Port’s el Douro
The first time I drank port I was 17. My local football side had just been knocked out by our arch rivals and in an act of youthful rashness, I grabbed my fathers Port and proceeded to drown my sorrows. It was during this tumultuous time a great thing happened, I discovered this smooth and delicious elixir to soothe and comfort my soul, to pat me on the back and say, chin up old boy, there are worse things in life.. I discovered that dads favourite tipple wasn’t just a beverage reserved for the older person.
Fast forward eight years and it was with great excitement and intrigue that I made my way to Porto and onto the Douro Valleys, the birthplace of Port. As the car coasted along the long and winding roads, the Aquapura Hotel, nestled in the hills, a terracotta castle surrounded by vineyards, came into view.
A relatively new luxury hotel, the Aquapura recently won a Tourismo de Portugal award for contributing most to raising Portugal’s image as a first-rate travel destination, so we’re not talking the Algarve here. As you enter through the main entrance, one of the main themes of the hotel begins, light and dark. You descend from the well-lit reception down into the cool depths of the interior to your room.
The room in which I stayed was a good size and fused a mixture of wooden floors and glass and metal. In the room itself, there is also a 4ft deep sunken bathtub. This took around two and half hours to fill. Though a nice touch it must have melted an iceberg or two, running hot water for that long. Lack of privacy is also an issue. While I was on my own, this did not present a problem but with the sunken bathtub located in the bedroom and a shower sheathed entirely by glass walls, which itself is overlooked by the rooms desk, you certainly have to be comfortable in company, that or be of a naturist bent. Even the toilet has a glass door which is truly the final frontier.
While the Aquapura hotel, unlike some luxury hotels, is a destination in itself, the jewels in the crown are port-tasting tours. I travelled through the surrounding valleys on a rabelo, a traditional Portuguese boat, along the historic route that was used to transport port to Gaia and Porto many years ago. Our boat trip took us directly to one of the best quintas or vineyards in the valley. Quinta do Panascal who produce the classic Fonseca Ports, a true premium port. Some Fonseca bottles cost upwards of 300 euros, depending on their vintage.
The process of making port begins in the same way as that of wine, the growth and selection of quality grapes. Without the unique conditions in the Douro valley it would be impossible to produce this core product. Due to being protected by four mountains, the valley has hot, dry summers and very cold winters. In the summer, it is often 15 degrees warmer than Porto on the coast. The grapes are then carefully handpicked during the harvest and squashed to attain their precious juice. Fonseca is one of the few port makers left that still use the traditional method of crushing the grapes with bare feet. On the whole, this has been replaced by the more cost efficient use of robotics, but Fonseca believe that the traditional method brings out a greater flavor. Port comes in three different forms, white, tawny and ruby. These are made depending on the use of grapes, ageing and storage. Vintage ports come around only a few times in a decade and are only classed as vintage if this is confirmed by the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto.
This Institute of Port, oversees all of Portugal’s production and distribution and ensures that the rich, velvety liquid maintains the highest standards. Ruby and tawny ports are rich and sweet, often spicy and nutty in flavour. They are best served chilled and can be accompanied by chocolates or puddings or on their own. Tawny ports are perfect with anything caramel-ly, such as a Tarte Tatin or Sticky Toffee Pudding. Its nutty flavors would work fantastically with a Hazelnut Torte or something like Pecan Pie. White Port can be used as an aperitif and goes perfectly with salted almonds and a plate of antipasti such as Parma Ham and a young (18 month) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. It can also be used in a port tonic. This consists of ice, tonic water and lemon.
Port, of course, is shrouded in its own myths, some of which are untrue. Firstly, port will not give you gout. Studies have shown beer drinkers are more likely to develop this condition. Secondly, port is best served chilled and in a normal sized or tulip shaped wine glass. Not those tetchy little shards of glass you see your grandma bring out at Christmas. The process involved in creating a vintage port exemplifies the passion for not only each bottle but for every grape used. It is a drink that shouldn’t be left wasting away in the cupboard only to be brought out once a year on special occasions. Port drinkers believe every occasion can be special. Drink it with friends, enjoy it with a meal and throw off those shackles of untruths normally associated with it. Now, when I drink it, I’ll think of the sprawling green hills and epic mountain views. So ladies and gentlemen, if you’ll join me in raising your normal-sized glasses to port.