D. Antónia Adelaide Ferreira

The visionary widow of the Douro

The painting by António Joaquim de Sousa from c.1830 shows the scale and grandeur of the Vesúvio estate that Bernardo built. It was a whole community in its own right with orchards, gardens and a village where the workers lived with their families; there was even a school, which would have been the nearest one for dozens of kilometres in any direction. Dona Antónia made it her mission to expand and improve this estate, in spite of the hardships that she faced during her tenure.

She married Bernardo Ferreira II, the son of Bernardo Ferreira I, in 1834 in the small chapel at her parents’ Douro farm, the Quinta de Travassos. Over the years, his extravagant and bohemian lifestyle caused a respectful distance to grow between them. On his death in 1844 it is significant that she referred to him as her cousin first and her husband second.

She and their children inherited all of his vast Douro empire but Dona Antónia was adamant that Vesúvio should remain exclusively hers: it was her favourite. It was at Vesúvio in 1861 that her great friend and admirer Joseph James Forrester visited her. She, looking for some peace and to escape from the crowd that had gathered at Vesúvio, decided to travel to Régua and Forrester insisted on accompanying her. It was on this fateful journey that their boat capsized in the Cachão da Valeria gorge. Forrester, weighed down by the belt of gold coins that he always wore, was drowned; while Dona Antónia, buoyed up by her wide skirts, survived.

Dona Antónia extended the fame and great reputation of Vesúvio. This reputation was reflected in a steam ship, named Quinta do Vesúvio, which travelled between Porto and Lisbon in the middle of the century. At that time this represented the pinnacle of modern transport (before the railway linked Portugal's two principal cities).

Manuel Monteiro, a contemporany Douro author said of Antónia’s properties, “the extent of the territory they occupy is vast and admits of no analogy, since some of those buildings represent the best, most exciting and stylish in the wine-making region.” And this extended to the wines too. Antónia was the first to bottle the wines from Vesúvio and sell them under the Quinta’s own name. This was unprecedented in the nineteenth century and began to build the Quinta’s exceptional reputation.

When phylloxera ravaged the Douro, Antónia began to experiment with new grape varieties and new techniques of grafting in her vineyards. During these years the Portuguese wine economy suffered significantly. To counteract this, Antónia diversified in quite remarkable ways. In order to keep her workers gainfully employed she planned a colossal dry-stone wall to encircle the entire perimeter, a circumference of 16 kilometres. Although a hard task (and colossally expensive), this represented her noble and caring attitude. While other producers in the Douro were laying off their employees, Antónia found ways to keep them on, so they could continue earning a living.

Another way she did this was by planting orchards, nut trees, cereals and other crops as well as grazing flocks of animals. One particularly outlandish experiment during the Phylloxera years was her decision to plant hundreds of mulberry trees at Vesúvio in an attempt to breed silkworms to start a silk business. These various projects kept the community of workers that depended on Vesúvio occupied even through this crisis.

The success of this strategy and the estraordinary international image that Vesúvio obtained through these years is demonstrated by two significant events. In 1866 Antónia sent “a box of almonds with the D. A.A.A F. trademarks together with four bottles of olive oil and ten jars of almonds – produce of the Quinta do Vesúvio” to the Paris Exhibition.

Then in 1868 she took the revolutionary step of bottling the first known single quinta wine, the 1868 Quinta do Vesúvio Vintage Port, the label showing the 1830s map of the property, so beginning the fame of the Quinta do Vesúvio trademark. In the 1870s and 1880s she also renovated and expanded the house and the chapel, which remain today just as she rebuilt them.

Dona Antónia died in 1896. Through her descendants Vesúvio passed through the hands of the Briti Cunha family for many generations until in 1989 when another family took up where the previous acts had left off: the Symingtons. This family, winemakers in the Douro for five generations, has preserved and reinvigorated the original imagination and energy that brought the seven hills and thirty-one valleys of Vesúvio to life.

The quinta of all quintas – one of the wonders of the world