By Chrissie Walker
Ah, beautiful Portugal, and it’s nearer than you think – there are convenient flight connections via the Portuguese national carrier TAP! This country is full of charm. It has striking architecture in its capital, iconic Lisbon; history and character in Porto, where we even find a Harry Potter connection; …and then there is the Douro Valley, which is stunning and will entice any visitor who loves wine.
This area is known for its natural beauty and also for its wines and, in particular, Port. No, it isn’t made in Porto, although it’s that city that gives its name to this fortified beverage. The Portuguese have been making wine for, they say, at least two thousand years. Portugal’s wine industry has a close relationship with the British, dating back, in the case of the celebrated Taylor’s Port, to the 1600s.
There are many theories regarding the modern discovery of Port. One of the most popular is the story of a visit in 1678 of English wine merchants to a monastery on the banks of the Douro River. They were looking for wines to ship back to England and they happened upon an abbot in Lamego who was producing a wine that was totally new to the British importers. The aforementioned monk was fortifying his wine during fermentation instead of after, which was the practice for other wines. The abbot’s method killed off the active yeast, leaving the wine with elevated levels of residual sugar. This produced a potent wine with sweetness that was bound to be to the 17th-century English taste.
Port is, these days, produced from grapes grown and processed in that specific region of Portugal called The Douro. Gangs of workers march with a characteristic rhythmic movement from one side of the wine tank to the other with, sometimes, a group of musicians to speed the crushing process. There are modern machines that are said to mimic that stomping, but the action of the human foot is still considered the best. The juice starts its fermentation, and the wine produced is then fortified by the addition of a grape spirit specially distilled for the wine industry. This unique ‘brandy’ is added in order to stop the fermentation, to allow more sugar to remain in the wine, and to increase the alcohol content.
Until well into the 20th century the wine produced in the Douro was carried down the river from the vineyards in special boats known as barcos rabelos. You can still see these moored along the river in Porto, and rides are available. These colourful wooden boats have a shallow draft to enable them more easily to navigate what was a treacherous watercourse, until dams were built to manage the river flow. So risky was the business of transporting the casks down river to the warehouses in Porto that they were customarily never filled to full capacity. The barrels had an air-gap which allowed them to remain buoyant should there be a mishap en route.
The Douro Valley offers striking vistas not only over that history-laced river but across lush vineyards and to wineries which offer visitors the opportunity to stay in the best of accommodation, and to enjoy both local wines and dishes. If you are lucky you might have the chance to pick a few grapes and even to tread the fruit in the time-honoured fashion. The Douro enchants with every delicious sip and with every sun-kissed slope.
Portugal is a vibrant country with beauty, history and outstanding food. It still remains a relatively unspoilt corner of Europe and a perfect destination for the discerning independent traveller.
Read more about Chrissie Walker and her travels at Mostly Food and Travel Journal