The Douro in December can be cold - not a sharp bright sincere cold, but the dour, bone-aching fog bound cold of long sunless silent days. When this kind of weather descends upon Pinhão and the upper Cima Corgo, it can sometimes be reluctant to leave. My first stay at Quinta de La Rosa was in December: I had been lodging at nearby Quinta da Bomfim in coma inducing temperatures, so numbingly cold that outdoor clothes were de-rigeur at dinner. I glimpsed the white washed buildings of La Rosa half a mile downstream and contemplated the pleasing prospect of decamping to Sophia Bergqvist's modestly proportioned sitting room and cosy fireside as soon as possible...
As the mighty river slides unerringly past a rag-tag assembly of rooftops collectively known as Pinhão; an eclectic place of cobbled streets, jewel-like Azulejo, railway sidings, rusting steam-age hulks and The Vintage House semi-opulence; its turbid caldo verde flow presses hard downstream, into a steeply rising bank of schist and naked vines. Easing west towards the setting winter sun and Offley's Quinta da Boavista invisibly beyond, the waters metamorphose to a distant reflective silver, mirroring a limitless register of subtly hued greys climbing high into an enamelled pearlescent sky.
Languorous strands of drifting smoke..The Douro valley in winter is magical: a fairytale place of ethereal light, primeval beauty and muted eloquence. From the deepest Prussian blue to the palest grey and earthly raw umber, cascading ribs of gnarled vines ascend their regimented and schist-staked route across undulating hillsides. A slatted topography, occasionally and obliquely punctuated by Hollywood style placards proclaiming familiar Port wine marques, fused to the heavens by languorous strands of drifting smoke, issuing from precariously perched bonfires of sarment. Immediately downstream of Pinhão, Quinta de La Rosa, a microcosm of Anglo-Nordic civility, steps steeply up from the sweeping curve of the mighty Douro river. Giant black letters painted across the Quinta's white walled adega, spell its internationally recognized name. This four-tiered cluster of schist and granite walled buildings, strewn like washing on a line along 200 metres of prime Douro terroir, form the heart of a beloved family business whose fascinating roots merit close attention.
It is early evening and the Douro river glides silently below our elevated compact eyrie: a flat matte green painted double-cube room, with deep window seated walls adorned by fine 18th century pastel portraits, overarched by a handsome five panelled ceiling describing the form of a flat topped pyramid; satin rendered in colourful flora and fauna oils by the late David Ponsonby. Immediately adjacent and behind the seated form of my hostess, a book lined snug replete with volumes by Dickens, Waugh, Wilde, Greene, Betjemen, Fleming and any worthwhile author you care to imagine. Within this un-contrived oasis of sophisticated family warmth, Sophia Bergqvist settles into a favourite fireside armchair and begins to explain what makes Quinta de La Rosa so special for her..
Sophia BergqvistEarly Life: The Bergquists are a true and charmingly charismatic family: Sophia Bergqvist has extraordinary penetrating blue eyes, complemented by a head of frequently tousled long, dark blonde hair; her informal La Rosa dress style offers a dash of retro Doris Day merged with Bananarama. She is a caring mother to Eleanor (16), Kit (14) and Mark (11), considerate employer and staunch confidante - forever helpful and totally trusted, but should she so choose, might be as perilously unapproachable as the awkward cobbled switchback to her multi-terraced, gravity-defying principality. Born in Beirut she spent the first six years of her life in the Middle East, after which came Italy and more specifically, Milan, where Sophia attended the International School. "I suppose I was brought up not really feeling very English... especially as I have a strange surname and strong links to Portugal", a familial connection she defines early in our conversation. Claire Feuerheerd, Sophia's paternal grandmother was gifted Quinta de La Rosa upon her christening in 1906, the Bergqvist family have been making Port wine ever since 1815, and though their port shipping company of Feuerheerd was sold in the 1930's, La Rosa was retained by Claire. The Bergqvists's family history is fascinating and peppered with colourful stories, from the careless ancestor who lost Melbourne High Street in a game of cards to a great uncle known as ‘Jock' whose wrongdoings landed him in a Madeira jail. "My paternal grandmother lived here at La Rosa, so we spent every summer holiday in the Douro. In those days the river was not dammed, it was a very hot and rather uncomfortable place to be, Porto airport was only a shack and people did not travel so much by air so we would drive all the way from Italy." Claire Feuerheerd threw wonderful house parties at La Rosa and with the help of a talented Portuguese cook, interpreted classic recipes from Constance Spry and Elizabeth David, much to the delight of her frequent guests. In the early 20th century, it was not uncommon for visitors to stay for many weeks, given the enormous effort required to reach La Rosa, they must have felt very reluctant to depart this civilized haven of baked bread, homemade chocolates and gourmet provisions, delivered weekly by steam train from the distant environs of Foz in Oporto. "One of her favourite things was to invite a blind Fado singer to entertain at the Quinta: I remember when I was ten or eleven years old I was allowed to stay up listening late into the evening, in the company of family friends like Alistair and Gillian Robertson of Taylor's... I was treated like a grown up.
'the Bergqvists are a true and charmingly charismatic family'
Tim BergqvistAfter Claire Feuerheerd's death in the 1970's her son Tim Bergqvist took over the running of La Rosa. Sophia explains: "My father was running a wood pulp mill at the time, a business established by my great grandfather Daniel Bergquist from Sweden. As we were only growing grapes to sell on, he would come up to La Rosa just once a month... this was some time before Sandeman were taken over by the giant Seagrams" Eventually, Tim Bergqvist became disillusioned by the quality of Port wine Sandeman were making from his undoubtedly first class grapes and by the early eighties was thinking of setting up La Rosa to make Port wine under its own label, as his great grandfather had done in the 1920's. "My father has a very strong connection to La Rosa, even stronger than I do. His mother lived here and he grew up on the estate. His dream had always been to re-establish La Rosa as a winemaking Quinta. During the mid eighties this became possible when the authorities changed Port wine regulations and Portugal became part of the EU making it permissible to sell wine directly rather than being compelled to have massive storage facilities and stocks on the coast in Vila Nova da Gaia. My father sold the pulp mill in 87' and almost immediately set up as a winemaker." For the first time in his life, Tim Bergqvist had money in the company account, and as EU subsidies became available, was able to modernise the winery and set up a bottling facility.
A Difficult Start: Sophia Bergqvist attended school in England before moving onto Cambridge University and eventually the City of London, "with a view to solving the world's poverty problems with the World Bank", she says. I certainly did not have a vision of working at La Rosa, there was no money and the 1974 Portuguese revolution had taken place, therefore, I had been brought up believing it would have to be sold." Sophia assumed that when her grandmother died the estate would no longer remain in the family, but Tim Bergqvist managed to hold on to the Quinta and at the same time Sophia found she did not enjoy working in the City. After a year at INSEAD, the famed business school near Fontainebleau, Sophia eventually took up a position working as a management consultant for Booz Allen, concentrating principally on media and marketing, she was based in both Paris and London. "When I left Booz Allen and started working with my father we had no reputation and no distribution and had to wait two full years without any product, that was the reality." The first new vintage of La Rosa Port wine was in 1988 but this had to remain in cask for two years before any commercial activity could take place and Sophia ‘filled in' with freelance management consultancy.
"In 1988 we started making our own Port, but the first major investments did not take place until 1990... things changed very slowly. It is brand driven and we had just one vintage Port from 1988 to begin selling in 1991. Most importers were saying, ‘just one vintage from a year that was not particularly great... come back in a few years when you have a whole range of product.' We thought we knew much more about making Port than we really did, this was jolly difficult - we were farmers rather than Port wine makers and it was a steep learning curve, there were a lot of small problems which just mounted up and mounted up - we had no full time help in those early days and were doing everything ourselves..."
'A slatted topography occasionally and obliquely punctuated by Hollywood style placards proclaiming familiar Port wine marques'
The dark interior of La Rosa's venerable adega"I will never forget the time a large tube exploded in the winery and fired grape juice and skins all over the ceiling, the pressure was such that the massive tube with its metal coupling was forced up into the air and fell back down to earth missing my father's head by inches. As this happened, the winery fell completely silent and my father exclaimed ‘we are nothing more than a whole bunch of bloody amateurs'... and we were. I guess like any small business you have to have a dream and we were lucky that we had the love for this place that sustained us through these difficult times." The massive improvement in La Rosa's winemaking eventually led to the quinta's commercial salvation, though without the great help of Australian winemaker David Baverstock, this might not have been possible. David is a talented winemaker, who in the early nineties was making Port wine for Symington Family Estates, but was frustrated in his early ambitions to make table wine as S.F.E. were then only making fortified wines. "We had a new vineyard not covered by the port wine beneficio and I asked David what we should do with the grapes, he replied ‘why don't we make table wine?' I telephoned Peter Symington the next day and asked if David would be permitted to consult for us outside of his normal S.F.E. office hours - we then made our first wine, bottled half of the production at the local co-operative and sold the other half in tank to a friend at Allied Domecq."
This was the first step in a long road to high quality award winning wines and though La Rosa is now firmly established as a leading producer of D.O.C., in those first tentative months improvisation was necessary; "I never forget sticking on our first black and white labels by hand; my mother and a couple of women helped us and by the end of the morning I discovered all of my labels were lower on the bottles than my mother's!"
The Bergqvists were venturing into unknown territory: at this preliminary stage they had no importers in the UK and Sophia returned to England and left a few bottles at different locations in the hope of being noticed. These included Berry Bros & Rudd in St James's and the Conran restaurant group. Soon after, a telephone call came from Conran's wine buyer saying La Rosa had come ‘top of their wine tasting' and they would like to use it as house wine for the famous Quaglino's restaurant. A week later BBR telephoned and said ‘we do not know who you are... but you have just come top of a blind tasting', and they wanted to buy all remaining stocks of La Rosa's table wine!
Quinta de La Rosa was one of the first Douro estates to begin making table wine on a commercial basis: throughout the late nineteen nineties Sophia Bergqvist built up a network of importers for La Rosa's wines; the UK, Belgium and Holland provided a solid dependable market and the quinta's table wine production went from strength to strength...