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Hurry home with wit and wine

In the largest winery of Portugal, it makes perfect sense to spit expensive wines after tasting them, writes Nilova Roy Chaudhury.

india Updated: Jan 20, 2007 00:14 IST
Nilova Roy Chaudhury | Urban Gypsy
Nilova Roy Chaudhury | Urban Gypsy

Tasting wine is a serious business. It has to be done just right. When manager Antonio Estarreja and the Australian David Baverstock, wine taster for the Herdade do Esporão winery spat out the contents of their glasses after two sips and told us to follow the suit, into the spittoon placed before us, it was a bit shocking. All that good wine being wasted. But after tasting six different wines, of different vintages, within half an hour, it made sense. Guests are required to walk out and not be carried out after the experience.

It is also a time-consuming business. The lunch which followed the wine-tasting session, during which a variety of herbs and fruity aromas were waved before our noses, to help us distinguish the subtle flavours in the particular wines, was elaborate, to say the least. Of the nine courses we counted, five were accompanied by a variety of white, red and rose wines. The meal lasted over three hours in a brilliantly landscaped resort that combines a flourishing restaurant, a bar and wine-making unit that is gradually becoming a flourishing tourist attraction.

The Herdade do Esporão winery is the largest in all of Portugal, with massive metal vats, separate for white and red, and dimly-lit underground cellars where millions of litres of wine were lying in various stages of aging, in oak barrels and glass bottles. Olive trees dot a part of the 1,000 acre complex, while rose bushes flank the vineyards along the other side. Rose bushes are planted as the first line of defence against any mildew attacking the grapevines.

Soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, they had to withdraw over 3,50,000 bottles of a wine with a label of a bearded man reading a book. I was reminded of Omar Khayyam, but apparently most consumers then thought the image was of Osama bin Laden. Every bottle from across Europe had to be withdrawn. Five years later, they are willing to pay a premium for any bottles of that 2001 vintage.

The tower, an ancient monument that is the symbol of the winery, is where all the bottle labels, painted by a famous Portuguese artist are on display.

Owners of the winery also discovered the ruins of an ancient Roman outpost beneath the property. José Roquette and his family, bankers by profession, who bought the property in 1984, took years to get government permission to make wine, because the area suddenly became a heritage site. Excavations are still going on, with unearthed artifacts being added to the recently built museum on the property at Perdigoes. According to the owners, the ruins are among the most significant archaeological finds in the country. The site unearthed contains ruins of a ‘metropolis’ from the third millennium before Christ.

The brochure refers to the discovery of the 5,000 year old Perdigoes settlement as “one of the greatest finds in Portuguese archaeology”.

Indian wine maker

The symbol Om, set in tiles, greets the visitor to the Mascarenhas villa overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on the outskirts of Lisbon. A Portuguese flag fluttering in the breeze on a flagpole on the roof was placed when the World Cup (Soccer) fever was at its height last summer, said the owner, Vilberto Santana de Mascarenhas. According to our Portuguese hosts, Mascarenhas — a Goan by birth — is the wealthiest person of Indian origin in Portugal. Mascarenhas left India after finishing his schooling in Mount Abu in 1952, going first to England and then Portugal.

A Portuguese citizen, by virtue of his birth in Goa, he has recently been given a PIO card (Person of Indian Origin) by the Indian government, as an acknowledgement of his contribution to bilateral relations. Mascarenhas, who claims he has retired from all his businesses (providing security guards and a cleaning agency), only takes interest in his vineyards.

The quality of his port wine, he said, was among the best in the country, but he only made enough for personal consumption and distribution to friends. Mascarenhas is a patron of the Casa de Goa, (House of Goa) a society of around 700 Indians who moved to Portugal from Goa. The Casa de Goa, which functions out of an old heritage building near the Portuguese Foreign Ministry headquarters, brings out a quarterly news magazine. It also runs a successful Goan restaurant and aims to recreate the Goan homeland in the heart of Lisbon.

University town

From the ramparts of the old tower, housing the headquarters of the university, the entire city of Coimbra lay before us. The university in Coimbra, a city in central Portugal, is one of the oldest universities in Europe. One of Portugal’s most important higher education and research institutions, it is part of the Coimbra Group, a group of leading European research universities.

The university moved to the present location from Lisbon in 1308, due likely to problems of emancipation from the Church (relations between the latter and the political power being somewhat strained at the time). This quaint town already had old traditions in education, being home to the highly successful school of the Monastery of Santa Cruz.

Most of the 75,000 citizens of Coimbra are affiliated in some way to the University, said Pedro de Noronha Pissarra, the CEO of Lagoas Park, a technology park just outside the city. During summer holidays, the city’s cobbled streets are completely empty he said. Given the university’s popularity as a tourist destination, several old manors and residences of the former nobility have been turned into fine dining restaurants.

Soft underbelly

The Portuguese are a bit touchy about their lax immigration laws. They claim it has to do with the warmth of their welcome. By the time we reached Lisbon, 25 hours and three airports after leaving New Delhi, we were grateful for the lack of security. Being whisked through the airport without even a cursory glance at our passports or any documents made it easy to figure out how the likes of Abu Salem had slunk into Lisbon, a destination that diplomats call the ‘soft underbelly’ of Europe.

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First Published: Jan 20, 2007 00:14 IST