, the wines were shipped down the Douro River to Vila Nova de Gaia in precarious flat-bottomed boats called barcos rabelos.  Many lives and Port barrels were lost in these journeys due to the turbulent Douro River (which has since been dammed up in several places to allow easier passage).  Vila Nova de Gaia offered higher humidity and cooler temperatures that allowed the Port to age better.

Today these same processes continue except trucks are used instead of boats and some quintas (estates or vineyards) such as Quinta do Noval choose to store their Ports long-term in the Douro since temperature-controlled rooms and tanks are available now. Port lodges dot the banks of the Douro River (as do rabelo boats) providing a timeless yet historical backdrop to a thriving and vibrant town.

Rabelo boats

Rabelo boats

Fascinatingly, the same grapes that go into Port (commonly Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Cao, Tinta Barroca, and Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo) are also used to produce robust and characterful red wines.  Conversely, White Port also exists and its grapes (Rabigato, Gouveio, Arinto, and Boal among many others) produce intriguingly full-bodied and complex white wines. Rosé is also fabulous, typically made from Touriga Nacional, arguably the Douro’s flagship grape (said to be like Cabernet Sauvignon is to Napa, CA).

A few side-notes on Porto before we get to the wines.  Not only is it blessed with jaw-dropping natural beauty, Porto is very clean with a safe and almost pristine feel to it.  Independent vendors line the streets paralleling the Douro river peddling unique wares including cork purses and wallets, hand-carved figures, and all kinds of vividly-colored textiles which Portugal is known for.  Each Portuguese region has its own textile design and colors.  It’s a kind of daily market which, while a bit touristy, owes its authenticity to the fine workmanship in most of the things I saw.  Another thing that struck me is no matter what you buy or where you buy it, the attention to attractive packaging is always there (and there’s no bag cost).

The Yeatman

The Yeatman

Speaking of attractive, if you can splurge, consider staying at the fabulous Yeatman hotel in Porto.

The Yeatman Room

The Yeatman Room

Owned by The Fladgate Partnership, the hotel is a shrine to the wines of Portugal. Each spacious and impeccably-decorated room offers a patio overlooking the Douro River.  The hotel offers world-class dining in the Gastronomic Restaurant (2 Michelin stars) and a literally perfect bar (Dick’s Bar) featuring fascinating Portuguese wines, mesmerizing views, and the kind of aura that makes you want to stay all night and ponder the world.  There’s also a lovely spa, infiniti pool, gym, and unparalleled service by every single employee I spoke with from the breakfast servers to the concierge, bar staff, and events team.

Taylor Fladgate's Port Lodge

Taylor Fladgate’s Port Lodge

The Yeatman lies on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river along with all of the Port lodges.

Ramos Pinto Port Lodge

Ramos Pinto Port Lodge

The Port lodges are charming time capsules of wine history and lore.  Most offer guided tours, tastings, and occasionally even Fado (the traditional Portuguese music) concerts such as the one at Cálem. If you haven’t had much Port you may think they all taste alike but this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Each Port house has its own style, blending, and aging regimen which is easily evident when the various Ports are lined up side by side.

We spent time at Taylor Fladgate’s lodge as well as Graham’s lodge in Porto.  The Fladgate Partnership owns the Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, and Croft brands and chooses to only make Port (they don’t make any dry wine but they do partner with several quintas that do).  The Symington Family owns Dows, Warres, Graham’s, Cockburn, and Optima among several brands.

Taylor Fladgate tour display

Taylor Fladgate tour display

At Taylor Fladgate, we did a wonderful self-guided tour (which I had initial doubts about) as well as a world-class tasting.  Last time I visited, our Masters of Wine group had an amazing tour done by Adrian Bridge himself (CEO of Taylor Fladgate) but obviously that model doesn’t scale so we were told that the new self-guided tour was created to insure content consistency and also to allow visitors to experience what interested them most.

During the tour, we saw the expansive Port cellars, a complete life cycle demonstration of grapes budding to being made into Port, soil and rock samples of the incredible Douro schist terraces, and several videos explaining how Port is made. I asked several people at the end how they liked the tour and all said they absorbed more from going at their own pace than listening to a guide so it appears the self-guided tour was a winner.  I enjoyed it as well although I have to say it’s hard to beat Mr. Bridge’s historical accounts and vast knowledge of the Douro region.

Taylor Fladgate barrel

Taylor Fladgate barrel

Afterward we had a brilliant tasting of the 7 Ports below:

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)– these are Ports made from a single vintage and aged 4 -6 years in wood.  This style is aimed at earlier drinking and offers great value for the quality as it’s like a Vintage but much more affordable.  This one tasted very fruit-forward with black and red fruit at the forefront and round soft tannins balancing out zesty acidity.

2012 Quinta da Vargellas Vintage – Vargellas is the enchanting vineyard located far east in the Douro Superior that provides grapes for the Taylor Fladgate Ports.  These grapes have vibrant acidity and natural tension as a result of their home at higher altitudes. This Port is a Single-Quinta Vintage Port which means that all grapes came from the same year and vineyard and that it was primarily aged in bottle (only two years in wood) which produces the deep opaque purple that is characteristic of Vintage ports.  Bottle aging prevents oxygen from getting into the wine thus preserving the deep color and producing more fruit–forward flavors. Flavors of blackberry, blueberry, chocolate, and violet with an electric acidity showcase this Port.

10 Year Tawny – A tawny is aged at least 6 years in wood and the “10 year” designates that the average age of all wines used in the blend is 10 years old.  Tawnies are always blends of many different years and always lighter in color than Vintage Ports due to slight oxygen ingress from being aged in barrel which also produces a more dried fruit and nut profile versus the fruitiness of a Vintage. This Port was the darkest in color of the 5 tawnies and tasted of dried fruit, spice, and almonds.

20 Year Tawny – Charming flavors of orange peel, dried apricot, marmalade, and walnuts with supple tannins and that lightning acidity to keep it fresh.  This was the most universally popular of the bunch. In general, 20 Year tawnies offer the best value for the quality as they are substantially more complex than a 10 Year and typically not much higher in price.

30 Year Tawny – This Port demonstrated the developing signs of age with notes of acetaldehyde (that “sherry-like” smell) accompanied by polished mahogany, dried pineapple, and orange flavors with a highly viscous mouthfeel.  Most port houses don’t make 30 and 40 year-old Ports anymore and it’s a category that Taylor Fladgate excels at.

40 Year Tawny – Making the leap of preserving the 20 Year tawny’s freshness and youthful acidity but combining those wonderful age flavors of dried fruit, prune, and walnuts that started to appear in the 30 year-old, this Port was exceptional with brisk acidity and regal structure.

1967 Colheita – Colheita is a vintage tawny Port which means that it’s aged at least 6 years in wood (like a Tawny) but is made from grapes all harvested in the same year (like a Vintage).  All of these grapes were from 1967 which I have a special fondness for as it’s my birth year and I used this Port to celebrate the big 5-0 earlier this year.

This Port was a complex menagerie of maple syrup, caramel, honey, walnuts, dried herbs, and furniture polish with an almost Cognac-like edge to it.  Its beautiful amber gold color was tinged with olive flecks on the rim which also speaks to its age. 11,000 bottles were produced and this Port can still be found in the U.S. for $300.

Taylor Fladgate also has a beautiful restaurant next to the tasting room called Barão Fladgate.  With a panaoramic patio and spectacular views from inside, this is a perfect place to enjoy everything Porto has to offer.

Vinum Restaurant

Vinum Restaurant

We also visited Graham’s Lodge in Porto which has a stunning restaurant in Vinum.  Sweeping views of the city and Douro river abound whether indoors in the sultry wine-themed interior or the spacious veranda.  We had a guided tour of the elaborate cellars (a typical “smaller” Port barrel is 550-liters in size compared to the typical French 225-liter barrel) and more oval shaped in the middle.  New oak is rarely used in Port as the competing wood flavors would detract from Port’s own decadent nuances.

550 liter barrel

550 liter barrel

At Graham’s we tasted a flight of 4 Ports:

Six Grapes Ruby – early-drinking Port with youthful energy and concentrated blackberry and violet notes. The “Six Grapes” name comes from the symbol traditionally used to mark barrels containing the highest quality wine from Graham’s Douro Valley quintas. This Port is primarily made of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, and Tinta Barroca.

Graham’s 10 Year Tawny – Amber gold in color with flavors of red fruit, caramel, and slight nuttiness developing. Robust tannins and firm structure.

Graham's Lodge Tasting

Graham’s Lodge Tasting

Graham’s 20 Year Tawny – Smoother tannins with dried apricot, savory herb, and walnut flavors backed by lively acidity.

Warre’s 1980 Vintage Port – Warre’s is one of the drier (less sweet) styles of Port and consequently one of my favorites.  This one had pronounced mineral flavors of slate and wet rock, accompanied by Touriga Nacional’s trademark violet and blackberry notes all riding a cascading wave of vibrant acidity.

Unlike the Fladgate Partnership, the Symington Family does make its own dry wines from the same grapes that go into Port.  Keep in mind that Port is one of the most highly regulated wines in the world with only a certain percentage of grapes produced allowed to be made into Port each year.  The thought (smartly) occurred to someone along the way that those grapes not going into Port were far too good to be wasted thus dry wines were born.

Symington has many wine brands and we tried these two over lunch at Vinum.

2016 Altano which is an organic wine of mixed grape varieties aged in French oak. Fresh and fruity with lush blackberry, spice, and vanilla, this wine is young and vibrant.

Note: the 2015 vintage of this wine just got written up in Decanter’s November issue.

2014 Altano Reserva is a blend of 90% Touriga Nacional and 10% Touriga Francesca aged in American oak. This was my favorite of the two with lovely notes of cassis, blackberry, and violet supported by smooth tannins and racy acidity. This wine went perfectly with the rib-eye steak that we had for lunch.

Douro Valley

Douro Valley

Next up, our time in the spectacular Douro Valley.