Quaffing vinho verde in Portugal’s Minho Valley we may well have been – and with a Count no less! – but not for two weeks, as the date on our last blog post To Porto, to Present Grantourismo, Talk Travel and Taste Wine suggests. We’re actually on an altogether different continent working on some fun projects and have just been ridiculously busy, but we do want to tell you more about our Portugal Wine Pleasures trip, so let’s pick up where I last left off…
Vinho Verde and The Minho Valley
The Minho is the name of both the river that separates northern Portugal from Spain, and Portugal’s northern-most region which is famous for its fresh young wines called vinhos verdes or ‘green wines’. Although our Portuguese guide told us it was the country’s greenest region, it’s not lush green like you find in cool wet climates. In fact it was fairly dry when we visited in late winter – more like the Hunter Valley in summer than the Yarra Valley in winter. With the abundance of eucalyptus trees in the Minho, the Australian analogy is an apt one.
I have to admit I’d never tried vinho verde before this trip and I’d imagined the wines would have that light green tone you get with New Zealand Marlborough sauvignon blancs and that they’d be just as aromatic, grassy and herbaceous. The NZ sav blancs are one of my favourite drops. I can sip one in any part of the world, close my eyes and imagine I’m lying on a picnic blanket spread out on a freshly cut lawn in a park in the sunshine in Sydney. Don’t you love how wines do that?
But vinho verde isn’t really like that at all here in the Minho Valley. The ‘greenness’ describes the wine’s youth. These need to be drunk young, virtually straight away, or at most within a year, they say. The ones we tried varied from being virtually transparent to the colour of straw, had a slight fizz, were crisp and dry, and some had green melon flavours, while others had almost nothing at all. The best we tried were from Alvarinho grapes, although sometimes Loureiro and other varieties are added.
Paco de Calheiros
The first stop on our wine tour of the Minho Valley was Paco de Calheiros, the estate of the Count of Calheiros. An imposing white manor house overlooking a pastel-coloured valley of vineyards and farmhouses, the home of the Count and his family also served as boutique accommodation. Our room for the night was a rustic loft-like apartment in the former storerooms, off the main building. After a stroll around the gardens just in time to see the sun sinking into the valley below, we headed in for our first tasting.
Provam is a co-operative of ten wine-growers and soft-spoken winemaker, Jose Domingues, guided us through a sampling of their Alvarinho-based wines in the Count’s elegant old dining room illuminated by chandeliers and candelabra. It was a refined setting that in some situations could be quite stuffy, but Count Francisco, a warm host, quickly made our group of winemakers, writers and bloggers, and even a Hollywood ‘Celebrity Wine TV’ crew, feel at home. (Don’t ask who the celebrities were as we never quite figured that out.)
We started with the nicely balanced 2009 Varanda do Conde, made from Alvarinho and Trajadura grapes, followed by the 2009 Portal do Fidalgo, made only from Alvarinho, which Jose said was the best expression of Alvarinho – perfumed, with some minerality and citrus, it was very fresh. Next was a sparkling 2007 Coto de Mamoelas, which reminded me of Spanish Cava – lovely mouth-feel, good viscosity, and easy to drink.
After the tasting, the Count took us on a tour of his labyrinthine 17th century home, which, like many of the noble families in the area, the Count converted into boutique accommodation. Sober portraits of his ancestors hung above fireplaces, ceramics decorated sideboards, and in a comfy sitting room family snapshots crammed the shelves alongside seashell collections and African carvings.
Over a feast of house specialties for dinner, including pumpkin and cabbage soup, bacalhau (cod) and vegetables, and a decadent chocolate mousse, washed down with more of Provam’s delightful wines, we chatted about wine, food and travel (what else?), before winding up the night in front of the fireplace with a tasting of Count Francisco’s own vinho verde, which was very fresh indeed.
As we sipped the young wines we watched the Count record an interview with the young Celebrity Wine TV crew. After a swig, the blonde Californian presenter exclaimed “So it’s like Pinot Grigio, only cheaper?!” It wasn’t at all, but her comment made for a memorable nightcap on our first night in the Minho Valley.
Quinta do Ameal, AFROS and Quinta Santa Maria
The next day was a blur of three wine tastings in the Minho Valley, the first of which began soon after breakfast that made us thankful we are travel writers who also write about food and wine, rather than specialised wine writers. If this was our typical day, how on earth would we ever get any writing done? After a short drive along back roads in the Minho Valley that snaked through orange orchards, olive groves and eucalyptus forest, we arrived at the Quinta do Ameal, a pretty 12-hectare winery set in bucolic surroundings ran by yet another charming winemaker.
To a background soundtrack of what some in our group thought was a religious service, others felt must have been a festival, but I was fairly certain was a recording of fado wafting across the Rio Lima, winemaker Pedro Araújo briefed us on his charming winery, his family history (his grandfather was a pioneering winemaker), and his form of bio-production that is concentrated on simple solutions to problems.
The cosy interior (it was freezing out!) of a beautiful stone building that Pedro is restoring was the setting for a tasting of some stunning wines made from organically-grown Loureiro grapes, fermented and aged in French oak barrels for 6 months. We tasted five wines and although each was very different to the next, they all shared certain characteristics and were very different to the wines we’d tasted the previous evening. They were more complex, fruitier, very floral, and woodier. I especially liked the 2008 Quinta do Ameal Escolha and a 2007 ‘S.H’ (Special Harvest), which tasted of butter on toast, was very nutty, and had a luscious long aftertaste. If I ever had the chance to taste the dessert again, I would be able to close my eyes, see the Quinta’s lovely chestnut and walnut trees, and hear fado in the background.
Our next stop was yet another manor house in the Minho Valley, this time dating to the 16th century, and home to Vasco Croft’s winery, AFROS. While not as grand as the manor house that was our accommodation the previous night, it was splendid. (Its diminutive size was explained by the fact that this was the family’s ‘holiday house’, so somewhere there must have been a majestic building just like the Count’s.)
AFROS winery is what Vasco calls “the realisation of my dream… a good place to rest, dream and escape”. Vasco is proud of the biodynamic methods that involve he and his right-hand man, a childhood friend, who is completely connected to the land, working with the plants to achieve maturity without any cellar tricks. Vasco pointed out the sheep grazing between the vines that provide the fertilizer for this vines and showed us a waterfall-like fountain that regenerates water, which is then used to “dynamize preparations of the vines”.
Our group was well and truly ready for the AFROS wine tasting and buffet lunch of hors d’œuvres that accompanied it, if the rate we all devoured the delicious pastel do nata do bacalha (Portuguese tarts with cod) was an indication. The room was buzzing, quickly taking on a cocktail party-like atmosphere far removed from the usual tastings, and it was a lot of fun. The wines were equally as surprising.
From an oaky 2007 Vinho Verde Espumante that was appropriate to the mood (or did it get us in the mood?) to a 2009 Vinho Verde Vinhão Tinto that reminded me of a cold beetroot soup I once had in Moscow (seriously), the wines were like nothing we’d had so far nor expected. I liked the sparkling red a lot. It reminded me of an Australian Sparkling Shiraz I fell in love with in the Coonawarra. And a picnic blanket on uncut grass overlooking a lake… wait a minute, I think that was in Cape Town’s Winelands. And this was only Tasting #2…
Our last tasting for the day was at Quinta de Santa Maria, ran by a family of winemakers who had bought the property in 1926. This, a much more formal and structured tasting that followed a tour of the historic, atmospheric winery, was organized around a U-shaped table with tasting notes and pencils supplied. It reminded me of the first ever wine appreciation class Terence and I did some twenty odd years ago and was a little odd after our previous party-like tasting, but maybe it was just what we needed.
There were a lot of wines to try, perhaps too many for that time of the afternoon, although nobody seemed to complain. These were, on the whole, quite delightful wines – from a fresh green 2009 Quinta do Tamariz Loureiro which was earthy and aromatic, smelt of the garden, and tasted like quince and the granite soil (or maybe quince grown in a granite soil?) to a pretty 2010 Quinta do Santa Maria Arinta (straight from the vat!) that was very green – in that freshly cut grass style that I love – with some citrus and candy flavours that I took to. Then there was a strange 2009 Quinta do Santa Maria Touriga Nacional that at first smelt of wet dog, although fortunately the nose kept changing as it does, and tasted of bitter, unripe cherries (it was interesting), and a 2010 Quinta do Santa Maria Vinhão, which looked like that cold Borscht soup I tasted in Moscow again. I didn’t quite get those ones.
The Yeatman Hotel & Sandeman
Most of us snoozed on and off on the bus on the way back to Porto, and by the time we arrived, bleary-eyed, at our stunning new ‘home’ for the night, the Yeatman Hotel, we were all half-asleep. Terence and I were gifted with an enormous suite, with a colossal terrace with table and chairs that I just wanted to sit at for an hour with a glass of wine in hand, that made me miss staying in fine hotels. Our only complaint was that we had too little time to savour the spectacular vistas before we had to head out again.
George Sandeman himself greeted us at the door of Sandeman, one of the world’s most renowned port makers. I remember my father sipping the stuff when I was a child, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember ever having tried it. So the tour, the port cocktails, the tastings of fine 10 and 20 year old ports, and the divine dinner that followed – each dish matched with ports! – were all truly enlightening and very memorable.
As was the tasting by the Celebrity Wine Review TV presenter on our cellar tour that resulted in port spilling down her chin, neck, and, ahem, décolletage… it reminded me of a wet t-shirt competition I once saw on the Gold Coast in Queensland, only then we were drinking beer, not wonderful vintage port wine. George Sandeman was standing next to us and the poor chap (well, he is English) seemed rather lost for words as he watched the scene. So much so that we secretly rehearsed CPR techniques as we watched him struggle to comprehend the scene. We’re still struggling.
Like this? Then drop over to Come for the Wine, where wine blogger Marcy Gordon is busy posting on our Portugal vini-adventures (and very humorously too!) and read: Part 3: the Minho Land of Vinho Verde.