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Lunch with João Portugal Ramos in Alentejo, Portugal

“A pink marble spitoon?”

I am here, arriving in the very comfortable and warm tasting room of the J. Portugal Ramos winery in Alentejo, with export manager Maria Pica. Of course, with so many Marias in Portugal everyone calls her “Pica” -- and she looks the party with a happy energetic smile and wavy black hair that seems to have an energy of its own.

While we wait for the “vineyard van” to be washed and prepared for our tour of the new biological vineyard, I watch a video of the winery’s history.

It was created by João Portugal Ramos, a very handsome and distinguished looking man (imagine the type of man you see pictured relaxing on yachts or helicopters or private jets in weath magazines) who comes from a long line of winemakers. Upon completion of his studies, he was awarded a degree in agronomy by the Institute of Agronomy in Lisbon . After embarking on a career as oenologist in the Alentejo region he established a company called Consulvinus at the end of the 80's with the aim of attending to the various requests from several producers all over the country. Ultimately the company extended its activity beyond the Alentejo region to most of Portugal, revitalizing regions sinking into oblivion and bringing to himself national and international acclaim as one of the main figures responsible for the development of Portuguese wines during the last ten years.

“Which brings us to the present,” I am told, for In 1990 João Portugal Ramos started his personal project by planting the first 5 hectares of vineyards in Estremoz. The goal was to present a project with the aim of transforming his own grapes, as well as grapes originating from rented vineyards and grapes bought in the scope of long-term agreements.  The first harvest dates from 1992 and in the following years the wine was produced in rented buildings. In 1997 vinification took place in the new estate for the first time.

“The construction of the winery in Estremoz, on Monte da Caldeira (where I now stand), began in 1997. The winery was enlarged in 2000, and comprises 9.000 square meters (vineyards not included), having a modern vinification technology, a bottling area and cellars with approximately 2000 French, American and Portuguese oak barrels used for ageing the wines.

“Let’s go, the truck is ready!” says cheerful manager Joquim Faia, who loads me into the truck to take a look at the new biological winery just now planted. It is gorgeous land, with clearly a lot of money invested in the project. I am eager to taste the wine in there or four years time when the vineyards are mature.

After our vineyard tour, I am given a tour of the two cellars. The old cellars still has lagares for foot trading so the grapes can be treaded as gently as possible. By the way, I have seen these lagares in Lisbon and the ones here are gorgeous pink marble, more appropriate for odalesques in a Turkish harem than red wine grapes.  The “new” cellar is gorgeous, glistening with shiny stainless steel tanks and large temperature control oak vats, as well as brand new French oak barriques.

Once upstairs in the tasting room, I note a gentleman carefully sipping wine and writing notes – it is an importer from Russia who immediately identified the winery as offering a “taste” his customer base craves. While I am taking note of the gorgeous room with its large wooden table (already set for lunch) and rich tapestries and soft gleaming wood, Pica and her assistant set up the tasting and I taste through the varius lines.

Like many producers in Portugal, the various brands come in different quality levels, with the best aged in French oak. For the most part, they are the traditional blends, sometimes with Syrah or Caberent Sauvignon added for taste, to increase the complexity, and perhaps in a nod to the international market. The winery is also quick to explore the new trend of single varietal bottles, and the flavors of these varietals are pure and fresh. One of my favorites of the tasting is the 2000 Marques de Borba Reserva Red, made from grapes harvested on schist soil by hand, packed in 15 kg cases to preserve freshness and prevent spoiling, and foot trooden in the traditional open marble troughs (lagares) I saw above.  The wine is deep in color, with incredible concentration of aromas … jammy red fruits and spices and well-integrated tannins. A wine for aging.

It is at this moment that the man himself, Joao Portugal Ramos arrives, a bit larger than life and looking like he came off a film set. After introductions all around, we all sit down for lunch, Pica, various winery team members, Mr. Ramos, and the importer. Mr. Ramos is the perfect host, explaining each native Portugeuse dish and pairing vintage wines from his cellar to pair them with. Across from me is his lovely and lively blond wife Teresa who is active in the winery as well.

I also hear a spot of gossip – it turns out that Pica is married to vineyard manager Joaquim Faia!
Lunch is finished off with a delicious port from Mr. Ramos’ property in Oporto, and after a most enjoyable afternoon, the visit comes to an end.

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