I am nearing the end of a seven day cruise on the Douro River in Portugal. The source of the river is in Spain. It’s total length is over 800 km but just 215 km is entirely Portuguese with the mouth at the city of Porto.
The part of the river I saw is in a deep, steep sided valley. In the past, especially when winter rains came, it was a wild river with rapids. Today hydroelectric dams fitted with locks and fish ladders have tamed the river providing easy access for a fleet of passenger ships which enable tourists to goggle at the beautifully terraced vineyards especially in the region of the town of Pinhão.
The Romans developed wine growing in the first century but the present industry, started in earnest in the 18th century, owes nothing to the Roman grape varieties or growing methods. The steep terrain has resulted in uniquely terraced vineyards extending for about 100 km westward from the Spanish border. The vines grow in rocky soil, they call it shale, and although it doesn't look the least bit conducive to healthy vines actually helps moderate the micro climate.
The boat docked and we boarded a bus for a tour of the most intensively developed and beautiful wine area of the Douro. The bus wound up and down the hills on narrow roads, the driver doing a great job.
We stoped in the pretty town of São João da Pesqueira to have a wander, buy an ice cream, look at the church decorated with Azulejos tiles and checkout the little souvenir market. Of course I walked the streets looking for photo opportunities. Groups of children playing in the plazas and women tending their laundry were captured.
In the heart of the Douro Valley with astonishing views over the steeply terraced vineyards with the Douro River flowing below, Sandeman’s ‘Quinta do Seixo’ Wine Centre was a worthwhile experience. I’m no judge of their port and table wines but the architectural elegance and theatrical flair on display is an experience not to be missed.
The vineyards with their dry stone terrace walls are kept in meticulous condition and the architecture is dramatic. A guide took us on a tour of the cellars, leading us through subtlety lit black painted corridors and stairs past a strategically placed, back-lit Sandeman logo on a stair landing. It shows a silhouette of a figure dressed in a broad brimmed hat and an ankle length cape. The figure is nosing a glass containing ruby coloured port. They said the hat is a traditional style from Span. (Why? This is Portugal after all) and the cape is that worn by university students. There is some sense there, students have a reputation for drinking.
We were shown to a balcony viewing area to see orange-yellow concrete vats below where the grapes are crushed by a “robot designed to imitate the crushing of human feet”. A window at the far end of the crushing room provided a cameo view of the vineyards. Onward through dimly lit cellars with stacked barrels and into a room with racks of thousands of bottles arranged around yet another theatrical touch, a wooden table with an old iron bottle basket, dusty bottles and a well thumbed yellowed book presumably containing carefully catalogued tasting notes.
Finally to the tasting room where a variety of ports were presented for tasting. A huge window provided views of the terraced vineyards running across the hillsides all the way to the river.