September 2009

A new product from Gloria Ferrer is the stylish Va de Vi Ultra Cuvée, a non-vintage sparkling wine that carries a Sonoma County designation. The wine is composed of 89 percent pinot noir grapes, 8 percent chardonnay and 3 percent muscat. The preponderance of pinot noir grapes could qualify this as a blanc de noirs (“white from black”), but the label does not assert that category. Still, this is a shivery, icy blond color through which explodes a froth of tiny platinum bubbles. Resting 18 months on the lees contributes a nutty, toasty quality to the scents and flavors of this sparkler, which actually possesses nothing of the glacial beyond its hue. This is warm and seductive, notably crisp and yet with a round and creamy texture that cushions notes of lemon and quince, ginger and cloves and hints of almond and vanilla. The material that accompanied Va de Vi to my door says that it is crafted for “the modern palate,” which, I suppose, accounts for a touch of sweetness in the beginning — though the finish is dry and minerally — and for a trace of muscat-like floridness. Altogether, a charming, forward, dare I say flirtatious sparkling wine suitable as an aperitif with light appetizers. Very Good+. About $22.

Here’s the text on the back label of the Lost Angel Petite Sirah 2006, Central Coast, “cellared and bottled” by Sapphire Brands in Paso Robles:

Legend has it, an angel came down from the sky to explore the garden of earthly delights and lost her way. Tired of searching, she created her own paradise in the region now known as Paso Robles. So happy with her utopia on earth, a tear of joy fell from her eyes and landed in the rich fertile soil. From that tear a vine grew reaching for the stars, trying to show the angel her way home.

Well, legend has it that astronauts did not walk on the moon, that Barack Obama is an illegal alien and that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an operative for the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. I mean, really, don’t insult my intelligence with this crap. This isn’t “marketing”; it’s complete sentimental inanity. Please tell me, My Readers, that you would not read this hoo-hah on a back label and think, “Awww, how sweet, I think I’ll buy this wine,” which by the way, is about as generic as red wine gets and is no bargain at about $13, the price I paid.

Lost Angel is a label from EOS Estate Winery, which should know better.

The word Douro conjures one color: Red. As in Port. As in the table wines that Port companies and quintas have been producing for the past 10 or 15 years.

Yet in tasting the wines of the Douro Boys, I found the few whites wines that they make thrilling for their freshness and vibrancy, their spicy piquancy and beguiling floral character and frequently scintillating minerality. The grapes are little-known outside of the Douro Valley, and if you’re one of those steely-eyed devotees of the vine determined to make your entrance to The Century Club — you must have tasted wines from 100 different grapes — you’ll be gratified to know these the Douro whites are produced from such varieties as rabigato, codega, donzelinho, viosinho, arinto, gouveio and cercial. In other words, we don’t need no stinkin’ chardonnay and sauvignon blanc!

Unfortunately, these Douro whites are little found in the U.S., and I write about them today to provide a fuller picture of what’s happening in the Douro at present and perhaps to encourage enough interest that importers already bringing in the red wines and Ports of the Douro will latch onto the whites. (“White” in Portugeuse, by the way, is “branco.”) The one Douro white of this group that I know for certain is imported is the Quinta do Crasto Branco, by Broadbent Selections.

A number of these brancos were encountered at a tasting event for about 100 Portuguese winery people and wine sellers held in the new ultra-modern winery at Quinta do Vallado. This “Masterclass Tasting 2009” went through all the 2007 red wines, including Ports, and the 2008 whites being released by the Douro Boys estates. Some of the wines I tried not only at this mammoth tasting but at the wineries too; I’ll include an amalgam of impressions in these brief notes.

>I tried the VZ Douro Branco 2008 at lunch at Quinta Vale D. Maria and later that afternoon at the “Masterclass Tasting.” At the second encounter, I wrote, “I could drink this forever.” Well, chalk that passionate response up to enthusiasm, but, still, it’s a reflection of how utterly engaging this wine is, with its beguiling touches of lime peel, tangerine and spiced lemon, its penetrating minerality, its zinging acidity and stony austere finish. The grapes are viosinho, rabigato and gouveio. VZ stands for van Zeller, as in Christiano van Zeller, of Quinta Vale D. Maria.

>The fresh and appealing Quinto do Crasto Branco 2008, which I also tried several times on this trip, offers lime and pink grapefruit flavors set into a package of tingling limestone and mouth-puckering acidity.

>Niepoort produces an intriguing range of white wines. The Tiara 2008 is earthy and minerally, with lime, grapefruit and roasted lemon scents and flavors display equal amounts of ripeness and funkiness wrapped around each other; a profound mineral elements, like wet gravel and dusty, damp roof tiles, exerts a broad influence, while after a few moments in the glass touches of celery, dried thyme and tarragon emerge. Loads of personality.
Niepoort’s Redoma Branco 2008 is made primarily from rabigato grapes with some codega and small amounts of other grapes; these are mainly 60-year-old vines, with three small parcels more than 100 years old. The wine is insanely floral and amazingly minerally, with the kind of substance, heft and depth one expects from old vine grapes, and with an authority of dry austerity, yet there’s a winsome attractiveness here too. A rather astonishing performance.
Finally, the Redoma Reserva Branco 2008 is even deeper, broader in scale, more demanding than its non-reserve cousin, with not only impressive but imposing minerality. It’s a white wine that deserves, nay, demands three to fives years’ aging.

>Quinta do Vallado also presented three branco wines.
The basic level Vallado Branco 2008 is made from rabigato, viosinho, arinto and verdelho grapes. The wine is aged 90 percent in stainless steel for five months, the remainder in new French oak barriques. The bouquet is a cornucopia of fresh and dried flowers with a cocktail of yellow fruit and berries; the wine is dry, crisp and spicy and delivers lovely body and substance. An irresistible aperitif.
Made completely in stainless steel, the Quinta do Vallado Moscatel Galego 2008 offers lime, nectarine and peach scents and flavors woven with honeysuckle, jasmine and crushed gravel for the mineral element. A hint of mint and white pepper on the finish alleviates a touch of bracing bitterness. Just lovely. (275 cases)
Finally, the Quinta do Vallado Reserva 2008 is fermented in French oak and aged in barriques for 10 months. Not surprisingly, the regimen lends considerable body and depth of spice to the wine, yet does not interfere with its enticing touches of dusty lime, almond blossom and roasted almond, vibrant acidity and resonant limestone-damp slate qualities. As the song says, “Lovely to look at, delightful to hold and heaven to kiss.” Well, you get the idea. (375 cases)
At a long late leisurely dinner at Niepoort’s Quinta do Napoles facility, a sleek modern building that blends into its hillside, we drank magnums of Tiara 2008 with a variety of courses, including what I thought was not only the best dish I had in the Douro but one of the greatest dishes I have eaten in my life. No kidding! This was no nuanced feat of fine cuisine, but a peasant dish of cod tripe with white beans, a variation of the tripe with white beans that’s a specialty of the city of Oporto. Tripa de bacalao is actually the cod’s swimming bladder or maw; yes, it’s a tad rubbery and chewy, but marinated and simmered in a stew it comes out deeply flavorful, almost plush. The dish is question consisted of slices of the cod “tripe” with tender white beans and a small portion of a mild, very finely-chopped sort of sauerkraut. The rich broth that enveloped these ingredients was enlivened with minced carrots, red peppers and parsley; something, perhaps the red peppers, lent spicy heat to the dish. Long after my compatriots had moved onto the next course and the next wines, I refused to let my plate be taken; no, I sat there with a piece of crusty bread, soaking up all the juice that I could, sipping from my glass of crisp, refreshing Tiara 2008 that was the perfect accompaniment.
The next night, that would be a week ago today — and isn’t it a wonder how quickly foreign travel recedes into the past? — our group, along with some of the Douro Boys and winemakers and their families, had dinner at the old Niepoort lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Oporto, not far from where the Douro debouches into the Atlantic. It used to be the case that shippers of Port were required to age the wine in casks in their lodges (large warehouses) in Vila Nova de Gaia rather than upriver at the quintas. Anyway, on the one essential occasion when I should have had my camera, Mr. Professional Journalist left it in his hotel room, thinking, “Gee, I’ve been carrying that camera for days. Maybe tonight I can relax.” The 150-year-old lodge, however, dim and dusty and cobweb-festooned, its vaulted ceilings blanketed with the mold of the ages, was a tremendously evocative and picturesque scene. Dinner was not memorable, but the wines were astounding, as Dirk Niepoort, a towering combination of generosity and chutzpah, opened bottle after bottle of rarities, ending with a pair of the company’s Ports from 1966.

But what I want to mention in particular is a couple of white wines, since that is that topic of today’s post. Dirk began by opening a magnum of a white wine from 1996, I’m not sure if it was Tiara or Redoma Branco, but the point is that this 13-year-old white wine — not chardonnay! not sauvignon blanc and semillon! — was remarkably fresh and clean and appealing, with pear and roasted lemon scents and flavors, bright acidity, a keen edge of damp slate; traces of honeyed orange rind and melon came into play, along with hints of almond and almond blossom over a reservoir of deeply spicy citrus. Amazing.

Before moving to the Ports, Dirk Niepoort said, “Do you want to try the first wine I ever made?” Dumbfounded, we all went, “Well, like, duh, yeah.” This turned out to be a dessert wine from 1987. One of my fellow wine writers, Sarah Ahmed from London, took a few sniffs and sips, made a note or two, and said, “Loureiro grapes?” Dirk replied, “Yes, mostly,” and I thought, “Holy shit, she is good!” Loureiro contributes the fresh, drinkable, brisk immediacy of Vinho Verde, but this 22-year-old sweet wine indicated that under some circumstances the grape definitely has a higher calling. First it was delicate, finely-knit, a delightful combination of mildly sweet pear and roasted lemon permeated by orange zest and cloves. While retaining that breezy freshness and cleanness and its flashing blade of acidity, the wine deepened in the glass, calling up toasted almonds, quince, a hint of green plum. The finish turned dry, a little smoky, yet still amazingly clean and vibrant. Lord have mercy!

It was one of those nights when you get back to the hotel at midnight, happy and sated, put in a wake-up call for 5 because a car is coming for you at 6:15, and then pack the bags.

… to be here tonight speaking about our elevation to DOCG status, the highest honor that can be bestowed on an Italian wine. Yes, thank you, thank you, give it up for the little guy! Ha, ha! O.K., whew, thanks! I mean it! You’re great! You’re wonderful! Ha, ha! Yeah!

O.K., so, what does this all mean?

Take a look at the chart projected behind me. Uh, Guido, the chart? O.K., Italian technology, it’s the best, right? I mean, the trains run on time.

Anyway, you see there, straight north of Venice is Conegliano and straight west of that town is Valdobbiadene and in the region, Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, is the best Prosecco produced. And we’re so pleased, so pleased, you cannot imagine, to have the coveted Denominazione di origine controllata e garantita bestowed upon this region of beautiful and historic authenticity. We worked, we waited, we prayed, we petitioned Luca Zaia, the Minister of Agriculture, a native son of Veneto, and now it is here. With this elevation from plain D.O.C status to D.O.C.G, we join the sacred ranks of only 45 other wines in Italy, including such notable wines as Chianti, Gavi, Bardolino Superiore and Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Yes, we have arrived and we’re here to stay!

And in order to combat the shameless pirating of the Prosecco name, to thwart the assault on our authenticity, the government has generously bestowed a Prosecco D.O.C on eight provinces, all the way to Trieste, where nobody is actually making Prosecco, but who knows, they might want to some day! I mean, we’re owed! In Champagne, they’re adding 2,500 acres to the official vineyard sites, so why shouldn’t we add most of northeastern Italy. My grandmother has always wanted to grow Prosecco grapes and now she has her chance, and what’s good for Grandmama, well, it’s good for Italy!

Anyway, you’re a great crowd, I love you, really. Enjoy the Prosecco the waiters are passing out to your tables now, and remember, as our greatest poet, the venerable Dante wrote:

If you’re just passing time,
Prosecco is your wine.

Thank you, thank you, and God bless!

Last Friday morning, our small group rode in the back of an open truck, driven by winery co-manager Francisco “Chico” Ferreira, up and up and up, through switch-back turns so extreme that the truck had to pass the turn, back around to the edge of the terrifying overhand — this is scary! — and then steer back into the angle, to the top of the vineyards of Quinta do Vallado, where the tinta roriz vines (the Spanish tempranillo) are 90 years old; a few vines of white grapes are scattered through the rows. At this altitude, about 400 meters (1,312 feet), the roots of the vines burrow 25 to 30 feet deep seeking water. The stalks are twisted and gnarly, like caricatures of grapevines, and hardly seem as if they could support life, not to mention grapes of extremely high intensity and character. The view from this height is spectacular, as I mention with each post about the Douro region, but the sublime landscape is inescapable.

After a bone-crunching ride back to the winery — Quinta do Vallado, by the way, was the home of Dona Antonia Ferreira (1811-1896), the godmother of the Douro — we assemble with Chico in the tasting room, attended by a young woman wearing a white laboratory coat, to try Quinta do Vallado Reserva 2000, 2003, ’04, ’05, ’06 and ’07. I’ll get to that portion of the tasting later in this post, but first I want to describe the event that will compel me to add the term Wine Consultant to my business card.

Chico set up a blind tasting of five cask samples of wine from the 2008 vintage: 1. Touriga nacional from nine-year-old vineyards; 2. touriga nacional from 20 year-old vineyards; 3. sousão grapes; 4. a blend of red wines from old vineyards; 5. another blend of red wines from a different old vineyard. Chico gave us three hints: The touriga nacional should be elegant with touches of violets; the sousão should have an intense color and fresh acidity; the old vine samples should show lots of complexity and structure.

So, we spent several minutes swirling, sniffing and sipping the wines, taking notes and so forth, and when Chico revealed which wines were which, I had only gotten two right. Hey, give me some cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir! I’ll show you how to taste blind!

Then, Chico said that we would assemble a theoretical blend for the Reserva 2008 from four of the wines left in our glasses, omitting the young touriga nacional, and he would judge which was best. Ah, now the competition heated up. I mean, here were six experienced wine tasters and writers vying to assemble a potentially great wine, each thinking that he or she, of course, knew more than any of the others about the balance of elegance and power. Like scientists, we used the graduated beaker to measure the proportions of the four samples, trying for the ideal of a young reserve wine.

My formula turned out to be 50 percent of the touriga nacional from 20-year-old vines; 10 percent sousão; and 20 percent each of the wines from the two old vineyards.

Chico went around the table, peering intently at each glass of the finished blend, swirling, sniffing, sipping. He performed this process twice, and then he stopped by my chair and again picked up the glass holding my creation. “This it is,” he said. “Fredric got the right aromas, the right intensity and flavor. He wins the prize.” And there actually was a prize, a magnum of Quinta do Vallado Reserva 2006 in a wooden box, which I brought back to the U.S., through three flights, wrapped in two plastic bags and then rolled up in two shirts, in my checked luggage. Sadly, I abandoned the wooden box — sorry, Chico! — as too big, heavy and awkward.

I wasn’t the only winner. Rebecca Leung, a writer from Hong Kong (Wine Is Beautiful, but she writes in Chinese), also won a magnum of Quinta do Vallado Reserva 2006 for guessing — or, I should say, professionally ascertaining with cool acumen — the correct components in the first blind tasting of cask samples.

Of the Quinto do Vallado Reserva wines that we tasted from 2000 and 2003 through 2007, Chico said, “These are made in my style of wine, tannic, with lots of structure.” He wasn’t wrong, yet the wines exhibited, in addition to bastions and buttresses of tannin and oak and minerals, lovely touches of fruit and flowers and herbs that wheedle their way into your heart. Well, some of them, anyway. The wines usually age 18 months in 70 percent new French barriques, 30 percent one-year old barrels. Occasionally one wants to ask: Is it only small French oak barrels that can make great wine? Are there not alternatives? Think of the glorious authenticity of Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino before the winemakers turned slavishly to the barrique. Oh, well, never mind.

Here are brief notes:

>2000. Dried spice and flowers, v. dark purple, deep solid structure, muscular, a little angular; intense, concentrated, shimmering black fruit flavors. Needs a steak. Drink through 2014 or ’15. Very Good+

>2003. Immensely aromatic, cedar, tobacco, black olive, granite and slate; blazing acidity for vibrancy and resonance; picks up fleshier fruit and exotic spice; dusty tannins lead to an austere finish. bring out another steak. Drink through 2014 or ’15. Excellent.

I am no great fan of the products of Folonari, a company that annually pumps out thousands of bottles of wine that rarely rise above the level of decent — not that decent is bad — so you could have knocked me over with a plastic pipette when I tried the Folonari Pinot Grigio delle Venezie 2008 and found it to be not only more than decent but downright delightful.

Made completely in stainless steel and distinctly a wine of the moment — I mean, drink it before next spring — the Folonari Pinot Grigio 2008 is a pale straw color with faint green highlights. The bouquet is quite grassy and meadowy, not a meadow of flowers but of a multitude of grasses and herbs, and then with an intriguing bottom note that’s damp, foresty and piney. A wafting of citrus turns out to be more like lemon-grass than lemon; in fact, the effect is of that startling earthy grassiness that we used to get when we were kids chewing on grass blades, the ones that made a little whistle or squeak when we pulled them from the earth. Ah, those days of innocence! In other words, this wine is all about freshness and immediate appeal and vibrant acidity, and when I say that it goes down easily, I don’t mean that (in this case) as a criticism. Drink and enjoy, as an aperitif or with light appetizers and seafood dishes. Very Good. About $8.50.

Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York

(This is the 500th post to BTYH since December 2006.)

The train ride from Pêso da Régua to Pocinho takes about an hour and a half. It’s a wildly picturesque route, with the tracks laid just at the edge of the Douro River and at the base of steep hillsides where terraced vineyards that seem impossible to cultivate alternate with massive granite outcroppings. Whoever conceived that grapes could be grown here? Yet the Douro is the earliest delimited wine region in Europe, its system of control and classification codified in 1756.

Pêso da Régua is the central town of Baixo Corgo, the lower part of the Douro growing region. The train lumbers east through Cima Corgo, the middle region, to Douro Superior, the driest, hottest and most sparsely populated area of the Douro. Rainfall is about 19.7 inches annually in Douro Superior, compared to 35.4 inches downriver in Baixo Corgo; the average annual temperature is 70 (degrees fahrenheit) compared to 64 further west.

Pocinho, about 20 kilometers from the Spanish border, is the end of the rail line. It’s about 10:40 a.m. when we jump off the steps of the railroad car, but the station clock unchangingly asserts that the time is 4:25. The heat is lavish, penetrating. The village is dusty, shuttered, ramshackle, like a set for the kind of Western movie that ends with everyone being sadder but no one being wiser.

High above, in the scrub-covered hills, however, lies an oasis, the Quinta do Vale Meão, founded in 1877 by Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira, who, in the period of her greatest power, owned 30 properties in the Douro, making her the most important proprietor in the region. When Dona Antonia bought the property, the local saying was that she would better have bought land in Angola, because that African country was more accessible than Pocinho. “But then the railroad was built through, as she knew it would be,” says Quinta do Vale Meão’s present owner, Francisco Javier de Olazabal, the great-great-grandson of Dona Antonia. “That cut the travel from Porto to Pocinho from 12 days to five hours. Now it takes only four hours by train, so, you see, we improve by one hour each century.”

Francisco Javier de Olazabal is known as Vito, to distinguish him from his son, Francisco, the winemaker at Meão, who is called Xito; Xito’s cousin, Francisco Ferreira, also a descendant of Dona Antonia and the winemaker at Quinta do Vallado, is known as Chico. The close relationship between Vito, Xito and Chico merely touches the surface of the root structure of relatedness by family, marriage and quinta ownership that permeates the Douro and goes back generations. It is not uncommon in the Douro to be talking to a gentleman who happens to own this quinta and that quinta and used to own this other quinta — meaning an estate — but he sold it to his cousin, and then to talk to this gentleman’s wife and discover that she and her family own another quinta. A chart of the history of the families and quintas of the Douro would resembles a game of Chutes and Ladders.

Quinta do Vallado and Quinta do Vale Meão, along with Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Vale D. Maria and Niepoort Vinhos, form the group rather exuberantly named Douro Boys, dedicated to advancing the quality and the image of the region, not only through port but through the increasingly important table wine segment, which, for these estates, dominates their production.

A bone-crunching ride in a battered pick-up truck takes us to a high point on the Vale Meão estate, 350 meters about the river, from which the view is stupendous. The hills recede from the Douro in its upper reaches (in Portugal) and the landscape broadens. “There are over 130 grape varieties in the Douro,” Vito tells us, “so there is always the potential for finding new things in what is already here. There is need to put much investigation into these grapes.” In other words, we don’t need cabernet and merlot, though, oddly, that night we taste fermenting pinot noir from the tank at Niepoort. The vineyards here, stretching down and around the hillsides, are planted to touriga nacional (50%), tinta roriz, known as tempranillo in Spain (30%), touriga francesa (15%), tinta amarela (5%), tinta barraca (5%) and tinta cao (5%). The vineyards are not planted as field blends, as used to be common in the Douro. “Everything is block planted,” says Vito, “because grapes are different and have different needs and act differently.” Eighty-one hectares, about 208 acres, are under vine at Meão, with 65 hectares in full production.

A few parcels are being picked in the noonday sun. Workers go through the rows, bending to their task, clippers in one hand, finding the cluster of grapes with the other and needing a third hand to push away the leaves and other stalks. They carry a pail for the bunches, and when the pail is filled, it is emptied into a plastic bin. Other workers collect the bins and load them onto the truck for transport to the winery and the sorting table. Pickers are paid 33 euros (about $52) for an eight-hour day, that is, two four-hour segments, beginning at 8 a.m., with a lunch break. The producer pays for the workers’ social security and insurance. Some work full-time at the estate, but most are seasonal workers who move from one region to another through a contractor.

For many years, Vito was president of the family company, Ferreira, but he resigned in 1998 to restore Quinta do Vale Meão. That task included a careful restoration of the 140-year-old winery, with its walls of double granite and its beautiful roof and ceiling of fine old chestnut beams. Though the winery is filled with modern steel tanks and a new office and laboratory, it retains the original rugged concrete legares, though somewhat smaller, and a sense of history compounded of the smell of oak and fermenting grapes and the record of a century and a half of vintages.

In the winery’s tasting room, we go through nine vintages of Quinta do Vale Meão Douro Red, 1999 to 2007. Here are brief notes on each wine:

>1999. “An experiment” — only 10 percent of the winery’s production in its first year — that turned out beautifully. Radiant, spicy, beguiling at first, then dense and chewy, a marriage of power and elegance; vibrant and resonant; black currant, plum and lilac, elements of moss and minerals slowly build, feels deeply attached to the earth; an ache of tannin at the back of the throat. Could age another five to seven years. Exceptional.

I want to show readers something that most people who casually drink wine or love wine or collect wine don’t see, and that’s what happens to grapes just after they’re picked.

Wednsday, my group spent part of the morning and early afternoon at Quinta Vale D. Maria, a small property way on top of a minor mountain reached by a hair-raising drive on a narrow dirt road of insane hair-pin turns so precipitously close to a sheer drop-off that only a line of dusty olive trees seemed to keep us from falling to certain death. At least that’s the way it felt to me.

We were driven up to the winery and house by jovial and bear-like Christiano van Zeller, who owns the property along with his wife, Joane. Quinta Vale D. Maria had been in his wife’s family, he said, for 250 years.

We happened to arrive just as harvest was beginning on the steep, terraced vineyards and were privileged to observe the process by which grapes are transformed from firm little clusters of globules to a mass of stuff that looks like bubbling blue beastie brains, ready for fermentation.

Because Quinta Vale D. Maria is not a huge operation, the process was carried out by a few young workers. One man stood in the back of a truck that was filled with plastic bins of grapes. The grapes, by the way, represented a field blend of about 40 red varieties and would go into the estate’s table wine, about 85 percent of the production, with the other 15 percent being port. This fellow dumped the grapes onto the sorting table where a couple of women inspected the bunches and discarded any that looked “green” (not ripe enough) or bruised and damaged. We asked van Zeller what happened to the bins of discarded grapes, and he said that the workers would take them home and make wine for themselves and their families.

Here’s an image taken from the other side of the action. You can get a hint, from the background, of how stunning the landscape of the Douro Valley is, with its high hills and deep valleys lined with vineyards that seem impossible to cultivate. In fact, as often happens with the sites of great vineyards and winemaking, they seem planted in places that ought to be utterly inhospitable to farming.

The top of the sorting table is actually a conveyor belt that moves the grapes along slowly and drops them into a bin below.

Here you see the grapes coming to the end of the conveyor belt and falling into the welcoming arms (so to speak) of the destemming machine, a rotating steel screw that separates the grapes and stems and send the shorn grapes into a fat plastic hose to be pumped several yards away into a large concrete vat called a lagare.

Quinta Vale D. Maria has four lagares, each capable of holding 4,000 to 5,000 kilograms, 4,000 kilos being a bit more than 8,800 pounds of grapes and juice (the “must”). The grapes ferment both in the lagare and in tanks. Each tank in the fermentation room holds the result of one lagare. Red tables wines ferment for seven to eight days, but juice for port ferments only two to three days. Table wine goes into small French barriques (about 59 gallons), while port goes into large old casks and stainless steel tanks.

This machine is the “robot,” an electronically controlled device that crushes the grapes in the lagare. It can be coordinated so that the legs move up and down in sequence together or alternately or back and forth. Vale D. Maria still using the traditional foot-crushing, in which the workers enter the lagares and, one supposes, with a great deal of both concentration and hilarity, use their bare feet to crush the grapes. This ancient practice, van Zeller told us, “is important to make sure that the crushing is homogeneous.”

The result of the grapes we saw being handled today would be Quinta Vale D. Maria’s red table wine, of which the winery produces about 25,000 bottles (about 2,100 cases), an amount, van Zeller said, that is slowly increasing. With enologist Sandra Tavares, our small group tasted vintages 2001 through 2008 of this wine, which is made from vines that are 60 to 70 years old, and whatever the variations of weather and technique involved, the wines were consistently robust and vigorous, deeply aromatic and flavorful, resolutely minerally and generally the embodiment of a marriage between power and elegance.
Quinta Vale D. Maria has importers on the East and West Coasts of the U.S.
There’s much more to tell Readers, like tasting 45 ports from 2007 last night, or our train trip yesterday out to the eastern reaches of the Douro, almost to Spain, to spend an afternoon at Quinta do Vale Meao, and so on. Those events and others will come in future posts, but now I have to prepare for another day of tasting and traveling, this time by boat. I hope it’s a large, safe, comforting boat and not a small, dangerous, death-defying boat. Not that I care.

Once a year, when the growing season is right, I get a yen for lady peas, the most delicate of the pantheon of Southern peas that includes blackeyed peas, purple hull peas, crowder peas and so on. Lady peas are the smallest, the most subtle, the most, well, ladylike. We bought a pound at the Farmers Market downtown a few weeks ago and I cooked up a mess. (That means a bunch.)

I treat the peas as a soup. I diced pretty finely a small onion, a carrot and a celery rib, sauteed them a bit in olive oil, and then added the rinsed lady peas and a couple of pieces of bacon, also chopped. with a sprinkling of dried thyme and oregano, salt and pepper and a few cups of water. Being small, lady peas don’t take long to cook, maybe an hour or so at a simmer. The broth made from these ingredients was wonderful, filled with flavor yet not powerful. As you can see from the photograph, I served these with a garnish of julienne basil.

What else? The tomatoes have been good this year, so a salad of sliced heirloom tomatoes, red and yellow and pale green.

And while we don’t often have dessert Chez FK/LL, I thought that it would be appropriate to conclude a Southern meal with a peach cobbler with clabber biscuits for the crust. Yeah, this was awesomely delicious.

With the lady pea soup, we drank the Silverado Miller Ranch Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Napa Valley. Made all in stainless steel and with seven percent semillon grapes, this is a lovely wine, so deft and well-balanced, filled with pleasure and allure. Mildly herbal and grassy, this sauvignon blanc offers sunny and leafy fig and lemon scents and flavors with hints of apples and green grapes and melon. Lime peel comes in after a few minutes, with touches of dried thyme and tarragon, followed by a wash of limestone and shale. Clean, bright acidity energizes the whole package, which concludes with a tang of grapefruit and a hint of its bracing bitterness. An incredibly fresh and appealing wine. Excellent. About $20, Great Value.

Yes, Readers, I am actually in the Douro Valley in Portugal and in about an hour we’ll be heading out to Vale D. Maria for a tasting and lunch and then on to Quinta do Vallado for another tasting and dinner. I had meant to do this lady pea post last week, but I had a few minutes to do some catch-up writing and emailing. Have a great day, and I’ll try to post again tonight or tomorrow morning.

BTW, Readers, I just looked at the counter program that comes with Blue Host, the hosting entity for BTYH, and I want to thank you for making August the best month this blog has experienced since its inception in December 2006. Typically the summer months, especially July and August, reveal lower attendance, as people go on vacation, I suppose, and don’t have the time or inclination to check in. Thanks to you, however, August saw 34,058 visits to this blog, as well as 107,427 page views and 357,089 hits, though as I have admitted before, I’m pretty sketchy on what constitutes the difference between a “visit” and a “hit.” Nevertheless, while 34,058 doesn’t measure up to the Big Name Wine Blogs — and you know who you are — I’m pleased as punch about that figure. My only caveat? Let’s keep it growing! And when you do visit BTYH, click on what may seem to be those annoying Google ads; those constitute the only revenue this blog generates, and believe me, it ain’t much.

Anyway, all mercenary thoughts aside, thanks again for helping to made BTYH a success.

Remember: Drink well, drink carefully, say a kind word or two.

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