Location: Whitby, Ontario, Canada

Born in Malta but in Canada since age 5. Has written three books and presently does several columns about wine and food for various magazines.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

July 1-----Day Three-----Ribatejo: Mansions, Lusitanos, Cattle and Wine!

For previous entries, scroll down and view starting June 28th.

Good-bye Alentejo----Hello Ribatejo!

I awoke around 7ish on July 1st and saluted Canada on its birthday! The usual shower and shave routine followed and I was quickly outside to find the Greg Rist was already busy shooting and taking pictures. Breakfast was available in the form of crusty bread, great cheese and ham along with coffee. As most got to know rather quickly, I must-----must----have my coffee! I call coffee my only major addiction and it that's the only one I get at my age---more power to me, I say!!! It was a great way to start the morning.

You could tell that Andreia was getting anxious about keeping on schedule! She would walk around, head slightly tilted and with arms crossed. This was a sure giveaway that time was marching on too fast since we did have three wineries to visit. At about 8:30 AM we paid our respects to our gracious hosts who went out of their way to be so hospitable and off we went. I couldn't help feeling that this winery was going places in the near future.

Quinta da Lagoalva de Chima

It took approximately two and a half hours to get to the above Quinta. Greg and I caught up on our much needed sleep since we did loose much snooze time on our way to Portugal. The first day we were running on empty so this was a welcome two hours.

This was not my first time at Lagoalva. I visited it with Alex Eberspaecher in 2006. I fell madly in love with its wines and horses (more later) especially some of the vibrant reds made from indigenous Alfrocheiro and Touriga Nacional grapes. However, Lagoalva has more than just wine. Olives and Olive Oil, Cattle, Agriculture, Cork Groves and Horses are all part of its makeup!

The history of this 5000 hectare estate can be in many ways the history of Portugal. The land was awarded to the holy order of Santiago de Espada in the late 12th Century. During the following years, it was the home of Princes, Kings, Dukes and Counts. The present Lagoalva mansion is quite large and a lovely place to visit. Old Olive and Cork trees line the road that lead to the gates of this fine establishment.

When we arrived, we noticed that new things were on the go here. My friend Diogo Campilho, a young man descended from the above royalty, met us at the gate. I believe Diogo will dominate the Portuguese wine scene in the years to come as he has the ideas and the presence to lead the way to a great Portuguese wine future. Diogo informed me that much construction was going on in the courtyard since a huge pond with fountain is being built. No doubt his friend from another Quinta (Aveleda), Franciso Guedes D'Aveleda would give him some tips regarding ponds.

Diogo knew from years past that my daughter was very much interested in competitive Hunter/Jumper events and always asked me about her. Before we went to taste his wines (for me it was preaching to the converted) he allowed us to see his brother training a two year old stallion at the riding stable.

As I had mentioned in prior articles, these stables were so clean that one could veritably eat off the floor. Diogo's brother, an Portuguese Equestrian Dressage Champion, went through the paces of acclimatizing a Lusitano horse to the rigors of riding. The method was very familiar to me and one that I had seen famed "Horse Whisperer" Monty Roberts do at his ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley (Solvang) California. I was impressed.

Lagoalva Wines

I've probably written Lagoalva wines more often than not. What can I say that I haven't mentioned before. We tasted several wines this time! However, I must in this case mention my favourite wines of Lagoalva since I have tasted them time and time again.

Lagoalva White (Branco) is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Alverinho, Verldelh0, Fernao Pires and Arinto. A very nice wine with great acidity and sweet fruit flavours. Kiwi, melons, ripe apples and cantaloupe come to mind! The Arinto/Chardonnay with the perfect blend of banana/pineapple and citrus flavours. The Chardonnay shows the roundness and the Arinto, the freshness.

Lagoalva de Cima Alfrocheiro is a wine that I found to have concentration and depth.

The wine is made from 100% Alfrocheiro grapes and aged in French Oak. This wine is only made in top years. I found the wine to be very elegant with plum, blackberry and residual pine nut flavours with a pleasant vanilla finish. Great on the nose with raspberry, cherry and vanilla aromas.

Lagoalva de Cima Castelao/Touriga is a bold and savoury example of this blend of two grape varieties. As usual the Touriga exhibits itself in the immediate beginning and finish.

Lagoalva Syrah has a sweet cherry/berry nose with a nuance of anise. The palate has ripe cherry flavours with a touch of spice. Long sweet finish.

Lagoalva de Cima Syrah/Touriga an excellent combination of two red grapes with similar yet different characteristics. The ripe red fruit aromas of Touriga and the black spice of Syrah meld together to make one luscious wine. The wine is smooth, elegant and leaves a long lasting finish which changes as it connects with your taste buds.

Diogo Campilho and Pedro Pinhao are taking Lagoalva to new heights. It will always be my pleasure to taste their wines whenever I get the chance.

We spent a very pleasant and gregarious time with Diogo, his brother and Pedro. However it came time to leave for our next visit and Andreia had her arms crossed!

Quinta Da Casal Branco

The first thing that I always notice at Casal Branco (White Castle or House) are the storks nesting in the several chimneys at the estate. The estate's main pastime centuries ago wasn't storks since the vineyards where the grapes grow was once used entirely for Falconry! The same family has owned this estate for the last 200 years. Indeed the winery goes back to the 18th Century and wine is still made there. The house mansion which is across the street lies amid a majestic garden which houses one of the most interesting items that I have come across in years-------a 16th Century Pigeon Coop complete with mounds of droppings. Keep in mind that in those days there were two uses for pigeons a) messages (i.e. no telephone then b) Falconry. It was a well built coop!! No doubt.

We arrived in time to have lunch with Jose Lobo de Vasconcellos and a group of visiting dignitaries. We had a delicious soup with an entree of Rabbit with the trimmings. The wine served was exceptionally good with the meal.

After the meal, Jose took us for a tour of his vineyards, winery where he showed us his lagares with a modified machine that simulated the pressing of feet on the grapes. He also showed us his old distilling pot which was in another part of the winery. We then went for a tour of the Pigeon Coop discussed earlier and the gorgeous mansion.

As with Lagoalva, I have long been associated with Casal Branco and have written about it many times in the past. In fact, Ribatejo has been one of my favourite areas for wine anywhere. I like the concentration and the elegance. The flavours---especially of the reds are amazing and the fresh fruit of the whites--truly remarkable.

As I did with Lagoalva and what I will also do with Alorna, I will comment on my favourite wines of Quinta da Casal Branco!


When a winery produces a large amount of quality wine, it is hard to comment on several wines that you like the most. Here are a few!

Quartilho White is a single variety white from Fernao Pries. It combines freshness, minerality and fruit in a nice combination to make it accessible as an aperitif or to be served with light meat and fish.

Falcoaria White as with the wine above but with more tropical fruit and concentration.

Casal Branco Rose is an interesting blend of Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira, Castelao, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Strawberry, raspberry and cherry on the nose and the same on the palate. Fresh, clean and invigourating with a nice fruit spice finish.

Terra de Lobos Red is a blend of Castelao and Cabernet Sauvignon. Balanced is the word here. On the nose: ripe cherry and raspberry with a hint of cocoa. On the palate: ripe red fruit and chocolate spice with a refreshing acid bite.

Casal Branco Touriga Nacional is an intensly concentrated wine with plum and blackberry on the nose and very ripe cherry/raspberry on the palate. Concentrated jam in the mid road and a lovely anise spice finish at the end. What can I say, I like Touriga Nacional!

Falcoaria Reserva one of my most favourite reds! Foot crushing in lagares, Twelve months in French Oak, 4 months in the bottle. Deep dark colour, red/black fruit, leather and tobacco with pepper spice on the long finish. Outstanding.

Other attractions

Wine is not the only thing made at the Quinta. There is some great olive oil made with very special varieties of olives. The Lusitano Stud goes back to 1807 and has a history of not only grand champion horses but also grand champion riders from various equine disciplines all over the globe. Finally, the above attractions culminate themselves in the one man whose mild voice and quiet smile lends himself to those who visit his winery. I likened him to a person I like to watch on television soap operas----don't laugh---Victor Newman on the drama "All My Children". Newman is the epitome of cool thought even when the going gets rough. He is mild mannered and quick thinking yet can be the gentlest of persons. A man to discuss quietly but not a man to provoke! Jose Lobo Vasconcellos reminds me of just that man!

Andreia's arms were not folded or crossed this time! We all knew that we were going to Quinta Da Alorna and would be spending the night there. So off we went to our next winery!

Quinta Da Alorna

We went to Da Alorna thinking that we would settle in and take in the garden or sights first. We were in for a surprise. Martta Simoes, the winemaker and oenologist at Da Alorna was waiting for us. Martta was petite attractive, intelligent and had the personality that would charm anyone. It ws a pleasure to meet up with her again as I did in 2006 when I stayed at the mansion.
Martta's smile was infectious and she quickly welcomed us and took us to our rooms. Ironically it was the very room I slept in three years prior. To say that this room is large is an understatement. I could fit one quarter of my present (albeit small) home in just the room. Then there was the modern bathroom which could hold a small party. I felt like I was home in a small sort of way! The room where my travelling companion of three years ago, well known writer and journalist, Alex Eberspaecher was unoccupied. It would have been nice to have him with us on this trip, I thought to myself. Pity! Greg, Andreia and I met downstairs shortly after and Martta took us for a tour of the vineyards. It turned into a mini adventure.
We drove to what was about 2500 hectares of vineyard space and saw the perfectly kept grape vines toiling at making the berries needed for the wine. Martta suggested that we to to the tower and also see the White Deer! Greg, of course, being the quintesential film maker said---"Show us the way!" Away we went.
We went up to what was quite a high part of the area and we came to a rickety observation old tower which had seen some better days but was quite climbable. It was about 15 metres ( 48.75 feet) high. Another more modern tower stood not far from it and a guard on duty was consulted by Martta. He nodded and up we went. One could not realize how high 15 metres can be until he/she climbed it. Below us were all the vineyards and we could see the whole area for miles away. The setting sun was magnificent as it coloured, the few clouds partially covering it, in various shades of red and yellow. It was quiet and peaceful with the exception of the small breeze that whispered quietly in our faces.
Greg took a number of shots and then came the way down. The tower shook and swayed a bit as we descended but we got down safely. It was a breathtaking experience in more ways than one. We were then off to see the White Deer which are protected from hunting by many signs saying in Portuguese----stay out/private property/absolutely no hunting. "We take care of them as they are rare", Martta commented.
We drove to a wooded area and she parked the Rover that we were in. Greg and Andreia went off up the road and into a wooded area. We could hardly see them as they semi disappeared into the woods. Martta and I stayed back basically since I did not want to take a chance at lumbering into the woods and frightening off a good chance to shoot the deer. She stayed to keep me company.
We caught site of Greg and Andreia figures in the woods and suddenly appeared a small deer which looked like a Doe. Slowly, she was followed by several others one of which seemed to be a Buck. They were very pale----almost a creamy brown in colour. I could see that Greg was taking some great footage. He must have "shot" for about twenty minutes and then we saw the two coming back. Both seemed fascinated by the experience. We went back to Da Alorna.
Dom Pedro de Alemeida was in the service of the Portuguese King when he conquered the fortress of Fort Alorna, a fort built in the 17th Century by the Bhonsles in the Portuguese colony of Goa (India). He became known as the Marquis of Alorna and gave the name to this estate.
The estate goes back to 1723 and is perfect example of pristine 18th Century architecture. The old fort (in Goa) still exists though it is in bad shape.
Imagine driving up a tree lined roadway and viewing a magnificent mansion partially hidden by a large and ancient Phytolaica Dioica, an Evergreen tree that has its "roots" in South America---Argentina to be exact, though it is found in Brazil also. Imagine this particular tree spreading its massive roots next to a serene pond in front of the steps of the mansion. Then imagine ascending a flight of wide steps leading up to a series of five arches underwhich is a prime open enclosure designed for sitting under on a warm summer night. The enclosure protects a massive door which leads into the huge main foyer of Da Alorna. To the right is a winding staircase that Rhett Butler, the hero of "Gone With the Wind" would be proud of. to the left is a lavishly decorated dining room full of paintings and frescoed art. Directly in front is a massive sitting lounge compete with fire place and old furniture, book shelves and fine art. Art is everywhere and also everywhere are the oversized windows typical of the 18th Century. The house had many rooms, each one displayed in its own style of grandeur.
The wines of Da Alorna have always pleased me. They are very inviting yet have a challenge to them as to not make them boring. We tasted the wines within the outside enclosure describe earlier. Martta brought out her wines and Greg and I tasted. To Greg it was a new experience but to me, many were old friends.
Quinta da Alorna White Wine
Arinto/Fernao Pires Tempered by the Fernao Pires, the Arinto still made itself known with its remarkable acidity. Fernao added compelling fruit and flavour of melon/apple while the Arinto, added lovely lemon citrus.
Arinto/Chardonnay An interesting combination. The Arinto was noticed first with its fresh fruit and acidity. The chardonnay then made itself known with the butter, vanilla and some tropical flavours. The finish was a nice combination of slight oak vanilla and refreshing acidity. Nice!
Touriga Nacional Rose Fresh Strawberry, raspberry on the palate with a great floral bouquet. I love Touriga Nacional!
Touriga Nacional/Cabernet The Touriga Nacional was out of the gate fast with its black fruit/berry and violet aromas on the nose and round, spice. The Cabernet followed with its pepper and cassis. The vanilla oak was noticed in both the nose and palate. At the turn, Cabernet and Tourgia were neck and neck---melding harmoniously together and at the finish it was the herbaceous Cabernet nose to nose with the body of the Touriga. Nice blend!
The dining room was elegant;y prepared but I think that the four of us seemed very microscopic in size compared with the sheer size of the table that could easily hold thirty guests at elast. The repas was absolutely delicious from the hors d'oevres to the main course of traditional Bacalhau Espitual or Spirit Codfish with all the trimmings. It was prepared by a lovely and wonderful woman, Maria Dos Anjos, who I begged to come to Canada and cook there. I was informed that her husband would not like that too much. I can see why!!!! The dessert was a delicious Creme Brullee. I had seconds with both. The meal went very well with the wines we tasted prior and the dessert went well---very well with the Late Harvest Fernao Pires with its honey, apricot, nut flavours.
Martta and I later went out on the "Porch" to relax. Greg later joined us and had a Fernao Pires Liqueur which was made by covering unfermented Fernao grape juice with quality grape spirits (thus preventing alcohol) and ageing it in old barrels for 6 years. I had a small taste which reminded me of apricots, figs and coffee. Greg really enjoyed it.
Soon it was time to turn in. We went to our rooms and I had no trouble getting to sleep!
End of Third Day