Saturday, 4 November 2017

A Voyage to Portugal (Part 4): The Douro Boys and Casa Anadia

I stood at the banks of the Douro River as the mists lifted in the nascent sunlight.  A circuitous 3 km route through the sparse riverine forest brought me right to waters' edge, where the once-wild river (it is now dammed in 15 places, five in Spain and ten in Portugal) lapped gently against the muddy shore, nuzzling the soles of my shoe like an affectionate puppy.


The new dawn worked its magic, and I was entranced.  Here, in the Cima Corgo, I paid my homage to the mighty Douro, the source of the greatest Port wines, and arguably of Porto itself, the city I so loved, so fleetingly.  I dawdled on the shore, probably with a daffy look on my face, taking in the beauty and breathing in the pristine air.  Feeling recharged, I took another circuitous route back to the hotel, running through little vineyards whose vines were still naked in early April.

Thanks to my titanic / foolish gustatory exploits of the day before, I had to cap my morning run with a few laps at the hotel's beautiful heated pool.  The spa is simply gorgeous, with a very natural theme, built almost entirely of rock and light-coloured wood panelling.  Spa guests are welcomed each morning with a daily-changing herbal infusion to prepare them for their day of relaxation.  I thought I saw a couples'  sauna room with a glass frontage overlooking the river, which would have been absolutely amazing had I someone to steam with.

A quick shower in a cubicle larger than my apartment in Singapore, and I went down to the breakfast room where I met up with C and Catia.  Now I fancy myself a connoisseur of hotel buffet breakfasts, but let me say this: the buffet breakfast at the Six Senses was the best I have had.  It was not, by any means, the biggest spread I had seen; that honour probably belongs to any number of five- and six-star hotels and resorts in East Asia, where bigger is perceived wrongly as being better.  But the sheer quality of the offering here was simply outstanding.  

Courtesy of Joana van Zeller and the Six Senses Douro Valley.
Scrambled eggs so creamy and luscious, delicious omelettes made a la minute in the open kitchen with the local cheese, the sweetest, ripest mangoes you have ever eaten (I don't know where these came from, but I would back them against the best from India and Thailand), pasteis de nata, light and crispy on the outside yet so rich on the inside, the best I would encounter over the whole week.  And bloody good coffee too, which I didn't expect to find so far from the major metropolises.  

I need to also put in a great word regarding the staff, who are simply delightful, and execute a very well-planned guest experience.  For example, a card with the next day's weather forecast is placed on your bed during the daily room clean, and a map with a detailed running route is also available at reception.  So yes, I am brave enough to admit that my first impressions of the property were completely and utterly wrong.

But I was here to work, not pamper myself in a delightful little corner of paradise. Rejuvenated, I was ready for anything any winemaker, Portuguese or otherwise, could throw at me.

10:30am - Tasting with the "Douro Boys", Wine Library, Six Senses Douro Valley

The "Douro Boys" is a coalition of five prominent family-owned Douro Valley wineries brought together by longstanding friendships and family bonds, so-called because their "heads" were (and are) men, and also the most charismatic and outspoken leaders in the community of the independent family wineries in the Douro.  All five have historical and current connections to the Port trade, and are also leaders in the recent drive to produce premium dry Douro Valley wines.  The member wineries are, in no order:
  • Quinta Vale Dona Maria - purchased in 1996 by Cristiano van Zeller, whose family owned the legendary Port house of Quinta do Noval prior to its 1993 sale to AXA Millesimes.  Incidentally, on 30 July, Cristiano sold Vale Dona Maria to his cousins at Aveleda in exchange for a minority shareholding in Aveleda, and he is now the head of Aveleda's Fine Wines division.  Control of Vale Dona Maria, however, will remain with Cristiano, and his daughter Francisca and winemaker Joana Pinhão (who joined us for this afternoon's session) remain respectively the winery's marketing director and chief winemaker.
  • Niepoort Vinhos - famed especially for its tawny and unique "Garrafeira" ports, and led today by the dynamic Dirk Niepoort.  Projects in other emerging areas of Portugal such as Dao and Bairrada, as well as joint ventures in Austria, South Africa and Spain.
  • Quinta do Vallado - excellent Reserva red wines, and I also recently enjoyed a delicious bottle of their dry white wine here in Singapore (Alentasia are Vallado' exclusive importers in Singapore).
  • Quinta do Vale Meão - the owners of Vallado and Vale Meão, respectively the Ribeiro and Olazabal families, are direct descendants of Dona Antonia Ferreira.  In fact, Quinta do Vale Meão was the original source of the grapes for Casa Ferreirinha's Barca Velha, which now come from Quinta da Leda.
  • Quinta do Crasto - like Vallado, excellent Reserva red field blends and also renowned among connoisseurs for its overperforming Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Ports.
We were very fortunate to have representatives from each of the five wineries gather at the Six Senses for this session, which gave us an exposure to the various wineries and wines which we would not otherwise have had.  It's also worth noting that Cristiano van Zeller's wife and daughter, Joana and Francisca, work at the Six Senses as PR Director and Wine Director respectively, and Joana and Cristiano later joined us for lunch so there was a very family atmosphere around this very enjoyable session.

(L to R): Carlos Raposo (winemaker, Niepoort); Pedro Lobo (marketing; Vale do Meão); João Ribeiro (family owner, Vallado); Joana Pinhão (winemaker, Vale Dona Maria); Miguel Roquette, (family owner, Crasto).
To kick things off, the articulate dashing Joao Ribeiro of Vallado gave us a powerpoint presentation on the history of the Douro Valley, aided by Crasto's Miguel Roquette.  Again, a lot of information to absorb, but their passion for their home region and its history was thoroughly infectious.

Apart from giving us some sociological background to the development of the Douro Demarcated Region (first marked out in 1756 by the Marques do Pombal, whose stone markers, the marcos pombalinos, are still scattered around the boundaries of the original demarcation), the main aim of this presentation was to showcase the quality of the dry wines from the Douro DOC.  My utter ignorance of Port wines meant I wouldn't have minded a lesson on Port wines either, but that wasn't to be today.

In short, with the ascent of the fascist-corporatist Estado Novo regime in 1926, anyone who wished to sell Douro wines had to maintain a facility in the bonded area of Vila Nova de Gaia. This was beyond the means of the small farmer-winemakers, who were basically forced to sell their grapes to the Port shippers who were already based in Gaia.  With the collapse of Estado Novo in 1974 and Portugal's admission into the European Economic Community in 1986, the farmers of the Douro Valley were free again to bottle and sell their own wines.  With the decline of Port wine sales, and the beneficio law which capped the amount of grapes per hectare which could be used for Port production (significantly below the mandated maximum production for the appellation), it was inevitable that some would follow in the trail first blazed by Ferreira and its Barca Velha.  The Douro Boys are today the most prominent advocates for the dry wines of the Douro DOC.

Death by Powerpoint, Duriense-style
What made this presentation especially exciting, was the feeling that these five experts, masters of their domains, were still living an experiment and continuing to learn about the potential of their terroirs.  Without the magisterial arrogance of the Bordelais or the taciturn reserve of the Burgundians, the vibe is not "we are the greatest and we know it", it was more "we are great, but we are only learning now how great we are, and we would like you to join us on this journey".  Crasto's Miguel Roquette summed it up thus: "Diversity is our heritage!", referring to the old vine field blends, vineyards planted in the old fashion with numerous random varieties planted more than 80 years ago.   To maintain this diversity, Crasto is currently undertaking an ambitious project to chart the genetic legacy of its vineyards.  To date, in its Maria Teresa vineyard alone, they have identified 49 native varieties, around 30 of which go into its scintillating 2014 Reserva Vinhas Velhas.  

“When we need to replant, we identify the variety of the old vine so we can replant with the same variety and keep the field blend", Roquette continues.   "And the vinification of dry red is still quite a new project for us; the results so far have been good, and our first Reservas are still drinking well after two decades.  But today, we cannot tell what the potential for these wines will be, they may improve for another twenty years!”  He smiles.  “So we are still experimenting, still learning.”

For me, the true revelations of the tasting were the excellent dry red field blends from Crasto, and also Vallado.  To be honest, I found the whites not much more than pleasantly serviceable and correct (Niepoort's Charme being the honourable exception), but the red field blends were quite simply stunning.  I have since tried quite a few dry Douro reds, mostly from single varieties such as Touriga Nacional or from blends in the winery (from the the main varieties such as Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Cao and Tinta Roriz) and even many of "Reserva" quality, and I have to say they fall a long way short in terms of sophistication and approachability when compared to the old vine field blends.  Of course, some of this is probably due to the mastery and experience of the teams at Crasto, Vallado et al, but I like to think, as do the Douro Boys themselves, that it is also a compelling argument for the quality of old vine fruit, and the need to preserve them as a significant part of the blend.  Despite the youth of these wines, they are incredibly accessible (contrast that with the Touriga Nacional grown in nearby Dao, for example, which I find invariably takes years to display its wares), with an incredibly floral quality on the bouquet, smooth tannins, generous ripe (but not stewy) fruit and minerality on the palate.

A very pleasant lunch followed in the hotel restaurant, at which I took the opportunity to suck down as much of the Crasto and Vallado red as I could.  The Niepoort Colheita 1997 and Meão Vintage Porto 2014 are also very nice drops, although it must be said that the latter pales in comparison to my memory of the 2011 Sagrado.  

I had the good fortune of being seated next to Cristiano van Zeller.  A very charming and urbane man, whose accent betrays a touch of the English boarding schools which he never in fact attended, he mixes avuncular charm, an amusement with my complete inability to understand or even attempt to mangle the Portuguese language, and a very sharp commercial pragmatism.  "For today's consumer, it is all about value", he says.  "Let's be honest, fifty bucks today will buy you a pretty shit bottle of Bordeaux. Why would you do that when you could buy a genuinely world class bottle of Douro red?" Cheers to that.

3:15 pm - A Drive to Dao, and a Visit to the Palace of the Counts of Anadia in Mangualde

I was genuinely sad to be leaving the warm embrace of the Douro Boys.  I mentioned before how our little party were basically strangers in a strange land, and while we were gradually warming to each other, to be thrust into a party of such fast friends, sharing fine food, wine and banter, was a real joy.

But Julio waited for no man, and after we said goodbye to the boys and girls of the Douro, he drove us to our next destination, the Palacio dos Condes de Anadia in Mangualde, in the heart of the Dao wine region.  The Palace, classified as a "Building of Public Interest", was not yet open to the public during my visit in April.  The aristocratic Amaral family, who hold the condado of Anadia, own the Palace and various other estates across Portugal.  The Palace has been entrusted to Rui Pereira Coutinho, who married into the Amaral family, and Rui is now responsible for restoring the Palace and winning for it the status of "National Monument".


I have to say this: the visit was incredibly, incredibly enjoyable in a chaotic, disorganised kind of way.  Rui, the titular chief executive of the Casa Anadia wine brand but who is not a hands-on wine guy (he has an estate manager and winemaker working under him), hosted us with one of the great characters I met on the trip, an adorable eccentric who went by the implausible name of Joaquim Pedro Gorjão Henriques Rebello Arnaud.  Joaquim claimed claimed direct descent from the great Marques do Pombal and Dom Joao I, King of Portugal (or at least he did after a few glasses of Rui's surprisingly strong red wine), when his ancestor accompanied Philippa of Lancaster to Portugal to wed Joao I.  Family trees aside, Joaquim was also kind enough to bring an assortment of his excellent chouricos and cheeses from his farm in the Alentejo, a perfect snack with Casa Anadia's 2015 Rosado Sparkling while we toured the vineyards and the Palace grounds.



At the moment, work here at the estate is very much a work in progress.  The Palace itself is a glimpse into the lifestyle of a nobility long abolished, and a lifestyle long gone.  Some sections of the massive complex are in disrepair, with chipped azulejos, others still resplendent in their ornate splendour, a reminder of a more vainglorious, if not better, past.  It is funny to think of the Singaporean "Five Cs" which allegedly signify material success in this very materialistic society, when you consider that the Amarals had two more Cs, their private Chapel and a Confessor.  Kind of puts things into perspective, doesn't it?

The Private Chapel of the Count of Anadia
The old winemaker died in 2o13, and the estate engaged Paulo Nunes, one of the rising stars in Dao, to take his place.  Nunes is also the winemaker at the nearby Casa da Passarella, on which more later.  But it is interesting to see the change in character of the wines from the 2013 to the 2014 vintage.  I found the 2013s far more accessible on the day, especially the Reserva Tinto but I brought a bottle of the 2014 standard bottling back to Singapore and drank it at a poolside barbecue a couple of months later.  It was already ready to drink, and a willing and able accomplice to grilled meats and fried noodles.

We finished the evening with a wonderful home-cooked meal in one of the Palace's dining rooms.  I recall, amongst other things, a beautiful salad with bacalhau, a delicious rice casserole made with duck stock and duck bones (arroz de pato, a very popular dish in Portugal where rice consumption is apparently quite high) and of course Rui's high-spirited and very sincere hospitality.  Before dessert, he announced proudly that we would finish with a traditional speciality of the region.  As a gastronomic adventurer, hearing these words gets me very excited.  And guess what we had?  Another platter of Portuguese egg tarts!!!  But not so fast, Rui cautioned.  These were in fact pastéis de feijão, or bean pastries, made just up the street by a charitable venture first founded after the First World War by the parish priest of Mangualde - please see this excellent article from Portuguese blogger Mafalda Agante on the origins of the bakery, the Pasteleria de Patronato (it's in Portuguese, but there's nothing Google Translate and a little imagination can't fix).  According to the pastry chef António Santos, the pastries will keep perfectly for three days.  I ate three of them in a half-hour sitting, washed down with a steaming pot of camomile tea.

It was the end of another long day, and Julio escorted us to the Montebelo Viseu Congress Hotel for our rest.  After the glories of the Six Senses, the Montebelo struck me as a particularly nondescript business hotel, with hard mattresses and a gym that inexplicably opened only at 8 am.  But this had been an amazing trip so far, and such trivial hardships pretty much fell by the wayside.  Now I can't discount the possibility that my feel-good factor was simply due to my incredibly high blood sugar levels (five egg tarts in 13 hours!) but I was having the time of my life, and at that moment, that was all that really mattered.

Next stop: More Dao, and a long drive south to Lisbon!


Related Posts:


Portugal - My Voyage of Discovery (Part 1): Singapore
Portugal - My Voyage of Discovery (Part 2): Porto
Portugal - My Voyage of Discovery (Part 3): Porto, Penafiel and the Douro Valley
Review of Alma by Henrique Sa Pessoa, Lisbon


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