It’s hard to believe that I only ventured out to the famous Douro at the end of my stay in Portugal. Despite spending months living in Porto and having the Douro at my doorstep, I waited for what I thought would be the perfect moment to head east. I must admit that perhaps I was also a little intimidated by the UNESCO World Heritage site: breathtakingly beautiful, powerful and vast, with history so alive and deep, where does one even begin? Throughout my time in Portugal one wine tasting led to another, one good conversation to another, and with that I found myself finally seizing the moment and setting out to visit one of the most spectacular and oldest wine regions in the world.
The Douro is as beautiful as they say it is. The drive along the Douro River is enchantingly hypnotic; the river flows powerfully but gently, towns and small villages line the winding river road and terraced vineyards crawl up and down the steep mountain sides. A soft breeze from the river caresses your face and runs through your fingertips, while the sun beats down, heating the area and brightening up the landscape. Like a tiny little speck of dust, insignificant and powerless among the towering mountains and the natural splendour of the Douro, it makes for a magnificent drive.
I caught up with João Menéres, winemaker from Quinta do Romeu, in the town of Régua about 120km east of Porto. We journeyed along the winding road, heading north through the district of Bragança until we reached the small village of Romeu. During the drive João told me about the family estate, the history of the company and how he got involved in the family project. Founded in 1874 by João’s great-great-grandfather, Clemente Guimarães Menéres, Quinta do Romeu is an estate of a few thousand hectares located in northeast corner of Portugal. Born in 1843, Clemente Menéres was a bit of an adventurer and a natural-born entrepreneur. No stranger to challenges, and perhaps with a love for travelling, the young Clemente set off for Brazil at the mere age of 15 to stay with relatives. Five years later, he returned back to his native country of Portugal and set up a business exporting Portuguese goods abroad. He travelled far and wide throughout Europe and the Middle East in search of new markets but somehow also found the time to set up the first cannery and cork factory in Portugal. It wasn’t until 1874, at 31 years old, that he went deep into the interior of Portugal to the region of Trás-os-Montes to try his hand at cork production. Along with cork came the production of wine and olive oil, thus laying the foundations of Quinta do Romeu.
Fast-forward 142 years and there I was with the fifth generation of Menéres exploring the thousands of hectares of Quinta do Romeu. Twenty-five hectares of vines, 120 hectares of olive groves, and cork forest as far as the eye can see, the estate is a mesmerizing painting of endless shades of greens, yellows and browns that brush the soft hills and valleys.
Quinta do Romeu Douro DOC
Roots go down deep at Quinta do Romeu, but also act as a springboard for exploring new frontiers by the new generations. The family company, Soc. Clemente Menéres Lda., established in 1902, has vast experience in making wine. Despite years of grape growing and winemaking, the majority of Quinta do Romeu’s wine was sold in bulk to different Port houses who blended and bottled it at other estates. While this is still part of their production, Romeu has always been a still wine estate said João. “We are always adapting to the times but keeping to tradition.” A slight shift in focus, the concept behind Quinta do Romeu still wines is to offer freshness and elegance. The estate’s geographic location allows for this to be achieved: continental climate (hot, dry summers and cold winters) along with high diurnal range during growing season (hot days and cool nights), with vines planted at an altitude of 320m above sea level in schist shale soil, the grapes can ripen slowly, maintaining freshness and the delicate aromas of their varietals. The Douro grape varietals (Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Sousão, Tinta Roriz, Tinto Cão and Tinta Barroca for reds and Gouveio, Viozinho, Arinto and Rabigato and field blend for whites) are found on the estate.
In the mid-1990s the Menéres decided to replant their vinhas velhas (old vines). Unfortunately, the vines were no longer productive and so they also took the opportunity to switch over to organic farming. The 25 hectares of vines were converted from terraces to vertical trellising system. No chemicals whatsoever and with homemade compost, all agriculture on the property has been certified organic by SATIVA PT BIO 03 since 1997. “We see the estate as a whole,” said João, thus the change ensured the health of the soil, the health of those who worked the land and a wealth of biodiversity on the property. As of 2012, they have also switched over to biodynamic viticulture, a practice they follow “by the book.” After trying various biodynamic wines at different wine fairs and tastings, João, alongside his father and co-winemaker, João Pedro Menéres, noticed that these wines had “a delicacy, balance and more mouthfeel than conventional wines.” While not all biodynamic wines are created equally, it set the wheels in motion for the long haul, with results that will take a few more vintages to reveal themselves. The biodynamic philosophy also transfers over into the cellar, focusing on low-intervention winemaking and traditional practices: hand-harvesting, foot-treading in granite lagares, wild yeast for spontaneous fermentation (for reds), small quantities of sulfur added, and no or minimal use of oak (500 litres Austrian oak). My tastings of the Quinta do Romeu range (see Tasting Notes below) showed wines that were fresh and fruit-driven, but also offering the depth and complexity of Douro wines. With alcohol levels ranging between 12%abv to 13.5% abv maximum, the winemaking team at Romeu has found the balance between the finesse and the robust character of the typical Douro varietals.
The Family Patrimony: Restaurante Maria Rita and the Fascinating Museum of Curiosities
Preserving the Menéres patrimony is another objective of this deep-rooted family. After our tour of the vineyards and winery, we arrived at the small village of Romeu (pop. 18 people or so). Lost in the Portuguese countryside, the village comprises of a small chapel, a restaurant, a museum (both owned by the Menéres family), and a few stone houses with lovely rose bush gardens. The village, beautiful in its simplicity, breathes a certain history that ignites the imagination. Past and present are incredibly intertwined and interconnected with that of Menéres family, who assisted in making Romeu and the surrounding villages what they are today. The region of Trás-os-Montes, which literally means “beyond the mountains” in reference to the mountain ranges Alvão, Padrela and Bornes to the north and the Serra do Marao to the west, was for most of its history forgotten and isolated from the rest of the country. Its geographic inaccessibility resulted in a region with widespread poverty and poor living conditions. To remedy this, various generations of Menéres paved the village streets, set up a school, a nursery, a library, a pharmacy, and restored the Chapel of Our Lady of Jersualem do Romeu. In the latter half of the last century, they also restored the village restaurant, Maria Rita, and set up the fascinating Museum of Curiosities. A blast from the past, the museum has artefacts dating from the late 1800s including old typewriters, record players, movie projectors, cameras, bicycles and the first cars ever found in Portugal. There is also a section dedicated entirely to the work of the Menéres family with black-and-white photographs lining the walls and clippings of newspaper articles highlighting the family milestones. A fascinating place indeed, I oohed-and-aahed at all the little trinkets and gadgets from another time.
Another place in Romeu that will transport you to a different time and place is the cozy, family-owned restaurant, Maria Rita. This stone-walled restaurant, which was once an inn for weary travellers such as Clemente Menéres, is a safe haven from the intense summer heat or the harsh winters typical of this region. Beautiful decorated interior with hand-crafted wooden tables and chairs, the restaurant serves traditional Portuguese cuisine made with local produce and wonderful Quinta do Romeu organic olive oil. The dishes are delicious and flavourful, made with heart and soul. I sampled a local specialty, alheira (a traditional sausage) that was by far the best I’ve tasted in Portugal. The Balcahau and potatoes alongside beautiful Quinta do Romeu olives, olive oil and a tapenade made for a truly unforgettable meal. And to all of this an impressive Portuguese wine list tailored by João and his father, including Quinta do Romeu wines but also some of my favourite wines from all over the country, and well, I was quite happy to have made it to the far northeast corner of Portugal. “We try to stay loyal and truthful to our origins,” said João, and with that he offered me a glass of Romeu’s 1980 Tawny Port. Exquisite.
There is no perfect time for anything. The desires you have to explore places that fascinate you should be seized. A part of me regrets not having gone sooner into the Douro but I also know that the time will come once again to see those beautiful vineyards, those charming villages and immerse myself in the fascinating history of this region. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have met people just as passionate as I am about wine, individuals who welcomed me, who shared their wines and their stories with me and who offered me a glimpse of an incredibly rich and vibrant past. Far from intimidating, it is worth all the hype.
More of the Douro to come. Stay tuned.
QUINTA DO ROMEU BRANCO RESERVA 2014
Gouveio, Viosinho, Arinto, Rabigato and field blend from parcel of various varietals
We started off with a fresh and crisp white made from a blend of Portuguese varietals. Varietals were co-fermented in stainless steel tanks and then aged in 500L Austrian oak (both new and used) undergoing batonnage. On the nose, wonderful aromas of stone-fruit with slight minerality. The palate offers ripe stone-fruit, some citrus with bright acidity. It is medium-bodied and elegant mineral finish. Really lovely. 13%abv
QUINTA DO ROMEU ROSÉ 2015
Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz
Clean and delicate nose of rose, violet and red berries. On the palate it is completely dry, fresh acidity, light-bodied with accompanying delicate red fruit flavours and slight green finish. Great wine for summer patios or for casual aperitifs. 12%abv
MOINHO DO GATO 2014
45% Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Sousão
We moved onto the reds, starting with a unoaked wine that is really easy to sip. Medium ruby color and the nose gives off ripe red fruits and berries. On the palate, juicy red fruit with fresh, lively acidity, medium-bodied and subtle tannins. Fruit-driven wine that is ready to be drunk now, requiring no further bottle ageing. 13%abv
QUINTA DO ROMEU RED 2011
55% Touriga Nacional, 18% Tinta Roriz, 14% Sousão, 13% Touriga Franca
Intense ruby colour. Lovely aromas of red and black berries, crushed stones and delicate violet. The palate is round and there is a great balance between fruit and minerality. Firm fine-grained tannins and a lingering licorice to the finish. 13.5%abv
QUINTA DO ROMEU RED RESERVA 2012
75% Touriga Nacional, 15% Touriga Franca, 10% Sousão
Deep ruby colour with purple highlights. Fragrant and seductive nose of raspberry, dark floral notes, red fruit, resin and some earthiness. The palate matched quite exquisitely with the nose, smooth tannins, medium acidity, full-bodied with dark fruit, toasted character. Lots of layers and excellent ageing potential. 13%abv
QUINTA DO ROMEU RED 2003
Beautiful. I loved this aged red that was still alive and kicking. Quite aromatic and lovely nose of pepper, spice, berry, licorice and subtle oak. On the palate, lots of lovely ageing flavours of earth to match the red fruit and berries. Acidity was still vibrant with tannins that were soft and mellow. Long, persistent finish of forest floor. Outstanding and great example of well-aged Douro wine.