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A Frenchman in Portugal : The 15th Master of Port's travel story


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A Frenchman in Portugal

The 15th Master of Port's travel story

On June 18th, 2012, the 15th Master of Port competition took place in the Embassy of Portugal in Paris. It was a qualitative and professional contest but the atmosphere among the candidates was convivial and respectful. For this occasion I was treated with a journey to Portugal by the Institute of Wines from Douro and Porto (I.V.D.P.) and by the French Federation of Aperitif Wines.

The Quinta do Tedo Any journey in Porto should start with a visit of the Institute of Wines from Douro and Porto, what I did to begin my day. From the entrance in the hall of the Institute, history strikes you. In the middle, there is a granite bollard that was used to mark the territory of the vineyard at Marquis de Pombal's time as well as four big slabs, from granite also, where are written the important dates of the history of Port.

Bertrand Bijasson, Charlotte Amichaud et Filipe Neves, Directeur de Sandeman.

Welcomed by Maria Jose Pereira and a member of the committee of the Tasting Chamber of the I.V.D.P., I started the visit by the different laboratories and the explanation of the many tests and analysis that all the ranges of Port as well as the Douro wines undergo. The Tasting Chamber consists of 8 persons who each taste 20 samples a day. Their role is essential as each Port wine sold in the world has to be approved by this Chamber.
I continued my journey by heading for Vila Nova de Gaïa, other inevitable place for the Port Houses. Just cross the bridge Don Luis 1st, built by Gustave Eiffel, to reach the quays. This is the place where each brand of Port has its cellars where are stored the vats or the region’s traditional pipas.
I start with Graham’s, lose my way and don't find the entrance. Huge works have been undertaken this year: the buildings have been entirely redesigned by an architect to favour wine tourism. The inauguration took place in presence of the President of the Republic. The ensemble has been created with taste and refinement. The British touch of this company founded in 1820 by William and John Graham is perceptible. The visit begins with a small museum that tells the history of this House; the family tree is reproduced on the wall. The master piece of the place is a watch created for the Queen of England and purchased by a member of the family to treat his wife. Euan Mackay shows me the cellars that shelter many tuns and pipas that will give beautiful Tawnies in the coming years. Then we arrive in a tasting room with pure white walls and wooden tables that warm up the atmosphere. A second smaller room neighbours the first one for more intimist and professional tastings. The walls are covered with shelves containing the House's old hand­written account books.

The tasting starts with a Graham’s Six Grapes Reserves (the name comes from the inscription made by the cellar master on the barrels to know the quality: 6 grapes marked the best pipas). I continue with a Graham’s Vintage 2011 recen­tly presented to the English press, 100% made in the Lagares, with 40% of the grapes stemming from the Quinta dos Malvedos. Only 8,000 boxes of 12 bottles are marketed, instead of the usual 12-15,000 boxes for a Vintage. The climate that year was ideal with a very hot summer and some rain just before the harvest. The men did the rest to make a Port of exceptional quality, with a very deep blue-shaded red-black hue (like the English say) that reminds the colour of blueberries, with a deep purple fringe. The nose is clean, intense; the red fruits are very present; spicy and peppery notes are underlined by a controlled woodiness. The palate is smooth, the alcohol is well-associated with the sweetness of the sugar, tannins are fine, and the finish is powerful with great length. To have in one's cellar with no hesitation.
The tasting continues with a Port 2001 of the Quinta dos Malvedos, a domain of 60 hectares in the upper Douro, and the range of four Tawnies (10, 20, 30 and over 40 years).
Then comes the moment of the Colheitas (Tawnies made of a blend of fortified wines of one only vintage that have aged in vats for at least seven years). Two great years: 1961, when only three pipas have been bottled (2,136 on the market) with a lightning result as they have been sold immediately, and 1969 which is currently on the market. Each label bears the number of the barrel it stems from as well as the number of the bottle. The colour is quite deep yellow, tinges are brilliant. The nose releases notes of rancio, blond tobacco, mild spices, and a great complexity. The palate is pleasant, of good maturity, full of finesse and elegance.
After such a tasting, I felt the need to have a bite. Everything has been thought about; there is a beautiful restaurant close to the store. The beef rib Vaca Velha (from the North of Portugal) is excellent with a Douro wine: Post-Scriptum 2010 whose varietals Touriga Francesa, Touriga Nacional and Tinto Roriz delight the nose and the palate.

La Maison Rozès.

Time flies! I rush to the House Andresen. In a steep street, I ring at the door of a flat. Nothing makes me imagine that I arrive in a very good Port House, just because this establishment never welcomes tourists. I immediately feel that this visit will be a privileged moment. Carlos Flores receives me in a lounge; we talk about the start of the House Andresen and the decision to take about the development of the brand. Because when one is at the head of a Port company, one has to consider the future generations, as they do in Cognac or Armagnac. After a long hour of conversation—Carlos Flores is talkative and so am I—we go and visit the premises, offices, bottling chain, ageing cellar (with many nooks and crannies), repair shops for the pipas, the barrel cleaning area … I am showed everything. We go on in a little laboratory where all the blending decisions are taken. Oh, one essential thing to know: Carlos Flores thinks Tawny, sees Tawny, talks Tawny, dreams Tawny … A great idea for the development of the brand has been to invite Alvaro van Zeller to join the team (his grandparents and parents were family friends), formerly employed at the House Noval and above all a former member of the Tasting Chamber of the I.V.D.P.. Thousands of samples have been submitted to him to be approved.
The tasting begins, but no bottle currently on the market as usually in Port tastings: we are going to taste only samples directly drawn from the pipas… Splendid!!! A very first for me.
The House Andresen, specialist of Tawnies, has no 30 years old Tawny (not enough difference with the 40 Years). Specificity of the company: the white Ports with indication of age. The 10 Years White displays an old gold colour, a beautiful brilliance, an elegant, intense nose, with aromas of dried fruits, almonds, delicate honey, white blossom … The palate is well-structured in three phases; the first taste is sweet, the mid-palate is complex and the finish is drier, the balance is very pleasant. Its first launch on the market dates back 2007. Carlos Flores thought he would negotiate about 5,000 bottles but he met great success: 14,000 bottles have been sold in a 6-month period. In 2010, a white Port 20 Years Old was born, and this year a white Port of over 40 years old arrives on the market … During the tasting, we also enjo­yed wines from 2011, 2010, the latest “babies” of the House. It was difficult to leave as the tasting and the conversation were so enriching, but the clock was ticking, my delay was increasing.
There I am, back on the quays of Vila Nova de Gaïa, where Ana Bolina and Jorge Dias are waiting for me. There too the premises are new, wine tourism develops as there is real demand (16,000 visits from the opening in July 2012 to December the same year). I am shown the touristic route of the establishment: according to your favourite tastes and scents as well as your musical choices, you are recommended your ideal Port. The tactile computer selects a Tawny Reserve for me. It is quite true, I am fond of Tawny! But the machine could not be wrong anyway as I love all the Ports, it just depends on the moment, the season and the people who I share them with.
Several films are presented to learn about Port, they have been realized together with Éric Le Collen. It is funny; we are both native from the same small village of 2,000 inhabitants in the North of the Gironde department. Then comes the time for tasting, and then, nothing touristic, the table is divided into 20 places, all equipped with a white light in order to better appreciate the colour of the Ports (very important for these wines) and individual spittoons. My first remark concerns the packaging of the Ports Dalva. The new look is more modern and very refined (the brand is silk-screened and the label at the bottom of the bottle is pellucid).
Of course I start with the white Ports with a Dalva Reserve, Dalva 10 Years Old and Grand Cruz White. I continue with Dalva's Tawnies as well as the Special Reserve of Cruz, then a 20 Years Old with a brown colour and slightly tile-red tinges. The nose unveils aromas of quince paste, dried fruits, but also spices like cinnamon or saffron. The palate is well-balanced, with a good persistency. While tasting this Port, I visualize a lamb tagine with semolina, raisins, roasted almonds and apricots.
Pleasure continues with a Colheita 1992, a Ruby of Cruz, and I finish by a comparison of a Dalva LBV 2007 with a Cruz Vintage 2007 (a great vintage for the region). The LBV, already open, is pleasant to taste whereas the Vintage with its great structure needs to be patiently awaited.
After the tasting I am invited for a drink at the bar on the panoramic terrace that overhangs the roofs of Vila Nova de Gaïa. The view is unobstructed over the Douro and the city of Porto in front of us. The cocktail I am served is made of Rosé Port (Cruz of course), cucumber peel, a slice of orange and a hot pepper. Be careful: half of the glass has been rubbed with it; choose the right side!

Here also a restaurant is open 7/7 for everyone (it is not necessary to do the visit first to come here). The meal was very pleasant as food is very good in Portugal, and the dishes are more than hearty. As an after-dinner drink, a white Port Dal­va 1963 ends my day. A real delight, it can be drunk paired with an apricot and roasted almond tart or a traditional cake made of eggs, sugar and almonds.
For the second day, the destination is the vineyard of the Douro. After a 75-kilometre trip, entering Mesao Frio marks the beginning of the geographic area of the appellation. The landscape is fantastic; the road turns right, left, goes up and down. The vines cling on to the very steep slopes moulded by man over time to form giant stairs. The region has been registered by the UNESCO in 2001 as a Living Evolving Cultural Landscape. To find the Quinta do Tedo, where I have my next appointment, it is not necessary to go to the village of Vila Seca, to which it is attached. It is better to follow the Douro, the road is easier and it avoids getting lost. The domain is near Peso da Regua, some 10 minutes away if you drive like a Portuguese, but rather 20 minutes to better contemplate the environment.
Quinta do Tedo was purchased by Mr and Mrs Bouchard in 1996. It is located just near the junction of the Tedo that flows into the famous Douro which adds some charm to this already dazzling place. Five rooms are available for the tourists. In the courtyard, the scent of a blooming honeysuckle flatters the nose, no noise except the birds, perhaps the Black Wheatear, a local bird that is also the emblem of the Quinta.
Jorge Alves invites me directly into the cellar. Here everything is at human size. The House has 14 organic farmed hectares. We talk about things or so, fortification for example, when 75 litres of must are added with 25 litres of alcohol. Calculations will not be right: about one litre will be missing. If the must is at a temperature of 25 to 27 degrees and that the added alcohol is at 4 degrees, the mixture will raise at about 42 degrees which will cause a contraction, thus the loss of a volume of one litre.

Bertrand Bijasson et Carlos Flores.

With a pipette in his hand Jorge Alves serves himself directly in the barrels to taste the 2001, 1999, 1998, 1997 and 1994. The differences are striking. Personally I prefer the 1997, and the vintage that has the less finesse is the 1998. Good year for French football but less for Port making; it will perhaps be used for the blending of a new Tawny 10 Years. We also taste the 2011, still nestled in its big wooden tun.
After the cellar we go to the tasting room where we discover different Ports now for sale. We begin with a Rosé Port, then the Ruby Reserve, blending of 2003, 2007 and 2009 wines (the I.V.D.P. calls it “free style”). This wine has been awarded a Gold Medal in Canada, and to me, it is just a real delight. Then come the Tawny, Tawny 10 Years Old and Tawny 20 Years Old (800 bottles a year). At last I am presented the range of Vintage Ports with the 1997, 1999, 2003, 2004 and the Vintage Sevreda 2007 (Old Vines).
The meal takes place in Regua in an old storehouse of the train station. To start with, we taste, on the terrace, a traditional method made in the Douro where Jorge Alves is administrator. The restaurant—which is actually an old freight waggon—is beautiful, dedicated to Port and Douro wines. The walls are decorated with crates closed with a black iron grill, all filled with bottles, about 4,000 references. The dining room is on the first floor and the ground floor is reserved for the tasting of wines and local tapas, with of course the famous sausage Alheiras.
Back to the Quinta, in a beautiful bedroom overlooking the Tedo where the full moon is reflected, and the vines awaiting sunrise to make the most of it. In the morning, a breakfast is ready for me at the estate. Typically Portuguese: the jams are home-made, there is ham from the Douro, corn flower bread and a goat’s pressed cheese.
My journey goes on to Pinhao, where the visit of the train station with its traditional azulejos is inevitable. Just before Pinhao, on the right, on top of the hill, the Quinta do Seixo is perched on the edge of a steep slope. The entirely paved path winds through the vines. When arriving at the Quinta, owned by the House Sandeman, I can see, in front of me, on the other bank of the river, a Quinta of the House Ferreira with on the left another one of the House Offley, both belonging to the group Sogrape.

Lagares à Sandeman.

Welcomed by Luis Sottomayor, Filipe Neves and Paulo Medina, I immediately enter in the heart of the matter. The Quinta owns 70 hectares and the House Sandeman a total of 500 hectares with 5 cellars, among them the brand new one of the Quin­ta do Seixo, created in 2007.
Here, work has been simplified because the premises have been built following the slope and everything is undertaken using gravity. One person is in charge of the ten lagares (treading tanks), with a robot that looks like big feet. The tasting room looks out through a huge bay window in front of the right bank of the Douro. In the region, all the openings give you the impression to gaze at a painting, the landscape being so breath-taking.
The tasting starts with Ferreira's range with Tawny, Tawny Reserve, Tawny 10 Years and Tawny 20 Years. The House does not produce older Tawny as they prefer keeping aromas of fruits. Then I enjoy the Ports of the House Sandeman with the white called Apitiv, the Ruby (not less than 4 million bottles a year), the Late Bottled Vintage 2008, made with the grapes from the Quinta do Seixo and the Quinta do Vau. 4 years in barrels: the colour is very black, the tears are dark purple, the nose is elegant with aromas of very ripe red fruits, the palate is powerful and has a good length. I finish the tasting with a Sandeman Tawny 20 Years whose colour is less deep than Ferreira's.
Then back to Regua to go to the Quinta do Monsul of the House Rozès. The name of this House comes from the founder of the brand, native from the Gers French department (in 1855). The premises are recent as they date from 2006. It produces two million bottles a year and ten million bottles are stored. I am very kindly welcomed by Mr and Mrs Saraiva. We visit the estate where we can admire a bottling line of the latest technology as well as large capacity vats. The tasting starts with a non-filtered LBV 2003 (the House's choice since 1994).
I also enjoy different Tawnies and we finish with two samples of the future Vintage 2011. This vintage is called “general declaration” by the I.V.D.P. because most of the Houses are going to declare it as Vintage.

La cave de Quinta do Tedo.

As an aperitif, in the lounge of the Quinta do Monsul, I taste a Rosé Port Quinta do Grifo (owned by Rozès). Grifo is a bird of the vulture family native from the National Park of Douro. During the meal we drink Douro wines from the same Quinta. The white has a very lovely fruity nose; the palate is perfectly tense with minerality. The red is very fruity, with a good volume in the mouth and an interesting length. Yes, in this region, the Ports are excellent but the Douro wines really deserve our attention. And what about the dessert … a crème brûlée flavoured with Douro lemon, served with a Late Harvest! No, No, I did not drink too much Port: we are really enjoying a Late Harvest of the House Rozès, 100% Malvasia, of which 2,400 to 3,000 bottles of 50cl are produced every year since 2007. Today we open a 2009, a marvel, a golden yellow hue, with brilliant tinges. The nose is intense, pleasant, and fruity, with aromas of exotic fruits, very ripe pineapples, mangos, and also floral notes. The palate is so soft, with a hint of freshness thanks to the minerality of the wine.
My last day is dedicated to the city of Porto because the train station Sao Bento, the cathedral, the different churches, the world famous bookstore Lello, the typical early 20th-century tramway and many others things are worth the trip. Last advice: never leave Porto without going to a cake shop—they all have a tea room —to have a very good coffee from Angola (formerly a Portuguese colony) with an excellent Pastel de Nata, small traditional cake.
I kindly thank all the persons who welcomed me during my preparation for the contest in May 2012 and during this journey in April 2013, sunny like the weather and warm like the Portuguese people.
Bertrand Bijasson
Master of Port 2012