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A tasteful education: 5 historic Portuguese wine estates

A recent river cruise took us up the Rio Douro, the River of Gold in Portugal, starting in Porto and ending in Regua. On this journey through the Douro Valley, we visited ancient and contemporary wine estates, sampling as we went. Here are five of the best, all touting different wine varieties, emerging from the diverse terroirs of the area. Quinta de Aveleda – Vinho Verde  This estate vineyard was founded in 1870, and has been owned, for five generations, by the Guedes Family.  It is the largest producer and exporter of Vinho Verde in Portugal, exporting to over 70 countries worldwide. When we visited the Quinta De Aveleda, the environs looked more like a botanical garden than an estate vineyard. With an entry gate dated 1748, and the estate chapel dates even earlier, there were hydrangeas, camellias, old cork trees, noisy peacocks and, oh yes, vineyards.    After having been surprised by abundant, colorful flora, we did eventually get to the wine tasting. Their Vinho Verde was slightly greenish and effervescent. The terroir that creates this wine is a rich in water, mild temperature, and granite soil with high acidity. All these result in a light, crisp, aromatic wine. Quinta da Avessada – Muscatel This wine estate is in the Alto Douro Region, in the vineyard village of Favaios. It is a century-old wine growing family estate, whose specialty is Muscatel wine, a particularly aromatic variety, with a citrus, flowery, taste with a truly sweet grape finish. The Quinta is located on a plateau, where the terraced vineyards predominate. It was the first vineyard in the region to plant the Muscatel Galego variety and consequently to produce Muscatel de Favaios. This wistful, but ultimately benign consequence was due to an event that wiped out other grape varieties in the 19 th century: the Phylloxera plague. Fortuitously, the Muscatel Galeo grape variety was planted as a test – and it thrived. It is now bottled as the treasured Muscatel of Favaios. Sandeman – Port Situated on the summit of one the terraced hills, above the historic center of Porto is the 1811 granite building overlooking the Douro River. It is the House of Sandeman, known for its prize-winning ports, and sherries, gathered from the estate’s hundred-year-old vines in the Quinta do Seixo wine-growing region.   With a total area of 245 acres, planted with traditional grape varieties of the Douro, Sandeman produces both Porto and Douro DOC (the highest classification of wines made in the Douro region) wines. Sandeman’s logo is an image of the Black Don, a mysterious figure with a Portuguese student’s cape and a Jerez (Spanish) hat. It was designed by Scotsman George Massiot Brown in 1928. Our Sandeman guide, a young woman dressed like the Black Don, guided us through the dark, quiet cellars of Sandeman. These dark cellars, with thousands of dusty bottles neatly placed from floor to ceiling, lead to an open patio where we where we sampled some exceptional Tawny, Vintage, Ruby, and White Sandeman Ports. Casa de Mateus – Rosé Famously depicted on bottles of Mateus Rosé, a favorite of those alive and thirsty in the 80s, we learned there was an actual estate called Casa De Mateus, an 18th-century baroque palace, constructed by the Italian-born architect Nicolau Nasoni. The palace consists of the main house, the library, the gardens, a winery and a chapel. In 1911 is classified as a national monument. The tasting and purchasing area showcases Mateus Rosé, a bright pink wine that still has a sweet tang, just as it did in earlier years. But the other amazing aspect of this Palace were the rose gardens, the garden topiary, and the ancient Spruce trees. Drinking Mateus Rosé while looking at Mateus Peace and Mr. Lincoln rose varieties was an unforgettable experience. Cistercian wines of the Távora-Varosa region In the 12th century, the Cistercian Monks were expanding their religious reach to Portugal. In addition to building a large monastery called St. John of Tarouca, they also planted grape vines at the base of fertile hillsides above the monastery, between the Távora and Varosa rivers. This area, still called Távora-Varosa, borders the Douro to the north. The vines grow between 1000-2000 feet above sea level on granite soil. On a bright, Sunday morning, we walked through the monastic ruins, while a Catholic Mass was being performed at a church nearby. Hearing the choir while walking the ruins was a reminder, yet again, of how the past informs the present. Soon thereafter, we traveled to a 17 th century wine estate called The Casa de Santo Antonio de Britiande, where the tasting room, called the Quinta de Santa Cruz. We tasted the unique white sparking wine of Távora-Varosa, where it was explained by the managers that the terroir, because of the granite soil, and cold in winter, made these wines unique, and they were. There was an intense aroma, and a tartness that was enhanced by the sparkling distillation. I could also taste some fruit essence, but I believe that suggestion may have been because of the vast number ripe elderberry umbels we passed as we went from the monastery ruins to the wine estate. I wondered if this plant, so abundant now, was also the outcome of the Cistercians and their effective 12 th century visionary gardening. These were five favorites and best known of the many, many Quintas and wine varieties of the Douro Valley. The histories that define the estates, also reflect and refract the terroirs of the diverse soils, climates and altitudes of the Douro. Traveling here was indeed a tasteful education, combining viticulture and oenology of Portuguese grapes and their exceptional estates.

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  1. Long, long go one of my first independent holidays, without my parents, was to Portugal. I remember that as I wasn’t even 20 I thought that I was being incredibly sophisticated sipping Vinho Verde. It’s so long ago that I even paid for the bottle in Portuguese escudos. I can remember liking a wine that was just a little bit fizzy and even had a tinge of green to its colour. Since then I like to think that my wine tastes have become more sophisticated but I still have great memories of that first trip to Portugal.

    1. Thank you, Steve. The only two bottles of wine I brought home were two bottles of Vinho Verde. I am, in general a white wine drinker, so I thought the Vinho Verde, with a slight fizz was wonderful. It was also light, and had a slight lemony scent. I bought it from one of the wine estates, which also provided a kind of memorable context.

  2. Well-travelled friends tell me that a visit to the Port Houses along the River Douro is one of those great travel experiences that you just have to do. They say it’s the sense of history as well as the tasting which makes it so good. This piece is a reminder that I’ve still not done that classic.

    1. You’ve got to do some port tastings and also whilst you are in Porto a short river cruise along the Douro heading towards the coast. Two of my favourite things to do in Portugal.

  3. I’ve always thought that Portugal as a country and as a wine producer is often overshadowed by some of its bigger neighbours like France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Pleased to read a piece that backs up my point of view. I’m a real Portugal fan and have travelled all over the country.

  4. The House of Sandeman, I love it! The art for Sandeman looks so mysterious, and even the cellars sound dark and a little eerie. I’m not much of a wine fan but this is a place I’d actually quite like to check out! I know a friend who went with her partner for wine tasting in Portugal but I’m pretty sure she said it was a place, something like Herdade Calada, in Alentejo? I’m rubbish with remembering names of places. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t mind making a return trip to try out a few more estates!

    1. Claire — Thank you so much for your comment. The Black Don and its origins are indeed cloaked in a kind of mystery. The artist was Scottish, and thought of this unique logo, supposedly, after seeing the 1928 film called Zorro. That may also be apocryphal — but we had heard that on the tour. And yes, indeed the cellars were very dark, which really added to the cachet. I think those of us on the tour were happy to finally go outside on the patio, where we sampled Tawny, Ruby, and White Port. The House of Sandeman is on top of a very high, terraced hill, and those of us on the bus did not like looking down, mainly because the road was narrow. On the whole, it was a great experience.

  5. All this talk of the Douro reminds me that it’s a River Cruise that I am desperate to do. I like river cruises and the Douro is next up on my list. Also all this talk of wine is making me thirsty, wine o’clock may come a little earlier this evening.

  6. From the description of the Muscatel wine as a sweet wine with a flowery taste it sounds as if the grape has the potential to produce a promising dessert wine. Does this estate do dessert wines?

    Every January, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to get myself organised to buy some good quality dessert wines. It just tastes wrong to keep drinking a dry white or a full-bodied red as you head into the dessert course.

    1. Kenny — Thank you. Yes, the Muscatel I tried at the wine estate was softly, not violently sweet. It would be a good after dinner experience.

      Kind regards,

      Susan K.

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