Quinta Nova, The Heroic Viticulture Of The Douro

Ξ September 8th, 2011 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, PORTUGAL, Wine History, Wineries |

Rodrigo has NASCAR ambitions. This I discovered as he drove a narrow road off N221, over the mountains to Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo in the Douro DOC sub-region of Cima Corgo. But his talent for automotive speed and agility would surely be wasted at Daytona where the unofficial mantra is “Turn Left!” With his wife Joana Mesquita — scientifically trained, she works public relations for Amorim & Irmãos — in the passenger seat and yours truly excitedly leaning forward from the back, Rodrigo maintained the delicate balance between skill and risk. Besides, on most rural back roads of Portugal, not to mention city centers, there is hardly ever enough room for opposing traffic. And median striping is a perpetually deferred ambition.
 
I was in Portugal, first in Porto, then in Lisbon, at the generous invitation of APCOR, the Portuguese Cork Association. I had spent two enlightening days listening to and learning from scientists on the cutting edge of cork production and TCA control — very good news on this latter front — on cork oak research and industrial design; and from cork harvesters. I was also there to shoot a small film on cork from cradle to grave, the footage soon be edited. All of this will be the subject of a series of posts to come.
The upshot is that I was, to be perfectly honest, a bit fatigued by the multiple cork-saturated conversations! But I knew going in to the wonderful country, shoulder to shoulder with my APCOR colleagues — and they are my colleagues, cork fundamentalist that I am — that I would be taken to Quinta Nova. Oddly, despite my more than half dozen visits to Portugal, including the Azores, during which I travelled extensively shooting for the documentaries Mother Vine and Azores, From Lava To Wine, I had never set foot in the mountains and hills above the serene Douro River. The intellectual division of labor being what it is, I left the demanding, historically complex subject of Port, and the Douro DOC generally, to others. So I really had no idea what to expect as Rodrigo motored ever higher up into the mountains.
 
How to put this…. If you have never skipped across the mountain tops above the Douro then you must add it to your list of things to do before you shed this mortal coil. Passing over the summit, with the late afternoon sun spilling into the valley, on the hillside the Quinta Nova sign in warm ivory light, the vista was breathtaking. Slow and deep, the Douro River, even from a distance, is the artery of life here. In many of Portugal’s wine regions it is rain fall and aquifers upon which winegrowers and all agriculturalists depend. But here the steep watershed, terraced with vines as far as the eye can see, receives back what it gives. Water.
 
Indeed, though a non-believer, a contemplative spiritual mood was right away cast upon my arrival on the high grounds of Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo (Our Lady of Mount Carmel). Not only may one vacation here, but there stands a chapel on the property of great local significance. Catholic services as well as religious festivals are regularly held in the modest refuge. It stands directly across from the Quinta’s formal entrance. Far cooler air surrounded me upon entering, and I saw pools of wax and blackened wicks from the many spent candles and wooden pews smoothed by thousands of visitors and penitents. In a vase on the altar a bouquet of fading flowers still faintly perfumed the room.
 
I also noted right away what must be an on-going, if minor, tension between worshipper and the more secular tourist. Of the small framed lithographs of the 14 stations of the cross evenly spaced on the walls, two had been stolen by persons unknown: Jesus’ death on the cross, #12, and his removal from the cross, #13. They lithographs are of particular artistic merit. Measuring 3×5 inches, the remaining illustrations rather resemble old American baseball cards from the 30s. I do not know what would possess (no pun intended) an individual to perpetrate such an act; I left the chapel wanting to know the whys.
 
Magic hour was deepening, a film business term for that special light that lingers near the end of the day, when the sun’s brightness yields to the thicker atmosphere above the horizon. My guide, Joana Mesquite, knowing of emotive quality of magic hour had hardly put her luggage away, and I mine, when she insisted I walk with her to a place quite she quite loves. Just a little climb up a dusty road to an walled orchard of great antiquity. I shall mention now that Ms. Mesquite was eight months pregnant and was wearing casual shoes better for poolside or domestic routines. But she was not the least bit concerned as we set out on the quarter mile hike. All up.
 
Near the orchard stood a granite obelisk about four feet high engraved with the nearly three century-old official proclamation issued from the Marques de Pombal granting Quinta Nova permission to grow and produce wine — an obelisk and engraving typically found on the grounds of the older Douro DOC properties. I stood with Ms. Mesquita as she patiently narrated a sketch of the Quinta, her enduring love of the vineyards and house, her voice often trailing off as she reflected on the beauty of the place. It was then I heard, well, nothing. The silence high above the Quinta, and throughout Portugal for that matter, is the most intimate I’ve ever known, almost like the breathing of a lover. For when I pause to listen, really listen, it is not silence I hear at all, but the delicate atmospherics of our ancient belonging in this world. Birdsong, cockerels, barking dogs, children’s voices….
 
To freshen up, rinse the fine dust from my hair, I went to my room overlooking the valley. I was to meet Joana and Rodrigo for dinner in an hour or so. I wasted no time — the internet is available only upstairs via a computer shared by all lodgers — in returning outside, now to the grand plaza where, at a modest remove, a couple quietly swam the pool, and nearer me, two children played between regal junipers running the plaza’s length. I sat gazing at the vista, enthralled. At some point a young local hireling was passing (regular help is hard to find, so remote is the Quinta). Diogo works the kitchen and dining room I was soon to learn. I silently gestured to him with a sweeping motion at the stunning view. He looked out and then lay his cupped hands over his chest, moving them as though his heart were beating rapturously. Perfect.
 
Solitude. Landscapes have different effects and acoustics. There is the melancholy and longing at an ocean’s tideline, a roar that drowns out speech; the flirtation with domination and mastery on the summits of higher mountains, the echo; mind-numbing monotony of a forest of lodge pole pine; deserts offer a terrible featureless beauty; while a jungle runs riot with fertility, ever-pregnant with more and more and more. Then there is the view from Quinta Nova. Something Ms. Mesquita said to me near the orchard stuck in my brain. Some time ago an Italian visitor looked out from the same spot and exactly described what goes on here and in the Douro DOC overall: Heroic Viticulture. Yes, this landscape is one of labor, of work. All of it hard. The steep hillsides, the hammering heat, a dust that penetrates the very pores of your boots; yes, it is a landscape of a magnificent human achievement.
 
A heady delirium at the vast terraced landscape may set your mind soaring, but the understanding its creation and maintenance by generations of calloused hands brings you right back down. And this would be a good development for the wine tourist, were it ever to happen. Because thought properly, labor has a beauty all its own, even if from within the wine world, with its bottle and label fetishes (among others), one rarely hears anything of it. So understand what was subtracted from the silence I listened to above: The murmur of vineyard workers, their footfalls, pruning shears rasping.
 
After a fine dinner of Portuguese specialities, with even better company and conversation, Rodrigo and Joana, our silent waiter, Diogo, I wandered the pitch black grounds before turning in. Millions of stars. Ms. Mesquita had explained to me precisely where the sun would be rising this time of year. For the next morning, still dark, I did get up for a long walk deep into the vineyards to meet and film precisely the dawn. But the mountains were too proximate, too dense. The sky had already turned a lighter blue before the sun had even summited. All of Quinta Nova’s cooler north-western sloped vineyards, the trail I took, were in pastel from first light, while across the river other vineyards were already broadsided by a harsh sun, which set the windows of the odd house there flashing.
 
Below me I saw a helipad. At dinner last night it had been explained to me that though as the crow flies no town is too far away, it is that the kilometers must be traveled by car. So given the arduous climbs in all directions a tourist can enjoy, it was decided that in the event of a medical emergency a helicopter ought to be able to fly in. Helipad. Pausing here and there to film some severe planted incline, my thoughts again turned to the tremendous amount of work involved here. I noted a curious thing. The dust was inches deep in places on all the level trails and roads. I sunk in and my boots became covered — and probably even now still have fine Quinta Nova silt now well worked into the leather. It can be tiring walking in such silt! Then I saw the foot prints of local dogs in the tractor tracks left by its heavy wheels. So I took to hiking after their fashion. Much easier! I explored for nearly two hours. Two hours of brilliant peace and quiet.
 
When I returned I packed what little I had removed from my bags, added a Quinta well designed notepad and the small bottles of shampoo, one of which I had actually opened. I was to return to Porto mid-day. Upstairs the well-appointed kitchen the Quinta was in full swing. A group of European tourists had rented out all of the rooms and would be arriving later that afternoon. Much preparation had to be done, of fresh sauces, fruits, and marinades . I listened to the playful conversations, about shared lives, not isolated exactly, but chaste and chosen; of the successful dinner preparation the night before; of whose tractor needed work; who had recently fallen in or out of love.
 
I took a few pictures. Tried to keep out of the way as I waited to be called to go. But this was among my favorite experiences at Quinta Nova. Not the dramatic history, the magnificent vineyard and mountain vistas, the riot of stars, or Rodrigo’s thrilling drive here — they were memorable and I have safely tucked them away — but it was these playful conversations, discrete, demure, occasionally bawdy, that drove home the real meaning of a stay at Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo: The persistence of the domestic, the filling of everyday with small tasks well done. For that too is heroic.
 
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  1. on September 11th, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    Ken,

    Sooooo good to hear your story about Quinta Nova. Douro (as you know) is a really special place on a wine map. Not only extremely viticulture is a proof for that – history, people and finally wine itself.

    I’ve already been to Nossa Senhora, it was during #WOPIC. I would remember forever winery with its surroundings and astonishing views.

    Can’t wait to meet you again during #EWBC :D

    Take care!

    Maciek

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