Experience wines that can only be tasted in Portugal
by Karen Rubin
In some sense, Porto, Portugal’s first capital city, reminds me a little of Florence, Italy. Like Florence, Porto was once one of the richest and most powerful cities in the world because of trade that came through its port, and built fabulous buildings in an ornate style. But Porto not only gave its name to a country, but to a wine, upon which its industry and much of the country’s, is now based. And it strikes me as we immerse ourselves in exploring and discovering the marvels of Portuguese wine, that just as Florence is the gateway to Tuscany and its vineyards, so Porto, the city of wine, is a gateway to the Douro Wine Region, and to an appreciation of the art, science and business of wine.
It is lunchtime, and after a morning taking in the exquisite sights of Porto’s streetscape, we make our way through narrow winding, cobblestone streets toward the riverfront, a UNESCO-protected area since 1996, and the D Tonho restaurant, which is built into a 15th century stone walls.
We dine al fresco, under umbrellas on the bank of the Douro River just below the double-decker Dom Luis bridge over the Douro River, and watch the scene unfold along the water, where traditional rabelo boats are getting ready for an annual race that takes place during Sao Joao festival, the biggest festival of the year.
The restaurant serves serving traditional cuisine (the grilled rabbit with coriander and the octopus were amazing).
It is in restaurants like this that you get to sample amazing wines that you cannot experience any place else in the world – the production is too small to export. And that is one of the adventures of visiting Portugal, even if you are not a wine connoisseur to start with, you develop a taste for appreciation.
Over glasses of Tavedo Douro 2010, our conversation turns to Portugal’s wine.
Indeed, during our stay, Porto is hosting the 34th World Congress of Vine and Wine, drawing 1000 experts in the science of wine from all over the world to discuss such lofty matters as the interaction between producers and consumers, and architecture of wineries.
The famous Port wine is at the heart of Porto’s economy, and even was the reason for a war with France, when the British decided they preferred Portugal’s Port wine to French wine, says Rosa Maria Koehler, Executive Director of the Porto & Northern Portugal Convention and Visitors Bureau. Her family has been in Porto since the 14th century.
I’m intrigued enough to look it up on Wikipedia: Portuguese wines were first shipped to England in the 12th century from what is today the Douro and Vinho Verde regions. In 1386, Portugal and England signed the Treaty of Windsor, expanding trade. The 1703 Methuen Treaty gave Portuguese wines preferential treatment in the British wine market over French wines, triggering a conflict between France and Portugal.
The lucrative trade in Port prompted the Portuguese authorities to establish one of the world’s first protected designation of origin regions, when the visionary Sebastiao Jose de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal (who we come to know as the savior of Lisbon after the 1755 eathquake there) established boundaries and regulations for the production of authentic Port from the Douro in 1756, making it the oldest defined and protected wine region in the world.
Fast forward to the mid-1980s, and Portugal’s entry into the European Union brought a flood of financing and grants to the stagnant Portuguese wine industry, paving the way for upgrades in winemaking technology and facilities.
It is almost inconceivable to visit Porto and not visit a wine house. So after our lunch, we stroll over the Dom Luis bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite shore of the Douro River, where there are a host of wine lodges or cellars to visit to learn about Port wine and have tastings.
We visit the renovated Calem Port Wine Cellars for a guided tour of the cellars where wines age in enormous barrels, in protected light, air and temperature conditions. Calem was founded in 1859. The original Calem Cellars was burned in fire; this new wine cellar won an architectural prize 2008.
The visit starts with a five-minute video presented in an auditorium entirely created out of a cut-away wine barrel, and endsin a large tasting room with long tables. Calem gets about 1,000 visitors a day.
It is hard to follow all of the nuances of Port wine production, but the gist is that Port is produced from grapes grown and processed in the demarcated Douro region. The wine produced is then fortified by the addition of a neutral grape spirit, known as aguardente, which stops the fermentation, leaving residual sugar in the wine and boosting the alcohol content. The wine is then stored and aged, typically in huge barrels stored in a cave (pronounced “ka-ve”, it means “cellar” in Portuguese) where the temperature is controlled, before being bottled. Vila Nova de Gaia, which is across the Douro from Porto, is where there is a concentration of wine cellars, and they invite visitors.
In the second half of the 17th century, the wine was literally named from the city, Porto, which in turn was named because it was a major seaport at the mouth of the Douro River where it flowed to the Atlantic Ocean. It was from here that the wine was brought to market or for export to other countries in Europe. The regulations established for Port wine even required the aging cellars to be in Gaia.
Our guide through the Calem Cellars explains how wines are blended from younger and older wines – each producer company has its own recipe – to create the flavor and quality of a 10, 20, or 40-year old Tawny.
You have to be mindful of the harvest year and when the wine was bottled. Wines are aged in barrels which impart their flavor. The bottle will show an expiration date – an old bottle of wine that is not meant to age in the bottle will taste like vinegar. A table wine is meant to be consumed within two years.
Noting that wine can spend 5 to 10 years in a bottle, he advises that a ’94 harvest bottled in 2010, “buy it”, but a ’94 bottled in 2000, “don’t buy it.”
A 1931 bottle of wine can sell for 220,000E; a 1950 bottle for 350E. A 1937 harvest, bottled in 2007, 700E, needs to be used within 10 years.
An LBV is bottled 6 years after harvest and not blended; it offers a nice balance between price and harvest, he says.
On the other hand, there are wines that are bottled and meant to be kept for a long time; there is a tradition to buy a bottle when a child is first born, then open it when the child turns 18 – it provides a connection.
By now my head is spinning, and not from the wine, and we have moved into a private tasting room (not the large hall that visitors usually go to) and get to experience the intense flavor of a 40-year old Kopke white which is brand new to market, only last fall, and priced at 84E half bottle. It is sensational.
The Caves Calem also offer Fado, the national music of Portugal (which is like the “blues” only darker). At Calem, the experience is combined with a visit to the cellars and wine tasting, followed by the Fado show; the program is offered nightly at 6:30 p.m.
The Yeatman, A Wine Hotel
You can live a totally luxurious wine experience at The Yeatman, which is purposefully built as a wine hotel, even to the way it is constructed on the hillside just above the wine lodges on the Gaia side of the Douro River, in terraces (much like the Douro Valley), and commands the most spectacular view of Porto across the river and the Luis I bridge.
The luxury, 82-room hotel is new (it opened in July 2010), but looks and feels as if it were a manor house on a wine estate That’s how you feel going through the corridors, lounging in the pool on a hilltop overlooking the river, and from your own terrace outside your room. You feel as you have been invited to someone’s grand home for a wine tasting.
The location is actually ideal – though on a hilltop, you can walk down to the riverfront in Gaia, or stroll across the Dom Luis bridge into Porto.
The entire hotel is a homage to wine and wine-making.
It is owned and operated by the Taylor Fladgate wine company, and you can tell it is a project that is near and dear to the heart of Adrian Bridge, the CEO Taylor Fladgate and The Yeatman.
Founded in 1692, Taylor, Fladgate, & Yeatmanis one of the oldest port wine houses, and today, one of the largest. The house owns the brands of Fonseca, Fonseca-Guimaraens, Taylor, and Croft, produces almost all types of port including vintage, tawny, ruby, late-bottled vintage, and white. Known for its innovation, it invented the style of late-bottled vintage port, and has just broken through the mire of red tape governing Port wine production to create a pink Port.
Bridge, a Brit who served in the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guard, and spent one year working with the United Nations in Cyprus as the Aide-de-Camp to the deputy commander of the peace keeping force, was in finance before he married Natasha Robertson, whose family owns Taylor Fladgate(she is the wine blender) and being asked to become CEO of Taylor Fladgate. He sees the wine hotel as a way expanding the appreciation of Port wine – not just his company’s, but all Portuguese wine.
He involved all the major Portuguese wine companies in the project – each one had the invitation to sponsor (decorate and name) a room, and the wine companies take turns hosting a weekly wine-tasting dinner (just 50E, it has become extremely popular). The Yeatman has 67 wine partners.
The hotel has a quaint, London-looking wine shop, and a wine room showcasing 800 different Portuguese wines.
There are other homages to heritage and wine-making throughout the hotel – the spacious hallways are used as galleries – one floor exhibits historic maps of the region; another has a display of a series of roosters (the symbol of Portugal) created by school children. As you pull up to the hotel, you see a 1350-year old olive tree.
You step into one of the elevators and feel as you have stepped into the Douro – with a 360-degree photographic view on all the sides of the elevator; another elevator (all the elevators are different) makes you think you are in a hot-air balloon (the carriage is a basket), floating over the wine region. A spiral staircase is built into a wine barrel.
The Yeatman is a stunning combination of the best of heritage and modern – it pays homage to the long wine-making tradition, and yet incorporates modern technologies to be as sustainable as possible, which when you think about it, is what has always been done to make wine by making the best use of environment: there are solar panels for water-heating and photovoltaic cells to generate electricity; low energy lighting; rain-harvesting supplies water for sanitary use and irrigating the 3 1/2-acres of gardens; a reverse osmosis system produces purified drinking water, reducing emissions created by transporting bottled water and recycling of glass; preference is given to local sources of produce in order to reduce the carbon footprint; kitchen waste is composted and used in the garden.
Respectful that the hotel is built in one of the few remaining significant areas of green vegetation in the city center, The Yeatman’s extensive gardens are managed as a refuge for rare and endangered local plant species and as a haven for local and migratory birds. The Yeatman also has been designed to harmonize with the city landscape, using materials and architectural style which blend unobtrusively into the historic area of the Port wine lodges (you can’t even pick it out easily from the opposite shore).
“I think that when you build a new hotel, it should be built for sustainability,” Bridge says. “It’s what people look for today.” It’s not without consequence: construction costs are at least 10 percent higher when you incorporate such features.
There is such attention to detail: the focal point in the lobby is a statue of Bacchus, that depicts the Roman god of wine in an unusual pose: “I wanted a Bacchus statue that looks up,” Bridge says.
In the spa, vines are like living sculpture.
“Authenticity is important,” Bridge says.
From the guest point of view, The Yeatman is as sumptuous and tasteful as it is comfortable and hospitable. Each of the 82 spacious guest rooms and suites opens onto a large private balcony that gives you a dramatic and unobstructed view across the Douro to Porto.
By far and away, the most spectacular is a suite with a round bed made from a wine barrel made to rotate (no small feat) ; a wood-burning stove in the room, an antique telescope.
There is a stunning outdoor pool of azure blue, that makes you feel you are floating above the city; and an indoor pool that is equally breathtaking, with a wall of windows looking out to the city.
The colors inside the hotel are vibrant and rich – in high contrast to the muted, neutral, tranquil colors of the world-class Caudalie Vinotherapie Spa, where you can have such programs as a Barrel Bath immersion, Merlot Wrap. The treatments utilize natural ingredients drawn from (what else?) the vineyard environment and valued for their antioxident properties, and what they do for beauty, wellness and vitality Two of the 10 treatment rooms are designed for couples.
As luxurious and fine as The Yeatman is, it is not stuffy or formal; families will feel comfortable here – there is even a Kid’s Club and a children’s menu in the fine-dining restaurant.
In a city that is home to some of Portugal’s most celebrated chefs, the fine-dining restaurant at the Yeatman is stellar – as in five-star stellar in my book.
The menu is extraordinary and the meal is memorable: Foie gras Label Route (smoked and coated with toasted pumpkin, pureed pumpkin with a game broth); a light cream soup of oysters from the Algarve with breaded oyster, celery mousseline, caviar and green apple foam. My main course a Kobe beef – charcoal sealed loin with truffled potato, glazed asparagus and meat juices with wasabi, is delectable. (there is a children’s menu, as well).
Desserts are all made to order, so you are asked to make a selection with the initial order: banana and chocolate & foie gras (banana gratin with a sabayon of foie gras, chocolate and toffee caramel ice cream); a soufflee of passion fruit from the Azores with dark chocolate chips, served with flamed strawberries and cocoa sorbet.
This being a wine hotel, you have never seen a wine list like this: it is a book nearly 3/4-inch-thick (there is a list of seasonal suggestions) – featuring 800 Portuguese wines and 80 international wines. The sommelier can assist with making appropriate recommendations for your dining selection.
For this grand meal, we drink Quinta Dos Aciprestes 2007 Grande Reserve.
Here’s where The Yeatman’s 67 wine partners also comes to play: not only is each one featured in depth on the wine list, but “one of the conditions of sponsorship is that they allow us to buy reserve wines from their library.”
The Yeatman has some 25,000 bottles on hand – “A lot of wines you can’t buy anywhere else.”
The Yeatman wasn’t the company’s first hotel venture: it opened the CS Vintage House on an wine estate in Pinhao in the Douro, which we visit during our trip to the Douro -a stunning five-star boutique hotel that another company “insisted” on purchasing.
You can tell The Yeatman is Bridge’s pride and joy.
“This is a wine hotel. We want The Yeatman to be foremost destination for Portuguese wine. We want to be an ambassador for the city, for the country.”
He reflects how Porto was Portugal’s first capital, and it was from the north that Lisbon and the south were rescued from the Moors by Afonso, rescuing Lisbon from the Moors’ control in 1139, and being proclaimed King of the Portuguese.
Centuries later, during the Age of Discovery, Portuguese explorers such as Prince Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama brought colonies and riches to the country, rivaling the Spanish explorers; Portugal and Spain split the globe in half.
“The country that once ruled half the world, needs to create jobs,” he says of the falling fortunes of Portugal, in the midst of a major debt crisis. A core business is producing Port wine, unique to the country, and Taylor’s has been #1 for the past three years. The company is opening new markets in Brazil and Asia.
An innovation is Rose Port. “It had never been done. Port is either white or red. It took 3 years – very regulated. We found a loophole.”
Another innovation is a 30-year Tawny. Taylor’s has developed a novel way to age the wine “A 30 is rare,” he says. “10, 20, 40 are more common. Winemakers don’t make a 30 because the step between 20 and 40 isn’t huge. We make it drier.” But that is all he will say about what secrets go into the process.
He describes the rarest wine experience: he bought at auction a cask of wine that was produced in 1855, which the company has bottled as Taylor Scion. It retails at $3500 a bottle (it comes with a decanter and a book about the wine), or $150 a glass.
“This is a unique piece of wine history. It is rare to get a drink of something 150 years old,” he says. “When the wine was made in 1855, it was pre-phylloxera [a devastating blight that killed most of the old vines in the Douro].
“Wine is key to a culture,” he says. “A region makes the wine it makes – soil, climate- grape varieties. It leads to how people live and organize themselves. Wine is key to a culture…. Taste the memory.
For wine connoisseurs, The Yeatman is a spectacular base to drive into wine region. There are five different wine regions within an hour’s drive.
“The success of hotel is when I see more private planes – I hope to attract high demographic,” he says.
The Yeatman Hotel, Rua do Choufelo, 4400-088 Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal, tel(+351) 223 742 800m www.theyeatman.com.
Continuing on the theme of being immersed in Porto’s heritage, the Pousada do Porto, Freixo Palace Hotel which opened in October 2009, combines a palace built by the famous architect Nicolau Nasoni around 1742, which offers spectacular dining rooms, lounges, and spa, with a flour factory where modern rooms and suites are located, and is operated by the Portuguese Hotel Group Pestana which invested millions into the restoration and now operates a national chain of more than 40 pousadas (www.pousadasofportugal.com or www.pousadas.pt)
A completely different experience awaits at Infante Sagres, a boutique hotel that in Porto’s historic district, steps away from City Hall, the UNESCO World Heritage area and the art district. The hotel originally opened in 1951; the building blends a Neo-Baroque atmosphere with a contemporary style décor. A member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, over the years, Infante Sagres has welcomed personalities as the Dalai Lama, the Kings of Norway, the Queen of The Netherlands, Bob Dylan, Catherine Deneuve, Prince Edward of England and John Malkovich. The hotel has some extraordinary artifacts: Chinese urns and a royal throne (Tel: (+351 223 398 500,www.hotelinfantesagres.pt).
The Sheraton Porto Hotel & Spa is a contemporary, immensely comfortable hotel, that is in the business district, about 15 minutes drive from the historic district. It is modern, with marble, wood, steel and glass, a beautiful atrium lobby with a glass elevator, and offers 266 rooms and suites. There is a pool table and New Yorker Bar; the Porto Novo Restaurant, conference and meeting rooms and a spa. One of the best features for guests on the towers floors is use of the Sheraton Club lounge – a relaxing place where there is a buffet breakfast and refreshments are served, and the Internet can be accessed at no extra charge (Rua Tenente Valadim, 146, 4100-476 Porto, Portugal, +351 22 040 40 00, sheraton.com/porto)
Porto Passport provides admission for eight experiences (39E about $60) including the Caves Calem, SeaLife Porto, Heritage Cruise, sightseeing bus, Serralves Foundation (museum and park), Electric Tram Museum, Soares Dos Reis Museum, and Casa da Musica. It also provides up to 10% discount at gift shops, and 20% discount on Casa da Musica concerts.
More visitor information is available from Porto & Northern Portugal Tourism Association, Av. Inferior à Ponte D. Luis I, 53 – 1 4050-074 Porto Portugal, tel: +351 223 326 751, fax: +351 223 326 752,firstname.lastname@example.org, www.portocvb.com.
Porto has been off the beaten path for world travelers, but new direct flights from New York (actually Newark International Airport) plus improved connections to and from the rest of Europe including more service on low-cost airlines, should make discovering this jewel easier.
Notably, Porto (as well as Lisbon) is one of the closest European gateways to the United States, and for Americans looking for a European experience which is (dare I say it) “authentic,” unpretentious, and at considerable value, Portugal is the place to go.
The best plan is to fly TAP, Portugal’s flagship airline, into Porto (three flights weekly from Newark, just under 7 hours); or you can do an “open-jaws” trip, flying in one way to Lisbon (daily flights on TAP from Newark, and five times weekly from Miami) and the other to Porto. TAP has only two classes: Business class is first class and it is top-flight, with roomy seats that open to lounges for comfortable sleeping; personal TVs, a wonderful meal with wine and a snack, served on linen with china and silverware. The flight is just about 7 hours, so Portugal (Lisbon and Porto) and among the closet European gateway cities from the US. (800 221 7370, www.flytap.com).
See next: Pousadas of Portugal
Tuesday, 23 August, 2011
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