The art of sipping port

The mention of Port Wine has always, for me, prompted a vision of wood-paneled rooms filled with leather settees and impeccably-groomed men holding a glass in one hand and a cigar in the other. It’s a movie-set vision, I know.

Port still seems a bit mysterious. Like sherry, it has never really been a mainstream experience for most Americans. I was aware that port was produced in Portugal, while sherry is associated with Spain, but I knew little else. So, when my traveling companions and I had the opportunity to take part in a port tasting on a rainy day, we seized it. We were in Cascais, a delightful seaside city not far from Lisbon.

Port is produced only in a specific region in the country, and its designation is strictly regulated. Bottled in several varieties, there are expensive aged ports and sought-after vintages, but surprisingly smooth, rich and reasonably-priced options are also available. Stringent standards govern a port’s bottling and labeling. But all true port wine comes from the Douro Valley of northern Portugal. It bears what is termed a “controlled” appellation. Although other regions produce liqueurs and similar fortified wines, true port is distinctive and distinctively satisfying.

My brief experience in the tasting room certainly does not bestow expert status, but I feel confident that I would not embarrass myself by ordering an after-dinner port in a restaurant. For me, that’s a triumph. I also know now why so many people enjoy sipping port. I have a favorite, but the four different varieties we sampled were all pleasant. To my surprise, I learned that there is white port; and that it is, indeed, very good.

The cool, drizzly day presented us an opportunity to cozy up in a wine bar in the all-but-deserted marina area of Cascais. The proprietor beckoned us in, offering temporary shelter from approaching dark clouds. Within minutes, places were set, bottles arranged, and the learning commenced.

The tasting became a highlight of our two-week driving trip through Portugal. When we returned home, one of our first purchases was a bottle of Tawny Port. We savored it, both for its taste and for the memories it evoked.

A European trip the previous year filled in some gaps in my knowledge about sherry during a tasting and cooking class in the Spanish city of Jerez. I remember that experience fondly as well. Today, bottles of the two unique fortified wines share space in my home’s cocktail bar, offered as complements to good food and good times shared regularly with friends.

One of the best reasons for traveling, of course, has always been to experience new things. The tastes of new and previously unfamiliar food and drink rank every bit as high on my list as visual adventures. Even though, today, there is a temporary hold on my travel plans, the enjoyment lingers, the memories are sweet and fresh, and sharing past experiences keeps every recollection alive.

Great Portugal Excursions: Tour a Cork Forest

Even though five generations of his family have held title to the land that claimed Phillip Mellon’s heart, his own journey to living on that land was circuitous. The attachment, though, is obvious and strong.

On a two-and-a-half-hour classic Jeep safari of the 540-hectare (more than 1,300 acres) Portuguese farm that he occupies with his wife and two young boys, he recounted the story of how his passionate love for the land unfolded. He admits that he is the first of his family to actually live on and work the land. His forebears, he explains, were “gentleman farmers” who held the property as a sort of vacation retreat from life in the city and other professional pursuits, hiring caretakers to tend the cork oaks, supervise the harvest and care for grazing animals.

Learning from the Land

During the tour, Mellon tells of the farm’s history, how it was that he found his way home, literally, to build a new life on his land, and of his hopes for the future. It’s a fascinating story of adaptive land use, and a continuing effort to build reality from a dream.

Phillip Mellon is a totally modern man, with deep Portuguese roots and ties to the culture. He was reared in the city, near Lisbon and the sea, but he says his happiest times were the school vacations and summers he spent at the farm in the country’s Alentejo region.

Mellon’s father, an attorney, still lives in the city, as do his siblings. Phillip himself had no early intentions of becoming a farmer. He was educated in England, then lived and worked both in Australia and Canada before finally returning to Portugal to settle on the family land. Noting that he really knew little about farming at the time, he has seized on opportunities as they presented themselves, learning by doing, and not averse to trying out new ventures.

In the year 2000, he embraced the idea of planting grapevines; today the vineyards produce award-winning wines. He says, laughingly, that he is a bit undisciplined in his pursuits.

Cork: A Major Industry

Driving east from Lisbon, we did not at first know what to expect. The scenery is dramatically beautiful, pastoral and calm, with scattered small towns punctuating the green hills. Large trees became more common, but we did not immediately recognize them as cork oaks, until we spotted large stacks of bark drying in the sun.

Luckily, our rental car had a superb navigational system; we were to meet our guide “in front of the museum in Redondo.” After only a few wrong turns and some good-natured advice from local residents, we arrived right on time, met Jose Inverno and our tour-mates, and were escorted to the farm for a sip of strong espresso in the sunny courtyard of the main farmhouse.

The surrounding forests in the Alentejo region and further south in Algarve province have been producing Portugal’s noted cork for centuries. The story of cork is a fascinating one. Portugal is the world’s major supplier, now accounting for approximately one half of the annual global harvest. A tree must be at least 20 years old, often much older, before it can first be harvested. It is said that the best bottle corks come from trees at least 50 years old. Then, by law, the bark of a cork oak may be stripped only every nine years. At this farm, Herdade da Maroteira, the rotation is once every 11 years. It is not a pursuit for the impatient!

Today, Mellon not only supervises the annual cork harvest, but is also planting new grape varietals. The farm offers informational walking treks and motorized tours through a subsidiary company managed by Jose Inverno, and has recently ventured into agri-tourism, with simple, but charming, accommodations available by the night or for an extended stay.

In addition, there are olive trees that produce oil for the farm and some limited sales, as well as beehives to supply fragrant honey. Sheep and cattle graze on the land, and Mellon partners with an Iberian black ham producer, allowing the distinctive long-legged pigs to fatten, during season, on the nutritious acorns that fall from the abundant oak trees.

The pigs, however, had not yet arrived on the land; the sheep seemed shy, but the cattle were unfazed by our presence. Farm dogs accompanied us everywhere.

An Individualized Tour Opportunity

Our Jeep safari followed dirt paths winding through the oaks, past fields of lavender, yellow and white wildflowers, adjacent to vineyards planted with a variety of grapevines, and across the hillocks of the foothills of the Serra D’Ossa range. At the highest point, we breathed in the spectacle, as Mellon pointed out the boundaries of his working estate down below.

We passed other groups of trekkers, each one accompanied by a congenial guide, and Jose also escorted a second driving tour in his car. We made frequent stops to listen to Mellon’s dialog, and the photo ops were superb!

The area invites exploration, from the evidence of ancient settlements to scattered ruins and well-preserved medieval walls and churches. The time passed all too quickly, and following a visit to the farm’s small shop, we returned to Redondo for a long, relaxing, traditional country lunch, included as part of our tour.

Sunday Dinner Far From Home

It was a Sunday and Restaurante Serra d’Ossa was filled with locals, all genial and smiling as they were greeted by Mellon. They, in turn, greeted us warmly, and we felt at home. The proprietors took care of us as if we were family, and the bountiful food and wine was brought to our table family style. We had a wonderful time getting to know our fellow “trekkers” better, and the food itself was delectable.

The menu included a variety of interesting appetizers served as traditional Portuguese “couvert,” followed by amazing tomato soup with poached eggs, and “green soup” for one of our group allergic to tomatoes. The entree was a mixed platter of pork prepared several different ways, and fresh salad, followed by a selection of tempting desserts, all of which disappeared quickly.

We assume that the cadence of life exists in this small town much as it always has, and we were delighted to be a part of it, if only for a day. Mellon told us that few of the other cork farmers have an interest in opening their forests to visitors or in diversifying into other enterprises. So, for the time being at least, Herdade da Maroteira offers a unique experience for travelers to Portugal. It is one that we will long remember, and one we highly recommend.

Because we were there in late April, we missed the harvest, which typically occurs in late June or early July, but we can visualize the buzz of activity it must generate at the farm.

Other available treks and tours take visitors to explore the ancient “dolmens,” burial mounds in the surrounding hills, on leisurely countryside walks and birding tours, and to visit the museum and ancient buildings of Redondo.

Perhaps one day we’ll return to do it all.

*Note: Some Portuguese cork factories also welcome tourists, but we chose to forgo the opportunity because of time constraints and distance. We left Alentejo headed south to the Algarve for a week near the sea. In future posts, I’ll chronicle other wonderful excursions for Portugal travelers.