We had already visited a port cellar with an excellent tour and tasting in Vila Nova de Gaia, at Calem Cellars (I highly recommend this tour for its lucid and visual explanations of the history, geography, viticulture and enology of this unique spirit). Of course, any tour will include tasting, in this case we sampled three varieties of the twenty this cellar makes. But this was insufficient: we did two other port wine tours, first staying overnight at a quinta or wine estate near Peso de Régua, followed by a half-day tour of the region that included a boat cruise on the Douro River. Over the two days we
* traveled by train, boat and van throughout this mountainous region,
* experienced “quintas” where the dozens of varieties of grapes are grown and transformed into both wines and ports,
* enjoyed two massive five-course meals, each course accompanied by several different ports, and
* found companionship while speaking Portuguese, English, French and German, in what proved to be one of the most international days of our entire trip.
Hand-Crafted Mountain Terraces
First the setting: the stone terraces on which perch the vineyards are hundreds of years old, made by hand, stone on stone— no mortar— to prevent the rather thin layer of topsoil from sliding down to the river. That same shale, down below the vine roots, provides coolness and stores water in the summer and holds warmth in the winter, rendering it an ideal location for multiple varieties of grapes, the steep hills notwithstanding. The saying here is, we have two seasons in the Douro (pronounced “door-o”), winter and Hell. The latter refers to the three harvest months, August, September and October, when the temperatures run into the 100s and the grapes must be harvested, by hand, and carried down the steep stairs (see below) to the cellars.
Quinta de Marroccos
The tour was capped by an amazing dinner of local specialities, each course accompanied by a port or wine: appetizers (white port), soup (rosé port), main course (choice of white or red wine— or both!), cheeses (tawny port), cake or flan (Late Bottled Vintage, LBV) and chocolate truffles (20-year varietal). Yes, we were served two desserts, because port is mostly a digestive (the earlier types, less sweet, are used as appetizers) and Susannah wanted us to try it all. We were, needless to say, both stuffed and “tooted”, but pleasantly so, as we navigated the steps back down from the view and to our lovely room.
Boat and Van Tour
This second tour, after the boat ride, took us to two port cellars, and at the first— you guessed it— we had another five-course meal served with port and wine. Here is our server with a vegetable and pasta soup hot from the pot! Just for the record, neither Bob nor I ate a full meal for two days following!
The atmosphere during the meal was quite festive— the two tables across the room from us started a conga line to encourage the accordion player and work off some of the food!
Muscatel, an Alternative….
This tour took us out of the valley and up into the mountains beyond the Douro to the flat area at the top of the region (elevation 2,000 feet but for some reason these really look like mountains) where muscatel is grown. Because the land is mostly level up here, the sun hits the grapes differently and this area is known primarily for muscatel. Hey, it’s also very good and we enjoyed several tastes of this, too.
One of the best things about this tour was knowing that our guide would be driving us back to Porto at the end of the day so we could doze and not worry about the effects of all the drinking.
Among the distinctly delightful parts of the entire two days was that our fellow hotel guests and tour participants were from different countries: Germany, France, Spain as well as the US. Of course, all spoke English but I had some fun with the others as well. Once, long ago, I fancied I might become a simultaneous interpreter. Later on, I decided it was too passive a role— I wanted to be making the policies, not just stating the words in another language. But this day provided me an opportunity to indulge myself in recalling those days. I love being in Europe. This day was not the only one on the trip when I have felt this way. It’s possible that I could become conversational in Portuguese but maintain my other loved languages as well.