Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Visiting Portugal's Dynamic Wine Region

One hour from Guimaraes, a quaint town dating to the 10th century that's seen as the cradle of Portugal's identity and is preparing to be European Cultural Capital 2012, I had one of my most unique and delightful wine experiences. I was spending several days in the country's Vinho Verde region, the northwest sector renown for its fresh, aromatic, light citrus-tinged wines. This region, one of Portugal's oldest, is named not, as often thought, for the youth of its wines, but rather for the verdant landscape carpeting this land that's blessed with warm summers, cool winters and plenty of rain -- perfect conditions for producing some fine varietals. Curiously, the vines grow along wires and arbors, lending a picturesque quality to the terroir. The reason, however, is a practical one: Originally it was a way to efficiently plant the land and now the aerial growth allows for plenty of sun to rain down upon the leaves while keeping the grapes far from standing water which would breed mildew.

A mighty family house hovered in the background as Vasco Croft, the congenial and knowledgeable wine maker and owner of Afros Wine, greeted us. From this hill top retreat, the vineyards growing Loureiro and Vinhau grapes, used to make white and red wines, respectively, are spread before us. Piercing the idyllic valley far below is the tower of a parish church and, beyond, gently rolling hills.

The tour of the property started out quite ordinary as Vasco pointed out the stone dwelling that's been in the family since the 17th century and the stately trees that his great grandmother planted -- some are more than 100 years old. (But wine production in this region goes way back to Roman times.)

Then the conversation became decidedly more unique as Vasco showed us many of the elements involved in the production of biodynamic wines. Though there are many people who still hold that this green methodology that goes far beyond simply producing an organic product is hocum or some sort of magic, it's the results that count. (But I'll get to that later.)

The process involves considering a host of cosmic factors -- from the phases of the moon to ambient magnetic radiation -- that can affect the health of the vines. Here, the entire eco-system is seen as playing a core role in grape agriculture. Sure, there are some production aspects that, to the traditional wine producer, seem certainly curious. Vasco told us that he plants and harvests according the phases of the mood; places cow manure in cows' horns that are buried underground to produce a humus that's used in minute quantities; and uses a dynamizer machine that sequentially rotates clockwise and then counterclockwise to mix up various components, such as crushed quartz and dried flowers that help build up the quality of the soil.

He even showed us a tinkling organic-shaped waterfall he had built that optimizes the rhythmic quality of the water. (Another key biodynamic principle.) Vasco keeps bee hives on the property for pollination purposes, uses tea tree oil to prevent mildew on the grapes, and sprays them with silica to maximize photosynthesis.

It's all quite complicated and precise, but it obviously works. I sampled five wines that were some of the best I've tasted during my many visits to Portugal. These wines were transparent, vibrant and full of life, just like the wine producer, Vasco. My favorite was the elegant, light citrus-toned 2007 sparkling white made with 100% Loureiro. Vasco told me that his 2008 Loureiro was recently voted "most ethical wine" by the Independent. I also had the opportunity to taste a couple of the 2009 vintage that were still unlabelled. The 2009 Loureiro had grapefruit notes while the 2009 Vinhao (a red) had ripe tannins and plenty of licorice notes. I would've loved to have packed away all five in my backpack. Sadly there was no room.

Sure, it's hard to explain how these unorthodox methods work. But Vasco is producing wines that maximally reflect the region's terroir. I'd be delighted to visit this vineyard and taste any of these wines again. Anyone who is interested in a wine tasting at this quinta needs to call to make a reservation in the summer only.
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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Morocco's Bird Watching Oasis

My trips don't always work out the way I'd like. Sometimes they work out better. Because of itinerary restrictions among the members of the group I was traveling with, I spent my brief time in Morocco based out of Agadir and not the High Atlas Mountains, as I would've preferred. But that didn't stop me from heading out into natural landscapes.

I hired a jeep and took off on a day trip with my guide, Mokhtar, through the Souss Valley, a fertile land in south Morocco where the country's Berber people reside, bound for Massa with its picturesque estuary.

On our journey, we passed donkeys carrying heavy loads and women dressed in colorful garb sitting astride horses with baskets filled with greens, sometimes they overflowed to such as extend that you could hardly see the donkey. We passed villages of red clay in an ever-changing scenery -- from lush verdancy dappled with bold wild flowers to crop fields, groves of citrus, olive and almond trees, and dense forests of Argania trees
. (The oil from their nuts are used in many traditional dishes.)

As we traveled through the semi-desert, the buildings were the color of sand with doors painted in bold blue and green hues. We bumped off road on rutted, bone-rattling single track bound for Souss Massa National Park and its picturesque estuary that's surrounded by massive sand dunes and a tidal sandbar. The road got sandier as we bumped along towards the ocean. Finally, I strolled through sugar-fine golden sand delighting in the cool breezes. Then my guide told me that this area is more than a prime migratory bird zone. It's also said to be the beach where the whale disgorged the prophet Jonah.

This petite wetland with its reeds and grasses is considered Morocco's prime bird watching site. And it didn't disappoint, with an array of sightings: terns, gulls, herons, ibis, sand martins and marbled ducks, a threatened species. I kept my eyes focused skyward, wondering if I'd spot eagles, falcons or even some rarer birds. Given the natural beauty and the wealth of bird sightings, I wished I had a few days to spend here. But we had to head back to Agadir that evening.

We did have time for a late lunch of traditional Berber bread that was baked in a clay kiln and then piled high in shallow wicker baskets. We ate the warm bread with honey. Then I curled a piece around beef shish kebabs. I also scooped up the traditional Berber dish, tajine, that's served in a round clay pot with chicken, squash, potatoes, carrots and tomatoes.
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