“Why do you want Portuguese wine? We have many Ports from Portugal,” the wine steward at my local wine store asked me, the disdain in his voice evident.
“Because I’m doing research for an upcoming trip to Portugal,” I replied. “I want to see what kinds of wine they make. I’m not much of a port drinker.” I don’t understand why you would take a perfectly good wine and fortify it. But that’s my journey towards wine enlightenment. (I can hear you groaning already. All I can say is everyone walks at their own pace. Maybe someday I’ll like Port.)
I bought all the Portuguese wines they stocked, tasted them and thought, Oh well, we’ll do other things in Portugal besides explore the wine countries. I am so happy to tell you that the wine steward and I were wrong. Portuguese wines Rock! You just have to go to Portugal to get the good stuff. “Portugal is the oldest wine producer,” a wine steward at a shop in Obidos, Portugal told me.
“Why aren’t their wines prevalent in the world?” I asked and told him my story of procuring Portuguese wines at my local wine store.
“The vintners followed their own ways for centuries, but eventually realized they might benefit from outside advice. About ten years ago at the turn of the century, they got together and decided they weren’t doing things right, so they hired French consultants to assess the situation. The consultants helped replant vineyards to better appreciate the sun and other conditions. Many grapes were planted the wrong direction on various hillsides, (for example: north to south instead of east to west), some vineyards weren’t growing the best grape for their soil,” he explained.
I am here to tell you that their efforts paid off. The wines I tasted were spectacular. I’m still working on the ports, to be honest with you.
This charming river valley stole my heart within ten minutes. This 560-mile long river starts in Spain and ends in Porto, the northernmost region of Portugal. Translated to River of Gold, the gold is the grape. This spectacularly beautiful valley has 617,000 acres of vineyards, and for miles and miles all you see is vineyards. The river has been tamed with eight dams, giving it a tranquil, lake-like appearance. Hills on both sides of the river are covered in a mesmerizing patchwork of terraced vineyards that cascade down to the water’s edge. Most are small operations with quintas (wine producing farm complexes.) Many vineyards are outlined with orange and ancient olive trees. A passenger train traces one side of the river while a road traces the other. Restaurants are popping up on piers along the river.
Although the Douro Region is an old grape growing region, its wine tourism is still in its infancy. Up until the early 1980’s the grape growers, by law, could grow and harvest their grapes in the valley, but had to transport the fruit down the Douro River to Porto where they would process them. Special boats were used to maneuver the river safely. Thus Porto became the area to taste and experience the wines of this region. Now the laws have changed and vintners are able to grow, harvest and make their wines at their vineyards.
Most quintas do not have public tasting rooms. Hopefully next time I visit this valley I will be able to taste some of their wines. Many growers have kept their facilities in Porto and tend to focus their financial energies of reaching out to the wine tourists in Porto. The Douro Valley has a very small wine tourism aspect. A few port wineries have tasting rooms and a most spectacular restaurant DOC graces the river. The question for them is “Do you build it and they will come?” or “Do they come, so you build something?”
Currently companies are starting to invest in the infrastructure, constructing new hotels, restaurants and tasting rooms. This area is ready to explode (read get in early for investors looking for the next wine tourism location).
A fun thing to do is to stay at a Quinta or manor house. I stayed in a manor house in the village of Canedo do Basto. Named Casa de Banedo, this 400 year-old house was converted to a hotel in 1996. The kitchen with its giant hearth smelled of hundreds of years of cooking. I was transported to the kitchens of the pilgrims in the United States, stories we heard as children about making a pot of stew over a 3 legged pan.
This charming inn was resplendent with fountains, pools and a manicured lawn. My room had a fireplace and canopy bed. I threw open the windows and looked out over the valley. Grape arbors were everywhere, as were windy roads luring us to explore. And explore I did. The local train station was nearby and I was lured by the beautiful blue and white tile mosaic that could be seen above the trees. I envisioned life back in the day when the train would come through and transport you to somewhere exotic. Maybe to the city and the family’s wine emporium.
The next day I drove to a town called Peso de Regua, a main town in the valley. That is where I found the world famous DOC Restaurant, by Rui Paula. I chose to sit outside and enjoy the beauty, on the pier that extended into the Douro River, even though it was 41 degrees Celsius (somewhere about 106 degrees Farenheit)! To cool off I enjoyed a bottle of Vinho Verde. This typical Portuguese wine is in between a chardonnay or sauvignon blanc and a sparkling wine. It is lightly effervescent, but not bubbly. Very refreshing on a hot day.
My meal at the DOC changed my life. I had a grouper with herb mashed potatoes, and green beans with pinon nuts. My husband started with asparagus soup with scallops dotted with caviar and truffle oil. His main course was crab risotto and grouper, topped with a crayfish. Both of our meals were decorated with foam, the latest rage in haute cuisine. The light and fluffy dessert of lemon trilogy cooled us off and prepared us to continue in search of good wine.
I was able to find three wineries open, Pontascal, Sandeman and Real Companhia Velha. Remember, I’m not a port girl, but what’s a girl to do? I tasted port. I know that most port drinkers around the world worship this area, to you people I apologize for my unrefined taste buds.
Sandeman has an impressive compound perched high on a mountainside. I opted out of the tour and wished just to taste wines. Down an elevator and across a courtyard I was taken, to a winetasting room with picnic benches, a bar and an entire wall of windows overlooking the river. We sat at a bench and ordered a variety of ports to taste. I also had a lemon sorbet and white port concoction.
We found Real Companhia Velha enroute to Pinhao, a cute town where the from Porto train stops. The tile murals at the train station are a highlight of this village, with scenes depicting the life of vintners and the people of the Valley. Real Companhia Velha, is a small, riverside shop that is decorated with furniture made from wine barrels.
My last quest was to find Quinta do Crasto, an up and coming winery that had just produced a 2007 Reserva that got rave reviews from Robert Parker and named one of the top five wines of the world. I had tried calling for reservations, but there was no answer. Not to be deterred, I drove my compact car up small, winding roads where it appeared that no one went. Eventually after about 45 minutes I got to the winery and to my chagrin it was closed.
That is how it is in the Douro Valley. They are not quite ready for the wine tourists. But things are getting better. Hopefully by my next visit, preferably during a harvest season when I can watch the traditional method of grape harvesting by hand and stomping by foot, the infrastructure and wine tourist mind set will be stronger.
The biggest thing I learned in Portugal is that some of their wines are spectacular and their grape varietals are very different from what we have in California. I’m saddened that the productions are very small and not a lot of wine gets exported to us in the United States and the wine that does is often disappointing. Hopefully with the growth of this industry many intrepid entrepreneurs will find a way to increase wine production and exportation of their gold.