Thursday, May 17, 2018

MENU's Iberian Exploit 2. The Upper Douro Valley; Vila Nova de Foz Coa and Quinta de Castelo Melhor

Day four in Portugal and time for our trip in the Douro region, where port (and other wine) is made. We had to book and pay for all our flights, transport, and accommodation before we could start the trip or the Portuguese would not give John his visa, VSF the visa agency told us, despite Lynne being an EU citizen. On the application form it says that family of EU citizens do not need all this. VFS said that this does not apply to Portugal. 
As we have detailed before, VFS told us right up to the time of our departure that John's passport was at the Portuguese Embassy in Johannesburg. Lynne found out that it was at the Consulate in Cape Town and we collected it there. VFS sent us a mail on the day we returned to say that the visa was ready for collection. It expired less than a week later. He was given a 34 day visa. The shortest ever before that was a year.
John had booked a Renault Megane with a large boot and, more importantly, with SatNav as standard equipment. This Opel Astra was the only car we were told we could have when we arrived at the  InterRent office near the airport in Porto. We rented an Opel Astra estate in Holland last year and it had SatNav fitted. No sign of the Renault we had booked and paid for. First they tried to palm us off with a car with no spare wheel, and given we were going to be doing a round trip through Portugal and Spain for nearly a month, we insisted on a car with a functioning spare. They also tried to charge us another 20 a day for a Garmin, even though we had paid for one. Lynne filmed the woman who was being so intractable and difficult and then suddenly someone else took over and this car was produced. It had a full-sized spare wheel, not a “Marie biscuit” emergency wheel. But no SatNav. We were going to have to rely on Google Maps on John’s phone. And thereby hangs a long and sad tale which nearly ruined our trip to the Douro. InterRent is owned by Europcar
We were close to the Porto IKEA, so we had lunch there first before we started the trip. Duck Rice, a Super Bock beer and we shared the divine Swedish chocolate layered dessert. This IKEA is located in a huge shopping centre and we needed to buy warmer clothes. Lynne flew around the shops and came back with four new sweaters, one for John, and a pair of leggings to wear under her thin trousers. Prices were very reasonable, as they had spring sales on to clear the winter clothing
Onward to the Douro to find its port and wine. The trip was quick and the A roads are very good, but they are tolled. We stopped along the way to see the roadside spring flowers and, unexpectedly, found several orchids. (Lynne is an amateur botanist)
Olive trees on spring grass
and lovely hill towns
One of the orchids growing alongside the road. We are sure a friend who knows these things will help identify it
A rare straight section of road. Roads in the Douro Valley are narrow and follow the topography, so they wind up and down
Rain and sunshine accompanied our journey
We went to the very far end of the Douro as, the following day, we had an appointment at Duorum wines in Castelo Melhor, which is near the Spanish border. Hotels and AirBnBs were very scarce in the area, so we stayed in a Hostel  in Vila Nova de Foz Coa for the night, to be near the Quinta
Raining and bitterly cold, but with lovely views across the valleys
Our room was warm and comfortable and very cheap. It was well away from the dormitories filled with a school soccer group. It had its own bathroom and included breakfast. Through it cost R556 for the night. Not what we would normally stay in, but very adequate and fine in a pinch
We tried to find a restaurant for supper but this one, recommended to us, was closed …
… so we ended up in the Sunset Bar,
ate hamburgers and chips – the choice was this or pizza
and joined the locals watching another football match as we ate
Breakfast the next morning with that school group, quite well behaved
The queue for breakfast moved quickly. Breakfast was cereal, bread rolls, jam, butter, ham and cheese and a hot drink
We encounter the hairy hill roads of the Douro
Freezing fog
and, after a while and twice retracing our steps, we arrived at the Quinta de Castelo Melhor. We had met the one of the owners of Duorum wines, João Portugal Ramos with his wife and son at an excellent tasting of their wines at Muratie in Stellenbosch recently and he very kindly invited us to visit this part of their wine growing operation in Portugal
They are very high in this part of the Douro and have vineyards facing in different directions to get the best out of the terroir and the different grape varieties
This is the building in which we tasted the wines
Early Spring, and not yet much bud break
Muddy hoofprints - of goats or deer?
We hope this small snake was hibernating; it had obviously been attracted by the warmth of the light
A lovely view from the farm house, the Douro River is below. Far below
We were there to meet João Perry Vidal who is the Oenologist (winemaker and viticulturist) for this Duorum farm. He gave us a very good tour of the vineyards, a perspective on what it is like to make wine in such a difficult area and a wine tasting. And they do make very good wine here
Beautifully furnished with a small vinoteque in the breakfront bookcase
An illustrated map of the Douro River. Porto is on the left; Castelo Melhor is far to the right
Risking vertigo, the magnificent Douro River far below the vineyards
The effort, extreme engineering, skill and bravery needed to break the ground for these near vertical vineyards in these shale soils is amazing. This is the top of the hill, with the water reservoir. They pump the river water all the way up here and that also requires extreme engineering
Old sleepers from the now extinct railway line, made into a pathway
No mechanical picking on these slopes
and future slopes for vines
Bad weather coming in, it did bring snow to the high hills and mountains
The farm has biodiversity status
The start of bud break
on well-established vines
An old olive that was brought up here and transplanted. They are planting trees so that the vineyard workers will have shade in the hot harvest time
The bees were buzzing in the lavender …
and John’s camera was getting them in fine macro detail on the rosemary
We then climbed into João’s 4x4 bakkie and travelled down the road to the riverside
Amazing vineyards
João told us all about how the farm was found by José Soares Franco, then bought and developed by him and his partner Jose Portugal Ramos. They took a risk on land that was not under vine and it has certainly paid off
You can see a tributary joining the main river
A Griffon vulture searching for a meal (or is it a Lammergeyer?)
Magnificent dry stone walls, some are new but others are centuries old
The shale is quite friable on certain planes
Down we travelled to the old station house
A young fruit tree, probably from a fruit pip discarded by a grape picker, we were told
The railway line was taken away several years ago, the tunnels remain
Down on the riverside at last. It was quite a ride down!
Another orchid
Derelict, but soon to be renovated
White Iris
We found lots of wild asparagus growing here and picked some for supper
So peaceful
A natural rock wall made by uplift
Duorum Wines
Climbing back up the slope in the car. The camera does not do justice to the steepness of the slope
Back to the farm house
They make excellent olive oil and we tasted some on arrival
The 2017 Duorum Tons white blend which had just been released. Made from five different grapes: Rabigato · Viosinho · Verdelho · Arinto de Bucelas · Muscatel, some grown here and ‘across the road’. 300 000 bottles. It is aromatic and floral from the 10% muscat. Fresh, grapey with elderflower hints, it is a crisp refreshing food wine full of limes and lemons with some minerality and a little drying chalk. 4.
Then we tasted the Tons 2016 Red. It is full of fruit, mulberry, cherry, raspberry; young with fresh fruit on the palate, light with a little soft chalky tannin on the end. Good with red meat. Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz 7
The 2015 Duorum Colheita made from Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz. Partly wooded with no new oak, elegance with black plums and cherries, a beautiful nose, with incense wood, sharp crisp fruit on the palate, blackberries, mulberries, then some salty licorice; it finishes on plums, soft chalky tannins and minerality. A good year. 14/15
We really enjoyed our visit but then it was time to go and seek some lunch
Duorum co- owner José Soares Franco recommends his guests try the Foz Coa Museum restaurant and it turned out to be a very good recommendation. In a square concrete building, it has great glass windows with lovely views and an outside terrace for good weather, which we did not have. It was 2.30 pm but we were welcomed
Great views
The winding road we had to take to Pinhao after lunch, where we would be staying for the next two nights
We ordered the Prato del Dia and while we were waiting we were encouraged to try their excellent Chousas Nostras extra virgin olive oil. It was superb, fresh, green and young, served with green olives and good bread. You do need a small mortgage for a bottle
We ordered a bottle of the house wine, Douro D.G. Tinto 2015. Robust and fruity, it went well with the dish
Pork neck steak, topped with herbs and a garlic paste, almost a chimichurri; great flavour, tender meat if a little fatty. We excavated the nuggets of meat. Boiled potatoes which had been kept in a fridge, as they had that sweet flavour. There was lots of garlic on this plate, we love it. It came with a cooked cabbage and ham ‘salad’ and a sausage of note! Crisp on the outside and creamy in the centre. It’s called a Farinheira, (literal translation is a flour sausage). We were told its history goes back to the Romans who had to provide meat for the locals. They mixed flour and pork fat with herbs and spices to save meat and it satisfied them. Absolutely delicious. So much better for you than polony
They provided a complimentary dish of seared potatoes that were much better 
Dessert was an almond tile with an almond ice cream with the texture of a semi freddo and some chocolate sauce. With this they offered us a complimentary glass of their home made port. Spicy raisins, cinnamon and cloves - young. Hot, thick and very fruity, almost mince pies. Not a keeper but satisfying. We had a great waiter/sommelier by the name of Carlos Videda, who spoke good English and explained the food to us. The bill including wine (Portugal doesn't tip) was €27.50
The ruined hilltop castle of Castelo Melhor above the village which shares its name
The winding road
Orchards and farmland with snowy mountains in the distance
And a rainbow as the storm swept East
Another castle
More steep valleys and vineyards and early blossom
And after a disastrous session with Google Maps where we got totally lost for hours, we just could not find our AirBnB Quinta. Lynne got totally freaked by a near car accident, and the vertiginous narrow streets in the high hillside village and preferred to walk. We met the village inhabitants and half of them in procession led her down the hill to our Vila Branca (means White house) and the code worked on the door. Trade Descriptions Act applies to this small house, nothing in the description was true. Somehow these people have engineered this house to be the most photogenic house we have ever seen. Honestly, it looks nothing like this, it was furnished in the 1950’s by Granny, now deceased, and the relatives have just let it out as is, tatty furniture, plastic flowers and all.. This bed had nylon sheets on it, so we chose another with better linen, and furthest from the cellar opening. Each bed had four heavy blankets on it. We needed them all
In reality it was small and pokey, and freezing cold. The wine cellar with open concrete kuipe was in the basement, down those stairs on the left, no door, so open totally to the ground floor. We had a fire but could only find wet wingerdstokkies (vine branches) in the garden, which smoked and took ages to light. Then the fire gave all the heat to the heavens
It was the sensational views from the balcony that had made us book this house. But it was so cold and rainy we couldn’t open the shutters or go outside. Luckily we’d had a good lunch in Foz Coa and had brought some food with us for a light supper. In the kitchen NOTHING worked: kettle, microwave, stove, oven, two coffee machines, toaster, hot plate - all were broken. Oh, the electric braai grill did! Breakfast water would be boiled on that. But how would John make real coffee? We retired early, almost fully clothed, with our books and two screw capped wine bottles full of hot water to warm the damp sheets and our feet. It had to get better…. We collapsed into giggles at the whole situation
And, next morning, there would be a surprise….

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