This Is How Wine Led a Gay Man to 3 European Paradises

Written by | Travel

Tivoli Palácio de Seteais, Sintra

Tivoli Palácio de Seteais, Sintra

As a university student in the South of France in the years before the euro, it took me only four francs to buy a bottle of vin de table — and another two from my roommate for a pack of Gauloises, whereupon we became convinced that we were as French as wine.

This was in Languedoc-Roussillon (known to many as Northern Catalonia), one of the oldest wine-producing regions of the world — and one that produces more than one-third of the grapes grown in France. Back then, the wines were less notable for quality than quantity, befitting the region’s role as producer of the daily wine ration for French soldiers. (Please remember that this was an era when it seemed the entire population of France drank wine as a substitute for water.)

Meanwhile in Portugal, viticulture was dominated by mass-produced wines from post-War cooperative wineries initiated by the dictatorship of Salazar. This meant that American knowledge of Portuguese wine was restricted to the sweet, sparking Mateus Rosé or Lancers. It’s worth noting that both of these would later come to enjoy retro chic status — that being more for their distinctive bottles rather than for the bottles’ contents.

Tivoli Palácio de Seteais, Nobel Hall

Tivoli Palácio de Seteais, Nobel Hall

During those years, the annual consumption of wine per person in France was more than 100 liters; nowadays it hovers closer to 45 liters a year. What’s changed since then is both the quality of the wine and the passion of the winemakers. This became readily more apparent to me during my return to the region where I once drank vin de table.

As Ernest Hemingway reputedly said, “My only regret in life is that I did not drink more wine.” I was determined not to make the same mistake while traveling through Portugal and Catalonia on a mission to discover the grapes of the region, and specifically those of the multi-faceted Garnacha/Grenache varietal. For how better to discover a culture than through the prism of wine — particularly in a region where viticulture’s roots can be traced to the Phoenicians?

Tivoli Palácio de Seteais, MoorishCastle

Tivoli Palácio de Seteais, MoorishCastle

There’s More Than Tawny Port in Portugal

For many, Portuguese wine is synonymous with Port, the fortified wines of the country’s northern Douro Valley, which have been globally exported for more than 800 years. There’s no question that a post-prandial port has its charms — including the ritualized protocol of passing to the left, i.e. port to port. However, Portugal cultivates more than 250 indigenous grapes in 31 designated DOCs (Controlled Denomination of Origin). The country’s varied topography—from verdant plains to cork forests, with maritime influences — provides a diverse terroir for a broad range of wines, from the lightly effervescent green offerings of Vinho Verde to aromatic whites and robust, full-bodied reds.

Fortunately for oenophiles, the years following Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in 1974 and its entrance into the EU in 1986 have served as a boon for Portuguese viticulture. In recent decades, numerous independent wine estates have opened in former quintas. (That’s how the locals refer to large land estates originally earmarked for agricultural purposes.) So today’s Portuguese viticulture is far more than its celebrated aged tawny ports, and modern vintners now regularly showcase wines from lesser-appreciated DOCs such as Bairrada and Dão.

Tivoli Palácio de Seteais, Pena Palace

Tivoli Palácio de Seteais, Pena Palace

Four of Portugal’s DOCs are located in the Algarve along the region’s sun-kissed southern coast. Here an abundance of fish and seafood pair beautifully with the nearby floral rosés and steely Arinto whites. At Tivoli Carvoeiro Algarve Resort, Executive Chef Bruno Rocha positions Portuguese viticulture as “the centerpiece” of the five-star resort’s oceanfront restaurant. Overlooking the cliffs of the Seven Hanging Valleys, guests dine on such regional cuisine as cataplana, a traditional seafood stew. For those who wish to hike the seven-mile trail along the spectacular limestone cliffs, the hotel prepares a gourmet picnic with local rosé wines to be enjoyed at one of the Algarve’s most picturesque lighthouses.

Another perspective on Portuguese viticulture comes from the Colares DOC. It’s situated along the southwestern Atlantic coast, west of the royal retreat of Sintra where Portugal’s ruling families once escaped Lisbon’s summer heat. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Sintra resembles a mystical kingdom of fanciful castles, pastel palaces, and hilltop villas — one of which was purchased in 2017 by Madonna.

According to locals, Madge and family have enjoyed an after-lunch romp through the private gardens of Tivoli Palácio de Seteais, which includes lemon groves and camellias. Originally built as a summer residence, the 18th-century Seteais Palace has been refashioned into a five-star property with original frescoes, tapestries, and textiles.

The property also boasts a wine room dedicated to the bounty of Colares DOC. Furnished with period antiques, the Seteais Colares Wine Room offers tasting menus paired with wines produced from the region’s signature Malvasia and Ramisco grapes. Renowned for their assertive tannins, Ramisco wines soften with age, revealing a violet aroma with herbal tasting notes underscored by salinity. At the palace’s Anantara Spa located in the former dovecote, local wines are also utilized for various body treatments, including vinotherapy facials.

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The It Girl Garnacha

One of the fascinating aspects of wine tourism is the manner in which local grapes can reveal a cultural narrative. During the mid-19th-century phylloxera epidemic, the vineyards of France were almost completely eradicated by sap-sucking aphids that were thought to have originated in North America and were first identified in France in Languedoc. Throughout the next 30 years as the French wine industry sought a solution, French wine growers migrated across the border into Spain, where the rootstock had not yet been infected.

A vineyard stalwart and one of the most planted wine grapes of the world, Garnacha (also known as Grenache) originated in the hot and dry Mediterranean climate of northeastern Spain and the South of France. In other words, the wines of Garnacha provide a glimpse into the autonomous communities of both Aragón and Catalonia.

Zaragoza, Spain

Zaragoza, Spain

“Garnacha is the Aragonese grape, a chameleonic grape that really showcases terroir,” explains Sofia González, a sixth-generation Aragonese. ”You’ll never find two Garnacha wines that are the same. The soils, the wind, the landscape, the people — everything plays a role in the final juice. And I no longer see bottles — but instead, everything behind it, all the people like my grandpa, reflected in this glass of wine.”

Remarkable for its magnificent 17th-century Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, Aragon’s capital city of Zaragoza is not much more than a short drive from Cariñena, one of the oldest protected wine-growing regions on the continent. During the annual ten-day Fiestas del Pilar, the population of Zaragoza quadruples. Nearly four million visitors from around the world gather for festivities that include a massive floral pyramid in the middle of the city, as well as a spectacular fireworks display along the banks of the Ebro River.

Vineyards of Carinena, Spain

Vineyards of Carinena, Spain

One of the best vantage points from which to witness the numerous processions and parades is from the four-star Hotel Alfonso, which offers a rooftop pool with vistas overlooking the basilica. Designed by Pemán y Franco, the sleek and stylish hotel bridges the old city with the main shopping district of Zaragoza. Within easy walking distance is the city’s historic central market, which has remained in the same square since the Middle Ages. The current incarnation was built of iron in 1903 in the style of Les Halles in Paris. Nearby are Roman ruins of the original city, which was named for Caesar Augustus (two words that slur into Zaragoza after a couple bottles of Garnacha — hence the derivation).

Basilica in Zaragoza, Spain

Basilica in Zaragoza, Spain

Originally positioned as a workhorse grape often used for blending, Garnacha has stepped into its own spotlight over the past two decades, thanks to a new generation of winemakers who are producing Garnacha monovarietal wines. According to González, Marketing Manager of Wines of Garnacha, the recent interest in Garnacha has been a consequence of “traditional knowledge combined with recent technology that enabled us to domesticate this beautiful wild horse.” Sometimes referred to as the Pinot Noir of southern Europe, Garnacha reflects its terroir for a diverse range of aromas and flavors and pairs perfectly with the full range of Mediterranean gastronomy.

Vineyards of Carinena, Spain

Vineyards of Carinena, Spain

Throughout the bucolic Cariñena DO (Designation of Origin) region, viticulture remains the primary industry, with antecedents reaching back to the monasteries of the Middle Ages. At Grandes Vinos, one of the marquee stars is Anayon Cariñena Terracota, a product aged for 12 months in 150-liter earthenware urns. As winemaker Marcelo Morales recalls, “I remembered how our forefathers made wine in … a vessel that has been used since prehistory. I was sure that aging in earthenware would enhance the fruit and mineral character, emphasizing the notes of slate and graphite.” The result is an elegant wine that merits ovation.

In the Terra Alta DO, Garnacha Blanca (or white Grenache) has become something of an “It girl” grape, the ingénue who’s taken the stage to become a full-fledged star. That’s thanks to the grape’s virtuosity and dynamic performance among the region’s signature Terra Alta Garnacha Blanca wines. As one local attests, “Garnacha arrives with perfect acidity at harvest.” These aromatic white gems are known for their juicy acidity with notes of honeysuckle and citrus, alongside a pleasing creamy texture. In short, Garnacha Blanca is the new name on everyone’s tongue — and certainly knows how to make an entrance.

Viñas Otoño

Viñas Otoño

On the Road to Roussillon

Just across the border in France, Roussillon is nestled between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean. The region is blanketed by a patchwork quilt of vineyards that produce more than two dozen grape varieties. All along the Roussillon wine route, the air is redolent with garrigue, the French term for a wine bouquet marked by notes of rosemary, thyme, juniper, lavender and other indigenous wild herbs.

Whether traveling through on foot, by bicycle, or merely pausing to snap a photograph or lay out a picnic, Roussillon is visually arresting in the diversity of its landscape. Olive trees and almond groves flank fruit orchards alongside terraced vineyards overlooking the sea. The medieval Catalan village of Castelnou crowns a foothill beneath a feudal castle. Nearby ancient dry stone structures dot the hills and valleys. Visitors to the vignerons at Terrassous in the Aspres region often enjoy e-bike tours of the vineyards and the surrounding countryside — complete with a Catalan picnic lunch and wine tasting.

Cava

More than 45% of Roussillon’s agriculture is devoted to viticulture, which has flourished in this region for millennia. In the words of one local, the fabled Mediterranean winds known as sirocco and tramontane blow to “clean the sky in southern France.” These strong sustained winds ensure more than 300 days of sunshine annually, in addition to relief from the summer heat, thereby producing optimal conditions for winegrowers and the sharp clarity of light so beloved by artists drawn to the South of France.

At the seaside town of Banyuls-sur-Mer, works by Aristide Maillol line the waterfront promenade and fill his former residence, now home to Musée Maillol. Beloved for his bronze sculptures (three of which grace the grand staircase of New York’s Metropolitan Opera House), Maillol was a native of this serene little village, which is also home to the third-generation Domaine de La Rectorie.

Banyuls sur Mer, France

Banyuls sur Mer, France

With more than 70 acres of terraced vineyards forming an amphitheater above the azure bay, La Rectorie has been producing Roussillon wines for more than a century, in particular the fortified apéritif or dessert wines known throughout the Banyuls AOC. Similar to the process used to make Port, these old-vine wines mature in oak barrels, and in the process impart intoxicating aromas of mocha, coffee, almonds and caramelized fruits.

One of the joys in sipping such elixirs is the subconscious connection to some of the most ancient corners of the world. At Domaine Puig-Parahy, they proffered a glass of Cuvée Veuve Parahÿ from 1910. At this point, I slipped into a sort of Proustian reverie, knowing I was sipping wine from my godfather’s era — wine bottled before the wars, wine that connects us all to an ancient legacy. As one Roussillon winemaker poetically put it, “We must understand what is in the land, like a musician; like an artist.” And in so doing, the art of wine lives on. n

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Last modified: May 17, 2019