Porto must be one of Europe’s best kept secrets: the perfect Portuguese city break destination that has not yet entered into the premier league division of Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Prague . . . well you get the idea. The city obviously cannot compete with Paris or Rome on size or attractions, but it does have one wonderful and unique feature–Port.
This fabulous stuff–the King and Queen of fortified wines–has given pleasure to countless millions for hundreds of years, ever since British traders realized that adding spirit to wine would sweeten and protect them for the long sea trip to exotic destinations (like Clacton on Sea in the UK). For centuries Porto has been the center of the Port trade; the big shippers have their bases and cellars here and would age the wine after it was shipped from the wine farms in the Douro. I owed my first trip to Porto and the Douro region to Dirk Niepoort, fifth generation of the Dutch-owned Port shipper Niepoort.
Dirk is an accountant’s worst nightmare, a man of unrivaled generosity who is obsessed with wine to the benefit of wine lovers everywhere. Every year Dirk organizes a tasting event at his estate in the Douro, Quinta de Nápoles. Over 500 guests were due to attend from all over Europe, united in a shared passion for wine. Dirk organizes all this at his own expense and I was privileged to be invited to spend the weekend with a collection of journalists and winemakers for a wine tasting event like no other, nicely entitled–Another Big Day.
Arriving in Porto airport late Thursday evening, I was grateful to have a few hours to explore a little of the city before leaving for Dirk’s estate on Friday morning. Situated at the mouth of the river, the hilly city of Porto is built around both sides of the Douro and presents an incredible mix of styles, from narrow medieval alleyways to wide avenues lined with stately beaux-arts edifices. I spent a few hours in the historic Ribeira district, an UNESCO World Heritage site of narrow lanes, plenty of staircases and little churches that seem to pop up everywhere.
The atmosphere at night was electric; crowds were gathered in the bars and restaurants, though thankfully not all of them were tourists! I ate at a pleasant riverside restaurant with a view like no other. Be warned, however, that plenty of mediocre tourist restaurants line the river side, so seek a recommendation before venturing out to eat. If you only have a few hours like I did, then make sure to walk along the river side at night, passing the famous names of the port world. It is magical. I had such a short time in Porto (story of my life) but even a glimpse was enough to see what a captivating city this was to explore. I have already booked my return visit in July!
The following morning, our group, mainly consisting of Dirk’s long time winemaker friends with a few sommeliers and journalists thrown in for good measure, gathered. Despite the forecast the sun shone and illuminated our trip into the Douro region from Porto. The drive takes about two hours but it is definitely worth it. Nothing could have prepared me for the awe and wonder that the Douro inspires. Weaving its scenic path towards Porto and the Atlantic, the ‘Golden River’ has always been the source of Porto’s wealth and prosperity. The Serra do Marão mountain range in the west of the Douro flanks some of the most spectacular (and wet) vineyards in the world. Old fashioned, single-row terraced vineyards still exist in the region, planted on steep slopes on both sides of the gorge. You can only imagine the backbreaking labor involved in maintaining these. This was as far removed from the generally flats lands of the Medoc in Bordeaux as it possibly could have been.
The region has a fascinating history that spans the centuries, but reached a landmark as recently as the 1970s, when painstaking research by wine-making scholars identified five leading varieties of the Douro as Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cao. Today, there is an increasing trend to single variety plantings and the wines are all the better for it. Our destination, Qunita de Nápoles. was in the heart of Port country, in the sub-region Pinhão. A Quinta simply defines a farm or wine estate. Interestingly, the Douro’s vineyards are classified A-F with the greatest concentration in Pinhão.
After our drive, we landed at the Douro’s leading spa resort, Aqua-Pura. The hotel had generously put on a lunch for our group and we sat on their well appointed terrace drinking Dirk’s wines and chatting about our favorite subject. I remember feeling glad that some of my non-wine drinking friends were not present, as I think this would have sent them over the edge.
The Aqua-Pura merits a larger mention, however: boutique-design concept hotel that occasionally veered off into the heights of ridiculous. To be fair, the food and service was excellent and the hotel enjoys spectacular views of the river. Unfortunately, I fear that the hotel’s designers had consumed too many substances before planning the layout. The result of which was that no one, of even Stephen Hawking-esque intelligence could work out how the hell you switch the bedroom lights on! It was as close to a ‘space age’ hotel as I had ever stayed in; the communal rooms and corridors are so softly lit that you easily get lost in the maze of the hotel. I managed to bump into my fellow group members on more than one occasion, desperately trying to find the elevator. Just a little feedback, but TURN THE LIGHTS UP!
After managing to find our way out of the hotel, we set off for Quinta de Nápoles. Dirk was there to welcome everyone and we quickly registered. Today was the private tasting for Dirk’s friends and associates across Europe, with the public one on Saturday. Built into the steep sides of the hill, the estate offers wonderful views across the gorge, which I managed to grab a quick glimpse of before we were ushered into the tasting room and the drinking began.
Catch Part 2 next week: cooking duck for 500 visitors, visiting the Niepoort cellars and sampling wines older than my great, great grandfather.
(If he was still with us)