Friday, September 30, 2011

The Yeatman Hotel (Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal): Portuguese Wine Ambassador

Participants in Decanter's Great Port Wine Weekend event were scheduled to lunch and overnight at the Yeatman Hotel, a 5-star luxury hotel located above the Port Lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia and famed for its stunning views of the Douro River and the town of Porto running northwards from its banks.  In that the Yeatman was designed, and is being marketed, as a wine hotel, I will explore its wine-related characteristics in this post.

The Yeatman is owned by Fladgate Partners which, in addition to the hotel, controls such fabled Port labels as Taylor's, Croft, and Fonseca and a number of Quintas (estates) on the Douro, upriver of Porto.  The hotel, which came online in the summer 2010, is designed with the ground floor as its highest point with guest rooms sunk into the face of the hill below.  Travel from the reception to a guest room requires taking an elevator downwards.  According to the hotel sommelier, Croft, Delaforce, and Fladgate Port Lodges were destroyed to make room for the hotel.

The Yeatman as seen from the river bank

The common areas of the hotel are tastefully designed and decorated with the internal designs flowing gracefully outwards from large, glass-enclosed spaces to terraces and patios which direct the eyes outwards towards the Douro and Porto rather than to the Port Lodges directly below.

There is not a single guest room with a bad view as all 82 rooms have a similar northward-facing view and a private balcony from which to soak in the sun and the view.  Amenities abound.  The hotel boasts a restaurant, breakfast room, and pool bar, all well-appointed and, of course, overlooking the Douro and Porto.

The wine focus of the hotel becomes apparent as soon as you step into the elevator.  The leftmost elevator (as you face them) is decorated (fully) with an amazing panoramic view of a Douro vineyard.  In juxtaposition, the second elevator is decorated such as to give the impression that you are in a Port Lodge.  I have never thought of the inside of an elevator as being picture-worthy but both of these are.

The elevator lobbies on the guest-room floors, the halls leading to the lobbies, and the guest-room hallways are all decorated with maps of the Douro (river and region), pictures of vineyards, and scenes from the production and storage of Port.  On the walls leading to the wine cellar, there are plaques and framed matter showing the primary Portuguese wine regions and representing Portuguese varietal aromas as fruits in a glass.

Wine can be bought at the hotel in the restaurant, at the pool bar or at an attractively stocked lobby shop.  The hotel describes the restaurant wine list as being the best Portuguese wine list in the world.

In order to gain better insight into the hotel's wine activities, I arranged for a tour of the wine cellar with Elisabette, the restaurant sommelier.  We met in the main lobby and then worked our way down to the cellar (We were joined in this adventure by two other couples from the Decanter Reader Team.).

As we entered the cellar, we were confronted by a large, free-standing wall that stood to the right of the entrance and was adorned with name plates.  Elisabette explained that these were the names of the hotel's Wine Partners, the producers of the best wines in Portugal.  Each partner, according to Elisabette, gave their name to a room and was allowed to decorate it in a manner which promoted their wines.  The partner wines are on the restaurant wine list which is organized into Chapter 1 (by the glass), Chapter 2 (bottle), and Chapter 3 (vintage; requires a trip to the wine or port cellar).  In addition to the general wine list, there is a weekly list which features the wines of an estate by the glass.  That particular wine is promoted heavily by all of the hotel's outlets during that week.  Also during that week, a dinner featuring that wine, and complementary fare prepared by the chef, will be held.

The Yeatman cellar is home to 25,000 bottles drawn from 800 primarily Portuguese labels.  The wines are arranged in the cellar from the northernmost Portuguese wine region southwards and the management of the contents are the responsibility of a full-time cellar master.

The management of the Yeatman has successfully melded the themes of luxury and wine into a seamless whole which is pleasing to the senses.  The partner advertising in the rooms are very understated and appear more as accents than sales pitches.  The wine list is impressive in terms of the volume of Portuguese wines included and Elisabette is of inestimable value in helping you navigate through it.  I liked this hotel.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Review of Decanter's Great Port Wine Weekend

Decanter, the leading wine magazine in the UK, implemented a program last year to bring a select group of its readers to top-end Bordeaux estates in order to meet and interact with the winery managers.  The intent of the program was to increase the Decanter value proposition in the eyes of these readers.  This initial effort was extremely successful from the reader's point-of-view (see my review here) and, apparently, from Decanter's  also, because they opted to repeat the effort this year, this time calling it the Great Port Wine Weekend.  This year's event differed from last year's in that it: was held in Portugal's Douro region rather than in France's Bordeaux; extended from Thursday to Sunday, rather than the two days covered by last year's program; was held during harvest so that we could observe and (participate in) the process; had a significant fortified wine (Port) component; had separate vitivinification and maturation aspects due to the structure of the Port trade.

Decanter leveraged its standing and relationships in the wine world to provide its readers with a four-day package that had the leading lights of the Port industry showcasing the leading Port locales in an encompassing, breathtaking fashion.  First, the level and intensity of executive access was unparalleled.  Every single activity in which we participated was led by some combination of Paul Symington, CEO,  Symington Family Estates, Nick Heath, Marketing Director, Taylor Fladgate and Yeatman, Adrian Bridge, CEO, Taylor Fladgate and Yeatman, Dominic Symington, Executive Director, Symington Family Estates, and Ana Margarida Morgado, PR Manager, Taylor Fladgate Yeatman.  For perspective, Symington Family Estates owns Graham's Port, Cockburn's, Dow's Port, Warre's Port, produces 30% of the world's premium Port, and is the largest vineyard owner in the Douro.

This "extreme access" began with an aperitif on the terrace and a private lunch in a private dining room (Both locales affording spectacular views of the the Douro and Porto) at the Yeatman Hotel, both hosted by its dapper Managing Director, Adrian Bridge.  The Decanter team was comprised of 11 readers, Sarah Kemp, Decanter Publishing Director, and Emma Franc, Decanter Events Manager and this was our kickoff meeting.  A glorious start to what would turn out to be a glorious weekend.  Adrian's welcome was very warm and he stayed with us for the duration, a practice to which we became accustomed over the four days.

This was only the beginning, however.  Both Paul Symington and Nick Heath took us on a tour of the Factory House and then hosted us for dinner in this fabulous historical structure.  And this level of executive attention and care continued until Dominic Symington deposited us into the buses that would take us from Graham's Quinto dos Malvedos to the airport at Porto on Sunday evening for our trip back to London.  And every day was chock full of activities.

Nick Heath, Marketing Director, Taylor Fladgate and Yeatman

Paul Symington, CEO, Symington Family Estates

Over the course of the four days we met the winemakers at Quinta do Vesuvio (a very important Symington Estate in the Douro) and Quinta dos Malvedos (a Graham's property), the viticulturist at Quinta do Vesuvio, and the head of Viticulture for all Symington properties.  The upshot of this level of access was a constant immersion in the history of the region and its families, the viniviticulture of the Douro, maturation processes, soil, climate, the wines of the region, and the difficulty associated with farming here.

As one travels up the Douro River, whether by train or boat, one is struck by the beauty of the terraced vineyards on gently sloping hills which reach at once for the sky and the horizon.  Punctuating these vineyards are patches of scrubland, walnut and olive trees, and granite outcroppings.  The appreciation for the beauty of the landscape is tempered by a mental tip of the hat in recognition of the human effort that was required to transform this inhospitable environment into a setting wherein extreme agriculture could be practiced.  The river, placid as it is, has been known to rise up and break a rib or two of the unsuspecting water-skier.

Occurring as it did in the midst of harvest, this trip afforded us the opportunity to observe the winemaking process for the 2011 vintage.  Port is vinified in the upper reaches of the Douro and then shipped downriver for maturation the following spring.  We visited three estates and were able to observe hand-harvesting of the varietals, the transportation of the picked grapes down to the winery, treatment of the grapes prior to crushing, various manual and mechanical crushing methods, fortification of the must, and the temporary storage of the fortified wine in the winery.  We participated in a manual crush but also gained an appreciation for the long hours that vineyard workers put in during harvest.  They are up at the crack of dawn and are picking grapes from 7:00 am until about 4:00 pm and are in the winery stomping grapes (gently) from 7:00 pm until 11:00 pm.

Our accommodations over the four days were an experience in and of themselves and contrasted luxury-living in a port town versus living on a working farm where the nearest convenience store is 40 kilometers away (When you forget to pick up milk on the way home you are not going back.).  The Yeatman Hotel, our place of abode in Gaia, is a new luxury hotel with all of the amenities.  The estate house at Quinta de Vesuvio is two-story, multi-bedroom structure with an attached church and no room-service button but we all jumped at the chance to stay on a working estate during harvest.  And this is not your every day rural farmhouse. It exuded warmth and charm which, in combination with the famed Symington hospitality, made us feel right at home.

We did not want for food or drink on this trip.  Being as close as it is to the Atlantic, fish dominates the Douro menu, with cod (for the most part slightly salted) as the victim of choice (Being a bacalou aficionado, I had no problem with this.).  The meals in the upper Douro were hearty and reminded me somewhat of Tuscan fare in its appropriateness for the land.  Drinks were always at hand either in the form of a tasting, an aperitif, or an accompaniment to a meal.  One popular aperitif is white port and soda on the rocks with a slice of lime and a mint leaf.  Very refreshing.  The meal progression is to first sit around in a circle and have a port-and-soda-fueled discussion before decamping to a nicely laid out table for the actual meal.

This trip was impeccably organized and well-managed on the ground.  I was not privy to the workings of the process but it was obvious that a yeoman Symington logistical effort underpinned the entire program.  Our transportation needs were frequent and varied but the bus, train, or boat was always there; and so were we. The concern for time, and respect for others, was especially evident in the cases where we were being handed off from Taylor's to Symington or vice versa.

If this program had been organized by anyone but Decanter I would have been advising them to get out now.  To quit while they were ahead.  I would have suggested that it would be exceedingly difficult to better  (and, after all, we always expect better) the experience that was afforded this year's participants.  That it would be hard to find partners who are so hospitable and generous with their time; so willing to include us in their family activities.  But after all, it is Decanter of whom we speak.  And it is Decanter to whom we will look next year for another mind-blowing experience.

I will detail the individual elements of our trip in future posts.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

2009 Beaujolais Tasting: Cru Wines

The press had spoken glowingly of the 2009 vintage in Beaujolais, as had critics and winemakers alike.  Even Andrew McNamara, the Master Sommelier who was leading us in this tasting, had referred to the vintage as the best he had ever seen coming out of Beaujolais.  Yet we were more than of a quarter of the way through the tasting and had not yet encountered any earth-shaking wines.  But maybe our fortunes would change with a shift to tasting the cru Beaujolais wines.  Our experiences in that regard is the subject of this post.

Before we get to the wines, some acknowledgements that should have been covered in my earlier post.  First, the wines were provided by Ron Siegel, John Alport, and the author.  Some of the wines had to be shipped in overnight (given the time of the year and the fact that the tasting was being held in Florida) and the cost of shipping was significantly greater than the cost of the wine.  Secondly, I would like to thank Ron for securing the tasting locale and associated excellent service personnel.

Now back to the wines.  The characteristics of the individual crus were covered in an earlier post as was the tasting order, which flowed from lightest to most robust.  The first cru tasted was the Vissoux Brouilly Pierreux.  On the nose butterscotch, carmel, and raspberry.  On the palate, tart cranberry, raspberry, dusty earth, and a certain spiciness.  Also, some evidence of tannin and texture.

The second wine tasted was the Domaine des Braves Régnie.  This estate is owned by Paul Cinquin and was initially founded by his grandfather.  It was broken up into many pieces as a result of the French inheritance laws but Paul has reconstituted 20+ acres of the original estate on soil that is a mix of sand and clay.  Paul picks his fruit seven to ten days later than his neighbors in order to ensure maximal ripeness.  The wine is unique in Beaujolais in that it is a blend of three distinct vilification methods: thermo (for color and lightness of aromas); pigeage (for extraction of tannins and aromas); and semi-carbonic (for fruit and soft tannins).  The wines are 100% tank-aged and are bottled unfined and lightly filtered.  This wine threw off aromas of bubblegum, red fruit, perfume, game, and earth.  It was fuller-bodied than any wine tasted to this time and was smooth on the palate.  Now we were beginning to cook with gas.

The next wine up was the Damien Coquelet Chiroubles Vielles Vignes.  The label on this bottle was rather unprepossessing, as French wine labels go, but this was one serious wine.  The nose launched us into a lengthy discussion on brett and its contribution to/detraction from wines.  This wine did exhibit some brett on the nose but it was not off-putting.  The wine had great body, asian spices, and a pepperiness to accompany kirsch-liqueur and black-fruit flavors.  It had a long, silky finish.  Impressive.  I have bought a case of this wine post the tasting.

Chateau Thivin Brouilly was the next scheduled wine in the lineup.  This estate has 8.3 hectares of east-, south-, and southwest-facing vineyards on the steep slopes of Mount Brouilly.  The soil is composed of blue stones of volcanic origin.  The estate's vineyard strategies promote natural regulation of pests and diseases, proper soil conditions, and sun exposure and aeration for the hanging fruit.  Grapes are hand-harvested  in whole bunches, macerated for 8-12 days, and aged in oak casks for 6 months.  Tart red fruit on the nose confirmed on the palate along with some minerality and a medium finish.

The wine from the cru of St. Amour was the Domaine des Champs-Grilles Revillon.  This wine exuded sweet, floral notes with a hint of decomposing rose petals.  It was light of body, soft, feminine, and elegant.  It was not as acidic as the crus tasted to date and was endowed with late-arriving tannins which dried out the palate on the finish.

The Pierre-Marie Chermette property that is the source of the Fleurie wine is called Poncie and is a 4.5 hectare, southeast-facing plot on the heights of the cru.  This vineyard was planted 35 years ago on pink granite soil that is rich in mica and quartz.  This wine is meaty and iron-rich on the nose; somewhat reminiscent of a charred grill.  Light on the palate.  Rustic with a non-round mouthfeel.

The contribution from the Juliénas cru was the Domaine Eve and Michel Rey Les Paquelets. The grapes for this wine were sourced from low-yielding vines with an average age of 90 years.  Slightly medicinal on the nose with lots of (good) funk and granite.  Dense on the palate with great texture and a fulsome representation of acidity and tannin.  This was the most Burgundian of the wines tasted that day and earned the designation "wine of the day."  I have since bought a case of this wine.

The next wine tasted was the Jean-Paul Thevenet Morgon.  Jean-Paul Thevenet is one of Beaujolais' most respected growers.  He practices organic cultivation, ferments with natural yeasts, and adds little or no sulfur to his wines.  This particular wine was aged for 6-8 months in aged Romanée Conti oak barrels and is bottled unfiltered.  This wine exudes perfume.  Florality and a little bit of sulfur on the nose.  Spicy and metallic on the palate.

The Jean-Paul Brun Domain des Terres Dorées Moulin-à-Vent had hints of reduction and burnt matches on the nose and was rich, big, and balanced on the palate.  Another victim of my post-tasting shopping spree.

The final wine of the tasting was the Domaine Piron-Lameloise Chenas Quartz.  This wine had lots of fruit on the nose and spice and tannins on the palate.

All in all a wonderful event.  Andrew walked us through the wines in a masterful fashion, imparting nuggets of wisdom along the way.  The cru Beaujolais stood out and have made me a believer; so much so that I have since bought three cases of the standout crus with the intent of tracking their evolution over time.  In my opinion (based on the performance of the wines in this tasting), cru Beaujolais from the 2009 vintage is deserving of your consideration.