Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Celebrity Chefs, Starf*cking, Name-Chasing and Other Unnatural Phenomena

I hate celebrity chefs.  More accurately, I hate celebrity chef-dom, and all the symptoms and pathologies which mark this insidious contagion.  Where do I start?  How about the industry shindigs where folks break their arms patting themselves on the back?  Or cynical marketing based on the individual's fame rather than the culinary merit which won that fame in the first place (a certain "integrated resort" and its so-called "celebrity restaurants" come to mind).  Four-hand dinners?  More like one-hand dinners, they are such a wank.  And so on...

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Portugal - My Voyage of Discovery (Part 3) - Porto, Penafiel, Douro Valley

I woke up.  I left the blinds up the night before and the skies were still pitch-dark.  My clock read 5:25 am.  Damn.  Sheer exhaustion and a lack of crying kids didn't help me sleep any better.  I got up, took a swig of the local mineral water and warmed up for my morning run.

I mentioned earlier in this series that our itinerary was jam-packed with nary any time for sightseeing or enjoying the vibe of the various towns and wine villages.  But as a writer, my job is to tell stories.  Not getting any context would seriously limit my perception of my surroundings, the people and, ultimately, even the wines I taste and therefore my final work product.  Do I take my writing too seriously?  Quite possibly, but I would rather that than not take it seriously enough.

It was around 10 degrees Celsius when I stepped outside, the kind of temperature that gets the adrenaline pumping without freezing my joints in.  The light marine breeze was still whistling down the river as the sun peeped over the horizon.  I retraced our footsteps along the esplanade, across the Dom Luis I Bridge and westward again past the shippers' lodges and towards where the mighty Douro finally emptied into the Atlantic.

It was around 2 pm in Singapore when I finished my run, so I logged on, did a couple of hours of work (the struggle is real, my friends), rubbed more toothpaste into my rapidly blackening teeth and headed downstairs for a rushed breakfast.   My first breakfast in Portugal, my first encounter with the famous pastéis de nata, the sinfully sweet, rich, crispy charred confections which bear zero resemblance to the "Portuguese egg tarts" which have become so trendy across Asia.  And my first encounter with the Portuguese sweet tooth, on which (a lot) more later.

Photos in this post are courtesy of Daisuke Kawai.

9:00 am: Portuguese Wine Masterclass, Palácio da Bolsa

After checking out out of the Pestana Palace, we set off on foot for the Palácio da Bolsa (the Stock Exchange Palace), where Vini Portugal has its Porto headquarters.

Now we are very lucky to be working in international Class A office buildings  in Singapore and you will never hear me complain about them.  But there is something about the idea of working in a beautiful, centuries-old, historical building like this (and there are a few such in Porto) which blows my mind.   I suspect the Portuense take this for granted, much as I took for granted my old digs with its stunning views of the Botanic Gardens and Sydney Harbour.  It is, after all, human nature to not appreciate what you have in the moment and pine longingly for it only after it is well and truly gone.

We are led to Vini Portugal's "open to the public" ground floor tasting room for our introductory Masterclass. to Portuguese wine.  This class was fascinating, and not just in a "historical trivia" kind of way.  To start with, the wines, exemplars from all of Portugal's major wine regions, were superb almost to the last.  I was especially impressed by the sparkling 2013 Campolargo Bruto which kicked off our tasting, and the 2011 Quinta do Sagrado Vintage Port which finished it.  The Sagrado, in particular, was an absolutely stunner, pure concentrated grapes and chocolate on the nose, rich layered black and blue fruits with incredible intensity on the palate, perfect balance with neither heat nor excessive tannin, and a sweet finish that just kept going.  Whoever said vintage port could not be drunk young had clearly never enjoyed the 2011 Sagrado at age 6.  I later asked Cátia how I could get a case or two of the stuff, and she shook her head, saying it was extremely expensive and rare (apparently only 225 cases produced, according to Roy Hersh's excellent For the Love of Port website).  I'm sure she's right, but she clearly had not come across Singaporean kiasuism, or the greed of Singaporean importers which has desensitised me to high prices.  That 2011 was, by many accounts, the greatest vintage ever in the Douro, only served to whet my appetite further.

I cannot, repeat, cannot recommend enough a session at the tasting rooms to anyone keen to learn more about Portuguese wine, especially at the start of your Portuguese trip.   In particular, I must give massive props to our instructor Daniela Costa, who is a true master (mistress?) of her subject matter and did a brilliant job treading the very fine line between technical knowledge and boredom.  The session gave me a solid framework within which I could fit in every single bit of knowledge I would come across over the next six days (and believe me, there were a lot of them!), about the wines being made across the country.  Now I'm not going to pretend that the tasting as we experienced it would be open to everyday tourists and passers-by, frankly because it isn't.  For a start, no one is going to serve you a glass of 2011 vintage port for 1 euro a glass (which I understand is the price to the general public).  But I am told there is a possibility of arranging a private session with some more serious wines by pre-appointment.  If you are in a big and enthusiastic enough group, I would strongly recommend you do that.

11:30 a.m. - Tasting at Sogrape Vinhos,Vila Nova de Gaia

Before we knew it, our presence was required across the river in Gaia, where Sogrape's head Douro winemaker Luis Sottomayor was awaiting our arrival.

View of the Ribeira from Sogrape's Tasting Room

This was originally down on our itinerary as lunch with George Sandeman, who wears two hats as the 7th generation chairman of the famous Sandeman Port house and head of Sogrape's Public Relations department (Sogrape, Portugal's largest family-owned winemaking concern and owners of the infamous Mateus brand, acquired the House of Sandeman from Canada's Seagram in 2002).  However, George was indisposed today so we were instead hosted by winemaker Sottomayor, who took over Sogrape's Douro portfolio in 2007.

This was an excellent introduction to the Douro, although perhaps from a more technical and commercial standpoint than I would have liked.   Sottomayor is a wonderful fount of technical knowledge, not so much the raconteur I was hoping and expecting George Sandeman to be.  At this stage of my Portuguese adventure, I would perhaps have preferred the latter, so I had some idea of the history and culture behind this stunning region before we got down to the business of tasting.

Sogrape's Douro portfolio derives from its 1987 purchase of the famous A A Ferreira Company, founded by the legendary businesswoman and philanthropist Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira, known affectionately as A Ferreirinha.  Sogrape's Douro dry wine range is sold under the "Casa Ferreirinha" marque, in tribute to Dona Antonia, and it has of course expanded on the range of Ferreira's wines since acquisition.

The crown jewel of the Ferreira company, and now Sogrape, was the legendary Barca Velha, the first proof that the Douro Valley could produce great table wine and not just fortified wine.  As there was little by way of electricity in the Douro Valley in 1952 to control the temperature of fermentation,  Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, who invented the Barca Velha, shipped sawdust-coated ice from Porto for use in his double-walled fermentation vats, thereby maintaining the wine's freshness and bouquet and preventing the development of any volatile acidity.  The resultant masterpiece became the first Barca Velha, and only 17 vintages since then have been declared worthy of the name.  The latest, 2008, Sottomayor's first and only declared Barca Velha to date, was rated 100 points by the Wine Enthusiast.

A little bit of wine-football trivia for you: during the great Alex Ferguson - Jose Mourinho English Premier League rivalry, the two great managers and wine collectors would meet up after the game to share a couple of bottles from their cellars.  After one particularly heated battle between Manchester United and Chelsea, Ferguson apparently criticised Mourinho for reneging on his promise to bring a bottle of Barca Velha.  I mention this not to show that I know something about football, but just to illustrate that even worldly, wealthy grandees such as Sir Alex can get upset when denied a bottle of Barca Velha.

I digress.  So in the company of the punctilious white lab-coated Sottomayor and the lovely Inês Vaz from Sogrape's PR department, we tasted through the Casa Ferreirinha range, barring of course the Barca Velha and its deputy sheriff, the Reserva Especial, and a few tawny and LBV ports from Sandeman.  The dry wines were good without being impressive, and represent good value at their relatively low price points.  Sottomayor seemed particularly proud of the new Papa Figos range, named for the Portuguese golden oriole, which he introduced back in 2010.

We then stepped back out into the glorious sunshine and made our way to the Sandemans lodge for lunch.  Delicious as the wines were, and educational as the tasting was, it was such a pleasure to be back outdoors, watching the tourists basking in the sun and lapping up the atmosphere while sipping on white port cocktails.  The body language, the smiles, the animated conversation, you knew everyone was just having an amazing time.  There is a real, tangible magic in this place, and I will be back sooner rather than later.

Cutting a long story short, a delicious lunch (with even more Casa Ferreirinha wine) was served in the dining room at Sandemans, followed by a quick tour of their cellars.  Outside is our dark blue Mercedes Viano, and I dreaded the prospect of seeing Judas Iscariot at the wheel again. Thankfully, the forbidding, wizened visage has been replaced by a dark, robust forty-something with slicked curly greying hair named Julio.  Julio will be our driver for the rest of the week, Cátia tells us, to my intense relief.  Julio smiles and says hello, we hop in, and bid our fond farewells to Inês and to Porto.  What a city, what a buzz!

3:00 pm: A Visit to the Quinta da Aveleda, Penafiel

Half an hour later, we pull up at Quinta da Aveleda, founded in 1870 by Manuel Pedro Guedes and still owned by the Guedes family today.  I should mention that Sogrape's founder, Fernando van Zeller Guedes, was the grandson of Manuel Pedro, so Guedes is a very prominent family name in northern Portuguese wine country (as is Van Zeller, but that is a story for the next instalment).  

Aveleda is in Vinho Verde country.  Literally "green wine", Vinho Verde is an archetype of what Hugh Johnson would describe as "DYA": Drink Youngest Available.  I had a few chances to taste them over the week and loved them; they are great value wines full of charm and character, enough to bring a smile to anyone's face and to form a rapport with a simple, fresh seafood dish, but they will not change anyone's wine world.  There are a couple of exceptions to this rule, especially some of the Alvarinho-based wines of Monção and Melgaço, which have a complexity and substance to go with the freshness.

Another magical pathway in the Aveleda Gardens
But Aveleda is much more than a vineyard, and a stroll in the Gardens of Aveleda, a labour of love for the fourth generation of the Guedes family, is a leisurely waltz in a celestial Eden.  In one corner, you will see a giant gum tree (a massively nostalgic moment for an ex-Sydneysider like myself), in another, a little building made of rocks which houses a family of black goats, in yet another, a still, serene lake rippling only with the graceful fluttering of white swans.  It is magical, it is idyllic, it is stuff straight out of a fairy tale, and the contrast against the man-made bricks-and-mortar history of Porto could not be greater.  I walk around aimlessly, breathing in the pristine air and gawking at the fauna which inhabit the various nooks of this Elysium.   It's the kind of place, apparently, that inspires flights of fancy and ridiculously romantic gestures.  Cátia told me a very charming story of an American couple who met over a bottle of Aveleda's wine at a bar in the States, and felt compelled to visit the Gardens where they got engaged.  And of course, the Gardens also played host to their wedding a couple of years down the track.  I don't have a romantic bone in my body so was sceptical about the whole story, but the fairy dust was thick in the air that day so I just smiled and nodded.

The Main House at Quinta da Aveleda
After all that, what wine could match our moods and imaginations, taken flight after hours exulting in such serene beauty?  We were treated to a short flight of Aveleda's global best seller, the Casal Garcia Vinhos Verdes, lightly sweet, lightly spritzy, lightly alcoholic and totally frivolous, playful wines which, I am ashamed to say,  I thoroughly enjoyed.  I believe very strongly in enjoying wines which have something to say, and which perfectly match an occasion or a mood, and these were totally spot-on.  The very kind Aveleda crew then gave us a tour of their shop and treated us to a delicious traditional Portuguese feast: bacalhau (salted cod) croquettes, flaming chouriços, quiche and a chick pea salad with flaked bacalhau stand out in the memory.

9:45 pm: Arriving at the Six Senses Douro Valley, Peso da Régua

As the sun set, Julio commenced the drive to the Six Senses Douro Valley in the Cima Corgo (effectively the central Douro Valley), a treat specially organised by C.  After the incredible dreamland that was Aveleda, not to mention the fact that Julio took a couple of wrong turns and that we had been drinking pretty much non-stop since 9 am, I was starting to slow down badly.

I fumbled my way into my room.   Now I would be lying if I said I was thrilled at my first impression.  No view of the river, and the room, which was large and luxuriously-appointed, was no different to any of a myriad of similar Asian luxury brands which I had experienced.  The room amenities were all controlled by smartphone, which was rather off-putting.  I don't know, perhaps any other adventurer would have been utterly thrilled but that evening, in my mental state, I wasn't.  I honestly didn't know what to expect, but I couldn't control my disappointment.  I appreciate this doesn't exactly sound rational, but rationality clearly wasn't my strong suit that evening.

My room at the Six Senses Douro Valley
As I struggled valiantly but fruitlessly against the gremlin in the smartphone, I found myself spiralling into depressive depths again, and C suggested we grab a nightcap in the hotel's dedicated Wine Library.  I had been wined to death over the last 12 hours, and the idea of another glass was about as attractive as another tedious transcontinental teleconference with my finance department.  Thanks but no thanks.

My teeth were feeling furry and tingly after 60 hours of no brushing and repeated batterings from flights of rich, inky Douro red wines.  I called reception nervously and ask if they had a toothbrush and an ironing kit.  "Why, of course, Mr Teoh.  We will send them up in 15 minutes".   My teeth said a little prayer to the gods of the Douro, as did I.  I hoped that the morning would bring some sunshine and with it, some solace.  I badly needed it.

Related Posts:

Portugal - My Voyage of Discovery (Part 1) - Singapore
Portugal - My Voyage of Discovery (Part 2) - Porto
A Review of Alma by Henrique Sa Pessoa, Lisbon