Vinho dos Mortos: Wine of the Dead and Chaves

It all began with the Peninsular War in 1807, when French armies invaded Spain for control of the Iberian peninsula. The second invasion of Portugal in 1809 focused on northern Portugal, when the French took Chaves, Braga and, Porto. The stout Portuguese of the the mountain villages around Boticas, just west of Chaves, wanted to be spared the humiliation of seeing the French make off with their wine, so they buried it. Years later, after the French had been repelled, they recovered it. It had changed in taste and color, and had some fizz. They named the buried wine “vinho dos mortos” or “wine of the dead.”

The wine is produced today as a commercial venture by Armindo de Sousa Pereira, a tireless promoter of its virtues.

How to Visit Boticas and See How Vinho dos Mortos is Made

Visitors to Boticas interested in Vinho dos Mortos will want to stop in at the tourist office to make arrangements to visit the small historic repository on the outskirts of Boticas (Repositorio Historico do “Vinho dos Mortos”). The tourist office is in the center of town near the river.

The center of Boticas: The little museum is on the left and next to it the tourist office.

Boticas shows off its unique wood or stone granaries, and the area around the riverfront park is quite nice and well cared for. Otherwise, there’s not a whole lot to do in Boticas. You’re better off visiting Chaves and including Boticas as an easy day trip, as we outline below. Chaves is a spa town with a fortress you can stay in.

One of several old graneries, typical of the area, seen around town.

In any case, when you get hungry, we recommend Restaurante Marialva, across from city hall (Município de Boticas). It has some fine wines, including the vinho dos mortos.

If you do decide to stay the night, Casa de São Cristóvão has a couple of rooms and an apartment. The location is convenient; it’s in the same square as the tourist office in the center of Boticas.

Vinho dos Mortos: What’s in it?

The grapes found in vinho dos mortos are: Alvarelho, Bastardo, Malvasia fina, Tinta Carvalha and Tinta Coimbra. Like older Chianti blends, Alvarelho and Malvasia are white grapes, but the final wine is red.

Generally, the wine finishes at a low alcohol level because of the climate of northern Portugal and the fear of bad weather at harvest. Normal alcohol levels for vinho dos mortos is 9 to 11%, but the bottle we tasted was up to 11.5% alcohol.

The wine is a light raspberry in color. The nose is a bit floral with a hint of sour cherry. It’s a bit astringent in the mouth. We didn’t detect the advertised effervescence. It’s a very good country wine, but the market price is probably inflated by its unique qualities and the fact that there’s only one producer of the wine.

You can buy the wine online here, although you might have trouble getting it in the US.

Bottles of Vinho dos Mortos, the wine of the dead buried in the sand.

Is it worth visiting Boticas?

I enjoyed our visit, learning about the wine and the old ways of doing things in the little museum—and the lunch we had at the Restaurante Marialva in Boticas. Sometimes, the journey is the thing. Mr Pereira is a tireless promoter of his wine, and considering the place he’s growing it in, it’s quite a good mountain wine and without question unique, as is the experience of seeing the winery and historic repository (which functions as Botica’s little museum).

If you have a car, you’ll want to stay the night in Chaves.

Staying in Chaves

While Boticas is an interesting town with unique rural charm, it is easily visited in a half day. Chaves, meaning “keys” is 10 km from the northern Spanish border. It’s a spa town with castle ruins and 17th century fortifications in which you can stay for a reasonably priced luxury hotel.

Here is a rundown of the attractions in Chaves:

  • The Roman Bridge – Built around 100 AD, the bridge has continued to carry heavy auto and truck traffic (only recently have large trucks been banned on the bridge). While it has been modified and restored over the years, two of the columns built by the Emperor Trajan still stand.
  • The Medieval Quarter – Near the bridge, the medieval quarter is an evocative place, and the architecture is protected by law.
  • The Regional Museum – Museu da Região Flaviense – Worth a visit if you develop an interest in the region and its history. A smattering of everything is found in Chaves’ most important building—from Roman artifacts (and some prehistoric ones) to modern local art.
  • The Chaves Castle – The castle, now reduced to a tall tower housing a military museum by folks scavenging for housing materials, is worth a walk around the gardens that surround it.
  • The Fort – On the hills just outside Chaves, a 17th century fort stands in a reasonable state of preservation. Built to defend the territory in the war of Independence from Spain, you can, in fact stay inside the fort by reserving a room in Chaves’ most expensive hotel, Forte De Sao Francisco Hotel, which comes at a very reasonable price for a historic design hotel.

Food

Presunto is the celebrated country ham from the area around Chaves. You can eat it with the local rye bread. Smoked sausages are also popular. You can bake your presunto inside your bread and it’s called Folar de Chaves.

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