Portugal is a great destination for wine tourists so get the plane to Porto and taste test the Douro Valley for its table wine as well as port
There are few wine regions I look forward to visiting quite as much as I do Porto and the Douro Valley. The wine, of course, is unique, be it a nutty, raisiny, tawny port, an easy-drinking ruby, a full-blown vintage or simply a Porto Tónico (white port and tonic, than which there are few finer aperitifs). The region’s table wines are also increasingly impressive.
I love the food, which, although clearly not in the same league as that of Bordeaux or Burgundy (salt cod anyone?), is hearty and authentic. Try some typical roast suckling pig if you doubt me, or rabbit in paprika.
Porto, with its shops, restaurants, bars, cafés and old town, is a delight to potter around as is Vila Nova de Gaia across the river, with its port lodges and quayside, alongside which the celebrated rabelo boats, used for bringing the barrels of port down from the Douro Valley, are moored.
And there’s an appealing and comforting air of Blighty about the place thanks to the fact that after the British first came to Porto in the second half of the 17th century, to swap wool for port wine, they never really left.
The best-known port producers and shippers still sport such British names as Taylor, Graham, Croft, Churchill, Smith Woodhouse and Gould Campbell, and when you wander about you’ll find the British School, the British Association, the Anglican Church and the British Club, better-known as the Oporto Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club. There are familiar-looking red pillar boxes on the street corners and, unlike the rest of Continental Europe, the clocks here run on Greenwich Mean Time just like ours.
Above all, though, I’m always struck by the genuine hospitality of the port shippers and producers. There are few wine regions where visitors are welcomed quite so warmly, be it to the lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia (where the ports are brought to mature in oak barrels) or to the producing quintas in the Douro Valley itself. Visits are conducted in English and guests are encouraged to taste (and are able to buy) all manner of ports.
The Douro Valley is one of Europe’s last great wildernesses and one of the world’s most beautiful viticultural areas. The vineyards stretch along the river on vertiginous terraces and there can be few nicer ways to see them than by taking the train up from Porto to Pinhão (about two hours) and the boat back.
Wangle an invitation to one of the quintas – Malvedos, say, owned by Graham’s, or Vargellas, owned by Taylor’s. You’ll be wined and dined with great warmth and are likely to be invited to tread the grapes yourself, whack golf balls across the river and even water-ski.
The port producers and shippers need, welcome and reward our support and, of course, there’s no better way of disproving that port causes hangovers than by enjoying plenty of it over a long weekend where it is made.
WHERE TO BUY AND TASTE IN THE DOURO
Graham’s Port Lodge (00 351 22 377 6484) boasts a small museum dedicated to the families behind the brand. Graham’s offers a number of excellent tours ranging in price from €3 to €30 per person, each of which includes the chance to taste three different ports at the tour’s end. The pricier the tour, the finer the ports.
Taylor’s Port Lodge (00 351 22 374 2800) also runs an excellent and highly informative tour for €3 per person, after which visitors taste three ports in the elegant Library Room or out on the terrace.
Near the quay of Vila Nova de Gaia, Ramos Pinto (00 351 22 370 7000) is worth a visit, not only for the tour of the cellars and tasting but also for the museum, housed in Adriano Ramos Pinto’s former office, preserved as it was in the Thirties.
WHERE TO EAT IN THE DOURO
The brand-spanking-new Vinum (00 351 22 093 0417) is a casual but rather chic tapas bar and restaurant set in the heart of Graham’s 19th-century wine cellar. Sit surrounded by 3,000 or so oak barrels full of maturing port and dine on such tasty Portuguese dishes as black-pudding samosas, oxtail stewed in red wine and confit and crispy sucking pig. The wine list is exhaustive and the views striking.
For posh fine dining, head for celebrity chef (and local boy) Rui Paula’s DOP (00 351 22 201 4313) in the Palace of Arts in Porto’s historic area. The several-course “Douro Menu” comprises such dishes as caramelised apple stuffed with foie gras; langoustine with calamari and beans; veal in smoke (a morsel of buttery soft veal served under a glass dome filled with smoke – weird, I know, but surprisingly good).
Ze Bota (00 351 22 205 4697) tucked down a tiny backstreet near Porto’s bizarre double church (Carmelitas church one side, Carmo church the other, separated by a metre-wide house), is much more casual and intimate, serving fine wine and simple Portuguese fare.
Taberna do Bonjardim (00 351 22 201 3560) up near the main market is a real hangout for locals who come here to enjoy a wide range of Portuguese wines in the tiny bar downstairs or varied dishes such as salt cod on fried bread and caramelised chestnut or cod risotto with poached egg in the equally tight-under-the-arms dining-room upstairs.
For a sinful mid-morning snack head for Leitaria de Quinta 1920 Paco (00 351 22 208 4696) in Praça Guilherme Gomes Fernandes, a former dairy that now serves a variety of fabulous éclairs with a variety of toppings such as dark choc-olate and whipped cream, strawberry and meringue, lemon curd and so on.
WHERE TO STAY IN THE DOURO
For an absolutely corking view of Porto, look no further than The Yeatman (00 351 22 013 3100), set among the port lodges high on the hill of Vila Nova de Gaia. Add a vast wine cellar stocked with every port and Portuguese table wine imaginable, a Michelin-starred restaurant and a Vino-thérapie Spa by Caudalie and you have the best place to stay in the area.
In Porto itself, round the corner from the exquisite, blue-tiled São Bento railway station (well worth a stare) is Hotel Teatro (00 351 22 040 9620) on the site of the old Teatro Baquet. It is modern and stylish and dead central.
If you’re heading up the Douro Valley, aim for the five-star CS Vintage House Hotel (00 351 25 473 0230) in Pinhão. It’s an ideal staging post for visiting the quintas in the valley and comes complete with pool, tennis court and so on.
If you really want to get away from it all, though, try Quinta de San José (00 351 25 442 2017). A working winery with four small cottages that can be hired separately or together for larger groups, the quinta is a wonderfully tranquil spot right on the river and has stunning views.
WHERE TO SHOP IN THE DOURO
Portugal is still feeling the pinch financially and several shops, stores and cafés have failed to weather the recession. Others, though, continue to thrive. Start your window-shopping tour with a coffee in the exquisite art nouveau Majestic Café (00 351 22 200 3887) on Rua de Santa Catarina, Porto’s main pedestrian street. You’ll pay a little over the odds for your cuppa here but it’s worth every penny so beautiful a spot is it.
Head down Rua de Santa Catarina and turn left into Rua Formosa and admire the two celebrated local grocers/wine shops on either side of the street: A Pérola Do Bolhão (00 351 22 200 4009) and Comer e Chorar Por Mais (00 351 22 200 4407). Here you can buy dried and crystallised fruits, charcuterie, biscuits, cakes, pastries, nuts, tea, coffee and vino while gawping at the art nouveau façades.
The Gothic revival/art nouveau Livraria Lello e Irmão (00 351 22 200 2037) has some claim to be the world’s most beautiful bookshop. The staff can be a bit grumpy with tourists coming to stare at the enchanting, Harry Potteresque interior and remarkable staircase but steel yourself; it’s more than worth it.
Just around the corner in Rua Galeria de Paris is the delightful A Vida Portuguesa (00 351 22 202 2105; www.avidaportuguesa.com), a wonderfully elegant emporium containing all manner of modern, retro and genuinely old-fashioned Portuguese goods – from honeys, jams and tinned sardines to books, stationery and soaps.
WHERE TO DRINK IN THE DOURO
O Mercado Bar (00 351 93 527 4536) in the revamped Mercado Ferreira Borges has a lively indoor restaurant and a small outdoor terrace serving what it claims is the best Porto Tónico in the world.
Restaurante Bar Galeria de Paris (00 351 22 201 6218) in a former warehouse is one of the quirkier bars of Porto, with an eclectic mix of art and bric-à-brac on the walls, including an entire Fiat Cinquecento. It’s open till the small hours and is a great spot to hang out.
Café Douro aka Café Piolho (Café “Nits” in English) (00 351 22 200 3749) is a Porto institution, beloved of generations of students (hence the rather unflattering nickname, presumably) from the nearby university, many of whom come to celebrate their graduations here.
Clérigos Café e Brasserie (00 351 22 340 0770) is brand new and, despite the aloof and snooty staff, is well worth a detour thanks to its vast range of local wines and ports that one can sample by the glass from its state-of-the-art Enomatic wine dispensers.
In Largo Mompilher there are the delightfully bohemian bar/café/bookstore Café Candelabro (00 351 96 698 4250); the window-service only Gin Gin, between Candelabro and the chic Champanheria da Baixa (00 351 22 096 2809; www.champanheriadabaixa.com), which specialises in fizz (do try its sangria de espumante) and dainty tapas.