Travel Guide to Portugal

Port: Vintage 1827

By Guest Author

What follows is part two in my telling of the story of Villar d’Allen. If you have not read part 1, please do so now. This story was originally published in 1981 by my Grandfather, retelling his experience opening a Quinta do Noval 1827. I have included footnotes to clarify some points, otherwise, this has been left for the most part in its original state. While this is exceptionally long for a post on Catavino, I’ve opted for publishing in its entirety for the sake of clarity rather than publishing it across multiple posts. All photos were taken by my Grandfather on a 35mm Pentax and then digitized recently; hence, the lack of clarity. They’ve been published for historical interest. Special note: This is the first time a post on Catavino is protected by an All Rights Reserved Copyright at the request of my Grandfather. All other content on Catavino continues to be published with a creative commons license.

The excitement and anticipation could be seen on the faces of the people in the small group crowding around Jose’ at the buffet. We were in the 19th century dining room in the Villar d’Allen in the Portuguese village of Valbom, near Porto. It isn’t every day that one has the opportunity to participate in opening and tasting Port from the vintage of 1827. Though none of us present (other than Jose) were connoisseurs in the true sense of the word, we were quite appreciative of good wines and I had made wines from local fruits, and mead from honey, for several years at home in Minnesota.

My family and I were guests of Jose’ Alberto Manuel de Gouveia Allen and his lovely wife Isaura. We had arrived several days earlier on our yacht “Cecilia” after a slow 7 day sail from the Ilha de Sao Miguel in the Azore Islands. We were seven months into our family project of sailing around the world. The crew consisted of son Bill, the Captain; son Tony, lst Mate; daughters Marthe and Rebecca, deck monkeys we called them; wife Cecilia, chief cook and bottle washer; and myself, Ray, twice retired, first as a Major from the USAF and 2nd as a Systems Engineering Manager with Honeywell.

After a two month shakedown cruise in the Caribbean we had returned to Florida to reprovision and make a few repairs before setting sail across the Atlantic. Our first stop was at the port of St. Georges in the Bermuda Isles. After spending a very busy and wonderful twelve days exploring all the sights of that enchanting island, we said goodbye to all of our new friends and set sail for the Azores. We made landfall at the Ilha das Flores in the north-western group twelve days later. We enjoyed the next nine weeks visiting four of the nine islands that comprise the Azores. During most of this time we were in almost daily contact with Jose’ and Isaura via Ham radio.

My first contact with Jose was on the radio when my daughter Rebecca was an AFS student in Portugal in 1978. He was the first Portuguese Ham to answer my call as I attempted to establish a contact in Portugal so as to stay in close touch with Rebecca. He was very helpful at first and I and my wife Cecilia subsequently became fast “radio” friends with him and Isaura. Rebecca was a guest at their villa on several occasions and came to know and love them and their children. As our plans for an around the world cruise took shape, we included a visit to Portugal as a high priority stopover early in the itinerary. Upon hearing of this via radio, Jose promptly invited us to be their guests for as long as we would be in the Porto area.

Thus it was that during our first evening, before dinner, Jose served us Port, Vintage 1901. This excellent Port was from the “Antonio Caetano Rodrigues” Wine Company (dissolved in l941). It was bottled in 1903, decanted, and rebottled in 1940. This wine company had come into the Allen family via marriage. Jose’s grandfather, Alberto Rebello Valente Allen, married Felismina Rodrigues Ayres de Gouveia in 1889. As we were soon to learn, Jose’s wine cellar had a plentiful supply of wines, many dating back to the early 1800’s, from the Rodrigues Wine Company and others that at one time or another had been in the family for many generations. Jose’s father was the last of the family to be involved in the Port wine industry. For forty years, he was President of the Real Companhia Vinicola.

When Jose realized my interest in wine was more than in just the drinking, he showed me his wine cellar pointing out the wines from the various years and describing what he felt were the relative merits of each. The bottles were heavily encrusted with the accumulation of dust and secretions. Most bins were carefully labeled.

Gently wiping off the grime without disturbing the bottles, I saw labels dated as early as 1812. One year in particular was well represented, 1827. Jose said that was one of the outstanding vintages of the 19th century and he still had about 400 bottles remaining! He promised to open a bottle some future evening, cautioning me that I could be disappointed since the probability of finding still excellent Port was very low after that many years. He went on to say that for the first 50 years, good Port improves; from 50 to 80 years it may improve; after 80 years it definitely declines. I was later told at the Institute do Vinho do Porto that ordinary or average quality Port does not retain its quality for as many years as a vintage Port. Thus the practice of blending older port with young port to renew its quality. They confirmed that vintage port can and does improve with aging up to a point.

Anticipating Jose’s promise to open an 1827 Port, I decided I should get to know more about Port wine. My only previous significant contact with port wine had been in 1962 on a visit to my Uncle Leopold Jeanmaire in Orchamps, France. On that occasion, he had opened one of his last two bottles of a 1927 Port. I recall nothing else about that particular port except how much I enjoyed it. It was superb and my uncle assured me there was none better to be found. I found no reason to argue with him! At that time, I had little interest in wine other than the drinking. However, my curiosity about port wine had definitely been aroused by the visit to Jose’s wine cellar.

During the years I made my own wine and mead (1) prior to starting on my world cruise, I don’t recall ever having a discussion with my wine making friends concerning Port. Some of them were true connoisseurs of wine. In retrospect, this leads me to believe that Port does not have the stature in the States that it enjoys in Europe, especially in Great Britain. Thus, being in Europe, what better place to further my education and satisfy my curiosity than in the home of Port Wine: Porto, Douro River Valley, Portugal? Our yacht “Cecilia” was tied to a wharf on the Douro River immediately across the river from Vila Nova de Gaia. Here are located the “Caves”, the warehouses of the companies that process and ship the young wines brought from the Quintas (farms) of the upper Douro River Valley.

Anchored along the south bank of the river directly across from us were several of the picturesque sailboats called “Barcos Rabelos” boats with tails because of the extra long steering oars. These were in years past the means of transporting the barrels of young wine down the river from the farms to Gaia. Nowadays trains and tank trucks are used. The crafts anchored across the river are for publicity and are historically interesting. One of the sails had a large black and gold emblem entitled “FERREIRA”. We decided our first stop should be the Ferreira Caves which we could see from the deck of the “Cecilia”. Our host, Jose, thought otherwise.

Apparently the Allen family name was yet significant in Gaia. Our hostess, Isaura, from the Villar d’Allen, had a few words with the right people and shortly we had a private tour through the facility of the “Real Companhia Vinicola do Norte de Portugal”. This was the company founded by Jose’s great grandfather back in 1889 and of which his father was president for forty years. The large showroom in which guests were served samples of the company’s wines was our first stop. There on the walls we saw pictures of Jose’s father greeting dignitaries and heads of state from all over Europe

The tour through the warehouses took us past large vats with capacities of 200 pipes (barrels). A pipe contains approximately 535 liters (about 140 gallons). These vats are the storage containers for the young wine received from the Quintas or farms. The young wine as received from the quintas is a product of the “must” that has been stopped in its fermentation process at the correct level of sugar by the addition of wine brandy. The port wine shippers process this product in any one of three ways, depending on the quality. Most years the wine is blended with similar wines from earlier years and with wines from various sources of the same year. The end product is consistent in color, taste, and aroma, with good keeping qualities. It is often shipped to its European market in tanks, where it is then bottled and sold.

The better than average young wines from most years are not blended and are aged in casks right in the caves. These when bottled are labeled with the year of harvest and are sold as “harvest” wines [Colheita], considered to be of higher quality than the blended variety. When a harvest is considered to be of an exceptional quality the young wines are stored in vats and sampled after two or three years. If these samplings confirm the special quality of the wine, a vintage year is declared. The Instituto do Vinho do Porto then grants a certificate of guarantee allowing these wines to be sold as Vintage XXXX when bottled at the two or three year point. If bottled at the four to six year point they are referred to as LBV or Late Bottled Vintage XXXX. These vintage wines command a premium price and are especially savored by wine connoisseurs throughout Europe and elsewhere where port wines are relished.

In addition to the four basic types of wine (Vintage, LBV, Harvest [Colheita] and Blended), the wines are also classified by sweetness and color. The sweetness ranges are: Muinto Doce (very sweet), 5.lº — 7.lº B (Baume); 8º Doce (sweet), 3.lº — 5º B; Meio Seco (half dry), l.6º — 30º B; Seco (dry), 0º – 1.5º B; and Extra Seco (very dry), at 0º B. The colors are classified as Porto Tinto (Ruby), Porto Tinto Aloirado (Tawny), Porto Branco (White) from white grapes. Alcohol content is between 19 to 22%.

As our tour continued through the caves, we watched them in the process of mixing the wines. Hoses, run from the various vats in different parts of the caves, met in large blending tanks. Filters were in all the lines making sure the sediment was removed in the process. Wines ten to fifteen years old and sometimes older were being mixed with young wines. Some were dark red, some light, and some were the tawny wines. The end product was of uniform color, body and taste.

The end product was not just a haphazard conglomeration of wines. Every lot of wine is analyzed for alcohol, sugar, and acid levels. It is classified by color and last but most important it is tasted by the official company taster. A good taster is worth his weight in gold, even in these inflationary times [1981]. I made a visit to the Instituto do Vinho do Porto, the agency controlled by the government charged with maintaining the integrity of the Port Wine industry. I was told that all shippers had registered with the Institute samples of their blended wines. Filed with the samples were the results of the analyses. In order to get a shipping permit and a certificate of guarantee, any future shipment had to match the registered sample. Thus the blending process was necessary to obtain that uniformity.

Continuing with our tour, we saw endless rows of casks stacked three or four tiers high. Many had no year stenciled on the ends, others had the year and a few had the word “Vintage” preceding the year. Many casks had labels with the names of individuals, stores, companies, etc. These were wines that had already been bought in bulk and were being held by the Caves for as long as the buyer wished to leave them there. The Caves continued to control these purchased wines the same as their own retained products to insure continued proper development. The sale of these wines were a common practice to maintain a cash flow for the wine shippers and was a good deal for the buyers: the wine appreciated in value at the same time it matured in quality!

Our tour continued past the bottling machines through the shipping area and finally into the true wine cellar where the bottled wines were stored. These were mostly the Harvest wines and the infrequent Vintage wines. One portion of the cellar was separated from the rest by metal barriers with a large lock on the barred door. This was the repository for the “Garrafeira Particular”, the special reserves. Mostly vintage wines, many dating back into the 19th century, were stored in the bins. All were heavily encrusted with the accumulations of decades. Occasionally a bin of relatively clean bottles, with an old date, would be seen. We were told these were old wines recently tested, decanted, and rebottled. The wines in this area could only be removed with the permission of the president of the company. They were reserved for special occasions such as a dinner for a visiting head of state, or for purchase by some one with both the name and money! Needless to say this particular cellar was many times larger than our host’s with many more impressive vintages. But there was still a look of respect on the guide’s face when told that there were over 400 bottles of Vintage 1827 in our host’s cellar. This was more than they themselves had from that year!

That evening during and after dinner Jose attempted to answer the many questions left unanswered from our tour. Sipping an excellent Port from his cellar from the Sibio Farm’s harvest year of 1938 we were discussing how the quality of wine could be quarantined[sic]. How could the average buyer have some assurance that the wine he was purchasing was indeed a true Port Wine? Jose explained how the Portuguese government controlled the area from which port wine could be shipped.

In the late 1600’s British merchants started shipping quantities of wine which were found in the Douro River Valley. Soldiers, sailors, and other visitors returning from Portugal had brought the occasional bottle of wine back with them and its reputation for excellence spread rapidly. This lead to a demand for the product which the merchants were quick to capitalize on. The signing of the Methuen Treaty between Portugal and Great Britain in l703, granting preferential duties, led to increased shipments which in turn led to an increase in the area under cultivation. Ultimately, poor wines were shipped because there were not enough good to meet the demand. This practice began to hurt the trade. In 1756, the Marquis de Pombal created the Companhia Geral da Agricultura das Vinhas do Alto Douro, also known as The Royal Oporto Wine Company. In Portugal today it is known as “Companhia Velha” or “Old Company”. Its charter was to determine which areas were most suitable for the growing of grapes of the right quality. The correct combination of topography, soil, climate, and weather were necessary to produce a grape with the superb characteristics necessary for premium Port wine. The demarked area has been strictly controlled to this day, the boundaries varying as conditions changed. Controls were also imposed on the wine brandy used to stop fermentation. Wines had to be tested and approved for shipment and exports were rigidly controlled.

These types of controls would be enforced for a number of years and then relaxed or rescinded altogether as some political or economic condition dictated. The fortunes of port wine fluctuated accordingly. Then by 1868 the disease (2) “Phylloxera” had all but wiped out the vineyards. This led to the importation of inferior wines from other areas at low prices. The resulting port wine was quite inferior to the real product and the marketplace lost confidence. It wasn’t until 1907 that João Franco, the Portuguese Prime Minister at the time had the courage to impose two major controls: 1st, the prohibition of the blending of port with other wines foreign to the Douro Region; and 2nd, even in the Douro Region only wines of recognized quality should be allowed to be made into port. Thus once again the demarcation of the Douro Region was made (3) and in addition Porto was granted the sole privilege of shipping Port out of the country. Yet more control was considered necessary and in 1926 an “Entrepot” was created in Vila Nova de Gaia on the southern bank of the Douro across from Porto. This was for many years the only place that shippers were allowed to keep their stocks for shipment.

In 1932 the government imposed even stricter controls requiring all the wine grape growers in the Douro Region to join an entity called the “Casa do Douro”. This entity is strictly supervised by government personnel as is another entity for the shippers called “Gremio dos Exportadores de Vinho do Porto” or “Port Wine Shippers Guild”. The first of these entities ensures that only good quality “musts” and brandy are used in the making of the wine. The second imposes strict controls on the minimum stock of wine to be kept on hand for the blending and preparing of shipping lots, thus ensuring a minimum quality level even in case of a bad harvest.

They also established the previously mentioned Instituto do Vinho do Porto, or Port Wine Institute, responsible for the scientific study and control of all technologies in any way related to port wine production. These measures now enable the Portuguese government to ascertain and testify by means of a Certificate of Origin that all wine shipped from Porto is produced in the Douro Region, and is without doubt a genuine wine of guaranteed quality, the only wine with the right to the use of the name “Port”. By virtue of the Anglo—Portuguese treaties of 1914 and 1916 no other wine can legally be called “PORT” in Great Britain.

The evening was growing late and Jose had been doing a lot of talking. He had a pile of reference books and manuscripts in front of him to which he referred as he recited dates and names. The bottle of 1938 Port was nearly empty and I had one last question for him before we retired for the evening. “Jose’, what is the information on the label on the 1827 Port and where did that wine come from?” “We know it was produced,” he said, “during the first period of controls between 1756 and 1834. It was on that latter date, due to political reasons, controls were removed for a period of time. Lets get some sleep and start afresh tomorrow evening.”

The following day while Jose was at work I researched through the literature in his library and made my visit to the Instituto do Vinho do Porto to obtain a knowledge of the Douro Region, to better understand why such an outstanding wine, Port, could be produced only here. The Rio Douro runs almost due east from Porto across the breadth of Portugal into Spain where its headwaters are located. The entire area is quite mountainous (4), the valley walls being extremely steep. The present Douro Region begins some 75 kilometers from the ocean extending all the way to the Spanish border some 120 kilometers further east. It also extends up many of the tributaries of the Douro as far as 25 kilometers in some instances. The borders are very irregular and there are some areas which are entirely excluded.

Geologically the region consists of soil of cambric and pre-cambric schist, a metamorphic crystalline rock having a foliated structure which can easily be split into slabs or sheets. These layers of schist rest on masses of granite which occasionally stick up through the schist. The disintegration of the schistic shale results in a very flaky soil which combined with the excessively clayey soil provides an excellent growing medium for the vineyards. It contains about 12% potassium but lacks lime and nitrogen and is low in organic matter.

The climate in the region is generally hot and dry, with cold and rainy spells primarily in the winter. The average annual rainfall in the region is less than half of that in Porto itself, where it is about 50 inches per year. In the Douro Region, it ranges from about 35 inches at Regua near the western terminus to about 16 inches near the Spanish border. The Marao mountain range running N-S just east of Amarante is the dividing line between the two areas. The prevailing winds from the ocean lose the water in the mountains before it gets into the grape growing areas. The region is subject to violent thunderstorms during the spring, doing more harm than good. The violent winds channeled down the mountain valleys, accompanied by torrential local rains, wreak havoc with the terraces and the vines. Frosts are frequent in the months of December and January with an occasional snowfall. Below zero(centigrade) temperatures are common during these months whereas in July and August temperatures in the shade of 35—40 degrees C are common.

The Douro Region is divided into sub regions. The “Alto Corgo” and the “Baixo Corgo”, or upper and lower Corgos respectively, are differentiated on the basis of climate. The upper Corgo extends from where the Cargo river joins the Douro, eastward to the Spanish border. The lower Cargo extends from that junction to the western terminus of the region. The upper region is more mountainous and becomes more arid with less natural vegetation the further east you travel. In addition to the grape vines, a few olive, fig, and almond trees grow in the eastern portion. The steep terraced hill sides under the burning rays of the sun produce a superior grape though in limited quantities. A thousand vines will produce only one or two pipes of wine, on the average. As you approach the lower region, with the increasing amounts of rainfall(relatively), there are more villages and farms producing crops to support the populace, as well as more grapes per vine. A thousand vines will yield four or more pipes on the average, but of a lesser quality. With this knowledge of the region, I was now becoming impatient to find out where the Vintage 1827 Port was produced and looked forward to the after dinner discussion and the glass or two of Port to savor.

During the dinner we were all aware of the encrusted bottle sitting on the buffet for the first time, set apart from several other dinner and dessert wines. Jose gave no hint as to what his plans were and we ate dinner with a belied nonchalance that did little to hide our anticipation. As the dinner dishes were being cleared away, Jose went to the buffet and to our dismay picked up a bottle of non-vintage port and proceeded to serve it. He laughed at our dismay and said that the Vintage 1827 was not to be opened until the proper moment, at which time we would more thoroughly appreciate it. He said he had done some research on his own last evening after retiring and some more this evening before dinner. He felt a brief rundown on his family, showing how the Vintage had come into his family’s possession would be appreciated by everyone. We agreed that he was probably correct, so we settled back in our chairs to find out more details about this fascinating family.

It all started with a George Allen, of Irish descent, born in London on 3 Nov. 1698. He was married in London to Josepha Nevill, of English descent, but born in Vila Nova da Gaia, Portugal, 22 Sept.1714. They were married on 24 July 1728 when Josepha was 14 years of age. They must have moved to Portugal shortly thereafter because their first of twelve children was born on 14 Sept 1730, in Gaia. Among other occupations he was the British Commissioner for supplying the British Navy garrisoned in Portugal. He was also a wholesaler of Port Wine. He retired in 1754 and died in 1772.

The fifth son, Edward William Allen, born in Gaia on 8 April, 1738, was married in Lisbon in 1767 to Joana Josepha Dorotea Felicedade Nazza, of Italian origin. He became the Consul of the British King sometime before 1772 in Viana do Castelo, an important port at that time in northern Portugal, near Spain. He eventually became Consul in Madeira Island where he established a permanent home by 1797. In the capital city of Funchal he had a palace which the British requisitioned as their headquarters during the Napoleonic wars. After being widowed, he married a second time to Violante Maria de Sousa. In 1818 he came to Lisbon where he died in 1819 at age 81.

João Francisco, the 11th of twelve children by the first marriage, was born in Viana do Castelo in 1781. In 1793 he was sent to Georgetown College near Washington, D.C. to receive an education. According to records in the University he entered 12 Oct 1795 and left 28 Feb 1799. Their records show that in addition to the regular curriculum, he took special courses in fencing, drawing, and music. He subsequently traveled in the United States, returning to Portugal about 1801. In mid 1808, during the first invasion of Portugal by Napoleon’s armies, João was involved in one of the campaign’s most important battles as a commandant of a battalion and as liaison officer with the British. During the second invasion in 1809 he received Portugal’s highest military decoration for organizing a volunteer battalion at his own expense and repelling French reinforcements trying to get through the mountain passes to the east of Porto to relieve the French garrison in Porto, which was eventually destroyed. In 1810 he went to London taking care of business which mainly consisted of exporting wines. He was also at that time still commissioned to support the British Navy in Portugal. He returned to Portugal in 1814. There he became partners in several wine exporting firms. In l823 he was married in Porto to Leonor Carolina Armsinck (Dutch), daughter of the Swedish Consul in Porto. The “Godparents” for the wedding were Antonio Inacio Van Zeller and his wife.

João was a collector of art objects and started and maintained an Art Museum which he eventually turned over to the city of Porto. He bought land for a villa in l839 and started construction immediately. The present Villar d’Allen has changed little from those days except for the maturity of the trees and shrubs, the addition of electricity and modern plumbing, and a tall Ham radio antenna!

While on a long tour of Europe to collect art objects, he gave a power of attorney to a nephew, who promptly swindled him of the majority of his assets. The nephew and his family booked passage on a sailboat for America, which foundered about a mile off the mouth of the Rio Douro. The nephew, his family and whatever wealth he had with him were lost. João never fully recovered from this financial disaster and he died in 1848.

Alfredo Allen, João’s second son, born 29 Jan 1828, was educated in France where he became an expert in the analysis of wines (enology).As mentioned earlier, he was the founder of the Real Companhia Vinicola do Norte de Portugal, which is still in existence although no longer in the Allen family. He married Maria Jose de Pinho e Sousa Valente in 1851. Her father, Jose Marie Rebello Valente owned the Quinta do Noval near Pinhão in the upper Douro River Valley. On 5 Feb 1868, Alfredo and his father-in-law entered into an agreement in which Alfredo was given management of their properties and warehouses in the Douro Valley. Valente died on 1 March, 1870.

To preclude the necessity of breaking up the Quinta do Noval at the time of Valente’s death to distribute the inheritance, Alfredo and his wife agreed to pay cash to the other members of the family. Unbeknownst to them at the time, the scourge of the vineyards, the Phylloxera, was rampant throughout the farm resulting in the loss of crops for a number of years until California(5) rootstock were found to be immune and all new plantings could be introduced. Unfortunately this was too late, as a series of other circumstances compounded the financial problems. Another company they also inherited, located in London, went bankrupt at the time of inheritance, and they had to pay off large debts. In trying to arrange financing to bridge them over these rough times, Alfredo ran into obstacles set up by his competitors. They apparently saw an opportunity to eliminate strong competition and at the same time extract a measure of revenge against the man who strongly supported the policy of preventing inferior wines being shipped out of the region. As was mentioned earlier, much inferior wine was imported into the region to make up the losses due to the scourge. Alfredo, even in spite of his losses refused to support the practice and actually fought against it to the financial detriment of himself and the other shippers.

The following paragraph, translated into English from an old document in Jose’s library tells the story very graphically. “The nephews went on with their pressures. On the other side, the Nova Comp. Publica (bankers) where we had been able to get an open credit by assigning some wine reserves as collateral, so that we could facilitate the Robertson transaction(British bankruptcy action), also came to us with pressures, giving me an ultimatum to pay the loans by the 31st of December, that is, giving me no more than 30 days. This was a kind of trap, very cleverly prepared by Jose Antonio, at that time an influential member of the bank’s board of directors, so that they could pilfer our best old wine reserve which was the great lot of 1827. (underlining is mine). And in fact they did it, because the pressure of the administration was such that we did not resist them, selling those wines to guarantee the payment,” The underlined phrase in Portuguese read,”..que ra a lote grande de 1827.”

Alfredo subsequently went on to say that they auctioned off most of the “great lot of 1827” in London, receiving for it considerably more than he was offered in Porto. Even so he was only able to reduce his debt from 120 million Reis to 39 million Reis. The Real(singular for Reis) at that time was a gold coin about the size of our present quarter. Eventually because of these financial problems, Alfredo had to sell the Quinta do Noval. Antonio Jose da Silva bought the farm in 1894. The present owners, Fernando Van Zeller and his wife Ana Maria Magalhaes are the descendants of Silva and the Van Zellers who were Godparents at João’s wedding back in l823!

Jose put away his notes and references and walked over to the buffet where we watched him carefully wipe the grime off the label of the Vintage 1827. There in barely legible printing were the words “Quinto do Noval” ( Alto Douro ) Rebello Valente Allen Porto 1827. Since the labels dated from about 1884, the wine had either been labeled for the first time around 1884 or had been decanted, tasted, and rebottled and labeled about 1884. This was part of the “..lote grande de 1827”.

I asked Jose what the farm was like now. He said that although he had seen it from a distance, he had never visited it. He felt that it would be appropriate to visit the farm and find out first hand what we wanted to know. Thus we planned for the coming weekend a drive into the upper Douro Valley to the vicinity of Pinhão to visit the Quinta do Noval.

We left the Villar d’Allen on a rainy Friday morning, heading up the Douro Valley. We didn’t pick up the Douro River until we came to Mesao Frio, having cut across the Marao mountain range in the vicinity of Amarante. We stopped in Regua for lunch. Regua is an important center of wine commerce on the western edge of the Douro Region. Situated about 25 kilometers up river from the western edge of the demarked area it had been for many years the center of the headquarters of the buyers and shippers of the young wine from the quintas. Many old families still have their villas in that area.

The terraced mountain sides were lush with vineyards, and orchards of olives, figs and almonds. Everywhere could be seen large chestnut trees burdened with a bountiful crop of nuts. The roads were narrow and tortuously steep and winding. Many market stands were seen along the road loaded with produce for sale. Large bunches of grapes, blue, white, red, were economically priced. Figs and melons, tomatoes and squash, potatoes and onions, were being sold by the local farmers. Jose said that the summer had been exceptionally dry with many forest fires in the mountains. It would have been difficult to come to that conclusion from just observing the bountiful harvest spread in front of us where ever we looked. However this was later confirmed in talking with some of the local farmers.

We stopped in the town of Pinhão and made room reservations for the night in a new, modern hotel (6). We then proceeded up the Pinhão River valley, a tributary of the Douro, asking directions to the Quinta do Noval. The rain temporarily stopped but a heavy overcast continued. Through this overcast in the distance we could see the stark white buildings of the Quinta do Noval, high up on a hillside surrounded by terraced vineyards. The winding roads took us another 20 minutes to navigate before reaching the long trellised drive to the farm. The view as we pulled into the courtyard left us breathless. We could see miles up the river valley, with the hillsides covered with vineyards, the upper levels planted mainly in orchards of olives, figs, and almonds. The trellises over the long approach drive were loaded with large bunches of grapes. The red tile roofs and the dark green evergreen trees and shrubs were a vivid contrast to the white walls of the buildings.

There was very little activity around the farm but Jose was taken to see the owner by one of the hired hands. Jose introduced himself and the owner, Fernando, greeted him warmly saying be had known Jose’s father well. We were taken on a tour of the farm and saw workers cleaning the sheds and buildings and the large stone tanks called “lagares” into which the grapes are dumped when brought in from the fields. Fernando said his vintage wouldn’t start for another two weeks. The harvesting and processing of the grapes is referred to as the “vintage”. Hence the use of’ the term “vintage” when describing a superior wine, that is to say, “it is from the vintage or harvest of’ XXXX”.

We were invited into their sitting room where we met our hostess, Ana Maria. We were served an excellent Port along with freshly roasted almonds just recently harvested from their orchards. During the ensuing conversation we explained the motivation for our visit, the 1827 Port in Jose’s cellar. Our host exclaimed he would like very much to buy a few bottles of the Vintage 1827 since he had none in his cellar. Jose assured Fernando that this could be arranged. As we took our leave of our gracious host and hostess, Fernando invited us to return and see the vintage. Driving down the long trellised drive with hanging clumps of grapes begging to be picked, I experienced a feeling of elation. Our detective work was about complete!

The next morning after spending the night in Pinhao, we started to drive back to Porto. One stretch of road which took two hours to traverse had hairpin turns at the rate of 10 per kilometer! In contemplating our visit, I felt something would be missing if we didn’t see an actual vintage in process. I was already making mental plans for such a visit.

Such a visit was made two weeks later. Senhor again was a gracious host with his daughter Ana serving as hostess this time. We visited the terraced vineyards and watched the women clipping the bunches of grapes from the vines and periodically emptying their picking baskets into large tall baskets that hold about 150 lbs. While the women were busy with the picking, the men were lounging around, drinking wine, eating grapes, and playing musical instruments. As each terrace was picked clean by the women, the men would get busy. They would hoist the large baskets onto their backs, and with head straps for support, begin the climb up the steps through the terraces to the drive, where they would dump the grapes into large barrels on the trucks or wagons. The women would then gather up the empty baskets and move to the next terrace.

The mood was very festive with much singing and socializing. This mood continued on into the evenings, with much singing and dancing with music in and around the large dormitories maintained for the seasonal workers or “rogas” as they were called.

We hopped on one of the trucks containing two barrels of grapes and rode it back to the “adegas”, the wine buildings. There a large long tube-like instrument (provadeira) was jammed into the grapes in the barrel and worked back and forth crushing some of the grapes. When pulled out it contained a sample of the juice which was tested for specific gravity. This year the sugar content was low as a result of the late rains just before the harvest. Fernando expected a mediocre vintage this year.

The grapes were dumped from the barrels into a lagar from where they were forked into the crusher. The old method of crushing grapes by stomping in bare feet is no longer used in large operations (7)! From the crusher the grapes were pumped into large lagares on the upper floor. Climbing the stairs to the room with the lagares, we saw three that were full and fermenting and one being filled. Men standing on planks across the lagares regularly stirred the mixture with large wooden paddles called “macacos”, forcing the heavy layer of skins and stems on the surface to mix with the liquid below to extract more color.

While we watched, one of the lagares was started draining into a tonel, a large vat located in the room on the first floor. Wine brandy was being added at the same time. The fumes from the brandy and wine were so strong in these rooms that smoking was not allowed! The residue of skins and stems were filtered out and fed to the hogs. The young wine is then stored in the tonel until ready for shipment to Vila Nova de Gaia for final processing.

Later in the afternoon while sipping some port in the sitting room with Fernando and Ana we discussed the varieties of grapes grown and the problems encountered due to disease and insects. Of the many different varieties in the vineyards, the four principle ones were: Touriga Francesa, Tinta da Barroca, Tinta Matilda (8), and Tinta Roriz. These were selected on the basis of color, sugar content, production, and alcohol potential.

The major problems encountered are powdery mildew (Plasmopara Personospora viticola), and Oidium (Uncinula necator, Oidium tuckeri) which attack the veins and leaves and the young grapes respectively. The basic treatment is to dust or spray with copper sulphate (Bordeaux Mixture) for mildew and powder sulphur for the Oidium. Because of the dry season most of this year, little spraying was necessary. Insects in general have not been a problem.

After dinner at the Villar d’Allen, the evening after our first visit to the Quinta do Noval, Jose carefully wiped all the grime off the bottle of Vintage 1827. While he carefully inserted the corkscrew, he explained that most often corks of that age broke apart when being withdrawn. This one was no exception. He extracted what he could and then pushed the remainder into the bottle. He then proceeded to decant the port through a filter. The color was a rusty tawny, the aroma not as full as some of the younger ports we had tasted earlier. It had good body and fingered well. When everybody had their glasses, we proceeded to taste a port wine that few people nowadays have an opportunity to experience.

It had a fine flavor and was medium dry to the palate. Earlier at the Instituto do Vinho, Engineer Marques Gomes had discussed the evolution of port wine to what it is today. Until the 2nd or 3rd decades of the 19th century, port was more often dry rather than sweet and thus many of the older Vintage Ports will be found to

be on the dry side, such as this Vintage 1827. None of us were disappointed. The experience was complete: the wine, its history, the Allen family, the Villar d’Allen, the Quinta do Noval, the Douro Region, Vila Nova de Gala and its Caves. What more could one ask? I am sure even the most discriminating connoisseur would be thrilled to savor such a wine and the history behind it.

Wouldn’t you?

Raymond R. Rath
© 1981 by R.R.Rath

(1) Mead is a fermented honey beverage

(2) Phylloxera is a sap sucking insect, related to aphids.

(3) The demarcation of the Port wine region never ended, it was just expanded beyond reason, and in 1907 João Franco tightend it up again. src.

(4) The Portuguese part of the Douro is very steep though as one heads into Spain it begins to flatten out. The headwaters are located in Soria, and the river goes by the name “Ribera del Duero”.

(5) American rootstock of the variety Vitis aestivalis or other American native species were used, and not just California rootstocks.

(6) I believe this is “The Vintage House”

(7) Foot treading is still quite common, though usually only for reserve and vintage wines.

(8) I can find no reference to this grape, and think it might be a typo for : Tinto Amarela. The main Port wine varieties are: Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cão and Tinta Amarela.

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Since 2005, Catavino has been exploring the Iberian Peninsula
looking for the very best food and wine experiences.

Since 2005, Catavino has been exploring the Iberian Peninsula looking for the very best food and wine experiences.

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