It is the geography of the Beira Alta, and the Dão Valley in particular, which have made its wines so greatly appreciated. The vineyards of the Dão Valley are located in a region of high altitude surrounded by even higher mountains protecting them from both the Atlantic vagrancies and the searing heat of the lands to the east. The soil is mainly composed of a sandy granite, watered by substantial winter rains, and the air and ground temperatures are eased by the raised altitude, producing quality, elegant wines of high acidity. There is also the added attraction of sampling wines in the site of their production in a variety of locations, such as the truly magnificent Paço dos Cunhas de Santar with its wine museum and restaurant, and the historic Quinta de Saes; both producing wines of style, quality and both with a guaranteed, heartfelt welcome for wine-lovers and the curious.

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Quinta de Saes

Maria Castro sits on the wall of a small, ancient, stone-cut tower, overlooking neat lines of vines where sun-bronzed men are busy tending the fruits of the land. In the far background, the undulating silhouette of the Serra de Estrela mountains are slate grey under heavy clouds threatening another downpour of unusually late spring rain. With a hint of effected ceremony she uncorks the bottle in her hand (a Quinta de Saes, 2015 Dão rosé), “There’s no point talking about wine, unless you can taste it,” she says with an open smile. There is a perfect bucolic silence as she pours. Maria sips from her glass, “This is a blended wine,” she explains, “picked early so as not to be too strong.” The rosé is aptly refreshing; a blend of Baga, Cabernet Sauvignon, Jaen, Tinta Roriz and Touriga-Nacional, with hints of tropical fruit and a fine balance of sweetness and acidity.

Emanuele Siracusa - Beira Alta - Centro de Portugal - Quinta de Saes-6To get to the Quinta de Saes winery, an estate owned by Maria’s father, Álvaro Castro – widely acknowledged as the leading and most innovative wine producer of the Dão region – the roads from the nearby city of Viseu gradually shrink until they are no more than dirt tracks leading to Maria and her father’s famed winery. On the way, you will pass stands of the ever import eucalyptus tree, lemon and olive groves, pine forests, fields of tilled dark soil, tiny roadside cemeteries housing generations of local farmers and villagers, and poppy filled verges where red-faced partridges pick amongst the greenery. Quinta de Saes is one of two wineries operated by Álvaro and Mario, the other being the nearby, and equally famed, Quinta da Pellada, both producing an exciting and hugely popular range of Dão wines whose fame is fast spreading over the palates of the world’s wine lovers and is often referred to as Portuguese Burgundy.

Emanuele Siracusa - Beira Alta - Centro de Portugal - Quinta de Saes-1Dão wines get their name from the Dão River which flows south to north through the area and is the third most important wine producing region of Portugal, after Douro and Alentejo. Unlike the vineyards of the other regions, the wine fields of the Dão Valley are spread across the landscape in a hotch-potch manner, a couple of hectares here, a couple there. However, it is the quality of the wines produced here in such a manner, in such climate, on such soils which led to it being named a Regiao Demarcada (DOC) back in 1908.

Emanuele Siracusa - Beira Alta - Centro de Portugal - Quinta de Saes-3Back in the vineyard where the men are working, Maria – accompanied by two loveable labradors, Cuco and Figo – explains solemnly, “The men are tying, weeding and pruning just now, but it’s a risk to green prune as the vines haven’t flowered yet, should the weather change it would be a disaster.” “If you look at the soil now,” she continues, digging her heel into the wet earth, “you would never believe that in summer we have to water the vines for three hours each day.” She sweeps her hand across the landscape, “The land is not usually this wet because it’s granite, but because we’ve had so much rain this year the men are also in the fields trying to control the weed growth.” Maria indicates towards a small flock of sheep in a nearby meadow. “We are more focused on producing in a natural way. During the winter, after the harvest we allow the sheep to graze and fertilise the land.”

Emanuele Siracusa - Beira Alta - Centro de Portugal - Quinta de Saes-9The estate has a long history. The courtyard, where earlier we sampled the fruits of Maria and her father’s passion date back to the 17th century, the adjoining family house and chapel from the 18th century, but the estate itself was first planted with vines as early as the 16th century. Maria, following in her father’s wake, appears consumed by continuing the Castro family’s long legacy of winemaking. She possesses the quiet air of a person deeply involved and connected to the past, the present and the future. Even the external factors and vagaries, such as the weather, which could ruin a crop in an instant, she seems to accept with a formidable resolve and the insight of one who learns from every fragment of chance.

Emanuele Siracusa - Beira Alta - Centro de Portugal - Quinta de Saes-12As we pass the centuries old house and it’s chapel Maria stops, “About ten families lived within the walls. There was a kind of communal poverty here,” she says following an unspoken train of thought, “the family always chased the wrong side in the wars, so they became poorer”. She shrugs her shoulders, calls her beloved dogs to her side and laughs the laugh of someone consumed with the joy and passion of what they do.

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Paço dos Cunhas de Santar

Even before entering the imposing ornate granite gates of Paço dos Cunhas de Santar there is an air of expectation. Once inside the gates of this magnificently restored former manor house that expectation is heightened even further. The courtyard which opens up before you, especially under a bright cloudless sky stretching over the Beira Alta’s Dão wine producing region, possesses an incomparable ‘wow factor’. Greeted by the smiling, genuine welcome of the hostess of the region’s wine tourism flagship, Ana Paula Teixeira, that wow factor is multiplied one hundredfold.

Emanuele Siracusa - Beira Alta - Centro de Portugal - Casa Santar-1Owned by Global Wines, one of Portugal’s largest wine producers, the Paço dos Cunhas de Santar, a 17th-century manor house still exudes an air of tradition which has seen the production of wine continue here for over 400 years. Built in 1609 by D. Lopo da Cunha the estate was for many centuries a respected producer of olive oil, fruits, and wine, supplying markets throughout the country. Today as a working winery, centre for wine tourism and interpretive centre for the estate’s wine brands, and that of the nearby Casa de Santar, its welcoming charm entertains over 5,000 visitors per year.

Emanuele Siracusa - Beira Alta - Centro de Portugal - Casa Santar-7Inside the main building a small coffee shop and wine outlet is decorated by artefacts associated with the production of wine, photographs of the estate through the years, and rather curiously the front page of the Portuguese national newspaper, ‘Expresso‘, dated from April 27th, 1974. Two days before the newspaper was printed, on April 25th, 1974, Portugal experienced the Carnation Revolution; a military coup, coupled with the backing of the people, which overthrew the Estado Novo and the scourge of dictatorship. Ana Paula Teixeira, the estate’s Public Relations expert, pointed to one corner of the newspaper page where a montage photograph showed a large group of people, soldiers and civilians alike, celebrating the fall of the regime.

Emanuele Siracusa - Beira Alta - Centro de Portugal - Casa Santar-3“One day,” she explained, “there was a group of people visiting the estate. They were here in the coffee shop relaxing after their visit and purchasing some of our wines when we noticed one man in his sixties standing by the wall quietly weeping. We asked him what was wrong,” continued Ana Paula, “the man pointed to the photograph on the newspaper, and in particular for one young soldier, holding his rifle proudly in the picture’s foreground. ‘That’s me’, he said, wiping tears from his eyes.”

Emanuele Siracusa - Beira Alta - Centro de Portugal - Casa Santar-8I could see that Ana Paula was proud to tell this story, in fact, I could see she was proud of everything to do with the place. “Visitors don’t expect to see such a property in such a small village,” she said as if seeing the place for the very first time herself. “Our job here is to take care of what we have and to share it with the public. We receive friends here,” she added, “and we always try to give our best.”

Emanuele Siracusa - Beira Alta - Centro de Portugal - Casa Santar-10When Ana Paula came to the property in 2005 the place was almost in ruins, “the courtyard and gardens almost didn’t exist, there were stones from the original buildings strewn about the place.” Eleven years on and the building and its gardens have been immaculately restored. There is an award-winning restaurant, a large event room complete with a high, wooden-beamed ceiling and decorated with historic memorabilia from suits of armour to antique carriages. Upstairs, in what used to be a prison, its windows still covered by iron gratings, there is a suitably sparsely-decorated banquet hall for private functions, wine tastings, and corporate entertainment. But it is the wines which people really come here for. The estate, along with its many wines, produces one of the finest in all of Portugal; Vinha do Contador Dão, a four varietal blend of which only 2,000 rare bottles are produced each year. It has been described as having a complex aroma of chocolate, roasted cocoa, spices and dried red fruits.

Emanuele Siracusa - Beira Alta - Centro de Portugal - Casa Santar-14However, it is outside of the building, among the rows of the vineyard itself where most of the tastings are experienced by visitors. What better experience than to stand on a hillside in the Dão region, the rolling hills around you, the call of birds in the air, glass in hand, surrounded by the very plants which have given up that moment. In my case, it was the chance to experience the organically produced Paço dos Cunhas de Santar’s ‘Nature’. You don’t have to be a wine expert to appreciate such moments, for me, it was sheer heaven.

Emanuele Siracusa - Beira Alta - Centro de Portugal - Casa Santar-12As I was leaving the estate, back through those impressive gates from where I had entered, and out into the quiet afternoon of a sleepy Portuguese village, a very old lady with a walking stick passed nearby. “She’s ninety-nine years old,” Ana Paula explained wearing a knowing smile, “it seems people live longer this area for some reason.” If you happen to be in Viseu, or anywhere nearby, and happen to enjoy wine, or not, I can not recommend a visit to the Paço dos Cunhas de Santar highly enough. And if you are do go, please tell Ana Paula I said hello.

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This Dão Wines post is a part of a series of 7 posts I wrote based on my journey to Beira Alta in May 2016. Please find the links o the other articles bellow:

Beira Alta in Centro de Portugal

Côa Valley in Centro de Portugal

Historical Villages of Centro de Portugal

Viseu in Centro de Portugal

Casas do Côro in Centro de Portugal

Casa da Cisterna in Centro de Portugal 

Disclaimer: 

This Dão Wines  post was written by my inspiring friend Brendan Harding as part of my ongoing collaboration with the Centro de Portugal Tourism Board. All opinions are my own. Photo credits to my inspiring friend Emanuele Siracusa.