Wining Down Portugal’s Golden River

I can think of lots of reasons to visit Portugal—don’t get me started!—but somehow, they all end up involving wine. The premier hotels (wine!); engaging restaurants (wine!); low prices (more wine!); astounding natural beauty (vineyards); and hospitable, beyond-charming people (many of them vintners) combine to make a memorable journey following the Douro (“Golden”) River, as it exits Spain, and rushes to meet the sea at Porto—a city named, in fact, for its premier export, Port wine.

Vineyards of Quinta Ervamoira, Portugal.

Time out for a recap of how this fine wine came to be. England and Portugal always had been tight (the English took its ally’s side in battles against Spain), and the English loved their little tipple. But when war broke out with France (we’re talking 1689), drinking French wine became verboten. However, in shipping Portugal’s wines all the way to England, something got lost in translation. To make it taste better, a splash of brandy was added (thus, “fortified” wine). This produced not only a longer-lasting wine, but also a sweeter one, which the Brits adored.

Yet, it wasn’t until Portugal joined the European Union in 1986 that grape growers were allowed to bottle and export their product independently, without having to sell it to shippers who blended the whole lot into one vast red sea.

Came the revolution. Today, as anyone who follows the raves in The Wine Spectator already knows, not only have Ports been perfected, but also Portuguese table wines, thanks to a cadre of young mavericks who told Dad, back on the quinta (wine estate), “That’s so 20th Century.” (Actually, it was in the mid-’90s.) “Time for a change.”

Case in point: the rising stars called the Douro Boys. They’re a union of five competing/comradely young winemakers whose tasting rooms you can visit at Quinta do Vallado in the Douro Valley. Together, they opted to hew to much higher standards than the law demanded, and guess what? By reinventing the way things were done, they produced wines that rank with those of Sonoma or Italy. Fortunately, they export the stuff, too.

“The secret in the Douro,” one of the fraternity, Christiano van Zeller, intones: “Tame the tannins!” (He did.) He’s movie-star handsome, and he knows it. “When I get up in the morning, I look in the mirror, and say, ‘I want to make a wine like you!’” (Again, he did.)

Café in Porto.

But boys don’t get to have all the fun. Quinta Evramoira is a 200-acre wine estate smack in the middle of an archaeological park (you can ogle Roman artifacts in its little museum, and discover even earlier petroglyphs also found on the estate). There, Sonia Teixeira led us through a tasting of the Ramos Pinto family’s white and ruby Ports and table wines, while we lunched on its mountaintop patio on a terrine of cod (the fish is beloved, and always served on Christmas Eve), beef with potatoes, and almond semifreddo, while she retold the estate’s history. In 1974, after the country’s revolution, José Ramos Pinto Rosas bought fields of grain, and planted vines instead—radically, vertically, at that. Unheard of. Moreover, each field held its own designated grape—an end to the usual mishmash. Crazy, they called him. Crazy like a fox, all the way to the bank.

Grapes everywhere. And here, along the Douro, after they’re plucked, they’re foot-trodden. These winemakers believe that machines crush everything around—stems, seeds—which spoils the flavor. So, grape-stomping is the drill, and you, too, can emerge with purple toes. Visitors may join the crush at Quinta da Casa Amarela, linking arms across each other’s shoulders in a vinous line dance through the troughs.

Slicked up later, we found our way to dinner at the even-slicker new Aquapura Douro Valley Hotel, a 19th-Century manor house amid the vineyards. But nothing 19th—or even 20th—Century within its walls. The Jetsons would fit right in.

The previous night, we’d supped and slept at Casas do Coros, an entire medieval hilltop village-turned-rental property. Under the shadows of its crumbling castle, we occupied cottages-turned-contemporary villas, swimming pool and all. We dined by romantic candlelight on pumpkin-carrot soup, duck with rice, and a killer dessert buffet.

Hikes, winery visits, and boat rides can be arranged to Pinhao, a sweet little city in the bend of the river, whose antique train station is dressed in blue-and-white tiles portraying early river and harvest scenes. The Vintage House, a classic hotel across the street with terraces floating down to the river, offers exquisite dining, along with wine-tasting classes that match five Ports with five desserts (nice work if you can get it).

En route to winery.

Then, on to Porto itself. Portugal’s second-largest city, rising from the water, unveiled for our greedy eyes a delicious mix of venerable and modern. Its medieval harbor, spanned by a lacy bridge of Eiffel design, is a simmering warren of fishermen’s houses, now outdoor cafés and tiny boutiques, guarded by tall, elegant churches dressed, inside and out, in those mesmerizing blue tiles that are Porto’s calling card. Uphill, close to the pedestrian-only shopping street, another train station is a must-see, its walls a blue-tiled panorama of Portuguese history. University students swirled by, flaunting the “Dracula” capes they wear to class, as we made our way to the broad Boavista, the Champs d’Elysées of Porto, leading from the historic center to the café-lined beach.

Plunk in the middle looms the brand-new Casa de Musica performance hall (makes our new Walker look outdated), with a rooftop restaurant called Kool, which it certainly is. We lunched on cod brandade with spinach flan and wild mushrooms, followed by entrecote in a green pepper/lemon sauce, before retreating to our equally contempo hotel on the avenue, the new Porto Palacio, sporting a superior health club and gourmet restaurant with new takes on classic flavors. The city’s slickest gay bar, Maus Habito—“bad habits”(!)—isn’t far.

But, on our last night, we were feeling nostalgic, and made our way, instead, to Casa de Cha in a down-home fishermen’s suburb to make a feast of shrimp and clams, seafood rice, fillet of bream, and what-have-you. With a final glass of—what else?—ruby Port, we toasted our journey, and started plotting our return.

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