Crazy Douro, he’d called it. Amidst the stately beauty of the Ramos Pinto port house in Portugal’s Gaia, gregarious, moustachioed João Nicolau de Almeida had told me that the region where port and Douro wines are made is a back-breaking landscape for winemakers. ‘It’s hot, it’s cold, the soils are miserable and it’s very expensive because the topography is challenging,’ he’d said, with a laugh. What I hadn’t expected it to be was gobsmackingly beautiful – or accessible for all budgets.
Shortly after my meeting with Nicolau de Almeida, I go to explore it and find steep terraces carved into the dry stone reaching up from the banks of the silky Douro River. Each is lined with vines nurtured to produce some of the world’s finest wines, vines which led it to become the first demarcated wine region in the world and, in 2001, a Unesco World Heritage site.
The terrace of Quinta de la Rosa, a riverside port and wine estate near the town of Pinhão, affords a view of what is also one of the world’s most beautiful wine regions. Here I eat a simple three-course supper (soup, codfish stew, cheese) paired with the Quinta’s own wine and endless port for just €25. This small, family-owned vineyard produces award-winning wines such as Quinta de la Rosa Reserva 2011, a complex, layered red that matches my Serra da Estrela ewe’s cheese. The following day, I climb up through terraces carved into schist (a silvery, coarse-grained rock) to reach Quinta do Portal – an estate with a stunning, modernist building as its centrepiece, designed by architect Álvaro Siza Vieira to meld into the landscape. I taste port tonic (white port and tonic with a twist of lemon rind and a sprig of mint), as well as its first production of sparkling rosé, accompanied by pastéis de bacalhau (salt cod fishcakes) and other small tasters. You can sample three different wines (from €5pp), or dine in a stunningly situated restaurant (from €35 for three courses), where young chef Milton Ferreira produces dishes that combine old Portuguese tradition with modern flair and, in the case of our tender rabbit, local produce.
For centuries, it was from here in the Alto Douro (Upper Douro) that barges were stacked with barrels of port and punted downriver to the cellars of Gaia, just across the river from Porto, to be aged. Known locally as caves, these cellars now offer an affordable way to sample the best ports and wines. Amidst the bacchanalian artworks that Ramos Pinto has always made the focus of its labels, Nicolau de Almeida talks me through the different ports – tawny, ruby, ruby reserve and vintage. The rubies are bottled in their second year and are very much like wine, he says: ‘Everything you have with red wine, you can have with rubies’. Tawny is totally different. It’s aged in wood, comes in more than 40 categories and is made from a combination of different grape varieties.
At port pioneer Graham’s recently-renovated 1890 Lodge, there’s vast Vinum, a restaurant and wine bar where tempting snacks such as smoked mussels (€4) and balls of salted cod (€7) can be accompanied by a glass-by-glass wander through Graham’s best wines. But I’ve come for the sweeping view from the atrium terrace across the river to medieval Porto’s red pantile rooftops and two-tier Dom Lúis bridge.
Vinum’s kitchen focuses on produce from the little- known region Trás os Montes (meaning ‘behind the mountains’). I treat myself to the vaca velha 25-day rib steak (around €20) and the maitre d’ explains in pidgin English: ‘We take the food and nearly not touch it’; it is simply salted and chargrilled à point, a perfect match for the deep, rich Graham’s Post Scriptum 2011.
Across the river in Porto, in the opulent glory of the Majestic Café, I discover my fondness for teeny, tiny pastéis de nata, more delicately crunchy than their full-sized big brothers. Grocery-store-cum-diner Mercearia das Flores, has shelves stacked with brightly coloured sardine cans and I pick up melamine crockery and more cans at funky Portuguese design store A Vida Portuguesa before strolling in awe through Livrario Lello (Rua das Carmelitas 144, 00 351 22 200 2037), a breathtaking 19th-century bookshop with intricate wood panels and a twisty ‘staircase to heaven’.
A few minutes’ walk away, at Restaurante Traça, our table by an upstairs window gives a lovely view down the calçadas-lined street towards the river. Here, we enjoy spectacular deer loin carpaccio with semi-cured cheese (€10) and a hearty fry-up-like skillet of blood sausage, potatoes, egg and peppers (€12). Despite recommendations for francesinha, Porto’s most famous dish, the appeal of this cheap-meat-stuffed sandwich topped with gooey cheese and tomato sauce is lost on me. Instead, we join local politicians jabbering over lunch under the low wooden arches of Adega São Nicolau (Rua de São Nicolau 1, 00 351 22 200 8232). As the restaurant’s genial, straw-hatted owner, António Coelho, moves from table to table, we sample alheira (€5), a local sausage made from chicken; pataniscas (salt cod fritters) with tomato rice (€11.50), deep-fried petingas (little sardines, €11.50), and a delicate Duorum 2012, a white made from the colheita grape – it feels like dining inside a wine barrel.
For one last port tonic, I find a rough little seaman’s bar on the banks of the river. The shanties are being belted out and, as I look out again at the port and wine houses across the water, I imagine these old river dogs are singing a song for Crazy Douro. If I knew the words, I would join in.
Written December 2014