It is Friday, Valentine’s Day and we are going on an organized day tour of the Douro Valley with Manuel and Family. Manuel started the company, his cousin Jorge drives and guides and Antonio, another cousin, will guide us through the Croft winery. When Robin asked if any of the women in the family were involved, he was told that it was a male family company! We leave Porto at 8:30 am and drive out to Pinhao which is about a one hour drive. We are joined by two other couples, both from England. Our driver is Jorge, but tells us to call him George…..why…..his name is Jorge, let’s call him that! Actually found out later that you indeed say Jorge as “George” but pronounce it the French way….easy for me!
On the way to Pinhao, Jorge tells us that irrigation is not allowed in the Douro Valley except under exceptional circumstances (for the first two years of a vines growth or if the vines appear to be dying). This is controlled by the Wine authorities. The soil in the Douro Valley is comprised of shist and blue shale. The shale gathers heat during the day and releases it at night to create an even temperature in the soil. The shale also absorbs water. The composition of the ground forces the roots of the vines to go down very deep to get water which helps the vines become very strong. If irrigation was allowed, the roots of the vine would be very shallow and contribute to a weaker stock. Jorge and others during the day explained it in this way…..”the vines would get lazy, not have to search for water and eventually die”.
Once we arrive in the valley we stop at a viewpoint to see that terraced fields. One can also see many olive trees. The farmers here also produce olive oil but in small quantities for their own consumption. Manuel tells us that the olive oil here is very good and has an acidity of only .1 or .2 percent.
When we arrive in Pinhao, we get aboard a small pontoon boat and enjoy a short ride down the river with Douro Vintage Boat Tours who work with Manuel and Family. We were met by Bruno and Antonio. The boat is called ‘Syrah”….love it. Bruno talks about the Douro Valley and its wine and port trade. I asked the question about what percentage of the grapes were used for port and what percentage used for table wine. He told us that the Douro valley produces more grapes for table wine than for port; although he could not give me percentages. In Portugal, port is usually only drunk on special occasions. He went on to say that most Portuguese also prefer a dry white port which is what they consume as an aperitif or cocktail.
By the way, anything I write about port and wine is not to be taken too seriously or as fact…..I am not a wine critic like Robert Parker! I just drink the stuff….and oh….like it a lot!
Bruno goes on to tell us a little about the Douro River. It runs for about 900 kilometres and is mostly in Spain. One can navigate to the border, but then the river becomes unnavigable. Once you get to Pinhao, there are no roads along the river, so the only way to really experience the valley and its terraced fields is by boat. It takes about six hours by boat to get to Porto. This is due to the fact that there are three major locks from Pinhao to Porto and the process to get through the locks is very time consuming.
Bruno points out rows of olive trees along the terraces. These trees were originally planted to help demarcate property ownership and to also help prevent erosion. He also points out rows of various bushes and trees that are planted close to the river. This helps prevent insects from invading the wines; they go after the bushes first. Next a line of roses are planted. As we know, these also help the farmers. If they see that there is a disease on the roses, they can them take preventative action with the vines. Bruno also says that with the natural barriers of trees and rose bushes that the farmers are able to use less chemicals as less insects and less disease.
The way in which the vines are planted in horizontal rows allows for maximum sun exposure. One row of vines will not shadow another. This area has a Mediterranean microclimate and temperatures in the summer sometimes reach 52 degrees. But as mentioned before the shale absorbs the heat and releases at night creating constant temperatures for the vines. These are perfect conditions for producing smaller grapes with a high concentration of sugar. Bruno also talked about the ban on irrigation. He explained that if irrigation was allowed, one would get larger grapes with more water and therefore less sugar, which contributes to a lesser quality of wine.
The grapes here are all picked by hand and when a vintner deems the crop is ready to be picked, it usually needs to be done in a matter of days and not weeks. As one could see from the steep terraces, this would be back breaking work. He tells us that the Quinta’s (farms) usually try to hire the same people year after year. The grape pickers are well paid and get about 50 Euros a day and can make up to 80 Euros a day depending on the type of work they do. For example the grapes that are picked need to be brought up to the top of the hills to be brought by truck to the wineries. This means that someone needs to carry anywhere from 40 to 50 litres of grapes in a barrel. The grape pickers are normally provided with housing and food. Today a lot of migrant workers are used during the picking season.
In the 19th century, phylloxera destroyed about 90% of European vines. This was due to an American wine maker who inadvertently brought over some diseased stock. Bruno tells us that four famous European wine makers got together to try to solve this problem. They found that if they planted the American stock and then grafted the European stock to it, the vines grew healthy. He tells us that this process is still used today.
Bruno starts bringing out some “snacks” to enjoy with our port. The port is from a small local Quinta and is exquisite. We start with some bread with some cheese and a pumpkin walnut jam. Then he serves goat cheese from the Azores and some chorizo sausage and pate made from Iberic black pigs who only eat acorns. We came across a lot of this type of sausage in the south of Spain a few years ago, very tasty. These pairings with the port are scrumptious. Drinking port at 11 am…..yikes!
He tells us that the Douro valley is at about 80 metres above sea level and that here they produce grapes for red table wines and port. About 15 minutes away and at a higher elevation they produce grapes for white, sparkling and muscat wines. There are about 130 different varietals grown in the valley, but most vintners use a combination of five or so to make their wine.
While we are on the river, Bruno points out one of the other boats which is a replica of a rabelo boat. He told us that at times the rabelo boats would get caught on sand bars on the river and that oxen were used to pull them out. The river had some rapids and boats would capsize and they would lose their barrels of wine. They soon figured out that if they only filled 75% of the barrels, they would float if the boats overturned and therefore be able to recover the barrels.
By the way, we were blessed with a gorgeous sunny day today, what a bonus! We disembark and back in the van and only about five minutes up the road we visit the Croft winery. This winery has been in business since 1588 and is said to be the oldest in the area and is referred to the “Jewel of the Douro”.
Manuel points out an old olive tree which he says is hundreds of years old. He told us to be careful when we buy olive oil. He says that Spanish buyers come to Portugal to buy their oil, they bring it back to Spain, bottle it and label it as Italian. Well…not sure I believe this, but he was quite adamant. So I guess one should buy your Italian olive oil from your local Italian store.
The big concrete vats, pictured above, are where the wine is stored before it is bottled. The concrete does not affect the wine.
We are led through the property by Antonio, another of Manuel’s cousins….how many cousins are there? In the distance we see some smoke and Antonio tells us that they are burning some roots. They then put the ashes back into the ground to be used as fertilizer. I mentioned before that the farmers use roses to act as a means of early detection of any diseases. Here they also use lavender for the same purpose. First time we come across that. At the Croft winery they use coloured posts to mark the varietals of wine, so they can easily see which vines are planted in which sector of their land. The harvest usually commences in September and all the crushing is done by human feet. Some of the port houses we have visited on the Douro tell us that they have mechanized this process but here at Croft everything is still done manually.
Sit on the patio for a port tasting. The port is filtered into a carafe and then poured into the appropriate style of glass. Antonio tells us to swirl, smell the aroma, take a small sip and breathe out through your nose. This will give one the maximum flavours and aromas.
Antonio tells us that it is a tradition for a family to buy a “vintage” port on the year of the birth of a child. It is then kept until that child turns eighteen, when the port is opened and used to celebrate the “coming of age”.
We then head off for a lunch, which is included in the tour. Tabua d’Aco is run by a “green chef” Thomas Egger and we enjoy a “farm to table” lunch. We have a breaded cod fish with potatoes and vegetables and some local pork with a gravy. This is accompanied with a wine tasting of two whites and two reds. Then desert which was two local cakes. Ok…..way too much food and wine for me. One of the ladies in our group asked me for my deserts and I happily handed them over. At the end of our lunch, our guide and driver Jorge, gives everyone a taste of “grappa” poured in a very unique manner!
Our last stop of the day is to visit the very small town of Barcos. We visit the small local church which is very ornate. A lot of the buildings in this small town have been refurbished. Jorge tells us that the mayor of the town was the major force in getting funds for the people of the village to undertake their renovations. Certainly a charming little town. We are treated to an olive oil tasting and a final glass of wine!
Well, what a fabulous day. We get back to our apartment around six in the evening. No food for us….just water to hydrate after all that wine, port and food.
Saturday morning and we decide to head off to the local market. The market in Porto is undergoing a renovation and a temporary market has been set up in the basement area of a shopping centre. We love local markets and great to see the various vendors ….fish, vegetables, flowers, nuts and dried fruit, meat, etc. As we walked into the market, we see banners hanging from the ceilings which show pictures of the vendors….love it.
Also several port vendors, which is not a surprise. We decide to finally try a “port tonic”. We opt for a port tonic with white port vs rose port; as the lady who owns the small shop tells us that the rose port is very sweet so we opt for the drier white port. Very refreshing, would be great on a sunny day in the summer! Did I mention it was only 11:00 am when we imbibed!
We walk along Rua Santa Catarina which is a pedestrian street in this area. Lots of people here today as is the weekend so we also see many street entertainers. We come across the Majestic Cafe. All the guide books say this is a must see.
The Majestic, a belle époque cafe goes back to 1920 and was the meeting place for the writers and artists of Porto. A beautiful facade and an interior that is quite unique. It is said that J K Rowling spent a lot of time here. There is even a doorman on this Saturday morning who is controlling entry to the cafe. Robin insists we stop for a coffee/tea even though I say it will be very expensive. He asks the doorman if we can sit outside, not a problem. Our waiter arrives and we order our green tea and galao (late). Tea served in a china pot, very lovely. We get our bill……12 Euro. I just about gag and Robin just laughs. We pay about 3 Euro for the same at our regular coffee haunt. Needless to say, this cafe is packed with tourists and not locals.
We continue our walk and I come across the small shop “A Perola do Bolhao” which is one I wanted to visit. This is a small grocery cafe founded in 1917 and has an wonderful Art Nouveau exterior. Inside this tiny cluttered shop one can find port wines, cheeses, smokes meats and dried cod. Love the art work on this building.
We hop on the tram back to our apartment and go out for a lovely dinner at a nearby restaurant.
Some of the sights we saw on our walk today; including a student with his typical cape.
We have certainly noticed much Belle Epoque, Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings here in Porto. Also some very ugly modern “brutal” concrete architecture!
Sunday and we head off to the Casa da Musica for an afternoon Philarmonic Concert. This is Porto’s major concert hall and was built in 2005. It is quite an impressive building; one of the guide books says that it looks like ” a mother ship has landed”. I had booked tickets for this concert when we first arrived and it only cost us 10 Euro each to attend. The concert hall was packed for this event. Lots of families as it is an afternoon concert and the program is featuring music from films such as Star Wars, Cinema Paradiso, Robin Hood and Jurassic Park. Noticeably absent in the orchestra were the lack of stringed instruments only a harpist and one double bass. I personally loved watching the percussionists. They had all kinds of instruments from bells, gongs, drums, triangles, tambourines and cymbals. I think it would be great to be able to play all of these and just make plenty of noise! An afternoon of great music in a beautiful venue.
On the way home noticed some great black and white drawings along a construction wall.
Robin and I were commenting on the number of young children at the concert and a few around us were fidgeting after about 15 minutes into the concert. Guess their parents are trying to give them some exposure to music and considering the concert had a lot of Star Wars type music, not a bad way to start them. Although I could not understand the children, it looked like there were a lot of comments like “Is it finished yet?”
On Monday morning we headed out to the small city of Aveiro which is 76 kilometres from Porto. We went by local train and took us one hour and fifteen minutes. The train was packed both in the morning and afternoon as it stopped in about twelve towns along the way; with Aveiro being the final destination. The city of Aveiro was once a sea port and has a history of salt production. By the 16th century is was a very wealthy town due to its salt trade (we know from our travels that salt was used as a type of currency in trading throughout the world). Also a strong fishing history and our guide book says that the “bacalhoeiros” fished cod off of Newfoundland. In 1575 a storm silted the harbour and the town died off, as its’ access to the ocean was cut off. The population also declined due to fever caused by the stagnant waters.
In 1808 the lagoon and canals were dredged to link them once again to the ocean. The lagoon that remains is 65 square kilometres and 50 kilometres long. In the 19th century Aveiro regained its’ prosperity. There are some absolutely beautiful buildings in this city, which really surprised me. After doing some reading about the city, I thought it might be a bit seedy, but it is lovely. With its’ system of canals Aveiro is known as the “Venice of Portugal”.
We took a ride in a moliceiro, a boat that was historically used for the harvesting of seaweed. These boats are now used for tourists to enjoy a ride along the canals and view the city from a different perspective. Nice views of the beautiful buildings; the guide described the majority of them as Art Nouveau. Also sailed along some of the old salt warehouses which have been refurbished into shops and restaurants. One salt vendor remains.
As we approached the canals, when we first arrived, we noticed ribbons hanging off some of the railings of the pedestrians bridges. This is what they do here vs putting locks on bridges…..makes so much sense as does not put extra weight on the bridges.
Another great day of discovering a new area. Sunny skies today, very welcomed.
Apologies to all, especially my teacher and newspaper friends/family for any errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation……for example, sculptor vs. sculptures for one. Sometimes when I reread my blog I don’t see these……