So, the intrepid “band of merry media” and I — 29 travel journalists and photographers invited along by Insight Vacations to sample a portion of its Iberian Adventure through Portugal and Spain — do the honors, albeit way off key, as we say adeus to Lisbon, under dark, wet skies, and cross over the Tagus River via the city’s iconic Ponte 25 de Abril (25th of April Bridge), one of the world’s longest suspension bridges and a dead-ringer for the Golden Gate Bridge.
As we leave behind little cable cars (elevadores) that climb half way to the stars, the morning rain and wind chill the air, but I don’t care; I’m nestled into my business-class legroom seat as we head for The Alentejo, Portugal’s largest region, to sample world-class wines, visit a UNESCO World Heritage city and dine on black Iberian pork tenderloin.
Sounds way better than leaving one’s heart behind in a hotel room, right? Vamos!
The Alentejo, Portugal’s bread basket, is a captivating area of vast, open countryside, undulating plains and rich fertile soil, where agriculture, livestock and forestry are the stars and their byproducts world renowned. As Toni, aka El Guapo (The Handsome One) and Insight’s tour director, points out, “Portugal’s cork oak trees account for over 49% of the planet’s commercially grown cork.” El G adds, “The harvesting of just one mature tree provides enough bark to produce 4,000 wine bottle corks.”
Speaking of wine, we’ve just arrived in Vila Nogueira de Azeitão, a small village in the municipality of Setúbal, where the quinta (estate) of José Maria da Fonseca (JMF), one of Portugal’s oldest and perhaps most prestigious continuous wineries, is located.
The owners, the Soares Franco family, have been making and selling wine — still and Setúbal Moscatel — for over 180 years. And, we hope to uncork a few bottles of their history ourselves. After all, we are the working press.
Branded as a “Family of Wines. Wines of a Family,” we’re warmly welcomed into the historic, 19th century Manor House by Sofia Soares Franco, JMF’s Manager of Tourism and a seventh generation member of the family that’s been producing some of Portugal’s most emblematic vintages since 1834.
After a brief primer on JMF — the winery is 100% family-owned, has 34 brands, covers 650 hectares of vineyards, exports 80% of its production to 70 countries, etc. — Sofia leads us out of the house and into the well-manicured gardens for a tour.
Under cover of those blue, oversized Insight courtesy umbrellas, we make our way into the estate’s three ancient and atmospheric wine cellars where JMF’s prized wines, like Periquita, mature, and the oldest Setúbal Muscatels rest, some of which are true relics at well over 100 years old.
Back in the warmth of the Manor House’s tasting room, the temperature quickly rises — via red, white and rosé — as we swirl, smell and sip three of JMF’s prized vintages along with tasty finger foods.
All are delicious, but I have to give the robust Periquita Reserva, the estate’s flagship brand and the wine that started it all for JMF back in the mid 1800s, “best of show” honors.
As we thank Sofia and staff for their hospitality, umbrellas unfurl in unison and we head outside into the pouring rain and take a circuitous (wink-wink) route back to the awaiting motor coach where Helmer, Insight’s designated driver, awaits.
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From there, we’ll stretch our legs and take a stroll around picturesque Évora, count a few bones in an ossuary, have another round of pastéis de nata (egg tarts), then gather around the table for a traditional Portuguese dinner on Insight’s dime.
Te vejo em breve! (See you soon!)
©The Palladian Traveler