“In this region, known simply as ‘behind the mountains’ (or ‘Trás Montanha’ in Portuguese) the women are said to look like men, and the men like werewolves”, Catarina, our guide from Porto, explained as our bus struggled up a hill and into said mountains, before it would descend into the Douro Valley on the other side. “But they make excellent wine; and even better port”, Catarina continued with a cheeky smile. Ample compensation she seemed to infer.
The drive from Porto was very scenic, and apparently the train ride is even more spectacular. The roads climbs gently from the coast through verdant green vegetation and at about 900m starts to wind back down. At this point the geology changes too, with the rocks changing from predominantly granite to predominantly shale. This is the key to Douro’s way of life and means as it means vines can penetrate deeper to find water and hence produces a unique environment for grape growing, and in particular for growing touriga nacional, the primary grape used for producing port wines. It is forbidden in Douro to irrigate vines other than right after planting as they are required to search deep beneath the ground and the porous shale for water, and the harder the search, ultimately the better the grapes. It is also home to many citrus trees.
The Douro Valley is the only source for port grapes and its dry climate of searing summer temperatures and cold winters is perfect for growing touriga nacional grapes, the primary grape used in port production. Rose plants are commonly planted beside the vines in the Douro Valley as they act as an early warning system for diseases that affect the vine, as the symptoms of many of the diseases and bugs that affect the vines are apparent earlier in roses than in the vines themselves. The fermentation of the port is stopped by adding a neutral grape spirit, often referred to as brandy - but not particularly similar to brandy meant for consumption - which fortifies the wine. The wine is then stored, usually in French or American oak for the vintages, or in bottles for more regular years. For this ageing process the Douro Valley’s climate is generally unsuitable (though some do it by storing wines deep inside the mountain where it is cooler and temperatures are more consistent). Porto, however, is better suited with its humid, consistent temperatures and so most quality port is aged in Porto or its twin city on the Southern bank of the Douro river, Villa Nova de Gaia.
We visited a number of vineyards and port wineries on our four day visit of Porto and the Douro Valley, and it was interesting to see both the consistency of tradition but also how technology is being embraced by some producers, for example in the use of robots to crush grapes, though the robots are designed to imitate the process of humans crushing grapes, so for example is very important that the robots do not crush the seeds which add acidity to the port and result in a lower quality wine.
Other wineries, for example that of Quinta De Pacheca, near Regua town in the Douro Valley, and dating back to the 17th Century, rely only on traditional foot crushed grapes and are determined to keep the old traditions alive. In September when the grapes have been harvested each of the ten granite tanks at Quinta da Pacheca are filled with 14,000 kilos of grapes and 14 men. The men always move to a beat, with music often being provided by a live accordionist. They move firstly in uniform lines, up and down, for about an hour and half, then keeping a consistent rhythm but with less structure to their direction they move at will through the tank.
The Douro Valley is also home to non-port wines and this is a development that is expanding and higher quality wines have been coming out of this region for some time now. Wineries such as Quinta Novo Nossa Senhora do Carmo, near Pinhão, have pioneered this and have moved away from the production of port in favour of regular wines and its reputation is growing fast. The vineyard and hotel are stunningly set above the Douro river with excellent views across the valley in all directions, and the welcome is warm and genuine. Definitely one to come back to.