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Quinta do Centro – Blog Diary
Living the Dream
‘What gives our dreams their daring is that they can be realized’ Le Corbusier
To Porto for the biannual tasting of our Portuguese distributor Portfolio. I say tasting but it is really more of an entertainment for clients; restaurateurs, hoteliers, owners of garrafeiras (wine shops) from all over Portugal. There are wines to taste, arranged in groups to be tasted at different ‘moments’ over five hours. The event takes place at the newly restored Graham’s Port Lodge which is well worth a visit in itself. Built in the late nineteenth century, this has been stripped back and restored over a two-year period to expose the original roof beams and cast iron columns whilst making space to receive vistors. There is a large, airy tasting room, another room specifically for tasting vintage Ports, a shop, a wine bar and a restaurant (Vinum) which is being run by a Basque company with reataurants in Spain and South America. I am pleased to see that Pedra Basta is available here both by the glass and by the bottle. But back to Momentos, the tasting that culminated in a festa with the most extraordinary display of musica pimba I have ever seen. Musica pimba is the onomatopoeic term for the tub-thumping Portuguese songs that usually get belted out at village festivals or in the lagares in the Douro once liberdade has been declared (see my book Port and the Douro for a description and explanation). This musica pimba moment, apart from being accompanied by some fine wines, took in three dancing girls with short skirts and fishnets. As I was leaving they were singing a song with the refrain ‘eu chupo’ (‘I suck’)! I have just been at the biannual tasting of our UK distributors (Fields, Morris & Verdin) at Church House in Westminster where I can’t imagine eu chupo going down well at all. Still, it was a moment to remember and if it sells some more wine in Portugal eu chupo will have the desired effect.
It is spring in the Serra. I heard the first cuckoo today. After a long, cold wet spring (there was snow in the Serra da Estrela as late as last weekend) we finally have some summer warmth with temperatures rising into the mid-20s. The vineyard has never looked better with neat rows of vines sprouting that indescribably tender spring green that you only find for a few days at this time of year. We have a potentially large crop of grapes although much will now depend on what happens to the weather next month during the flowering.
The only area of real concern is the older vines. Every year we are losing a few more plants to a disease the French call eutypiose. This is known in English as eutypa die back or ‘dead arm’, a fungal disease that first manfests itself by killing of an arm of the vine before finishing off the vine in its entirety. There is no cure. Big bald patches are now apparent in the midst of my older vineyards, mostly corresponding to drier patches on the soil where eutypiose is managing to take hold. I fear that it won’t be long before yields from some of the older vineyards fall to a level where they become unmanageable and I will have to replant. This will be to the detriment of Pedra e Alma, our prestige wine based on older, low yielding vines.
The vineyard is thoroughly drenched after a month of relentless rain. There is water standing amid the vines in places where I have never seen it before. Soil compaction does not help and the too-ing and fro-ing of the tractor has left tramlines of water in some poorly drained parts of the quinta. The barragem is full to overflowing and I can’t see there being a shortage of water this year no matter how dry the summer of 2013 turns out to be. We just have to hope that this is not a repeat of 2010 with a huge crop that then struggled to ripen due to the extreme late summer heat. At the moment the vines are very behind with bud burst just starting to take place in some varieties. The heavy cloud and lack of light has held things up for the last month. But spring is in the air and the forecast is for some fine weather with the temperature rising into the high teens this week.
I am supposed to be travelling to Dusseldorf to present our wines at ProWein, Europe’s largest wine trade fair. But due to an unseasonal dump of snow accompanied by high winds in the north of England I am unable to get to Manchester Airport to catch the plane.
It is very gratifying to find that Duas Pedras 2010 is Decanter Magazine's Wine of the Month with a score of 17 out of 20. Their note reads well too: 'Meaning 'two stones' in English, this Touriga Nacional-Syrah blend with a splash of Viognier is names after the schist and granite soils of the area. Breezy but with ample concentration, it has flavours of chocolate-dipped currants and rose petal notes - very tasty and refreshing'. It is currently available from the Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com for £8.95.
I don’t think I have ever felt so cold as I have this week in Portalegre. Although nothing like as cold as in the UK where it is currently snowing, the damp cold here quickly gets into your bones and there is really no way of warming up. The buildings seem to capture the cold. A blanket of thick drizzely fog has hung over the Serra all week and, with all the bad news about the local economy, it is thoroughly depressing. Then, this morning there comes a ray of sunshine, both literal and metaphorical. After years of trying we get our first order from the United States and from one of the most respected importers in New York no less. They have just ordered Duas Pedras but it is an excellent start for us in a market that is very difficult to crack. The news lifts my spirits Rui and I taste through all our wines in the clammy adega. We are thinking ahead to our lotes of Pedra Basta 2010 and 2011. Pedra e Alma 2011 seems to have almost blended itself and will be a very worthy follow on to the 2009 which is currently drinking very well indeed.
Pruning is underway, albeit slowly due to the wet weather. Where we can, we are doing mechanical pre-pruning prior to hand pruning each vine. It is rather like a clipper cut before a scissor cut and the Alicante Bouschet now looks like it has had a short back and sides after all the previous year’s growth. The wet winter seems to be compensating for last year’s severe drought. Our well has filled up, the barragem is nearly full and the huge Montargil dam was half empty in October is now full again.
A rather dismal start to the year. Tomba Lobos, the excellent restaurant that we have in Portalegre, closed its doors just before Christmas and is not going to re-open. The owner and chef, José Júlio Vintém, has left for Recife in Brasil. He says on a blog it is not a bankruptcy and that he has left no debts but he certainly owes us (and others) money. It is sad that Portalegre cannot support a restaurant of this calibre but it is a reflection of the times that we live in. Gemelli, a well known restaurant near the parliament building in Lisbon, has also closed and there are bankruptcies all over the country. I know of a local wine distributor in severe financial difficulties, three nearby hotels that have closed and a number of wine producers who are now in the hands of the banks. With emigration from Portugal up by 85% last year I fear that Portugal is losing much of its best talent, just as it did in the early 1970s when there was mass emigration to avoid conscription to the colonial wars. The Bank of Portugal predicts that the economy will contract by another 2% this year and that a further 80,000 jobs will be lost. The outlook is bleak.
To Madeira for the Essência do Vinho wine fair. I take the opportunity to visit a number of restaurants in Funchal who either already list our wine or have missed out on the opportunity of doing so. The owner of one restaurant, Armazém do Sal in Funchal, told me that he listed our wines following a recommendation form a member of the Wine Society who was on holiday from the UK. In these days of social media just goes to show the power of the spoken word (and the global reach of the Wine Society)!
Sadly Joanne Twentyman of Mr Thomas’s Chop House in Manchester didn't win the Sommelier award but she did really well to come in the top five runners up. You may recall that she matched our wine, Pedra Basta 2008, with a delicious dish of roasted breast of lamb with a lemon zest and mustard crust, served with a light casserole of devilled lamb’s kidney, new potatoes and baby leeks. The judges said: 'this was a dish that scored for its honesty and depth of flavour, with the accompanying meaty wine reduction well judged for both seasoning and intensity. Twentyman’s choice of wine initially looked bold, but soon calmed down to show a fragrant side to its bold, berry flavours. With the lamb, its wild, herby character emerged; while with the kidneys, the sweetness of fruit and note of vanilla became apparent. All in all, an excellent pairing.' It is worth making your way to Mr Thomas's on Cross Street in the centre of Manchester to try this. I love having lunch in their Victorian tiled dining room.
It has been an extraordinary year throughout Portugal. I have talked to people in their eighties who cannot recall a year so dry. Springs and wells have been drying up all over the country. But far from being a disaster, some good wines have been made from varieties like Touriga Nacional and Trincadeira that seem to withstand the drought. We ran out of water for irrigation of the younger vines as early as July but fortunately the summer months were not excessively hot. Yields are down considerably on average (by as much as 50% in parts of the Douro) largely due to the small size of the berries but thankfully there was not as much raisinisation as there might have been if we had had a late heatwave. The harvest began in warm weather but the rain that fell around 25th brought cooler temperatures for the last few days of picking. Having stopped the harvest for a week, we ended up picking our last grapes (Touriga Nacional) on 8th October. Inevitably the grapes picked after the rain have much lower baumés than those picked before. Our Alicante Bouschet picked in early October registered just 12 baumé. These wines may well complement the big, sometimes over-ripe reds picked early in the vintage.
With the sun still shining, I arrive at the adega to taste our wines from 2012. Most are going through malo-lactic and we have a lagar of Touriga still fermenting. Our first wine of the vintage, a 50-50 blend of Syrah and Touriga Nacional from the upper part of the vineyard is settling down well at the end of malo-lactic. Deep in colour, it already smells and tastes fantastic with ripe, sappy fruit. It will form the base for a wonderful Duas Pedras to be bottled early next year. We have five barrels of wine from the old vines set aside for Pedra e Alma. These are still going through malo but taste powerful and dense if rather hot and heady in their overt ripeness. It will be interesting to see how they settle down. The fruit picked after the rain gave more softer, more open wine, some of which is a bit stretched and simple. 2012 will be a year when selection and careful blending is going to be paramount to make good wine.
After a few days of rain, clear weather has returned and we resume picking. It seems as though the remaining Touriga Nacional (towards the bottom of the slope where the soils are deeper) has taken up the water. From tasting the grapes on the vine, it looks as though the wine will be much lighter and more dilute in style than the deep, concentrated reds that we have made in the early part of the vintage.
Heavy rain. Fortunately all the rot-prone Trincadeira has now been picked as well as our old vine fruit for Pedra e Alma. We all desperately need the rain but perhaps not just yet. It will be interesting to see the effect it has on the grapes still remaining in the vineyard. Inevitably the vines will take up the water quickly after such a dry summer.
The last day of summer. It is still warm but overcast and, as if on cue, a few drops of rain land on my windscreen as I drive south to the Algarve to conduct as tasting. In the evening I show our range of reds (alongside Quinta do Ameal Vinho Verde - ‘last of the summer wine?!’ – and Blandy’s Trophy winning Malvasia Colheita 1996) to a receptive audience who are members of the Wine Mine Club. The tasting is takes place at a wonderful restaurant / garrafeira (wine shop) called Veneza in Paderne. I have never seen a restaurant anywhere with such a comprehensive range of wines on offer. Anyone with an interest in wine, both Portuguese and foreign, should make a b-line for Veneza.
I drove over the serra this morning to see a large black cloud hanging over the plains to the north. My first thought was a change in the weather but I later leant that this came from the fires that have been burning all night in the Beiras. We desperately need some rain to dampen things down and the weather is forecast to change this weekend. Saturday is Dia de São Mateus (St Mathew’s Day) and there is a saying round here that goes águas verdadeiras, São Mateus as primeiras ('the first true rains fall on St Mathew’s day'). It looks as though there might be some truth in this.
It has taken five years to register the gift of some land from Quinta do Centro to the Câmara Municipal de Portalegre. It started when the bulldozers moved in, 'by mistake' to widen a corner at the bottom of the quinta before my permission had been given. Today I spend an hour at the notary drawing up and signing the deed. At the end of the official reading of the document the notary asked if I had any doubts about the it. I replied that my only doubts were as to why it had taken five years to get to this stage. No one thought this was very funny!
Our vintage finally got underway this week, with Syrah, Aragonez followed by vinha velha today. It rained for a few minutes last night and thunderstorms are threatened this afternoon. It was 33ºC at 3.30pm and as I write this I can see huge thunderclouds looming behind the serra. It is so parched here that a little rain won’t make any difference at all. The main risk is hail which wiped out a whole swathe of vineyard near Pinhel last week and at Celeirós in the upper reaches of the Pinhão Valley. I saw where the hail had hit at the weekend and there was barely a grape left on the vines. So far so good here: our fruit is ripe and healthy and we have good levels of acidity. It may be well a year for Pedra e Alma. I go through the vineyard with Rui tasting the grapes. Tomorrow we will pick Touriga Nacional which, despite a relatively low Baumé tastes sweet and ripe with a nice streak of acidity. With the vines so stressed, I don’t think the Touriga will ripen any more.
To Porto (for a tasting of Cockburn’s vintage Port back to 1896 – see Port pages), then to the Douro for the weekend. It is striking whilst travelling through Portugal just how many construction projects have come to a complete standstill. The motorway tunnel being built under the Serra do Marão has come to a halt leaving some spectacular half-finished bridges. There are also plenty of small turismo projects which are left half built, the owners having run out of finance. Yesterday there were demonstrations in Lisbon and Porto against the new austerity measures being imposed by the Government and the so-called Troika. The ‘manif’ in Porto was the largest in the city’s history, larger even than during the revolution thirty-eight years ago. There is a real sense of anger here and a feeling that things will get worse before they get better. Vintage starts in the Douro tomorrow and at least the benefício has been raised after last year: some comfort for small growers.