The Douro Valley should be a compelling highlight of any self-respecting tour of Portugal. I had the pleasure of exploring the decorated wine region on Trafalgar’s Best of Portugal guided journey. As our tour entered the tiered majesty of the Douro Valley, tour guide Pedro’s ebullient story-telling hit top gear, as he strained to cram all his fascinating insights into his on-board patter. Do the Douro before you reach Oporto, just like the wine barrels. The region’s dripping beauty had my camera working on overdrive, as Pedro gushed effusively with the back story.
The locals have a saying – God made the world but we did the Douro. And the upper Douro Valley, so exquisitely wreathed and terraced, is like the wine-growing equivalent of Balinese rice paddies. As far as the eye can see, layered, ribboned vines cascade down to the water’s edge. From its source in Spain, the river flows for more than 900 kilometres before emptying out into the Atlantic. The Portuguese have been tending to these terraced vines for over three hundred and fifty years, a meticulously handcrafted landscape, with World Heritage bragging rights.
Believe it or not, the Douro is the world’s oldest defined and regulated regional wine appellation, all due to the vision of the Portuguese Prime Minister. In 1756, the Douro Wine Company was founded by the Marquis of Pombal, who could see the extraordinary potential of the wine trade, and he delineated the boundaries of the Douro wine region, by royal decree. We called into a famed manor house, the story-book pretty Mateus Palace. The manor house is depicted on the labels of the famous Mateus rosé wine – a party staple of the 1970s.
With a masterly baroque façade and ornate pinnacles on the roof, the 18th century property is flanked by sumptuously landscaped gardens, elegant statues and a massive reflecting pond. I loved the formal garden with its tiny boxwood hedges, petite statues and aromatic cypress tunnel, which is a blissfully cool refuge in the height of summer.
Adding to the sense of fantasy, be sure to marvel at the 5 metre tall curved ladders which are deployed to prune the tunnel. Guided tours in the interior reveal its restrained grandeur, but the library holds some macabre relics. Supposedly brought from the Vatican in the 18th century, you can size up a saintly fingernail, a pair of saintly eyeballs and even a piece of the true cross.
The Douro Valley is home to two hundred and fifty grape varieties; about twenty per cent of the grapes are used for port. Traditionally, the wine estates would transport their wine in flat-bottomed boats, rabelo, deliberately only half- filling the barrels, so that in the event they rolled off the boat, they would still float there way down to Oporto. The cargo boats remain a cherished symbol of Portugal’s rich maritime tradition, and you can take an evocative sightseeing cruise on-board a rabelo.
Nowadays, all the barrels are transported by truck, to the horde of cellar houses in Oporto’s riverside quarter of Gaia. It’s an incredible sight, to see all of these legendary wine houses virtually piled on top of each other, like Cockburns, Taylors and Grahams, seemingly competing for attention with super-sized neon signage on their rooftops.
Many of these cellar houses, where the wine is stored and aged, offer tasting tours and our group plumped for Ramos Pinto, one of the pioneering exporters of port wine. A couple hundred years ago they deployed highly risqué and provocative posters to drive their marketing campaign. The Catholic Church considered their promotional tactics as grossly indecent, but Ramos Pinto managed to mollify the bishops, by regularly plying them with caseloads of their finest product.
Another very popular option is Taylor’s, where you can wander among casks of port the size of small trucks, before enjoying a glass or two of their finest drop, in front of a cracking fire.
By Mike Yardley, Newstalk ZB’s Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturdays. 11.20am