Port heaven


Last week I had the huge fortune to be invited by Louis Roederer to visit their estate, Ramos Pinto, in the Douro Valley, Northern Portugal. Having never been to the Douro before, yet sold quite a bit of port over the years I did more than jump at the chance to visit this stunningly beautiful wine region.

We spent the first night in Vila Nova de Gaia, which is the famous area on the main port where all the port houses have their main offices / bottling plants. Having enjoyed a very full breakfast with all the trimmings we were met by the Anas (Ana Rosas and Ana Isabel, the former a descendant of the owner and chief blender, the latter the lady in charge of communication).

The next 3 hours were spent driving up the Douro Valley to our first stop, Quinta de Ervamoira, in the far reaches of the upper Douro. The scenery changes dramatically – from a lush and vibrant landscape at the mouth of the valley, with eucalyptus trees in abundance to wild, arid rolling hills stuffed with thousands of almond trees, and vines, of course. It is this arid and very hot landscape that is the home of the Quinta de Ervamoira and, yes, irrigation is most certainly allowed. These vines tend to produce wines that go into the tawny and vintage ports, their still wines, Duas Quintas and ‘Collection’ (their top red).

We arrived in need of refreshment. The sight that met our eyes was one of stunning beauty. The quinta surrounded by rows and rows of vines, nestled in a deep valley, the heat, ferocious and so so dry. We picked almonds off the trees and settled down to lunch on the terrace, melon and ham for starter (with 6 year old Tawny), organic beef for the main (with Duas Quintas still red), followed by cheeses with a 10 year old Tawny. Lots of port…all through the meal, very odd and very enlightening.

Mid afternoon we motored west an hour and a half down the valley to Ramos Pintos’ second Quinta. Quinta Bom Retiro is located south of Pinhao, the town in the middle of the Douro, which is famous for being surrounded by vines owned by the great and the good of the world of port. It is at Bom Retiro where the vines destined for the LBV and vintage are situated. It is SO beautiful round here, the landscape has become even more lush and the heat is not as intense as further east.

We stayed at the Quinta that evening, had a swim in their pool to refresh the senses and got into a proper supper, hosted by the wonderful Ana Rosas. We ate Bacalhau, salted cod, (the Portuguese are obsessed with cod, they eat it a myriad of different ways), followed by blood sausages and a host of trimmings I am trying to remember….we drank Louis Roederer NV Champagne to kick off, then Ramos Pintos’ white wine, Duas Quintas, I am a big fan, tropical, yet fresh. Then the Duas Quintas Reserva 2006, which was concentrated, violets, chocolate, delicious and mouth coating, followed by a brace of 1995’s, a Reserva and a ‘Special Reserve’. Both wines are made in the lagar, so they are foot trodden, the difference is that the reserve is made from parcels of vines specifically planted with one grape variety, whilst the Special Reserve is a wine harvested from very old vineyards that contain not one variety but a multitude. Smells like a port, yet with excellent freshness.

At this stage, the evening tacked hard to starboard, thinking I was going to dive into a 20 year old Tawny port, followed by the 1983 Ramos Pinto vintage port and dissect that cheese board as best I could, we were brilliantly headed off by the merry sounds of a ‘traditional’ folk band. A local rugby team had been employed to spent a total of 3 hours in each lagar (2 in total), the first 2 hours have to be spent arm in arm (!) walking up and down the lagar with your feet making the same movements at the same time, the final hour is a free reign to jump about without military precision. Anyway, we all had to have a go – as when will I next be allowed to jump into a 3 ft mass of warm, fermenting grape skins. It is without question a unique sensation!

The next day we were up early and set for the long drive back to the offices of Ramos Pinto in Vila Nova de Gaia. We were met with a tour of their ancient cellars, followed by a professional tasting of white/ruby/LBV and very fine vintage ports. The 10, 20 and 30 year Ramos Pinto tawny ports are so very delicious. The 10 year is superb, figs, almonds, toffee, perfect balance, nice sweetness. The 20 year old is more complex, more spirity. The 30 year old is a lovely port, citrus, toffee, rounded, a greeny tawny hue, intense….then we tasted…….wait for it…….1964, 1924 and 1909 vintage ports! The 1909, brown sugar, liquid spices, it was superb, like nothing I have ever tasted.

Then we hit lunch, the flight and home to my wife and child… pulling bits of grape out of my hair all the way…