Saturday, February 26, 2011

Portugal Part 3: The Minho Land of Vinho Verde

Overnight at the Paco de Calherios

Our first stop in the Minho was at the Paco de Calheiros Manor house. Count Francisco de Calheiros is one of the driving forces in the region championing tourism and promotes the Solares de Portugal a collective that offers alternative lodging in family homes ranging from rustic cottages to grand manor estates. The 17th century Paco de Calherios estate outside of Ponte Lima falls into the grand category. The count gave us a tour of his home, starting with the 16th chapel that is the centerpiece of the manor and concluding with the family’s private living area.

It was impressive. Like a massive movie set or a giant clue game board come to life. During our tour I felt like the eyes of the portraits might be following us and I kept expecting Hercule Poirot to show up and sequester us all in the drawing room for questioning. Or possibly for someone to scream out that Colonel Mustard had committed a crime in the dinning room with the candlestick. It didn’t take much imagination to think one of us might not make it through the night to board the bus again in the morning. Hmmm…if only.

Prior to dinner we tasted some Alvarinho wines from Provam presented by winemaker Jose Domingues.

2009 Varanda Do Conde –Made of Alvarinho and Trajadura grapes. I found the scent “soapy” but the flavor very bright and with a crisp fruity flavor.
2009 Portal do Filgado – Very full body compared to the Varanda. It felt like I was actually drinking granite but in a very delightful way. Not harsh or rough.
2007 Coto De Mamoelas --This was a sparkling Alvarinho that tasted yeasty almost like cookie dough, and very tart.

At dinner we were served the traditional Portuguese menu pumpkin/squash soup and bacalhau. It was my first taste of the ubiquitous salted cod known as bacalhau and it reminded me of tuna casserole. Looking back I had fancier versions during the trip but I believe the rustic bacalhau at Calherios was my favorite.

It was also my first taste of the infamous Vinho Verde Tinto (red vinho verde) and all I can say is: Vinho Verde Tinto, while beloved by the Portuguese, is not something an outsider can expect to acquire a taste for immediately. It escaped the norm of any red wine I’d ever had. And it was beyond the capacity of my palate to embrace it’s distinctive flavor profiles. But if you like Lavoris (the popular 1970’s era cinnamon mouthwash) you will absolutely love Vinho Verde Tinto. But proceed with caution!

When you visit the Minho, stop in to visit the Count in Calherios. You won’t find a more charming or enthusiastic host in the entire region. I guarantee it.

The next morning we boarded the bus and it appeared everybody made it through the night. Although one of the producers from the "Hollywood TV" contingent had a close call when walking about the estate in the dark, he took a wrong turn and tumbled into an water collection pool shown below.

Quinta do Ameal

As the sound of fado music (or was it a religious hymn? I can never tell songs of sorrow apart from religious devotionals) drifted across the Lima river, we gathered around Pedro Araujo in the chill morning air at the Quinta do Ameal estate.
If the natural beauty of a vineyard has any effect on grapes, the vines at Ameal should be a case study. Situated above the banks of the Lima river on rolling hills dotted with pines, walnut and oaks, I imagine the Loureiro grapes are quite pampered as they bask in the sun and occasionally have their skins caressed by inspirational music.

Araujo is making the classic whites and some aged Vinho Verde too with 100% Loureiro grapes.
Normally Vinho Verde is drunk young, but we tried an aged and unoaked 2003 100% Loureiro that defied that construct. You could almost feel the heat of the sun in that wine. I had an extra taste in hope it might help thaw out my frozen extremities. (You know it's cold when your fingers are unable to generate heat and your iPhone does not register the touch of your finger.)

Adhering to organic practices and a very selective field pick, Ameal produces wines that express the best the valley has to offer. They had a very distinct granite and marble minerality, floral nose and green apple notes. Eventually I would have to lick some granite to see if my constant use of this description held up.

There's a whole lot of Woo-woo going on at AFROSFrom the biodynamic philosophy, to the Andy Goldsworthy looking fountain specially built to replicate the way water swirls, flows and eddies along a natural path giving the water life force, to treating the soil with homepatic plant essences determined by the alignment of the planets. For overall Whoa factor, the house of AFROS, 
which incidentally is named for the goddess of love, not the hairstyle, 

wins the prize. It's hip and it's happening at AFROS.

But the AFROS approach is not marketing mumbo-jumbo. 
AFROS makes the "natural juice" guys in California look like choir boys sneaking a bit of vin santo. 

(Yes i'm talking about you-know-who from the loco-vore wine initiative)
The loco-vores got a long way to go to catch up to the sincerity and esthetic of Vasco Croft.

Vasco's winemaking charkas are supremely aligned and spinning out a harmonious nectar worthy of the wine gods and goddesses. Check out this video from AFROS and you will pick up on the vibe.

We had a intriguing and eclectic lunch paring with the AFROS wines. It was a highly intellectual approach to finger food.

Even the garnish had significance with each crudite created to resemble a hexagram from the I Ching and aligned on the plate enhance the feng shui of the room. Not really, I'm just kidding about that, but it seemed plausible. Yet the food was so captivating, one member of our group fell into a reverie and tried to walk through a glass door. Do not doubt the power of food and wine harmonics! It's very powerful stuff and can be trance inducing.

I loved this Octopus and pimento pepper pureee with the Afros 2009 Vinho Verde.

I'm not 100 percent sure but did this Pasteis de Nata have cod in it?? Anyone else on the trip please chime in and let me know. Anyway it was a great pairing with the Vino Verde.

Overall I found the AFROS white wines to be muscular but approachable kind of like Mickey Rourke's character in the Wrestler. The Tinto 2009 was enjoyable and best paired with food. But the Sparkling Red Vinhao Reserve had too much tango for my palate.

Quinta de Santa Maria

The grounds of Quinta de Santa Maria had a magical quality with some of the most enormous Jack and the Beanstalk looking vines I'd ever seen, and some ancient trees that were like something out of a Lewis Carroll fever dream. I can only imagine what they look like in full bloom. The trellised vines also gave the place a feel of a wine wonderland.

As we toured the production area I heard the wine maker talking about something they made called Vin Agar. I'd never heard of Vin Agar before and was anxious to try it. Turns out he was saying "vinegar" and they produce a Vinho Verde wine vinegar.
In the tasting room we tired the following wines:
(Note: I can't link directly to each but you can navigate there on your own on the Quinta de Santa Maria web site.)
2009 Quinta do Tamariz Loureiro Vinho Verde
Light and fresh with ginger and linden berry. Priced at 2.50 euro I was flabbergasted how inexpensive this wine was.
2009 Quinta de Santa Maria Alvarinho - This was from the demarcated Minho region of vinho verde and the meaning of green.
2009 Quinta de Santa Maria Touriga Nacional Brambly wool like nose, not my idea of a good time.
2010 Quinta de Santa Maria Vinhao-- Back to Lavoris territority.
2010 Quinta de Santa Maria Arinto - My favorite. Most of all I loved the vat sample we tried of the Arinto vinho verde. I need to re-vist Quinta de Santa Maria when that wine is ready to be released.

Next: Portugal Part 4: Visit to Sandeman Port, Vini Portugal and more...
By the way, I now realize it may take more than 6 parts to tell the whole Portugal experience. So I might break it down in to more sections. But hang in there with me. It will be worth the vicarious journey.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

There’s a Name for My Condition: Rhone Ranger

I love Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, Carignane and Viognier. I like saying the word Viognier almost as much as drinking the wine itself. I get weak in the knees when I see the menu for Girl and the Fig, and sometimes I just stare at the offerings on my Girl & the Fig iPhone app when I can’t sleep at night. I’m a wine club member of Quivira and Bonny Doon and I’m on the Shane Wines allotment list. For years I thought I was alone with this Rhone obsession.

But now I find out there is a name for my condition-- it's called a Rhone Ranger and there is an organization by the same name. The Rhone Rangers are dedicated to the promotion, education, and general sharing of the love about American Rhone varietal wines. Kind of like a support group for hopeless Rhonemantics like me.

And through their support, I'm giving away two tickets to the next Rhone Ranger event! Read on Kemosabe.

Rhone Ranger members include Wineries, Growers, Retailer Restaurant, & Distributor Associates, and “Sidekicks” a membership level for consumers.

The Rhone Rangers sponsor tasting events and seminars through out the year. The 14th Annual Grand tasting is happening March 26-27 at Fort Mason Festival Pavilion in San Francisco. The grand tasting features over 500 wines from more than 100 Rhone Rangers wineries, and includes gourmet food samples of cheese, bread, olive oil, charcuterie, fruits and chocolates. Plus there will be three educational seminars and a winemakers tasting dinner catered by none other than Girl and the Fig!

Educational Seminars:

For more detailed information on all the events and to purchase tickets click here.

But wait, you can win two tickets to the Grand Tasting right now, right here!

Just tell me what Rhone variety you like to pronounce and why? For Example: I like to say Viognier because it sounds like some kind of sexy lingerie. And I feel rather posh when I say it. But what about you? Do you like the sound of Counoise because it sounds like something Jed Clampet went hunting for? Or maybe you have a penchant for saying Grenache? Tell me.

If you are new to Rhone’s, here’s a quick list and pronunciation guide to help:

Red Varietals:
CINSAUT (San-soh)

White Varietals:
VIOGNIER (VEE-ohn-yay)

Post your answer in the comments below and a random drawing will determine the winner of two tickets ($90 value) to the Grand tasting in San Francisco on March 26-27, 2011. Enter Now! Contest closes March 11th.

P.S. You can follow the Rhone Rangers on twitter @RhoneRangers and tweets from the event at #RRSF

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Part 2: The Wine Pleasures Conference

There were over 40 sessions at the 2011 Wine Pleasures conference covering wine regions, wine tourism and social media applications for the industry. The offerings ranged from outstanding to just outright bewildering. But like most any conference, the content can vary wildly. These days I honestly don’t expect much content wise when I attend a conference. Even the American Wine Bloggers Conferences I’ve attended can be pretty so-so in terms of the break-out sessions. (Although I hear the European WBC has superior content.) But I go mainly to meet the other attendees and learn about the wines of the region. It’s rare that I actually get anything of value from the speakers.

But Wine Pleasures had some surprises for this jaded attendee. The opening session by HRM Dom Duarte de Braganca set the tone for the next three days. “Wine is a sign of god, given to us by god.” he said. And although I don’t consider myself religious, I could certainly agree with the sentiment. We were pilgrims of the wine god come to worship the grapes of Portugal.
Due to some connection problems for presenters using Mac’s, I spent most of my time shuttling off from one session to the next lending my MacBook out to those who did not bring the proper dongle. So I missed a few sessions I had planned on attending. Perhaps my badge should have read attendee, speaker, and ad hoc tech support!
Some of the most well received talks were:
  • The Yeatman Hotel case study presented by Adrian Bridge
  • GranTourismo’s session on creating an integrated approach to marketing wine tourism and experiential travel by Lara Dunston and Terence Carter
  • George Sandeman’s talk on marketing of the Douro region and Quinta do Seixo,
  • Thea Dwelle’s discussion on best practices using new media tools for wine tourism
  • Aneesh Bhasin's overview of the exploding wine market in India

Most popular by far and my personal favorite, was The Surprising Wines of Portugal session led by Charles Metcalfe. And surprising they were. I tasted some incredible wines and found many standouts in this guided tasting:
  • 2008 PROVAM Vinha Antiga Alvarinho, Vinho Verde DOC
  • 2008 .beb Tinto, Alentjo DOC
  • 2009 Terrra d'Alter Reserva Branco,Vinho Regional Alentejano
  • 2007 Quinta de Ramozeiros Tinto, Douro DOC
Best of all the session ended with Metcalfe (who is not only a wine expert, but an opera singer) belting out an aria. Bravo Charles.
Overall the conference ran smoothly, but in my view, the sessions were scheduled too tightly with only 5 minutes in between leaving little time to linger in the exhibitor area. Also, I was sorry to learn that the primary conference was split from the wine tourism workshop with the tour providers. I would have liked to attend that part and meet the presenters, since I write about travel and wine, but the Blogger/Media group was whisked off to the Douro prior to the workshop.

The food provided during the lunches was very good. I especially enjoyed the Casa do Porco Preto ham from Aletejano bred wild boars in Vila de Barrancos, Portugal near the Spanish border. The flavor was exceptional, a spicy, fatty, porky blend of pure pig joy. (Sorry vegan readers, but that pork was a whole new level of tasty.)
The "standing lunches" were slightly problematic. The plates were so heavy I worried I might get carpal tunnel syndrome. Add a glass of wine to the clip on the side of the plate and you’ve got some serious weight to deal with. I wanted to eat my lunch, not bench press it.
There is certainly room for improvement at the Wine Pleasures conference, but it takes time to get these things right. Yet judging from my experience this year, it seems to be chugging along on the right track.
One veteran conference attendee set my expectations on the first day by telling me-- “Anthony Swift’s conferences are like a beautiful train wreck, you never know what is going to happen next but you can’t bear to miss out on the ride.” It was good advice. I just let go of expectations, and rode the train and what a wild ride it was. I dare say there’s very few conferences out there led by a mad genius like Anthony Swift, a man who has the vision and audacity to pull together a slate of speakers that includes heads of state and Hollywood escorts starlets. (I’ll get to all that soon)
Special thanks to Event Managers Susanna Tocca, Cecília Albino and Sandra Neves of the DOC-DMC group who did a tremendous job in assisting attendees prior to arrival and were very attentive and helpful through the conference and tours to keep everything running smoothly.
I hope to be on the train, bus or magic carpet next year when the conference pulls into Umbria for the Wine Pleasures & Dark Arts Tour. Can’t wait to see what happens next!
Next up--Part 3: Visit to Vini Portugal in the Porto stock exchange building. The Pre Conference tour to the Minho. Overnight in Calheiros Manor House, and the dramatis personae --an introduction to cast of characters on the bus.

Links full Portugal series:
Part 1 The Conference Venue
Part 2: The Wine Pleasures Conference

Friday, February 11, 2011

Portugal Part 1: The Conference Venue

Hey all--I'm back from Portugal and finally able to post about the 2011 Wine Pleasures Conference and blogger tour through the Minho and Douro wine regions. I forgot my Lumix camera so all my photos are from my iphone. But I will try to beg/buy/bargain for a few photos from some of the professional photographers who were on the trip. I'll be putting up a series of posts in the next few days detailing many aspects of the trip. First up-- the conference venue: Pousada Do Porto Freixo Palace Hotel

The Pousada Do Porto Freixo Palace Hotel is where the 2011 Wine Pleasures conference was held. It's situated right on the Douro river and has stunning views from the guest rooms and conference facilities.

The Pousada changed hands over the years and in the 20th century was sold to a ceramic firm Companhia Harmonic. That explains the huge industrial chimney on the riverside of the building which in my opinion lends the place a very Giorgio De Chirico vibe. It was later reconverted to a palace and a hotel as part of the state run group of Pousadas. It’s the largest pousada in Portugal.

I stayed at the Palace the first night I arrived in Porto before the conference tour of the Minho began. I found a rather surprising feature in my room as shown in this clip below--

Giorgio De Chirico would have loved this place. I think the resemblance to his paintings is uncanny. The colors, perspective and the industrial elements juxtaposed with the palace.

This is where Jed Clampet would have moved for a sense grandeur and splendor if he did not heed the advice to “move to Beverley Hills...” instead. Can’t you just picture Ellie May out here by the cement pond?

When we came back to the Palace for the conference I got a room with a balcony and big views. Take a look.

Next up: Conference highlights and trip to the Minho for Vinho Verde.

Links to all posts in the Portugal series:

Part 1: The Conference Venue
Part 2: The Wine Pleasures Conference
Part 3: The Minho Land of Vinho Verde
Part 4: A Visit to Sandeman & Vini Portugal
Part 5: The Douro & Visit to Quinta Nova
Part 6: Croft Vineyards & Portrait of Adrian Bridge
Part 7: Foodie Feast at Rui Paula's DOC on the Douro
Part 8: Quinta da Pacheca Lodge and Cellars

Videos in the Annex:
The Lagare Collection--What Hipsters Wear to Tread
Slow Travel in Portugal
The Tiles of Portugal


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