It’s not often you’re knee deep in juice with a bunch of Danes.
Grapes are still trodden in the traditional manner in Portugal’s port region, the Douro Valley. If you’re there during harvest you can jump into the tank to lend a foot. My visit to a family-run vineyard coincided with a group of Scandinavian restaurateurs. Nothing like knowing your product: in a couple of years they’ll be recommending a vintage port to a customer with the words “I trod this personally.”
Harvest takes place in late September, and lasts a couple of weeks. Being there to witness it is hit and miss. I’d picked my week mid-summer and kept my fingers crossed and toenails tidy.
But I started my port journey at the end of the line: the musty cellars in Porto.
The British love affair with port dates back to 1703, when the Methuen Treaty gave our merchants a monopoly over the trade. Most of the cellars that line Porto’s riverside have British origins. Dow’s, Sandeman, Graham’s, Cockburn’s – their signs did battle in Sunday sunshine as I walked across Porto’s towering old iron bridge now freed from a shroud of low cloud that had wreathed it earlier in the morning.
I visited Graham’s, owned by the Symington family since 1820. This is large-scale port production with a swish tasting room all dark wood and white light. But the cellars have changed little for generations. I wandered among seven million litres of Tawnys and Rubys quietly aging in oak barrels and dusty bottles, taking on their unique flavours and colours. And it seemed sensible to sip a few, even if it was only mid-morning. The collective noun for a group of wines lined up for sampling is a ‘flight’. Jackie Thurn-Valsassina my host pulled out all the stoppers, scrambling a squadron of six for me.
The ports we drink in the UK are usually ruby or tawny. Both are blended and this is the art of production, combining flavours to produce a well-rounded drink. “Rubys spend a year or two ageing in large wooden casks before bottling. Tawnys are aged in smaller oak barrels usually for much longer.” Jackie explained. “Every now and then there’s a superb year and the port produced is declared a vintage. Vintage port ages two years in oak before bottling, where it continues to develop, often for many years.” Just to make things interesting Jackie started me with a couple of white ports. “Relatively unknown in the UK, but they make a great aperitif,” she explained. “They also go well with a splash of tonic on the rocks.” They were dry and light, rather like a good fino sherry. I also tried a couple of Tawnys with complex caramel aromas and a Late Bottled Vintage port almost as thick as blood and bursting with fruit. The early years of this century produced several vintages. 2003 is coming on stream right now. 2000 is another to look out for.
I wobbled back down the hill, a bottle of 10-year Tawny swinging from my arm. Having sampled the stuff it was time to see if I could feel it move beneath my feet. The Douro valley is considered the world’s oldest wine demarcation. Since 1757, only grapes grown here can be used to make port. The train journey up the valley is one of Portugal’s most scenic. For three hours we trundled along. The steep hillsides with their perfectly spaced rows of ancient walled terraces looked like a grumpy giant had tugged his comb across them. In bright autumn sunshine the river sparkled. Douro means ‘gold’ – maybe it’s the reflection of the sun’s rays glittering off its surface that gave it its name?
Vesuvio my destination was a tiny station and I the only person jumping from the train.
My host Nuno humped my bag down to the river and onto his boat. We puttered across in the late afternoon sunshine to Alojamento Senhora da Ribeira, my guest house for the night. That evening I met Miles Edlmann a viticulturalist at the nearby Senhora da Ribeira vineyard. I’d hoped to see people knee-deep in grapes but instead there were stainless steel pistons working his tank. “We have a group of gypsies who usually do the treading, but they’re rather unreliable,” Miles explained. “The machines do pretty much the same job and they don’t get tired after a couple of hours. Treading is gentler on the grapes though, so we do still tread, particularly if we’ve had a really good harvest.”
Miles agreed to take me across the river to the Vesuvio vineyard where treading was definitely taking place after dinner. Negotiating my way onto the bobbing boat after a bottle of Douro red wine was a moving experience. As we walked up to the cellars we were met by workers going in the opposite direction with worryingly clean legs. They’d started the treading early and had finished. Miles introduced me to Mario the head winemaker who consoled me by siphoning homebrew out of the barrels that lined the wall. “Not for sale to the public!” Miles said. “We just keep a few back for visitors and friends.” He and Mario sniffed and gurgled and said things about intensity and flavour. I just mumbled agreement and kept drinking. The journey home was even more interesting than the one there.
I woke to see early sunlight picking out the hilltops, casting shadows across the regiments of vines.
It was perfect walking weather. I set out after breakfast to tramp along the river and up into the hills. At this time of year the landscape is bursting with fecundity. Split figs bared their fleshy interiors as they hung heavy on the trees, squashed oranges lay splattered on the road; almonds, limes, olives, all were ready to be plucked. There was hardly a noise, just the chirping of the occasional lark, the odd fish flopping in the water. Further on I heard the murmur of workers gathering fat grapes ready for pressing.
My walk took me up to Pinhal do Douro, a crossroads of tumbledown houses and wonky streets. I stopped for a coffee in the hamlet’s one bar. A chorus of barking hounds saw me past the village limits and I was happy to hit the path winding down the hillside and get away from them. Up at this higher altitude, vines had given way to ancient olive groves and crooked cork trees. A hairy nose against my calf made me jump. The village dogs had put me on edge, but here was the friendliest mutt I’ve met. He trotted along chasing the crickets that bucked away from his paws. He accompanied me all the way back.
I jumped back on the train late afternoon to travel down river to the sleepy little town of Pinhão. I stayed in a converted manor house nearby. When Ursula and Kurt Böcking bought the Casa Do Visconde de Chanceleiros it was a wreck. Over a decade they restored it, adding airy villas set in fragrant gardens around a swimming pool. Three-course dinner was served on the veranda. Ursula flitted from table to table chatting to the guests and topping up glasses as her kitchen staff wheeled out huge plates of chunky pork with sweet grapes followed by double chocolate pudding.
Port had by law to be aged and bottled in Porto, but the rules were relaxed in 1986 allowing growers to produce their own estate-bottled ports. Tim Bergqvist seized the opportunity and in 1992 ploughed his life savings into a plot beside the river that had been in the family for generations. I walked down to Quinta de la Rosa in the bright morning to join him and Sophia his daughter and business partner on the veranda of their 18th century cottage. Tim explained the philosophy. “Having control of the whole production process makes a big difference,” he explained. “We concentrated on making top end port and wine right from the start.” The Quinta has already won plenty of awards. Rural tourism is also an important part of the business. “We like people to come and join in!” said Sophia. So I asked if I could too.
Later, after another fine dinner at Chanceleiros I grabbed my swimming trunks and jumped in a cab back to Quinta de la Rosa. Finally I’d got my chance to tread. The granite tanks are three metres square and can accommodate 40 people. There was a foot of dark purple pulp inside. It was a strange sensation sinking into it, the fruit squelching under the soles of my feet. It smelt gorgeously tangy. Fermentation takes place completely naturally. I’d occasionally stumble upon hotspots where it was beginning to happen, with small bubbles fizzing away on the surface.
Usually people sing old Portuguese folk songs to keep the rhythm. But I ended up joining in a Danish version of the conga. Not the most traditional of chants, but it seemed to work just fine.
Fancy a wander among the vineyards?
Get There: Fly direct to Porto with TAP Air Portugal from London Gatwick.
Do The Tour: Inntravel offers an excellent 6-day Valley of Gold walking tour which covers most of this itinerary.