The Fladgate Partnership: Defining a destination
Now with three authentic and highly individual luxury hotels and three state-of-the-art visitor centers, as well as four leading Port brands, The Fladgate Partnership is making the magnificent Douro Valley and its vibrant twin gateway cities of Oporto and Vila Nova de Gaia more accessible and attractive than ever.
One of the great historic shippers of Port, with a quality reputation second to none, The Fladgate Partnership exports its superb Taylor, Fonseca, Croft, and Krohn wines all around the world. But beyond the allure and expressive power of the Ports themselves, no producer is now doing more to bring the world back to their origins in the Douro Valley, to heighten the fascination of the wines by revealing the colorful culture, rich history, and magnificent landscape that gives rise to them.
Along with other leading Port groups, The Fladgate Partnership continues to invest heavily in its Douro vineyards and wineries, and the region has benefited greatly from the success of recent Vintage Ports and special old Tawnies. But all of the major producers agree that developing tourism in respectful and responsible ways is also essential if the region and its people are to thrive.
Oporto and The Yeatman
Any exploration of Port must begin in the World Heritage City that gave the wine its name—Oporto—and its twin across the mighty Douro River—Vila Nova de Gaia—for more than three centuries the historic center of the Port trade, where many shippers still have their cellars. Together they make up one of the great wine capitals of the world, although until very recently the only way from one to the other was across the congested Dom Luís I Bridge, designed in the late 1880s by a disciple of Gustave Eiffel. Last year, however, The Fladgate Partnership won approval from the authorities to start the first ferry shuttle across the river, a service open to the public (for only €3 each way) and one of several investments the group is making to improve the infrastructure of the city and promote it more widely.
The Fladgate Partnership’s greatest contribution to the city, however, has been the creation of its first world-class hotel, The Yeatman, which was also the first luxury wine hotel in Portugal. Just as a great wine writer needs first to be a great writer, so a great wine hotel needs first to be a great hotel, one that defines a destination and provides an authentic and memorable sense of place. The Yeatman achieves this with apparently effortless ease. A member of the Relais & Châteaux group, this beautifully designed and furnished five-star hotel and spa, with 83 luxurious and spacious rooms and suites, offers spectacular views over the Douro to the historic heart of Oporto, as well as attentive but discreet service from genuinely friendly and highly trained staff. It takes its distinctive name from the distinguished family who were partners in the famous Port shipping firm of Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman, from which the current Partnership grew with its purchase of Croft in 2001.
Adrian Bridge, The Fladgate Partnership’s very capable, dynamic, and enterprising CEO who came to the role after a successful career in the British Army and investment banking, admits that when he first started work on the hotel in 2007, “everybody thought I was completely and utterly mad,” especially after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008. “If I’d had a euro for everybody who told me it would never work,” he says, “I could have retired long ago.” But he was convinced that there was an opportunity to develop luxury tourism in the city through a hotel that would be a destination in its own right, so he persevered and prevailed.
Identifying not only authenticity and individuality but sustainability as three of the hotel’s criteria for success, Bridge developed it by digging deep into the hill on which it now rests, on land formerly occupied by the Croft lodge, even though this added 10 percent to the cost. Water is recycled in a treatment plant under the hotel, and all of the hotel’s hot water is heated by solar panels. The hillside location also allows a dramatic and unusual entrance to the hotel, guests arriving at the back, at the highest point, then from the reception hall looking down the grand staircase and out over the generously proportioned lower floor.
The hotel opened in 2010, and even then there were some who remained skeptical. But Bridge had no hesitation in charging room prices that were twice those at what had been the city’s most expensive hotel, confident that guests would find it worth it. He knew that “the three most important things in creating a top-quality hotel, as in creating a top-quality wine, are details, details, details.” So, he and his team devoted themselves to getting these right. As an example of how much effort might go into only one of “the million decisions” involved, Bridge and his wife Natasha (who has also played a lead role in the blending of the company’s wines) sought sample beds from six leading manufacturers, then slept on each of them for a month before deciding on a model that cost £4,000 per bed. “When people wake up feeling refreshed, they’re on your side,” reasons Bridge. And he has been proved right. The hotel is frequently full, has been able to increase its room rates, and is adding another 26 rooms.
While The Yeatman would be highly attractive to any discriminating guest, for wine lovers it is utterly irresistible. No hotel can be more deeply imbued with the spirit of wine. A dazzling collection of antique wine glasses—some thousands of years old, amassed by Bridge himself over many years—is displayed in a large glass wall cabinet and would be worthy of any world-class museum. The broad corridors, instilling a calming sense of space, are decorated with beautifully framed historic maps of the Douro and original fine art with wine-related themes. There is a beautiful and tranquil Vinothérapie® Spa by Caudalie, with a heated indoor infinity pool and breathtaking views over the river, while the outdoor pool, equally spectacular, is in the shape of a decanter.
All 83 of the rooms and suites are sponsored by as many wine partners, including many of Portugal’s finest producers. They also participate in the wine dinners held every Thursday evening, which are popular with residents and non-residents alike, as well as in three Sunset Wine Events in July, August, and September, and a Christmas Wine Weekend in December. At each of these larger events, around 25 producer partners presents two wines—one older, one younger—to some 600 guests. The whole of the fourth floor is given over to the events, which regularly sell out and for which there is normally a waiting list. Guests may buy the featured wines at a 10 percent discount from the treasure trove of a wine shop in the hotel, where orders for any of its wines may also be placed online. There is also a Yeatman Wine Club, whereby members subscribe to receive each year between two and 12 cases of six wines selected in accordance with their preferences.
The hotel is also home to an elegant, perfectly situated two-Michelin-star fine-dining restaurant, where the brilliant Portuguese chef Ricardo Costa and a talented team offer imaginative, refined cuisine in which the traditional flavors of Portugal are interpreted and presented with contemporary flair. The highly knowledgeable and passionate wine director Beatriz Machado—who studied under Professor Ann Noble at UC Davis and would have gone to work for a top California producer had she not been tempted back by the role Bridge offered her at The Yeatman—offers an astonishing 83 Portuguese wines by the glass, a symbolic tally matching the number of rooms and suites and wine partners. These by-the-glass options change several times a year and are cleverly introduced in a smartly produced 30-page Wine Journal, with detailed notes on all 83 wines. A copy of the Journal is available in every room, along with a copy of the classic tongue-in-cheek British history 1066 and All That, co-written by RJ Yeatman—another of the many highly individual touches that set the hotel apart. Beatriz Machado or the experienced sommelier Elisabete Fernandes will also be on hand to help guests select wines to match any of the chef’s creative tasting menus.
Even if The Yeatman were not a destination hotel, it would be a destination restaurant. And even if it were neither, it would still be a destination wine list. Happily, it is all three. The Yeatman has assembled the largest collection of Portuguese wine in the world, including more than 1,300 labels, roughly 30,000 bottles, all perfectly preserved in temperature-controlled storage, most on the same floor as the restaurant itself. The multi-award-winning list, which has won the maximum three-star ranking in the annual WFW World’s Best Wine Lists awards every year and a special Jury Prize, offers an outstanding range of table wines, as well as an unparalleled richness of wood-aged and Vintage Ports from all of the top producers, not only those in the Fladgate portfolio.
A short walk down a cobbled street takes hotel guests to the historic Taylor’s lodge, completely refurbished as a working museum in 2016, when it attracted well over 100,000 visitors in its first year. A new audio tour, available in five different languages, lasts up to two hours if all the options are played (though any number can be skipped) and allows visitors to proceed at their own pace at any time. Along the way—with full access for pushchairs and wheelchairs—are a 3D map of the region, as well as atmospheric black-and- white photos and awe-inspiring color astrophotos capturing shooting stars in the sky above Taylor’s flagship Quinta de Vargellas. There are also Wi-Fi enabled selfie spots with fixed cameras and informative videos; artifacts such as the straw coats worn by workers in the Douro until the 1970s; and brilliantly clear but detailed explanations of viticulture and vinification, as well as the history of Port. This history runs from John Fladgate, given the title of Baron of Roêda in 1872 for his research on viticulture, to Alistair Robertson, managing director of Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman from 1967 to 2000, who created the category of Late-Bottled Vintage with the 1965, launched in 1970. The tour finishes with a Port tasting with friendly, knowledgeable staff who can help with any queries, and there is also an excellent restaurant, Baráo de Fladgate.
Bridge is keen to extend the length of the tourist season and the length of tourist visits, so he fully recognizes the need to supply additional attractions in Oporto, “such as might entertain visitors on a rainy day in March.” He acknowledges, “You can’t just build a hotel and assume it’s all going to happen. You need to create things for people to do. We need to grow the pie in order to get our slice of it.” In 2011 he acquired for The Fladgate Partnership a large bottling plant and warehouse from Real Companhia Velha (Royal Oporto), close to the motorway, redesigning and refitting it, as well as starting work on a large event venue for up to 600 people and a wine megastore. Moving the company’s bottling and warehousing here will allow it to clear a large area in front of The Yeatman, for which new space Bridge has another ambitious plan: The World of Wine, a large square (s0me 4,500 sq m) around which will be assorted galleries, museums, restaurants, shops, and a wine school. It will be a public and private venture, but most of the investment will come from private partners. Bridge hopes that the first venues may be open by spring 2020 and that it will be “the definitive Portuguese wine experience.”
The Douro, Pinhão, and The Vintage House
All of the existing attractions in Oporto will surely inspire more and more visitors to venture up the Douro to experience the majesty of the vineyards themselves. There is no more stunning wine region in the world, and here, for once, man appears to have enhanced the natural splendor of the rugged landscape, the miles and miles of stone terraces lending it pattern and texture. As one Portuguese poet aptly describes the impression, “When God created the world, he left his thumbprint on the Douro.”
Access to the central vineyards of the Cima Corgo has never been easier from Oporto—by boat, by one of the world’s most scenic railways along the river, or by the new motorway that opened in 2016, making the journey by road both quicker (around 90 minutes) and safer than ever. The best base from which to explore the Douro is Pinhão, and thanks to The Fladgate Partnership, there is now another excellent hotel here, itself worthy of the trip: The Vintage House.
The first quality hotel in the town, opening in 1998, it was acquired by Fladgate in 2015 and has since been completely and painstakingly refurbished. The group’s astute, long-serving marketing director, Richard Bowden, who has lived in Portugal for many years, explains that “The Vintage House is not The Yeatman 2.” With a more “artistic luxury,” it has its own authentic personality. But it is also extremely stylish and also enjoys an ideal location on the banks of the river, all of its 50 guest rooms and suites with lovely views. There is a comfortable bar and restaurant and a well-stocked wine shop, all open to non-residents, as well as a beautiful breakfast room with arches and a terrace and a new outdoor bar and pool, while a new indoor pool and spa will help extend the season. Here, too, Fladgate has further grand designs. While the current site occupies 12,000 sq m, the group has purchased an adjacent plot of 14,000 sq m, which will allow it to develop and enhance an even larger stretch of this prime riverfront space.
Within easy walking distance of The Vintage House, and equally accessible by day-trippers arriving by boat or by road, in September 2015 The Fladgate Partnership opened a new visitor center at Croft’s flagship Quinta da Roêda. The property takes its name from the Portuguese word aruêda, meaning “noise,” because it sits on a bend in the river that used to be so narrow that the water rushed through it with a roar. Since the building of dams further upriver in the 1970s, however, the level of the river has been raised, and it has become much more tranquil. Even when the river still roared here, the estate was famous for its beauty, the poet Veja Cabral writing that if the Douro was a golden ring, Roêda was its diamond.
The gently sloping property makes it suitable for visitors and seems to be reflected in the graceful, rounded profile of the single-quinta Port that is made here in good vintages. (The 2002 Quinta da Roêda, the first to be made after Croft was acquired by The Fladgate Partnership, is particularly seductive.) Also made in the Croft winery here are the ground-breaking Croft Pink and the group’s two white Ports, Taylor’s Chip Dry and Fonseca’s Siroco, sales of which have been rising steeply, partly thanks to their suitability with the moreish bacalhau and sheep’s-cheese croquettes sold through Fladgate’s Casa Portuguesa do Pastel de Bacalhau, whose branches in Lisbon and Oporto allow visitors “to experience Portugal in 60 seconds.” The number of lagares (the large granite vats used for the foot-treading of grapes) that are devoted to white Ports at Roêda has risen from two to 20 since 2014, in order to get drier wines (roughly half as much residual sugar) without any loss of body or power.
The visitor center is housed in Roêda’s old stables, which have been carefully restored in the traditional Douro Valley style. These provide an airy, light, and spacious environment in which to see beautiful old black-and-white photographs, taste the wines, and browse the shop for these and other local products, such as the estate’s excellent own extra-virgin olive oil. Available in four languages, there is a guided walking tour through the property, stopping at points of interest along the way and taking in magnificent views across the river. A patch of color-coded individual vines allows visitors to try to identify the different grape varieties. As many as 11 are now cultivated across The Fladgate Partnership, following the replanting—under David Guimaraens, the group’s talented and widely traveled technical director and head winemaker—of several that had fallen out of favor during the shift toward larger block plantings in the 1970s and ’80s.
During the harvest, visitors may even (by arrangement) get into lagares to experience the strange prickly-cum-squidgy sensation of foot-treading, without the exhaustion that comes from doing it for four hours late into the night, after a day spent toiling in the vineyards. Guimaraens explains that there is an old Portuguese saying “For the English to see,” so he and his colleagues thought it would be much better to provide something for the English (and all other visitors) to do. Willing visitors are supplied with shorts and a T-shirt, and there are smart shower rooms with towels for rinsing off purple-stained legs afterward.
The center can comfortably welcome 200 visitors at a time, and as many as that may arrive at once from one of the cruise ships run by Douro Azual or Viking. Such visitors may even be offered comfortable overnight accommodation once the handsome historic estate house has been refurbished. Even now, catering can be arranged from The Vintage House.
Less accessible for larger parties arriving by boat or by bus, but equally worthwhile, is the visitor center at Fonseca’s flagship Quinta do Panascal in the peaceful Távora Valley, a short distance off the road from Pinhão to Régua, where in 1992 Fonseca was the first large producer in the region to introduce organic viticulture. In 1992 Panascal also became the first quinta to be open to the public, and it now offers audio tours of the vineyard and winery in nine languages, as well as the opportunity to buy wines by the bottle or glass, including such distinguished and original wines as Fonseca’s Bicentenary Crusted Port (bottled in 2008 and released in 2015 for the house’s 200th anniversary), Terra Prima Organic Reserve, and the splendid 2011 Unfiltered Late Bottled Vintage, along with the single-quinta wines.
The Hotel Infante Sagres
Back in Oporto, a third luxury hotel owned by The Fladgate Partnership should now tempt visitors: the Hotel Infante Sagres. This is named for Infante Dom Henrique of Portugal, Duke of Viseu (1394–1460), better known as Prince Henry the Navigator, the third son of King John of Portugal, who helped usher in the Age of Discoveries. Established in 1951, the Hotel Infante Sagres was the first five-star hotel to open in Oporto, and over the years it has hosted the Dalai Lama, royalty including Prince Edward, the kings of Norway, and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, film stars like Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich, and rock stars such as Bob Dylan and U2. Located in the heart of the historic city center, making it the perfect spot from which to explore, it has an unmistakable aura of charm, elegance, and tradition and is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World.
All it lacked for a few years was the continued investment that any world-class hotel always requires, but The Fladgate Partnership, which acquired the Infante Sagres in April 2016, is able and ready to supply this. The hotel’s artistic and historic importance mean that it is a protected building, and The Fladgate Partnership has no desire to replace, only to restore, such unique features as the stained-glass window on the main staircase, created by R Leone in 1945. But it does want to make several important improvements, including glassing over one of the elegant courtyards, renovating the breakfast room to make it a fine-dining restaurant, replacing all of the beds, and opening a new Vogue Café, as well as a small nightclub for after-dinner dancing. The hotel will close for all this refurbishment in November this year and will reopen, more comfortable and stylish than ever, on April 2, 2018.
The Fladgate Partnership is first and foremost a producer and shipper of Port, and its wines have never been finer in quality or more varied in style. But it knows that what is in the glass is only half the story, and no producer is doing more to tell the rest of it in as engaging and worthwhile a way as possible. Bridge is convinced that “the tourism genie is out of the bottle, and nobody is going to put it back. People travel. So, let’s work with it.” One of the missions he has set himself and his staff is to give guests such a memorably special time that they become ambassadors—not only for The Fladgate Partnership’s hotels, restaurants, and visitor centers, but for the city, the region, the food, and the wines as a whole. The number of those ambassadors should swell like the mighty Douro in full spate and help ensure that the fado that seems particularly poignant there should never become a requiem.
Things to do
The Yeatman Hotel, Vila Nova de Gaia
Rua do Choupelo, 4400–088 Vila Nova de Gaia | +351 2 23 74 28 00 | www.theyeatman.com
Hotel Infante Sagres, Oporto
Praça D Filipa de Lencastre 62, 4050–259 Oporto | +351 2 23 39 85 00 | www.hotelinfantesagres.pt
Taylor’s Visitor Center, Vila Nova de Gaia
Rua do Choupelo 250, 4400–088 Vila Nova de Gaia | +351 2 23 77 29 56 | www.taylor.pt/en/visit-taylors/port-cellars
The Vintage House Hotel
Rua António Manuel Saraiva, 5085–034 Pinhão | +351 2 54 73 02 30 | www.vintagehousehotel.com
Quinta da Roêda
5085–016 Pinhão | +351 2 20 10 98 30 | www.croftport.com/en/visit-us/quinta-da-roeda-douro-valley
Quinta do Panascal
5120–496 Valença do Douro | +351 2 54 73 23 21 | www.fonseca.pt/en/visitors-centre