Vol 2 No 12…the Douro Valley and Lisbon

We left Rias Baíxas in the morning taking a short drive into Portugal and got off the highway at Guimarães and taking a winding road over the mountain (needlessly since the GPS was showing us the shortest route when we could have driven directly to Pinhão on a better road and backtracked a couple of miles, as the owner of the inn we stayed at told us, adding “never use a GPS here”), with switchbacks all the way but breathtaking views straight down the wall to the terraces of vines for Port.

We stayed two nights at Casa do Visconde de Chanceleiros, once the home of a Viscount and built in the early 1700’s with incredible views, and some casitas which we stayed in. Great hospitality, and incredible views and food. In Pinhão, we toured La Quinta do Bomfim, home of Dow’s, Warres, and Graham’s Port. It is still owned by the Symington family which was in textiles until a son took a liking to Port Wine. The Brits get credit for Port though, by adding brandy to it which upped the alcohol and stopped the fermentation, preserving the sweetness, which must be done 36 hours after fermentation starts. Originally, all the port was shipped on Barca’s down the Douro River which was very treacherous especially when loaded with barrels of wine. The destination was the Port lodges in Oporto. As in Bordeaux, originally the Brits shipped the barrels (or pipes) to England and bottled the wine there. Wealthy families would buy a pipe (about 60 cases) of Vintage Port of the year a child was born or, since not every year is vintage, the nearest vintage, assuring they would have the port for the rest of their life.

Eventually, the Symington family bought out all the companies now owned as well as some more. The Douro Valley is one of the worst places to grow grapes in the world (although as you will soon see, Spain is a contender in several regions), with schist layers that cause the roots to go down as much as 20 meters to take water from the rock. All the rain comes in a few months followed by blistering hot summers. Thus the grapes are stressed adding to their complexity. Originally, the grapes were collected and stomped by foot which was followed by a huge celebration. Today, the only one that still does it that way is Quinta do Vesuvio, also owned by the Symington’s. The crushing was done in stone or cement troughs  called lagares, about two feet high and about 12 feet square. It is now done by machine – the wineries have adapted their own and patented them in a manner that matches the way the feet would stomp them…they even have an arched foot at the bottom to get it as close to the real thing as possible. This is no joke as a human foot is gentle enough to squeeze out the juice without breaking the seeds which would add bitter flavors to the wine.

There are several degrees of Port from Ruby, the youngest and as the name implies reddest, Tawny, which is aged 10, 20, years or more, Late Bottled Vintage which remains in cask until bottled years later, and Vintage Port which surprisingly only spend two years in barrel with the real aging to be done in the bottle. Thus they throw of a sediment and must be drunk within a couple of days whereas other ports can stay open for several weeks without oxidizing.

My favorites are 10 year or older Tawny Ports or Late Bottled Vintage Ports (my wife bought be a bottle of Niepoiort from my birth year, 1944 for my 50th birthday.

The cellar room is incredibly large with large casks for Ruby’s and smaller ones for Tawny’s and Vintage Ports. Architects still visit the Quinta to learn how the 9 ton roof is supported with a series of trusses. At the tasting I chose a selection of Tawny’s: Dow’s 30 year-old; Graham’s 40 year-old, and a Graham’s 1972 Single Harvest. The costs of these bottlings is in order: 30 euros, 120 euros, and 250 euros. At 30 euros for the tasting it was an incredible value.

Later that afternoon we visited Sandeman’s which is much more commercialized. Until a few years ago the only tours were at the Port Lodges in Vila Nova da Gaia, across the river from Oporto. Now you are encouraged to travel to Pinhão. While I highly recommend this I also suggest taking the three-hour train ride. The station is just a couple of blocks from Quinta do Bonfim (Estate or Country Villa of the Good Ending).

A short walk from our lodging was Quinta do Infantado, a winery that has been in Joâm Roseira’s family since 1816 making this the 200th year. I talked with him for over an hour. They were a factor in getting the law changed so that the growers could produce their own Port which they accomplished in 1986. Port growers are paid more for their grapes due to the low yield than any place in the world, over 1,000 euros a ton, however there are several thousand vineyards many of them as small as a backyard and to wait an entire year for that is not enough to sustain a family. He is now one of the best Port producers from his 60 hectares (150 acres), which is sprawled over the hillside. He is very proud of his vineyard and done what he can to further the cause of Portuguese winemakers. As much as I liked his Port, the one I bought was a red table wine because it was unique. He is an amazing man.

After two wonderful days there, we drove along the Douro to the highway to Lisbon. It is a beautiful area and we hated to leave it.

Arriving in Lisbon in the late afternoon, we found our hotel which was just two blocks from the Institute of Port Wine which is a great place to enjoy Port (both red and white), in a club atmosphere. If you do this however, go across the street for an incredible view of the old town and the Tagus River. They sell Sangria there…one of the best I have ever had and musicians abound playing everything from Bossa Nova to Fado. A wonderful place to spend an afternoon. There are seven hills in Lisbon (like San Francisco and Rome), and I think I climbed all of them.

Since we had been to Lisbon before we had a nice dinner after turning in our rental car, and turned in early after having some Port. We had to be up at 3am to go to the airport for our flight to Madeira the next morning.

Trader Bill

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