The Douro Valley: An adventure in Port

The Douro Valley is not only a stunningly beautiful winemaking region but one which could be on the cusp of “something special”,  according to its winemakers.

You might have seen the pictures of the Douro, read about its Port houses or even visited the nearby city of Oporto, but you can’t really appreciate this spectacular region until you have made the trip through mountainous roads and into the valley. Endlessly criss-crossed by hectare upon hectare of steeply planted vines against the impressive backdrop of the Douro river, the region is a treasure trove of Ports, wines and traditional Portuguese fare.

Having built its reputation on Port, the region is now making strides to promote its DOC (denominação de origem controlada) wines made from indigenous grapes such as Touriga Nacional, Rabigato, Aragonez, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão and Tinta Roriz (also known as Tempranillo). It’s not too bold to assume that the average wine drinker has probably never heard of such varieties, accustomed instead to familiar favourites such as Chardonnay and Merlot, and therein lies the challenge for this region in promoting its wines. But for wine lovers keen to explore something new, the Douro is an excellent place to start.

Making our way into the Douro Valley from Oporto we stopped en route in the city of Villa Real. Here our guide Maria took us to Pastelaria Gomes, a cake-come-café recommended by our driver. Filled with sweet and savory treats, this was where I got my first taste of Portuguese cuisine. Sitting down to an espresso, I practically inhaled a Covilhete, a traditional salty pastry, followed by a Crista de Galo, a sweet egg pastry not disimilar in looks to a cornish pasty. It was a good start.

After a two our drive we reached our first stop, Quinta do Crasto, an estate perched high in the hills overlooking the Douro. Showing us around its winery and vineyard our host, winemaker Manuel Lobo de Vasconcellos, pointed out Vinha Maria Teresa – a vineyard boasting 47 varieties of grapes with vines more than 107 years old. Classified as a grade A Quinta, the winery is known for producing top quality Ports and is increasingly growing its portfolio of DOC Douro wines, which up until around 15 years ago were scarcely produced in the region at all.

Before dinner we were served a number of Crasto DOC wines (naturally) and Portuguese small plates including salted almonds grown on the estate, smoked pork and the highlight for me, alheira – a delicious sausage type morsel mixed with bread.  It can be made with a number of different meats including duck, chicken or rabbit, but importantly not pork, before being lightly fried. Alheira was invented by the jews of Portugal who, during the Portuguese inquisition of the 16th to early 19th century, were easily identifiable by the fact that they didn’t hang sausages in their smokehouses. To deceive officers, jews replaced pork with other meats to avoid detection, and so the alheira was born.

Back to our main course – baked octopus. The chef told me it was prepared using a method of “thermic shock” in which the octopus is first boiled and then dunked in ice water, which apparently helps to break up its fibres to make the meat more tender, before being baked. Whatever they did to it, it was delicious, tender and not chewy in the slightest, and I say that as someone who usually a fan of the eight-legged seafood.

A special mention goes to Crasto’s swimming pool, quite possibly the the Douro’s most impressive. Designed by the Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto Moura, its image has drawn many a wine lover to the estate tempted by its stunning views.

Leaving Crasto we travelled to our next stop by boat – the best way to travel in the Douro – and soon arrived in the riverside town of Pinhão. From there it was a short hop to Vale De Mendiz – the home of Wines and Soul – a producer of Port and still wines managed by by husband and wife winemakers Jorge Serôdio Borges and Sandra Tavares da Silva. Making our way up the the steep mountainside roads we arrived at the couple’s Pintas vineyard which covers three hectares. Pintas, like many vineyards in Portugal, is a field blend which means even its winemakers cannot be sure of the precise blend of grapes in the final wine. Sandra said this is what she believes makes the region so unique. So confident are the couple in the centuries old method that while many new plantations are being planted by single variety, Sandra and Jorge are set to replant a field blend at their nearby Quinta da Manoella.

Arriving at nearby Quinta do Passadouro, where Jorge is also the winemaker, we were able to sample range Douro wines and Ports in the stunning surroundings of the Quinta’s hillside garden oasis. Lunch was a feast of smoked salmon and beetroot, beef stew, rice and salad washed down with, of course, Port and wines including the 2011 Pintas vintage Port, 2011 Quinta do Passadouro and a particularly enjoyable Passadouro Tawny Reserva paired with a wildflower chocolate dessert. No Portuguese lunch would be complete without a cheese platter, which for us came with a 10-year-old Tawny from Wine and Soul. Not a bad way to spend a Tuesday afternoon.

Our next stop was the family-owned Quinta de la Rosa positioned on the edge of the Douro river, which has recently invested in a new winery boasting four temperature controlled granite lagares, six 10,000 litres temperature controlled fermentation tanks and an automated basket press. The lovely Sophia Bergqvist, who runs the estate with the help of her family and winemaker Jorge Moreira, took us through a number of its wines and Ports from its new tasting room complete with panoramic views of the river. We were enjoying our time at Quinta de la Rosa so much that when we came dangerously close to missing our train Sophia gallantly stepped in to deliver us to our next destination in style – by speedboat.

Speeding up the river, we soon arrived at the Symington Family’s Quinta dos Malvedos – known for its production of Graham’s Port, among the family’s many famed brands. Joao Vasconcelos, the family’s market manager, took us on a tour of the family’s flagship winery which includes both traditional lagares, where the grapes are pressed by foot, and the more recently installed robotic lagares which are now used to press nearly all of the estate’s wines. Situated in the Douro’s Cima Corgo the centrepiece of Malvedos is its colonial house which overlooks the river, and where former PM John Major once spent his holidays. It was here that I tasted my first port and tonic (made with white Port), while nibbling on toasted almonds, smoked ham and crisps. During dinner (pork steaks, veg and roasted potatoes) we were treated to a tasting of some of the Symington Family’s flagship Port brand vintages from Dow’s, Warre’s and Six Grapes, to its newly expanding Altano Douro wine range. A highlight for me was a 1969 Colheita and a Graham’s 1985 vintage Port – such a treat.

Leaving Malvedos by train we arrived at Quevedo, our last stop, where we were greeted by the friendly face of its director, Oscar Quevedo. Having taken us on a tour of its vineyards, located in the Douro Superiore, the inner most part of the Douro, it was on to taste some of the estate’s Ports. Located in S. João da Pesqueira, the winery is overseen by Oscar’s sister and winemaker, Cláudia Quevedo, who together with Oscar took us through a tasting of six of its ports from its 1992 to 2011 vintages poured direct from the barrel. When asked about this year’s vintage, Oscar cautiously said it could be “even better” than the now universally revered 2011 vintage, if the conditions remain in their favour. Time will tell!

Special thank you: I travelled to the Douro Valley with Discover the Origin, a campaign financed with aid from the EU, France Italy and Portugal, that celebrates and protects the heritage of five fine food and wines; Douro Wines, Port, Bourgogne Wines, Parma Ham and Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese. 

Originally published, in part, at the drinks business. 

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