What a difference a three hour train ride can make! That’s the short time it takes to travel 300 kilometres from Lisbon northwards to Porto, the city and the region that gives its name to Port wine, but the contrasts are dramatically obvious. Lisbon’s charms are spread colourfully across seven hills and vales and are outwardly evident. Porto looks withdrawn, compact and introspectively silent at first glance. Maybe it’s because we have arrived under grey rainy skies that give Porto’s old world monuments a mournful look. But two hours later,when the sun comes out, a ramble through its many streets shows up the new design centres and spaces that nestle proudly among heritage town houses and Baroque churches.
Porto is Portugal’s second city but ranks first for global wine merchants and English aristocrats who can’t get enough of its world famous product. Half jokingly, Porto’s citizens state, “We work hard and Lisbon shows off”. Sounds like the classic Mumbai vs Delhi debate! What is not open to debate is the very heady air we breathe, thanks to the raison d’etre of the city’s very existence. It’s almost as if someone has sprayed the town with Port wine! It’s an impression enhanced by the cheerful faces one sees in the hundreds of open air cafes, bars, wine shops and restaurants. So convivial is the atmosphere that opposing camps in courtyards and squares watching the Football World Cup amiably buy each other drinks even when their favourites are losing.
The old city of Porto lies on the north bank of the River Douro just before it gushes into the Atlantic Ocean. On the South bank is Vila Nova de Gaia, a comparatively younger town now merged seamlessly with the former. Several bridges across the Douro facilitate easy movement. The Ponte Luis I bridge is the most iconic, inspired by Gustave Eiffel ( who also partly contributed to the design) and bearing reference to his famous tower in Paris. Comfy benches that line the esplanade of the south bank offer breathtaking views of Porto’s gentle hillscape on the opposite bank. Wooden sailing boats that once brought wine casks from the northern vineyards to the mouth of the ocean – to be loaded onto large ships carrying the liquid gold to England – now offer two hour long rides up and down the river for us to click memorable photographs.
Both banks throb with high touristic density all day long and well into the night. On the Porto side, scores of very old restaurants and bars serve a wide variety of Port wines (consumed both as aperitifs and post prandial drinks) and north Portugal’s most famous twist culinary creation. For the health conscious the Francesinha is a Cholesterol Bomb, but eat one you must. This working man’s snack is a massive sandwich of cured ham, beef, sausage cipoletta and cheese, doused in a sauce made of beer and tomato puree. Joana Ribeiro,our very pretty guide chuckles, “Devour it, just don’t tell your cardiologist!”
Everywhere in Porto large hoardings with a masked figure logo scream “Sandeman!” No, it’s got nothing to do with the Metallica song. It’s one of Port wine’s biggest brands, right up there with legends such as Graham’s, Cockburn, Taylor, et al. Port wine aficionados from across the world who visit Porto already know why most port producing companies have British names. Up to the mid-18th century, England bought and consumed only French wines till a dispute broke out between the two countries. In search of newer wine sources, British merchants sailed onwards to the Iberian Peninsula. But how would wines survive the long journeys back to England without going rotten or acidic? Simple. Stabilise them with Brandy. That’s how Port wines were born and the rest is history with producers laughing all the way to the bank. The Douro Valley, now conferred World Heritage Status by UNESCO, is the current darling of the global enotourism circuit.
I spent a few hours at Graham’s to learn about the differences between a white, a tawny and a ruby port. The entrance price also includes a tasting session conducted by experts. Built in 1890, Graham’s is still a working cellar, housing over 2,000 oak casks (pipes) and 40 large oak vats (balseiros) of aging port wines. Its terrace, open to all visitors, gives breathtaking views of Porto and the two-tier Dom Luiz bridge. Round off the learning session with a well deserved lunch at Vinum, the main dining room. Inside, a large glass wall offers incredible views of thousands of seasoned oak casks containing some of the world’s most valuable Port wines. Served daily is fresh fish from the local harbour.
A sweet but erotic surprise awaits the traveller on the road to the Douro Valley. In Amarante, a quaint town enroute, ladies sell penis shaped pastry biscuits ! Joana amuses us with the story of Sao Goncalo the patron saint of spinsters who lived in Amarante, circa 12th AD. Renowned for his sermons, Christians pilgrims began to stop at his church. After his demise, devotees flocked to his tomb for blessings. Somehow a rumour started that if you wanted to conceive, you must touch the genitals area of the statue. Childless mothers flocked in the hundreds and legend has it that they started to get pregnant in a short time. In the last few decades, enterprising bakers make penis shaped biscuits, which are sold as local savouries. I bought my sweet doughy dildo (and ate it too) from the wellstocked cart of a grand-motherly lady who proudly posed with her wares.
Genuine Port in all its varieties — White, Tawny, Ruby- is proudly made along the Douro valley’s narrow river’s sun-baked mountain ranges. In terms of sheer beauty, I would rate the Douro valley as the world’s most spectacularly beautiful wine region. The terraces of vines are grown on granite stone below are much more rustic than Tuscany or Bordeaux, amplifying its touristic charms. Its tradition of only Port wines has shifted since the turn of the century to the making of more and more table wines. Tens of thou-sands of acres are planted with scores of unique native grape varieties. With the Douro’s varied microclimates and soil types, it has now become the big wine region on the European enotourism circuit.
We are in the presence of Mr Douro himself at the historic Quinta de Marrocos (www.quintademarrocos. com), founded at the beginning of the last century. Our host is the inimitable wine maker and story teller Cesar Sequiera, the great grandson of the founder. To meet this venerable gent in his home which used to be an old Franciscan monastery is to understand the enormous transformations that have shaped the evolution not just of port wines but of Portugal’s economy.
Over many a glass, Cesar explains that the estate has shifted much of its production to table wines in the past decade, since the international demand for port pales in comparison with that for dense varietals that may eventually rival pricey French and Italian wines. He is part of a loose federation of vineyard owners called the Douro Boys, all dedicated to improving the region’s profile.
Cesar’s two daughters, Rita the oenologist and Catarena the Marketing director join us as the intoxicating day continues with generous tastings of many a Marrocos product. The white port first followed by a fruity white ( Malvasia Fina and Fernao Pires grapes), a soft Rose, then an outstanding red made from the four major grapes – Tinta Barocca,Tinta Roroz,Touriga Franca, Touriga National. The lunch consists of classic Portugese dishes such as Rojoes (stewed pork with potatoes) and Bolinhos de Bacalhau (cod fish fritters). The Portugese word for Thank You is Obrigado. And the word for Burp is Burp!
What is Port wine?
Port is one of the great classic European wines and its history is a long and fitscinating one. Port is a fortified wine. Fortified wines are made by adding a proportion of grape spirit, or brandy, to the wine at sonic point during the production process. Port is arguably the greatest of all fortified wines and its paramount expression, Vintage Port, ranks alongside the finest produce of Bordeaux or Burgundy as one of the great iconic wines of the world. In the case of Port, the addition of the brandy takes place before the wine has finished fermenting. This means that the wine retains some of the natural sweetness of the grape, making it rich, round and smooth on the palate. One of the fascinating aspects of Port wine is its variety of different styles, each with its own characteristic flavours, from the intense berry fruit flavours of a Reserve or a Late Bottled Vintage to the rich mellowness of an Aged Thwny or the sublime complexity of a Vintage Port. More than any other wine, Port offers endless opportunities for pairing with food. Traditionally it is served towards
the end of the meal with cheese, as a dessert wine or as an after dinner drink although sonic styles, like white Port, can also be enjoyed as an aperitif. Many creative chefs also enjoy pairing Port wine with main dishes and it is one of the best wines to enjoy with chocolate or a fine cigar. Port is regarded as one of the most civilised and sociable of wines which will help to make any occasion special, whether an informal gathering of friends or a sophisticated formal meal.