When I was a teenager, first experimenting with wine, I used to drink Blue Nun, Liebfraumilch and Mateus Rose. My tastes are now much more refined and I wouldn’t touch the stuff today. However, just outside the city of Vila Real, I discover the Palace of Mateus, whose profile features so prominently on those teardrop-shaped bottles.
Built in 1743, it is a fairy-tale castle with baroque entrance stairway and rooftop crowned with obelisks. It is not a cheap place to visit: €10 for a guided tour of the interior and chapel, plus access to the beautiful gardens.
The 2pm tour is in French, which is ironic as the 7 visitors (a three-generation German family, an American aid worker and myself) would prefer an English language tour. Luckily my French is pretty good and I end up translating for the American. We are shown several rooms of the palace (some are still inhabited by the family) housing antique furniture, paintings of wealthy ancestors and some religious artefacts belonging to the family. There is an exquisite set of priest’s robes made from taffeta and silk, embroidered with gold and silver thread. The building is also impressive with dark, chestnut wood ceilings, floors and door panels. The wood is abundant in the area and apparently resistant to termites.
The private chapel is not as inspiring. Built in 1750, its main altar looks more like a tiered wedding cake topped with the virgin, while in a side apse lies the most important relic on the estate – the mummified body of a 4th century soldier who was beheaded!
The gardens were created in the 20th century by the countess of the time and were modelled on Versailles, while the palace grounds themselves are surrounded by vineyards.
There is no Mateus Rose on sale in the wine shop and I learn that the rights to the image and the name were sold many years ago by the former count to a large company called Sogrape. They do still have a few family vineyards down by the river Douro, including Quinta da Costa which produces rather expensive bottles of port strictly for local consumption.