I’m not sure if it was the three days of intense activity at Wine Pleasures’ International Wine Tourism Conference in Porto, Portugal — watching presentations, live-tweeting, blogging, networking, lunching, drinking and dining, and, on the last day, giving a presentation on Grantourismo.
Or whether it was the twelve months of non-stop round-the-world travel for our HomeAwayUK-Grantourismo project, which was coming to an end with our final stop in London after the conference. Or maybe it was just our five years of continuous travel, full stop. But by the end of the conference, we were utterly and totally wrecked. We should have checked ourselves into a health farm or flown to Thailand to lie on a beach for a month.
So what did we do? We got on a bus with a bunch of writers, photographers, bloggers, and wine-makers, and we hit the road for a four-day trip through Portugal’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed Douro Valley wine region. You know, just for kicks.
DAY 1 Douro Valley: Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo
I suspect that when I wasn’t tapping away on my laptop, trying to get our final Edinburgh stories finished, I must have dozed off a couple times on the 90-minute drive from Porto to the Douro Valley. Our bus carried us east along the highway before turning off onto narrow roads that meandered through villages and countryside, and finally creeped along a rather scary pot-holed road that took us down the steep mountainside. Our destination was Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo winery and wine hotel (Portugal’s first in fact), not far from Pinhão on the northern bank of the Douro river.
Owned by the cork-producing Amorim family, the lovely 11-room boutique hotel is located in an 18th century renovated manor house, and has been charmingly decorated with antique furniture, polished floorboards, and Oriental carpets, and — in our romantic suite at least — a four-poster bed. While we were tempted to take a nap, port cocktails awaited us in the inviting bar, followed by a tour of the winery cellars, and, naturally, a tasting.
The Quinta Nova wines — big reds and rich ports — went down a treat. We tried a young albeit complex Colheita, a voluptuous velvety Grainha Tinto, a violet-coloured Touriga Nacional (all chocolate and coffee flavours), a big spicy Grande Reserva (that reminded me of many Australian reds), and, finally, an intense smooth Reserve Port. They were world’s away from the fresh green wines of the Vinho Verde.
A delicious rustic dinner followed: stuffed mushrooms with smoked Alheira sausage, golden olive oil and bread, pumpkin soup, lamb rack with a local fava bean dish called esparregado, and local cheeses. Quinta Nova produces its own olive oil, along with honeys, jams, candies, and herbal and floral teas, sold at the property and at a shop at the beautiful tiled railway station in Pinhão.
The property also offers activities, from traditional breadmaking to participating in the harvest, from hikes and bicycle rides to picnics and boat trips. My only complaint with our stay was that we didn’t have time to do any. We did take a moment to enjoy the spectacular views over the vineyards from our terrace before piling onto the bus to begin day two…
DAY 2 Douro Valley: Quinta da Roêda, Quinta do Panascal, Quinta do Pego
We’d arrived at Quinta Nova at dusk so hadn’t truly appreciated the dramatic landscapes of the Douro Valley until we began to snake around the steep mountainside, with the Douro River deep below, carving the land in two. It was breathtaking and while the mountains might not have been as lofty, they reminded me a little of Kotor, Montenegro. What made the Douro more remarkable were the grapes that grow above the river on near-vertical terraces of schist and granite. Wow.
Quinta da Roêda
Our first stop was the Croft-owned Quinta da Roêda, where Englishman Adrian Bridge, a former investment banker and head of Fladgate Partnership (which owns Croft, Taylors and Fonseca), showed us around the port-producing property. From a humorous stomping demonstration in the lagares to some orange-picking as we hiked up the hill to the vineyard, it would turn out to be the most engaging and most fascinating winery tour of the trip — all thanks to the charismatic Bridge, whose formidable knowledge and passion about port ensured nobody was yawning nor daydreaming until the next tasting began.
We learnt that while most of the harvest work is done by man — from the vines where the grapes are picked by hand and placed in traditional baskets, to the lagares where human feet still crush the fruit as they’ve long done — some pretty sophisticated technology is also used, from custom-made, computerised machinery that ensures the most appropriate pressure is applied in the lagares during fermentation, to the cutting-edge, battery-operated pneumatic shears, perfectly calibrated to prune the vines, that we watched a worker use as we climbed up the hillside.
Like several of the wineries we visited in the Minho region, Quinta da Roêda is also committed to sustainability and organic principles — they don’t use pesticides or herbicides, they cultivate soil by horse and hand, natural grasses are used on the terraces, and copper protects the vines from disease, for instance — and its eco-friendly initiatives has won it myriad bio-diversity awards.
Quinta do Panascal
Our wine tasting would begin after lunch, on the nearby Quinta do Panascal, at a delightful light-filled property with a vine-covered terrace, set on yet another dramatic hillside, that Bridge’s company uses for entertaining. And entertain us they did, with port cocktails for aperitifs and traditional Portuguese fare that included carrot and potato soup and a melt-in-your-mouth roast cabrito (milk-fed baby goat) with roast potatoes and cabbage that makes my mouth water just thinking about it now. They even offered second helpings and I don’t think there was a single one of us in the room who refused.
For dessert, there was a Portuguese version of crema Catalana, followed by port. Our tasting included a young 2008 Quinta do Panascal vintage port in the “voluptuous” Fonesca house style, which Bridge calls ‘Rubenesque’, “plump, with soft curves, and full of passion”; an aged Tawny Port that had spent 20 years in the cask and was full of dried fruit flavours; and an organic port, just one year old, which winemaker Antonio believes is currently the only organic port around.
Hotel Rural Quinta do Pégo
We reached our accommodation for the night, the hilltop Hotel Rural Quinta do Pégo, in the late afternoon, with just enough time before sunset to appreciate the most stunning vistas of the Douro River and its terraced slopes that we’d seen yet, before our final tasting for the day began.
Artfully blending old and new — part of the building in the traditional local vernacular and part it in a sleek contemporary style, the interior modern throughout — the 11-room wine hotel, with its floor heating, free WiFi and infinity pool, has won numerous wine tourism awards and it was easy to see why. The property also has a variety of hiking trails through the vineyards, which I wished we could have had time to explore.
Our wine cellar tasting included Quinta do Pégo’s 2007 Douro DOC Grande Reserva, 2005 Port LBV (late bottled vintage) and 2007 Vintage Port, all multi-award winners. While the first boasted loads of spice, which I like, I loved the perfumed eucalyptus nose and fruitiness of the LBV, which seemed very representative of the Douro Valley to me.
After a boisterous dinner (we had a birthday to celebrate after all) of a dip of bacalhau, bread and olive oil, and fried snacks, fresh asparagus, breaded Alheira, a local specialty of duck with rice, and for dessert… well, dessert wine of course, it was time to test out that bed. But not before a bit more celebrating, and a bit more wine. We slept very well that night.
Do head over to Marcy Gordon’s blog Come for the Wine to read her post on Quinta Nova and her insightful profile of Adrian Bridge, and while you’re there take a look at her other fab stories on the trip.