How is port like a puppy? Because – excuse the cliché – port is not just for Christmas. Like it or not, port consumption is generally limited to the festive season, and it’s offered around when all those involved have already consumed too much of everything else to appreciate it properly. And outside of Christmas proceedings, let’s be honest: you’re unlikely to find anyone ordering a round of port at the pub, or sipping it nightcap-style in a sophisticated hotel bar. However, for the Portuguese – and for the winemakers of Portugal’s magnificent Douro region – port is one of most unique, versatile and special wines in the world. The product of a complex and varied process; this is a fortified wine with a rich and intriguing history – and an exciting future that rivals that of any Premier Cru Claret.
Located 100 km from Porto, the Douro region is the home of port wine and has been used for winemaking since Roman times. Adjacent to the beautiful Douro river, the area is unbelievably picturesque. With undulating hills and charming quintas (wine estates), it would be worth a visit for the lovely landscape alone. However, port production is the backbone of the region and has been taking place in the area since 16th Century. It’s the Douro’s unique combination of soil type, hot and dry climate and 50 grape varieties that make it the perfect place for port. So much so that the area has demarcated area of origin status, meaning that port can only be produced here and nowhere else, and that its production is carefully monitored.
While port might not be as widely quaffed as it once was, the production of port wine in the Douro is still in full swing and, thanks to an ever-increasing variety of styles, there is a port to suit every occasion and taste. Along with the best known ruby ports, most brands also produce tawny ports, vintage ports, and late bottled vintages – without even going into the reserve port and single quinta varieties. Attention must also be given to the relatively new white and pink ports which are attracting a new, younger market. Introduced in the 1930s, white port, which is available from extra day to medium, is an all too delicious aperitif when mixed with tonic, lime and a sprig of mint or even served chilled by itself. Pink port is the most recent addition to the market: a colourful concoction that’s delicious in cocktails and apparently very big in Brazil.
Whatever the colour or style, the port production calendar is much the same. The process begins with the harvest in September and October, although the production method has changed significantly over the past 20 years. Traditionally the vineyard workers would pick the grapes in the sweltering heat, carrying baskets weighing up to 70 kilos up the steep hillside. Nowadays the work is easier but the narrow terraces of the Douro vineyards mean that the grapes are still picked by hand. Once gathered, the grapes are crushed. And although the image of the workers treading the grapes may seem romantic, in reality its seriously hard work. The process typically involves 20 people standing inside a stone bath – called the lagare – full of grapes and moving to two different timings.
For the first part, which is called ‘the cut,’ the treaders perform a single, rigid ‘1,2’ movement. For the second part, someone shouts ‘Liberdade!’ (meaning freedom) and the workers are allowed to walk around the stone bath freely to crush the grapes. The practice is usually accompanied by music and singing but it’s not nearly as bucolic as it seems; think several hours of gruelling, repetitive physical exercise that leave you with purple stained limbs. Today, methods vary, some port companies still process their grapes traditionally by hand (or should I say foot?), others use only machines and many use a bit of both. After the grapes have been crushed, a neutral grape spirit is added to stop the fermentation and increase the alcohol content of the wine, before the liquid is stored in wooden barrels. In the spring, the majority of companies transport the wine to Villa Nova de Gaia – located directly across the river from Porto – where, historically, the port lodges are located. It’s here that the ageing process takes place and the wine is bottled or left to age for longer.
For those that want to get to know port and the beautiful Douro a bit better better, four nights spilt between Porto and the Douro makes for a lovely long weekend. We recommend spending two nights in Porto, admiring the charmingly faded grandeur of the 1930s architecture and the magnificent Sé, the city’s beautiful cathedral as well as visiting the port lodges across the river. Then, take the wonderfully scenic train from Porto to Pinhao, which drops you in the heart of the Douro region. Many of the nearby quintas welcome visitors and some offer accommodation. Quinta De La Rosa is a good choice, appointed with a mix of pretty, modern rooms with roll top baths as well as traditional rooms located within the old farmhouse, all boasting lovely views. This Quinta also offers a simple but delicious three course supper each night which is accompanied by a selection of the Quinta’s excellent still wines as well as, of course, a glass of its own port.
Once you’ve sobered up, enjoy a boat trip down the Douro in the traditional rabelo boat which was formerly used to transport port. It is also worth visiting a few of the surrounding quintas as their approaches to wine making vary so widely. Discover a very modern approach at Quinta do Portal which was designed by well-known Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza, or get an insight into a more traditional way of thinking at Quinta do Panascal, owned by the Fonseca brand. Expert-led tastings and guided tours are widely available at most quintas, meaning there really is no excuse to not get stuck in and savour the flavours of the Douro. Drink up!
Need to Know…
TAP operate flights regularly from London Heathrow and London Gatwick to Porto, with prices from £126 return; see flytap.com to book. For an unusual experience, check into the newly opened Hotel Teatro in Porto. Situated on the site of an old theatre, the hotel offers a dramatic night’s stay, with prices starting at €98 per night. In the Douro, try Quinta de la Rosa in Pinhao, from €75, or Casa das Pipas, the Bed & Breakfast at Quinta do Portal, from €120.