Lisbon might be the country’s capital, but Portugal’s second city, Porto, is very definitely not second best. Dramatically situated at the mouth of the Rio Douro, it’s a massively atmospheric place that’s well worth a couple of days of your time – more if you plan to make a serious assault on the famous port wine lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia, located just across the river. For a convenient trip to the seaside, the pretty town of Vila do Conde, 45 minutes to the north, offers a taste of what’s to come as you head up the coast towards the Minho. East of Porto, meanwhile, the N15 or much faster A4 motorway runs inland to the vinho verde-producing towns of Penafiel and Amarante, the latter perhaps the single most attractive town in the region, set on the lazy Rio Tâmega.
Inevitably, however, it’s the Rio Douro (“River of Gold”) that defines the region, winding for over 200km from the Spanish border to the sea, with port wine lodges and tiny villages dotted above intricately terraced hillsides. It was once a wild and unpredictable river, though after the port-producing area was first demarcated in the eighteenth century, engineering works soon tamed the worst of the rapids and opened up the Douro for trade. The railway reached the Spanish border by the end of the nineteenth century, while the building of hydroelectric dams and locks along the river’s length in the 1970s and 1980s turned the Douro into a series of navigable ribbon lakes.
It’s possible to cruise all the way from Porto to Barca d’Alva on the Spanish border, while the drive along the Douro also makes for an unforgettable journey. But take the train at least part of the way if you can, since the main Douro train line is no slouch for scenery – particularly once you’ve reached the rough halfway point, marked by the port wine town and cruise centre of Peso da Régua. Just to the south of Régua, a slight detour takes in the delightful Baroque pilgrimage town of Lamego and the fascinating churches and historic buildings of its little-explored surroundings. Beyond Régua, the main stop is the idyllically set wine-town of Pinhão, and the train line continues to hug the river as far as its terminus at Pocinho, though the Douro itself still has a way to go, winding on to the border at Barca d’Alva. However, following the uppermost reaches of the Douro is impossible by road beyond Pinhão, with the N222 finally veering south of the river to reach the extraordinary collection of paleolithic rock engravings near Vila Nova de Foz Côa.Read More
The port wine story
The port wine story
If ever a drink was synonymous with a country it’s port – the fortified wine from Portugal’s Douro region. For three centuries wine has been shipped down the Douro River to Vila Nova de Gaia, whose famous wine lodges (Sandeman, Graham’s, Cockburn, Taylor’s) reflect the early British influence on its production. A cellar tour here (see The port wine lodges) forms an integral part of any visit to Porto, while you can also follow the wine trail right along the Douro by train, car or cruise boat. To find out more, the country’s port wine institute, the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto (whttp://www.ivdp.pt), has a useful English-language website.
Developing a taste – the early days
The clear distinction between port wine (vinho do porto) and other Portuguese wines wasn’t made until the beginning of the eighteenth century, when Britain prohibited the import of French wines during the War of the Spanish Succession. Portuguese wines quickly filled the void and, following the Methuen Treaty (1703), the wine trade became so profitable that adulterated inferior wines were soon being passed off as the genuine article. This led to the creation of a regulatory body in 1756, the Companhia Geral da Agricultura das Vinhas do Alto Douro, and, the following year, the declaration of the world’s oldest demarcated wine region (where port wine could now only legitimately be produced). Yet it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that it began to resemble today’s fortified wine, when the addition of brandy to stop fermentation became widespread, enabling the wines to be transported over even longer distances.
The Douro wine route
The port wine grapes are grown in a 600,000-acre demarcated region along both banks of the Rio Douro, stretching from Mesão Frio (near Peso da Régua) to the Spanish border. Sheltered by the Marão and Montemuro ranges, around fifteen percent of the region is under vines, which benefit from cold winters and hot, dry summers. The characteristic terraces can be seen along the length of the Douro, and they form a particularly beautiful backdrop to the small town of Pinhão, which is now the main centre for quality ports. The grapes are harvested at the quintas (vineyard estates) from September to October and crushed. After a few days fermentation is arrested by the addition of brandy – exactly when this is done determines the wine’s sweetness – with the wine subsequently stored in casks until the following March. The final stage in the wine route is the transportation downstream to the shippers’ lodges, where the wine is blended and matures.
What’s in the bottle?
Port wine is either Ruby (ie deep red) in style, Tawny (made from a blend of differently aged wines) or white – the first two are generally drunk at the end of a meal, or with cheese or dessert, the last served chilled as an aperitif. The finest reds are known as Vintages, wines from a single year that are bottled two to three years after harvest and left to mature. A vintage is only declared in certain years (just fourteen times between 1901 and 1999, for example), and the wine is only ready to drink at least ten to fifteen years after bottling, when the flavours are at their most complex, the wine deep purple and full-bodied. Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) is not of vintage quality, but is still good enough to mature in bottles, to which it’s transferred after four to six years in the cask. All other ports are blended and are kept in the cask for between two and seven or more years, with the colour developing into various shades of Tawny – they are ready to drink when bottled. Of these, a Colheita (“Harvest”) is a Tawny port made from grapes from a specific year and aged at least seven years in the cask; other fine wines are superior Tawnies dated 10, 20, 30 or 40 years old (the average age of the wines in the blend), while Reserve ports (both Tawny and Ruby) are decent blended wines, the best being the Tawny Reserve ports which have to spend at least seven years in the cask.