PORT of call

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 May, 2012, 12:00am


Located on the western edge of Europe, Portugal is a land where the Carthaginians, ancient Greeks and then the Romans, who named the land Lusitania, built important trading and military outposts. It was at the periphery of the known Western world at the time, isolated from Spain by mountains and rivers and enveloped by the vast, mysterious Atlantic Ocean to the west. Much later, the Portuguese were key players in the Age of Exploration - namely the 15th and 16th centuries - and, for a time, Portuguese ships ruled the world.

Famed Portuguese explorers Vasco da Gama, Pedro Alvares Cabral and Ferdinand Magellan were among the first Europeans to 'discover' unknown lands and trade routes, seeking and finding riches all over the globe. Portugal's wealth vastly increased as a result of these voyages, bringing back massive amounts of gold, silver, exotic spices and slaves.

Visiting Portugal is about history, great explorations, sunshine, the sea, superb beaches, cork production, wine and of course, port. And don't forget the cuisine. Diners will experience incredible fresh sea bass, prawns, huge snappers and mammoth octopuses. Black pig and potatoes is another tasty speciality. I recently enjoyed some marvellous slow-cooked Bisaro pork with beetroot and melon at the smart Rui Paula Restaurant in Oporto.

Though Lisbon is the country's capital and centre for government, tourism and culture, Portugal's second-largest city, Oporto has been a leading commercial centre for centuries, particularly in the wine and port trades. Located at the mouth of the River Douro, and declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1996, this picturesque city remains the transit point for port wines heading by ship to consumers around the world. Looked down upon by those from Lisbon, people from Oporto were called the 'Tripeiros or tripe eaters.' Today, FC Porto, the major Oporto soccer team and its fans proudly call themselves, the 'Tripeiros'.

Since the mid-1600's, the port houses in Oporto - on the left bank, or Gaia side of the city - produced and shipped port wines, mostly through British companies (England and Portugal have alliances that go back centuries). Many of the original British port companies located on the Gaia side, such as Taylor-Fladgate, Grahams, Warres, Dows, Sandeman, Delaforce, Fonseca, Croft, Cockburns and Offley are still in business and can be visited. All port houses try and maintain a 'house style' for their ports, year after year. One reason these fortified wines became popular was that the relatively high alcohol content (20 per cent) prevented spoilage and helped ocean-going sailors avoid scurvy.

True port wines differ from other still-wine products in a few important processes. First of all, ports are fortified wines, meaning a grain alcohol product is added during fermentation to kill the process, raise the alcohol content to 20 per cent and, as a by product, a great deal of the grape's sugar content remains in the wine. This is why ports are sweet and unctuous. Second, port wines come from 'field blends', where many varieties of grape are co-fermented, or crushed together simultaneously. Port winemakers across the board agree that this method produces more interesting, complex wines than by using single varietals. Next, the very best vintage ports are all made from foot-trodden grapes produced in large granite or concrete lagars. The low-tech, human foot gently produces the perfect, delicate, nuanced qualities found in the very best ports. This foot-treading occurs in only about 2 per cent of all ports.

'The foot is the perfect tool for the maceration of the grape,' says Natasha Bridge, head winemaker for the Taylor-Fladgate partnership. This method is expensive. Indeed, I tried foot-treading, which was actually very difficult and like stepping though a pool filled with thick preserves. But with the music playing and the people singing, it became a fabulous party. The harvest time in the Douro Valley is a festive moment and a way to experience the Portuguese social system in action.

Travelling east, up the River Douro is where visitors will find the incomparable Douro Valley. In about an hour you will see stunning, steep and tiered vineyards as far as the eye can see, with ancient schist terraces breaking up the scenery. The Douro can be visited by excursion boats cruising up the river, by a train that hugs its banks and by car. Driving is generally easy with some narrow roads, but most are quite passable. Wineries including various 'quintas' can be visited, including the stunning Quinta de Vargellas, Quinta Nova and Quinta da Roeda. Some wineries can be seen by appointment only while others are available for drop-in traffic.

Some vineyards have very steep 35-degree slopes running down to the River Douro. The semi-arid Mediterranean climate keeps the grapes struggling, which leads to evocative, powerful wines.

All grapes here are considered 'dry farmed', meaning by law, no irrigation may be used in the vineyards. The main grape varieties tinta barroca, tinta roriz, tinta c?o and touriga nacional are most used in the creation of port wines. True ports only come from grapes grown in the Douro Valley and are made into port in Oporto.

Wines labelled as ports from Australia, the United States, Canada, India, South Africa, Argentina or elsewhere may be similarly styled fortified wines, but do not possess the same qualities of the original port wines. Sampling the real thing at its source while sitting beside a swimming pool overlooking the River Douro at sunset is an unforgettable experience.

The opulent Yeatman Hotel is the place to stay in Oporto. On a hill overlooking the city, this elegant property is an immaculate, winecentric gem, offering guests premium accommodation and the largest selection of Portuguese wines in the world. The Yeatman's dining room recently received a Michelin Star, a first for Oporto.

It is of no surprise that the city of Oporto and nearby Douro Valley wine region are protected Unesco sites.

Truly picturesque and memorable, it is a must-visit for any vinho-curious traveller.