The Little Quinta That Could

Quinta de S. Jose Douro Riverside Lodge, Tasting Room and Retreat Douro, Portugal

On a recent trip to Portugal I met the most wonderful family—Joao Brito E Cunha his wife Sofia, and most importantly his mother Teresa and father Ruy who exemplify the tightly knit social structure among the wine grape growers and wine producers that make up this fascinating region.  I was there to learn more about the origins of Port.  It is a very special wine that is not like any other and should not ever be confused with sweet red wines that compare themselves by saying we make a Port style wine.  There also seems to be a bit of confusion among many oenophiles regarding the origin of Sherry.  Port only comes from Portugal and Sherry only comes from Spain. It is a totally different wine made from different grapes and should never be confused with Port.  It is important to protect the name Port so that only fortified wines made in Portugal in the demarcated area called the Douro DOC can be called Port Wine. An organization called The Center for Wine Origins is doing some great work in that they also believe all original wine designations deserve and should receive a level of protection that we demand from other countries when it comes to labeling made in the U.S.A.

I know as Americans we will not stand for products made outside of the USA displaying a label that says they are from the USA. It’s commonly called counterfeiting. Law enforcement spends a lot of time trying to eradicate this activity on our streets.  I find it silly to think that any other country should accept anything less regarding any product that should bear the name of its origin. Enough of my rant about being correct when you label and market your wines, I have to stop before I get on the subject of Champagne.

My trip took me to see a lot of different producers and with a lot of different opinions about how this business needs to change to stay viable.  After being at a Quinta earlier that day that had a refreshingly rebellious spirit at the helm, I arrived at this property Quinta de S. Jose with just a bit more suspicion about how they really make their wines.  It seems that the phrase I love to use, “I wish I was wrong more often” could not be more appropriate than here at Quinta de S. Jose.  As soon as we arrived, we were whisked to the top of the vineyard for a view that will last a lifetime and a history lesson in port houses.

By the time it took to ascend to the top of the vineyards in a four-wheel drive vehicle up a road that can only be described as exhilarating I had been converted. Joao’s father Ruy was a master at true hospitality.  He could make anyone feel at home even if you were teetering off the side of a cliff.  Despite traversing a trail that was genuinely harrowing even for me, Ruy was a consummate professional at disarming, charming and welcoming his guests. I was amazed at the opening of arms, house and family, truly being made to feel the warmth of acceptance and shelter in a sense much broader that just offering you a room.

This property is one of the newer Quintas and also one of the few that obsesses on their still wines and still make really serious port. The facility is also a commercial lodging facility that offers some of the best hotel rooms and suites on the Douro.  I am a bit of a hotel snob self-admittedly and this resort will please even the most demanding travelers. The amenities and hosts make it a top destination for anyone that wants to get away and still have luxury surroundings, fine wine and great food.

The tasting room is open to all guests and it is one of the most visually appealing rooms I was in during my entire trip.  As we began our tasting, the winemaker/consultant and vineyard owner spoke about the white grape he thinks is the best for white wines in this region.  Joao is very confident the varietal Viosinho is the best choice to lead with for his whites.  Joao says, “For me, Viosinho could be the most promising white grape variety in the Douro”.

2010 Quinta de San José Douro Ázeo Branco

This wine is composed of 70% Viosinho and 30% Rabigato; fermented in stainless. This white wine is original and refreshing with fresh peach and citrus notes on the nose and palate. The bulk of the grapes for this wine come from the high altitudes of the Douro between 450 and 500 meters in altitude then they are de-stemmed, the grapes are crushed and subjected to a thermal shock.  Fermentation takes place in stainless vats with the wine then going into 400 liter French oak barrels both new and one year used for six months before the final blending and bottling; creating a balanced and enticing final product.  Serve this one with Cerviche, Fresh oysters, melons or any tropical fruit. Crème Fraiche and Caviar topped freshly made gaufrette potatoes would also be a great match. $15; 13.0% ABV

2009 Quinta de San José Douro 

This is a blend of 45% Touriga Nacional, 35% Touriga Franca and 20% Tinta Roriz with fruit from both the Douro Superior and the Cima Corgo.  João wants to combine the ripeness of the Superior with the freshness and structure from the Cima Corgo. The grapes are harvested by hand and after being de-stemmed and crushed the fermentation process begin in largares (traditional vats where manual treading of the grapes take place). Half sees 10 months in French barrels and the other half fermented in stainless before the final blend. A wonderfully aromatic wine that works as well as a standalone sipper as it does a fantastic component of a well planned dinner. The nose is fresh red berry and dark violet floral notes as the wine dances on your palate there is more berry, spice and a hint of black pepper. The tannins are well balanced and the wine finishes nicely will a textural experience that I will describe as complex and plush. This wine is an everyday drinker that can bring out the best in even the most humble meatloaf or be the co-star when paired with Roast Lamb or Cabrito Asado.  $20; 14.0% ABV.

2008 Quinta de San José Douro Reserva

This is a blend of 45% Touriga Nacional and 55% Old Vines. The fruit for this wine comes from João’s family property, located in front of Romaneira, with north-facing schistous slopes. The lack of photosynthesis from direct sunlight in the afternoon due to the exposure gives the vines a special type of vigour. It’s because they have heat but not too much sun.  This wine is harvested to achieve the highest concentrations of aroma and polyphenolics. This is a big boy ‘take no prisoners’ wine that is as luscious on the nose as it is on the palate. The aromas are dark berries and spice with a dose of vanilla from the oak regimen. The flavors are pleasing with a texture of well integrated tannins that leaves the finish long and velvety. In the flavor descriptors mix is dark berry like the bouquet with a chocolate, mint and spice mélange that has your palate screaming for more as you finish each sip.  A dish of smoky sausage and duck confit with some ground clove complemented this wine to a degree that would be hard for me to top. The dish served with this wine had exactly those components. It was a rustic Douro dish that included long grain rice cooked in a very aromatic stock with mirapoix and game, chicken and smoky chorizo.  A fantastic match.  Most of the dinner guests would have normally never had seconds but this dish with this wine made that almost impossible as the casserole dish was passed around not only a second but a third time.  $45; 14.5% ABV

Quinta de S. Jose turned it up a notch after their port with dessert and then some fantastic light and creamy cheese Serra da Estrela . As many of the guests retired for the night, there were a few of us that adjourned to the swimming pool with the Monte Cristo and Cohiba’s fine cigars and great port.  What could be better. Well when Ruy came down the stairs very carefully with glasses filled with 1890 Vintage Port I was impressed. I relit my cigar and decided it was good that I face the next day with only 5 or 6 hours sleep. The 1890 that Ruy readily admitted he would normally blend with younger ports, confided that our inquisitive nature earned the ones who stayed up late an unadulterated glass of the rare elixir a reward that would never be forgotten.  Ruy is a man who knows how to accomplish a mission.

The next day we had an early start that was met with a breakfast that was the pinnacle of hospitality. Fresh squeezed orange juice, good lomo ham, young fresh creamy cheese and fresh baked hard rolls and croissants.  Local jams and preserves for those who indulge in such delicacies.  It was a fantastic way to culminate the departure I was languishing over disembarking from.  I had genuinely in less than 24 hours become attached to this family something anyone who knows me would say is impossible.  I know in my heart I will return soon.  The most encouraging thing is I know whenever I return I will be treated as family as long as Joao and Sophia have control of this Quinta. I really doubt their children will proceed forward any differently. The legend of Vesuvio will continue just as Ruy would have wanted just with a different name and a different location.

Someday as I think of everywhere I’ve gone as I take my last dying breaths I will utter a remembrance of the best Portuguese trip ever took, including my stay at Quinta de S. Jose, the little Quinta that could. If you want a relaxing stay that embodies all that is the Douro, book a reservation for a week at this lodge. It will make you reevaluate everything you thought you knew about Portugal.  If you know nothing about Portugal, which was pretty much where I was, you will leave with a wealth of information and respect for the people who have struggled to carve out a life where most would have given up and moved on.

The wines of this Quinta are distributed by Laurel Importers here in the United States.  If they are not on your retailer shelves point them to this article or the link to the importer.  The wines are definitely Macdaddy approved and worth going to a lot of trouble to find.