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Susana Wichels is a journalist and researcher at Coimbra's University.

A collection of wines beneath the surface

Experiences of a lesser known Algarve: to go beneath the surface of the earth to find a treasure of 11,000 bottles of wine and discover the thousand and one stories that emanate from the labels kept in VILA VITA Parc´s Cave de Vinhos, or Wine Cellar.   

It is one of the largest private collections, which hosts rare vintages such a Madeira Verdelho wine from 1850, or a Château Mouton Rothschild worth almost 7,000 euros.   Discover with me more about this unique wine experience...

The deep hollow in the earth has existed for a long time.  Over the last 200 years, it was used to keep gardening and sowing equipment.  But in 1998, this space became a wine cellar created by Austrian engineer Friedrich Gruber.

These days, to descend below, is a staircase made with ancient Egyptian bricks.  Used to the heat of the desert, they preserve humidity and weather well with time.  I descend for the first time on a summer´s evening, escaping the Algarvean heat.  At first, my eyes are still blinded by the summer sun; I help myself down, feeling my way with my hands, along the wall.  Warm, tepid, cold and always rough.  At each step, darkness recedes a little more, whilst the temperature drops to more pleasant degrees. 



Before my eyes can see anything, my nose detects the distinctive odour of wine, slightly acidic with a woody note and crystalized by time.  Forty more steps down and ten degrees less, I find Paulo Duarte, Sommelier at Vila Vita Parc, and keeper of this Ali-Baba´s cave of wine treasures.  On his burgundy vest he proudly wears the Sommeliers insignia, a golden grapevine.

We are nine metres below ground, in a room of neo-medieval style, all in terracotta.  The Egyptian bricks mix with the Greek, Austrian and Portuguese stones, to maintain a constant temperature of 16ºC and humidity between 65% and 75%, in order to preserve the corks in good condition.  In the centre, below a large wrought iron chandelier, stands a large table with feeble lighting, complemented with candlelight.  Paulo Duarte is busy preparing the table: “Today, we have a three course wine dinner with dessert, paired with white and red wines”, he tells me, whilst he places a menu in thick paper over the aligned dishes.  My eyesight wanders over to the shelves that surround us.  A collection of more than 11.000 bottles and over 1.200 references of the best domestic and international wines worldwide lay on these terracotta shelves. 



Once the table is set, Duarte guides me through the different sections, each shelf and label on the bottle illustrated with stories.  The Cellar is divided into four sections, the central nave, which is presided by a table for 12 persons used for wine tastings and exclusive dinners, the Portuguese Wines section, the Wines of the World section and the Fortified Wines corner.

Here, everything has a special meaning and reason to be.  The oldest bottles are arranged on the higher part where there is less light.  The Portuguese demarcated wine regions are arranged geographically, from North to South. In the Wines of the World corridor, German, Austrian, French, Italian, Chilean, Argentinian, Spanish, Australian and even Lebanese wines share the spotlight. 



It is impossible to list all the wine references found here.  The official Wine Book has about forty pages of listed wines, but between the nooks and crannies there are other treasures which are not for sale, which makes this one of the most complete wine collections in Portugal.

Duarte walks past some of the bottles and almost bows. From time to time, he pulls one from the shelf, strokes it with his fingers and tells me stories about the producer, the label, the wine mythology.  There are a thousand and one stories, such as the Incógnito story.  While he hands me the bottle, he says: “Twenty years ago, the Sirah grape was prohibited in the Alentejo because of the limitations of the designation of origin.  This is why the producer named this one “Incógnito”, so that no one would know which grape he used”. 



On the shelves of the Douro wines, one of the oldest wine regions in the world, I find a Quinta do Crasto, 1992 reserva and a Barca Velha 2000, from Casa Ferreirinha.  My heart starts to beat faster when I find an amazing Quinta do Vallado, reserva, 2000, a Pintas 2008 from Wine & Soul and a Quinta de Vale Meão, Francisco Olazabal from 2011.  I get up on a stool to see what is on the top shelves: a Quinta da Manoella, Vinhas Velhas 2009; a Quinta do Côtto Grande Escolha, 2000; a Charme Dirk Niepoort, 2009; a Secret Spot King, 2007 and the acclaimed Chryseia Symington, 2008. According to the historians, the Douro is, most probably, the oldest controlled (1752) demarcated region in the world (1755).  Since 2001, when the Alto-Douro was declared Unesco World Heritage, not only has it confirmed the importance of this region for Portugal, but also for the World.

Candles illuminate the new geographic stops on our journey.  I travel to the Dão region and find excellent vintages such as Quinta de Lemos Touriga Nacional, 2007, Quinta da Pellada de Álvaro de Castro, 2008; Quinta dos Carvalhais Touriga Nacional, 2004 and Único de 2009. From Beiras, a Campolargo Pinot Noir, 2009

I am so thrilled that I could sing.  I improvise the lyrics, adapted from a popular tune: “Through the Portugal shelves, I see such exquisite bottles, a different world.”  On the Bairrada shelf, I notice a Quinta dos Abides Sublime, 2009; a Luís Pato Vinhas Velhas, 1992, and a Luís Pato Quinta from Ribeirinho Bago Pé Franco, 2000.   From the Lisbon region, a Quinta do Monte d’Oiro José Bento dos Santos de 2000; a Homenagem a António Carqueijeiro de 1999 and a Quinta de Pancas Special Selection, 1997.

Travelling further down along the Tagus river, in the Setúbal region, I find a Quinta da Bacalhôa Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot 2009, a sublime Cavalo Maluco José Mota Capitão 2008 and a Hexagon José Maria da Fonseca, 2000.

Arriving to the Alentejo, as if calling out to me from the shelf, is a Júlio Bastos Alicante Bouschet 2007; a Mouchão Tonel 3-4, 1996; a Zambujeiro da Quinta Zambujeiro 2006; and a Pêra Manca Fundação Eugénio de Almeida 2007.  For almost three hundred euros, you can taste an extraordinary Herdade do Esporão Reserva 2005.  The Herdade do Esporão collection also has one of the most incredible stories. Paulo Duarte shows me two bottles of the same wine, but with different labels.  One with a Moorish prince, the other with a couple of medieval kings.

I stare at the bottles without knowing which kind of legends are behind the illustrations of P. Proença. Duarte explains: “This wine is primarily consumed by the American market.  It´s from 1999 but was only bottled in early 2001.  When it arrived in the USA, the 9-11 terrorist attacks had just happened. The label with the Moorish prince was denied distribution by the US market, and all the bottles were sent back and had to be relabelled.  Here, we have the two versions, the first with the Moorish prince, and the second with the medieval kings. It´s a very special story for collectors.”



I carry on through the Alentejan terroirs to find the special corner of wines from Herdade dos Grous, owned by VILA VITA.   You can taste the entire collection, including the acclaimed 23 Barricas 2007, the Herdade dos Grous Reserva 2009, or the extraordinary Dona Ali, 2008.

Further ahead, my eyes wander over to different bottle capacities, aligned like matrioskas. “They are Magnums of 1.5 litres, the Double Magnums of 3 litres, the Jeroboam of 4.5 litres and the Imperial of 6 litres”, explains Sommelier Paulo Duarte, while he poses for the photograph with an imperial Herdade dos Grous.



And because we are in the Algarve, there is a very special collection of interesting wines in this region still to be discovered.  Here are three excellent suggestions: Vida Nova, produced by Sir Cliff Richards, Quinta do Francês and Remexido from Quinta Barranco Longo.

The Port Wine and Fortified Wines corner is covered in a black satin veil.  The wrought iron doors guard the jewels: Port, Madeira and some selected Moscatels, covered in a fine dust left by time.  From the darkness, a Verdelho 1850 shines through. An incredibly old and invaluable treasure.  To maintain this liquid patrimony in good condition, each twenty years, the bottle must be sent to the producer to confer if the cork and the wine are still well preserved.  Paulo Duarte shows me a Porto Ferreira from 1987 and another from 1994, both extraordinary years.

The international clients that visit the Wine Cellar are impressed with the variety of Port wines, from the Tawny to the Late Bottled Vintage (LBV), and here, as in sepulchral silence, lay over 110 types of Port.  Worth mentioning is a 1963 jewel, probably the best Port year of the last century, from Wiese & Krohn Vintage and a Down’s Vintage 2007, awarded 100 points by Wine Spectator.  Whether a connoisseur, an amateur or a winemaker, the opening of a Vintage Port with hot iron tongs, is a ceremony in itself, a ritual.



This ancestral method ensures a clean cut maintaining the wine intact and offers a unique, almost mystical, experience to the guest.  Amongst the diverse collection of Vintage Ports,  I cannot go without mentioning producers such as ChampalimaudReal Companhia VelhaQuinta do VesúvioQuinta RorizCroftQuinta das CarvalhasTerras do GrifoFonseca Guimarães, just to name a few... However, the oldest wines of this collection are not the Ports, but the Madeira wines. Apart from the Verdelho 1850 mentioned above, there is a Madeira Malvasia 1865, and a Madeira Boal Solera de 1871, all true pearls of Bacchus.

In the Wines of the World corridor, the sound of different languages emanates. From South Africa, I hear sweet undertones coming from the Muscat wine, from the famous dessert wines by Klein Constantia, Vin de Constante.

From Spain, comes the sound of castanets with their typical flair.  I find a Rioja, Marqués de Vargas Reserva Privat 1998, the renowned Veja Sicilia Valbuena 50, 2001, from Ribera del Duero, special mention goes to the expensive (more than 1.000 euros a bottle) L ́Ermita Alvaro Palacios, de 2006, from the Priorat region. From the Penedés region, close to Barcelona, we find the wines from Torres, with their start wine, Mas La Plana, 2003.

From France, come the most chic and (always) the most expensive wines, such as the Château Clément-Pichon 1996 (1.500 euros) from the Médoc in Bordeaux.   From St. Estephe,  a Château Cos D`Estournel 2ème Cru Classée, 1996 (over 2.000 euros) or the Château Calon-Ségur 3ème Cru Classée. From the Margaux region, a Château Margaux 1er Cru Classée, 2003 or a Château Lafite Rothschild 1er Cru Classée, 2001 (560 euros) or even the exclusive Château Lynch-Bages 5ème Cru Classée, 1996 (around 5.000 euros) and the Château Mouton Rothschild 1er Cru Classée, 1996 (7.000 euros).

The epicurean pleasure of tasting a good wine is kept here in the depths below ground. This impressive wine cellar is only a small part of the vast collection of wines at VILA VITA Parc, which has presently almost 23.000 bottles.  And fortunately, the this pleasure is not only reserved for VILA VITA Parc´s guests, as outside clients can also book a wine tasting with a guided visit or an exclusive wine dinner.  The gastronomic offer also includes: wine and cheese tasting for up to 20 persons, a selection of regional specialities and tapas with national wines for up to 12 persons, themed dinners with a three-course menu, dessert and wines from 82 euros per person (booking required).

It´s time to return above ground.  I leave Sommelier Paulo Duarte, as concentrated as monk, overlooking a huge book with yellowish pages, checking the wine entries.  Before climbing the stairs, I breathe in deeply.  I want to keep all the memories, the aromas of the wine, of the corks and even of the dust that settles on the glass bottles.   Aristotle was right when he said that, sometimes, in the bottom of a hole, we can find stars.


For more information, visit:   

Tel. (+351) 282 310 100