Sipping Porto in the Douro

Monday, July 27, 2009 | Pinhão, Portugal

After a long day's drive, we enjoyed a glass of white wine in the quinta's garden.
The next stop in our Portuguese road trip was the Douro Valley, famed home of Portugal's most celebrated export—vinho do porto, or port wine. Though its production begins like that of traditional wines, port is infused with brandy partway through the fermentation process, increasing both the alcohol and sugar content of the wine and adding yet more layers of complexity to its flavor.

The Douro River runs from the mountains of northeastern Portugal westward to the Atlantic, where the city of Porto is located. Around midday, Jacqueline and I drove into the valley some 150 km upriver, near the town of Lamego. The valley at once appeared impressively large, especially considering that almost every inch of soil for as far as we could see was terraced with grape vines.

At Peso da Régua we turned onto the narrow road that wound along the riverbank, toward the town of Pinhão. A train passed by, chugging through tunnels and over trestle bridges on the far shore.
The hillsides, lined with grape vines, looked like a forest, combed. The neat rows sharply outlined the landscape's contours.

Quintas, as the wineries are known here the Douro Valley, are located every few miles along each of the banks. Some advertised porto tastings, or full meals, or bed and breakfasts. Our destination, once we had passed through the little town of Pinhão, was the Quinta do Passadouro.

We arrived in mid-afternoon, and met the inn's manager, a Dutch expat named Jet who had relocated here with her family a decade earlier. While the viticulture experts tend to the grapes, Jet and her husband Ronald manage the tourists. Their endearing Dutch lilt shines throughout the quinta's literature: "Open air makes hungry. Ask for our completely filled picknickrucksack. Practical and delicious!"

On arrival, Jet sat us down in the flower garden behind the inn, overlooking the Rio Pinhão, and served us a refreshing glass of the quinta's own white wine.

The valley's arid climate may be good for the grapes, but Jacqueline and I had been sweating all day. So, after settling in, we walked down to the river, which some locals had dammed at a spot near the quinta to create a wide swimming hole.

That evening, I walked along the dirt road leading upward from the quinta, through the rows of grapes, cultivated here for centuries. The road's dust lay in thick drifts, devoid of rain for months from the look of it. With each step up the hill, I kicked up a puff of the khaki powder, which glowed with streaks of gold from the dipping sun.

Jacqueline and I shared dinner that evening with Jet and our fellow guests—one Dutch couple about our age, and another Dutch couple older than our parents. Like almost all the Dutch people I've met in various corners of the world over the years, they all spoke English. At first, as we made introductions and they began to chat in English (even with each other) for our benefit, Jacqueline and I felt self-conscious. We said so, but they waved it off, so used to navigating a world in which few speak Dutch that they think nothing of it.

Soon, however, the ample wine that came with dinner erased such reservations. By the time the chocolate mousse was served—with a bottle of porto for the table, of course—we were all conversing zealously, without a care in the world.


Fortune Ezeoha said...

Very nice post, far much better than most that I have read. I like the way you mentioned the facts of the matter and the sequence that you followed because that is where it all is.
Very relaxed with you glass of vino, that's my thing. very nice pictures. One qustion, what would your advice be for someone that wants to take this road trip.

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Thanks for your question, F.E.
The easiest point of entry for the Douro Valley is the city of Porto (a.k.a. Oporto). If you fly in there and rent a car, a few hours of beautiful, scenic driving will get you to the heart of the valley, where there are numerous quintas with an attached bed-and-breakfast. (Do your homework in advance and pick some out online - they all have websites).
A train line also follows the Douro River for a good stretch, and there is a boat that runs up and down the river, but having your own car is definitely the way to go - it's very rural.
Finally, if you go around this time, September-October, many quintas will allow you to take part in the harvest and processing of the grapes - including stomping them with your bare feet in huge vats, as has been the tradition for centuries.
Safe travels, and enjoy!

Andrew G. Farrand said...

... and most important of all - don't forget the rest of Portugal! It's an amazing country to explore.

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