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My introduction to Quinta do Vallado came during the fabulous sun-kissed harvest of 2007 and encompassed every delightful aspect the glorious Douro valley has to share. João Alvares Ribeiro and Francisco Ferreira were my gracious hosts and helped me understand just what sets this wine region apart.

 

The sprawling ochred jewel of Quinta do Vallado clings securely to the side of a vine-terraced hill named Devezas, at the foot of the Corgo valley. This seamless verdant escalier forms part of a massive triangular wedge, separating the main Douro valley from that of its diminutive tributary the Corgo. Close by the Douro capital of Regua, this special Quinta offers a sense of splendid isolation combined with close proximity to city amenities and convenient train access. The main house furnishes luxury accommodation and authentic Quinta living, providing the perfect location to relax and find solitude, while enjoying the finest wines and home-cooked gourmet cuisine. In the heart of the Cima Corgo, Quinta do Vallado is the ideal platform for exploring the Douro vineyards, by road, river and train.

 

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Quinta do Vallado clings to a vine terraced hill named Devezas, seen here on a September evening

 


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Vallado chapel cross
The Quinta's vineyards straddle both sides of the Corgo valley, a total of 69 hectares under vine, for both red and white wines. All estate buildings are immaculately ochre washed with white trim, a programme of total renovation has continued since the early nineteen nineties. The estate encompasses several individual dwellings and a compact gravity fed winery, with a shop at lower ground level, whose plate glass doors open directly onto the roadside traversing the hill. Looking back at Devezas from across the Corgo valley, Vallado buildings read and rise along a moderate gradient from right to left, each separated from its neighbour by a short section of narrow road. The first building on the extreme right is the modern winery, several degrees higher and further along the track, a second large building comprising accommodation, staff quarters, kitchens and ample sitting and dining rooms for entertaining. The most impressive element here is the outside terrace overlooking the Corgo valley with a giant overhead trellis blanketed by fully mature Muscatel vines. Seated at the long outdoor dining table, the effect of being sheltered from the bleaching sun by such an attractive canopy of foliage and voluptuous grapes, is not only apposite, but stunning. During warmer months, it is here that many lunches and group wine tastings are hosted by winemaker Francisco Ferreira. Continuing along the hillside track, Vallado's third large building is the main Quinta and country hotel, its heavy green painted wrought iron gates, supported by granite posts, discreetly carry bronze coloured letters spelling ‘Quinta Do Vallado', while also proclaiming the name of its 19th century owner, Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira. There is nothing excessive about this tasteful property and though fully modernised, the eclectic mixture of old and new lend a peaceful and charming ambience. Passing through the gateway, wide enough for just one vehicle, a narrow cobblestone driveway sweeps down and to the right. Skirting an ancient Lion-headed stone fountain and the Vallado private chapel crowned by an elegant stone cross, the lumpen drive provides service admission to the kitchens at the back of the house and gardens beyond.

 

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Vallado's beautifully restored chapel
Vallado is built into the hillside, rear access takes you into the building at first floor level and front doors enter at ground level. When standing inside the gates, a short set of concealed wide slate steps descend at right angles, just behind a handsome shade giving Plane tree - this dappled flight cascades left and down the steep incline of the hill, along the shaded side of the house and arrives at a thin gravel path to the main doors - fronted by a luxuriant fringe of deep grass and low schist retaining wall, with the vineyards and valley falling away far below. Passing back through the main gates and turning left, we continue on to the fourth and most elevated building in our distant row, this is adjacent to Vallado's secluded and tranquil swimming pool, set amid vividly green lawns and decorative citrus trees. This oasis of calm is far removed from the main house and can be cool even on the hottest of summer days.

 

'Vallado...a sprawling ochred jewel'

 

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An exquisitely carved figure of Christ..
Home cooked gourmet food
: The ample kitchens at Quinta do Vallado maintain a regular flow of gourmet food to fortunate guests, based on estate sourced produce and local organic ingredients. The substantial, well stocked and tended vegetable gardens sit cheek-by-jowel with farm chickens, whose cadmium yolked eggs are a welcome feature at mealtimes. The charm of Portuguese country cooking rests with its honest simplicity and lack of contrived sophistication - it is straightforward and direct. Meals usually begin with the Portuguese staple of soup, indeed, in the Douro, homemade soup is a way of life, often made with cabbage and thickened by potato. Main courses might comprise, alheira (sausage made with game and poultry), thick slices of home-cured presunto ham, cabrito (roast Kid), suckling pig (famously known as leitão from the legendary pig capital of Mealhada in Barraida) or local Game in season, including wild boar or partridge... occasionally shot by João himself! The Atlantic Ocean is a long way from these Douro Quintas, but the Iberian addiction to bacalhau (dried salt Cod) still holds fast, salted and preserved it travels and stores well and is even enjoyed at the most remote estates.

 

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A delightful shaded lunch at Quinta do Vallado, with a glorious view of the terraced vineyards beyond..

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The façade of Quinta do Vallado (left) and umbrella shaded breakfast terrace (right)

 


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Vallado's tranquil and secluded swimming pool..
Cheese plays an important role and among a plethora of fine examples, Portugal's greatest is undoubtedly Queijo da Serra, a monumental cheese ranking alongside Roquefort, Stilton and Parmesan. This irresistible fromage is conjured from sheep's milk and consumption must only take place once it has ripened to glutinous liquid perfection - scooped by spoon from its circular yellow rind and enjoyed with local quince marmalade. João Ribeiro places great emphasis on the quality of Vallado's gastronomy, his wife Rita is a very fine cook and often responsible for the authentic dishes served to visitors. There are plans to invite guest chefs and further develop this vital facet of Vallado's hospitality, a perfect combination of great wine vallado_16_500
Wine tasting at Vallado (photo Krogh-Hansen)
and delicious local food, making the Douro valley an attractive gourmet destination.

 

The Vineyards: My first visit to Quinta do Vallado was during early September, the harvest was only just underway and white grapes were being picked for Vallado Branco and Reserva... A small group of vindimadores toiled under a midday sun, hastening toward the conclusion of a long morning's picking. Standing between the relatively tall Rabegato vines, Francisco Ferreira is speaking on his cell phone, his animated but indiscernable conversation with winery staff continues, close contact is maintained at all times during vindima, The few remaining white boxes are filled and a lunchtime soup break beckons. This particular vineyard is planted in Patamares formation, at its lowest level runs a dusty walled track providing access for trucks and caterpillar tractors. A team of nine middle-aged men and women fill their black buckets, once full, the green-gold contents are systemically deposited into the boxes franked Vallado, evenly distributed along several rows of vines. It is hot and thirsty work but smiles remain and two younger men carry the fully laden boxes downhill to a waiting truck. It is shortly after one o'clock and as the foreman's shrill whistle blows signifying lunch, the ladies dab perspiration from their tanned brows and I follow their steady retreat through the grassy vinous channels. Below the vineyard, a drop-sided vehicle is being loaded with the morning's harvest - the grapes look superb and everyone is in jovial mood anticipating a well-earned break. Before departing, the friendly group gather alongside Francisco for an impromptu photograph. We climb back in my companion's jeep and bumpily head back to the Vallado winery, leaving behind an opaque schistous vapour trail.

 

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Vallado vineyards in the heat of the September sunshine..

 

The Vallado Winery: The Rabigato grapes are pouring into the reception area of Vallado's four story winery at an even and steady pace: stepping from his four-wheel drive, Francisco strides purposefully across the cement courtyard to a pneumatic press situated below one end of an elevated steel sorting table. Clutching two wine glasses in his left hand, he minutely adjusts the computerized settings on a numbered keypad with his right and proceeds to taste the dense freshly pressed juice before its transferral to indoor vinification vats. Seeming satisfied, Francisco suggests we move to the interior of the main vat room to taste the previous day's juice.

 

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The Rabigato grapes pour into the reception area (left) and the 'silvered chamber' of the modern winery (right)

Looking around the gravity fed winery it is easy to see how a substantial part of Ferreira's investment has been spent. Stainless steel abounds, both above and below the metal walkways. Clattering steps lead down to the ground floor, the whole interior shining and bright - a silvered chamber that echoes to a ringing acoustic ambience. Quinta do Vallado represents a world far removed from the dark days of single Quinta existence: when Port wine was the only option and individual expression denied. D.O.C. plans were once beyond imagination, but João Álvares Ribeiro and Francisco Ferreira sit firmly in the driving seat of a Quinta fuelled by positive thought and a dynamic approach to making new classic Douro wines. Looking back over twelve point scoring Vallado vintages, we can only guess at what the future holds. The 2007 vintage looks quite extraordinary: superb weather conditions prevailed during vindima and most fruit ripened to perfection, promising bottles full of harmony and balance. It is possibly the best D.O.C. harvest so far... but this is virgin territory and only recently have all necessary elements combined, experience, confidence founded on past results, and a true understanding of local terroir. This is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, but now it stands at the vanguard of modern table wine... reinvented and reinvigorated, these are exciting times for the Douro valley.

 

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Leaving the Vintage House Hotel and Pinhão in his wake, João Álvares Ribeiro speeds back toward the D.O.C.

 

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The aptly named D.O.C. riverside restaurant with its elevated wooden deck...
Waterborne adventures: Breakfast at Vallado is always satisfying, so too the company: my fellow guests included Tiago Duarte, a professor of law, taking advantage of the solitude and calm, in preparation for a new term at his Lisbon faculty, and Hara Satoshi, the distinguished, good humoured Japanese Amabassador to Portugal. On this particular morning the ambassador and his delightful wife are moving on and João has invited some special guests to the Quinta for lunch. Rui Veloso is a famous Portuguese pop star with 25 Platinum discs to his credit and João is taking his boat upstream to collect Rui and his party from the Vintage House Hotel in Pinhão.

 

'colour is saturated and clarity heightened by a mesmeric true light'

It is hard to describe the concentrated beauty of the Douro valley on a perfect autumnal day: the sky is an impossible cobalt blue, adding definition to acres of undulating verdant vines, colour is saturated and clarity heightened by a mesmeric true light, early in the day and late in the afternoon. We drive a few kilometres beyond the giant Régua dam, to the aptly named D.O.C. restaurant, whose small private jetty provides year round mooring for powerboats and assorted river-craft, including João's. There is a modest jet-set feel about this place: the combination of powerboats, gourmet food and sunshine seem to conjure a luxury feeling. Top chef Rui Paula ably prepares modern Portuguese cuisine for diners seated inside and out along the gentle arc of an elevated wooden deck, skeletally perched several metres above the water's surface. The panoramic riverside view from D.O.C.'s dining room delivers the perfect compliment to Paula's porcelain plated creations.

Boats are moored side-by-side along a springy wooden pontoon, connected to the concrete slipway and roadside access by a small modern bridge. From the parked four-wheel drive we transfer cooler boxes containing white Vallado wine and canapés for a river-born picnic. João's plan is to sail upstream to the Vintage House, collect his guests and continue through the granite canyon to the giant Valeira dam. An infamous location where, long before the barrier was built, João's renowned 19th century ancestor, Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira, survived a tragic boating accident thanks to the buoyancy of her crinoline dress... sadly, her male companion Baron Forrester, weighed down by a heavy gold sovereigns in a money belt, suffered a watery demise, never to be found. Navigating the 21st century Douro is a much safer prospect and all rapids have long since vanished, a consequence of the region's hydroelectric programme.

 

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an impromptu picnic atop the giant granite boulders of the Douro valley..

 

Along the Douro: Casting off from our small jetty the morning sun feels particularly hot and as João taps into the Suzuki engine's horsepower we accelerate towards the middle of the broad and placid stream, a foaming white crest crowns our corrugating wake, expanding and dissolving shoreward, seen from 600 metres above, João Ribeiro's powerboat resembles a giant zipper parting the mirrored flow. From the deck of our boat, the Douro's towering vine-clad terraces appear mountainous and awe inspiring, it is simply extraordinary to travel through a landscape so wild and yet so enhanced by the hand of man. The contour lines of acre after acre of undulating vineyards create a magical tapestry of shade and form, defining distant valleys and hollows, which in failing light would normally be imperceptible. While travelling along, the repetitive Patamares and ancient Murtorios mimic the cartographer's craft, helping one read the Douro's topography. Heading for Pinhão at full speed, on our right we bypass a bank level Quinta do Tedo, just glimpsing Dirk Niepoort's Napolés within the Tedo valley, almost immediately Quinta do Crasto is high to the left, next comes Quinta Nova, the Amorim owned estate. By road, this journey can be long and occasionally slow, but travelling by river, distances seem relatively insignificant. When used as a luxury river taxi, Vallado's boat is a real advantage for their many guests, making travel from Quinta to Quinta a real joy.

 

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'Numerous river craft bob up and down on our bow wave...'
Perhaps fifteen minutes have passed since leaving the D.O.C. and occupants of numerous river craft have waved cheerily as they bob up and down riding our considerable bow wave. To the right is the Torto valley's roadside junction and a torturous but breathtaking route to S. João de Pesqueira, left and directly opposite the Torto's silent confluence, the intimidating stepped schist face of Vale do Inferno rising vertiginously high into the sky, followed soon after by large painted letters spelling Quinta de La Rosa, owned by the Bergquist family and riverside laboratory of winemaker Jorge Moreira, a creator of very fine Port and table wines. Just beyond, the Douro river makes a massive right-angled turn, sweeping vallado_20_500
Quinta de La Rosa viewed from river level...
south-east beneath the well-known landmark of Pinhão road bridge. Immediately before the bridge we are confronted with the tiered and disparate grouping that is careworn Pinhão, a hub for all wine tourists and home to the famed railway station, where beautifully painted Azuleijo tiles depict a host of Douro vineyard scenes. João throttles back and we glide slowly toward the pristinely painted white gables and green shutters of the Vintage House, a smart ‘quayside' has been created along the riverbank, providing anchorage to various pleasure craft of differing proportions, including the ancient and elegantly curvaceous Rabelo boats. Long before the Douro's rocky flow was tamed by civil engineers, these boats were used to precariously transport massive pipes of Port wine downriver, all the way to Porto. Terrifyingly, one imagines it was rather like guiding a fully laden Venetian gondola over Niagara Falls!

 

'not wearing my life saving crinoline I decline the kind invitation...'


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the Royally iced cake of Quinta da Romaneira..
Valeira Dam
: Leaving Pinhão in our watery wake, with Rui Veloso and his group safely onboard, we head upstream passing under the road bridge, noting the Symington family's Quinta do Bonfim on our left. João applies the throttle and the boat forges ahead once more, travelling at speed between occasional midstream red and green navigation posts, and high on our left, glimpse the royally iced cake of Quinta da Romaneira and diagonally across stream, historic Quinta de Roriz with Gricha beyond. All around there are large painted signs planted between the vines or on Quinta facades, proclaiming Hollywood style, famous Port wine names: Warre's, Dow's, Sandeman, Cockburn's, Graham's and Ferreira. Eventually we glide between vertical granite escarpments and moving further east, our only company is the rolling stock of occasional passenger trains clinging to a single riverside track. The old diesel engines, pulling carriages full of local Portuguese village dwellers and occasional tourists heading for nearby Spain, dip in and out of tunnels dynamite blasted through the solid stone cliffs. These carriages offer an unforgettable journey to the arid paleolithic environs of Quintas Vale Meão and Ervamoira. So harsh and inaccessible is the local terrain, large parts of the Douro's windingly remote watercourse are unaccompanied by vehicular access of any kind and this steadfast railway supplies a vital link to many remote Quinta outposts.

 

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The massive Valeira dam dwarfs our tiny boat on the brooding waters of the Douro

 

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João Ferreira plunges fearlessly into the less than pellucid flow...
The majestic river journey offers a roll call of famous bankside Quintas, unspoiled scenery and sense of remoteness far removed from Portugal's Algarvian other world of beach and cocktail lifestyles. It is a northern Portugal which few people know or have the opportunity to explore, though this is gradually changing with the advent of flourishing wine tourism and UNESCO's World Heritage designation. Approaching the Valeira dam in a tiny boat has a movie-like quality: drawing ever closer, its huge concrete façade rises surreally, dwarfing our fragile transport. João cuts the engine and as we silently drift he relates the story of Dona Antonia's near death experience in the brooding waters beneath our boat... he then inquires if anyone would care to take a swim before our return trip to Vallado? Not wearing my life-saving crinoline, I decline the kind invitation but without a moment's hesitation João happily plunges headlong into the Douro's less than pellucid flow!

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