I’ve never been into wine. There, I said it. Probably not the most stellar way to kickstart this wine-centric blogpost, but I want to make it very clear that the fact that I can’t remember much about any of the wines we sampled on our vineyard tour in Porto is, in no way, related to the quantity of wine consumed that day.***
***That last sentence was a complete lie.
My dad has always harboured an extensive wine collection in the basement of our family home, and as a child I enjoyed looking at the labels and examining the intricacies of each bottle. I remember once trying to use a vintage Gigondas as a makeshift bat and playing a very risky game of “squash” against our freshly-papered walls. Blessèd be that the tennis ball was a castaway from our then-teething puppy and was virtually bounceless otherwise I can’t say I’d have been released from our basement in time to pursue writing a blog some 15 years later. But that’s neither here nor there…
So, that was pretty much about as far as it went. After spending an entire summer recovering from a gnarly tonsillectomy and being confined to the comfort of the living room sofa to watch The Parent Trap on repeat, I began to feel like I had developed a fairly decent idea of the innermost workings of producing wine – basically, you have a dad, you live in California, and then you accidentally-on-purpose play Cupid and ruin several people’s lives on an impromptu stay in West London. That’s the basic principle of wine…right?
Well…not quite. First of all, forget the wicked step-mum or the novelty identical twin you never knew you had – the wine production process is much more profound and technologically complex than that.
What We Did
Let’s start from the beginning, shall we? Eric and I had concluded that the optimal way to make the most of our time in Porto was to learn all we could about the very essence of the place from someone who knew what they were talking about. How would we do this, you ask? Through a guided tour.
Before going to Porto, I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t really been one for guided tours. I can only assume that it was some residual trauma from junior school trips taken where you and eleventy-five of your schoolmates would trawl around Roman ruins, trying to avoid getting sunstroke and lugging around a foil-wrapped ham and cheese baguette that was harder than the foundations of the old aqueduct you were standing on.
But, putting past psychological perturbation behind me, I decided that a guided tour would be the most favourable option for us to learn a lot of information in a short space of time. Plus, it allowed me to leave my cumbersome 600-page Portugal travel guide back in our Airbnb which was a winner winner chicken dinner.
We decided upon the Douro Valley Wine Tour from Portugal Excellence Tours as it included a lot of the activities we wanted to experience, such as visiting the Douro Valley and even a river cruise. After forking over 100-and-something (incredibly well invested) euros each, we arranged to meet our guide at 7:45 the following morning for pick-up.
The next day came around, and we were up and at ’em, heading down to the meeting point before most people had even begun getting up for work. Armed with a bellyful of coffee and a croissant-to-go, we boarded our impeccably stylish Mercedes Benz people carrier and started our journey to Amarante, the first stop of our trip.
This charming little city was an absolute delight to be hold, especially because of the hustling flea market that was taking place as we arrived. Rows and rows of pop-up tables laden with antique action figures, moth-eaten tablecloths and lace-edged napkins, books with tatty spines and dog-eared pages. The comforting hum of chatter filled the entire square. Me being me, I just had to make a dash into the nearby church because, as you should know by now, I am a religious building aficionado.
Once we had had enough time to stretch our legs and grab a quick snack, myself and the rest of the tour group climbed back into the van and continued winding our way up towards the open mouth of the Douro valley. There were 8 of us in total – myself and Eric, a young, French couple, an elderly Colombian couple, a middle-aged American lady and our lovely tour guide, Guilherme. Quite a mish-mash of a dynamic but one that made for enthralling and colourful conversation.
One of the things I appreciated about Guilherme, aside from the fact that he was thoughtful enough to conduct the entire tour in both English and Spanish to satisfy the individual needs of our group, was that he considered it important to take us to locations with breathtaking viewpoints. Now, I’m no Ansel Adams, but I do subscribe to the millennial condition in that I just love a good photo op. Hashtag grateful.
Anyway, as we continued our journey through the vineyard-lined plains of Porto, climbing and climbing until the road down below appeared to be nothing more than a squiggle on a piece of paper and you could feel the surface of the sun eroding the paint off the top of our van, we made another much-needed pitstop in a place called Provesende in Vila Real. Is Provesende somewhere that most people have heard of? I’d bet money that it isn’t. However, I truly believe that the beauty of a country lies in its more rural, unspoilt locations. Maybe it’s the country girl in me, but I gravitate towards places more off-the-beaten-track than bigger cities – a preference for organic charm, digamos.
What we ate
Lunchtime sort of crept up on us during our trip. We had been too enraptured in soaking up all the visual delicacies around us and learning about the relevance of soil in grape growing to notice rumbling tummies. Guilherme dropped us off at a lovely Portuguese restaurant with panoramic views over the valley below. We feasted on fresh, traditional dishes and good quality white and red wines before heading down to the dock to start our river tour.
Touring the Douro river was one of the most peaceful boat encounters I’ve had in adult life. Despite the fact that boats make me a touch nervous, and that I can replay the entire storyline of Titanic in my head in the millisecond between stepping off dry land and setting foot upon the boat steps, I thoroughly enjoyed myself this time round. Apart from a gaggle of loud, American sorority sisters who were spending spring break “going on like vacay and stuff” the journey was serene and stable and a fantastic opportunity to breathe in some clean air and absorb some Vitamin D.
The Wine Tour
The last leg of our trip was to spend a couple of hours at Sandeman’s Quinto do Seixo Wine Centre learning about the evolution of the wine-making process and sampling the 3 port wines that they carry. The guide led us through the main building and into the sampling room, which was alive with the merriment of other tourists gleefully sipping thimblefuls of wine and enjoying the brilliant sunshine. So we sat down at a long table while they handed each of us 3 samples of wine – one tawny, one red and one white.
Remember the introduction to this blogpost where I assured you, dear reader, that I am in no way an amateur sommelier or even a particular fan of wine? That still rang true. However, what I was, as I recall in that exact moment, was extremely parched from not having drunk much throughout the day.
So as soon as the lady handed me that tawny, it went down the hatch quicker than you could say “bottoms up!” Eric threw me a wide-eyed look as he watched the red and the white promptly follow. Error número um. I sat there like some professional shotgirl at a bar, waiting for everybody else to finish their samples (which took them considerably longer than it took me, let me assure you.)
Eric wasn’t a fan of the red. Neither was I, truth be told, but I gladly reached for (read: snatched) the glass out of his hand to finish the dregs. It was 32°C in the shade, people. Error número dois.
I felt the effects of each sample as soon as I stood up for us to leave and realised that each of those wines were 20% alcoholic and I’m the world’s biggest lightweight. Thankfully Eric could see that Miss Jelly Legs was having a touch of difficulty trying to climb out from under the table without going tits up over the bench behind her so he lent a helping hand so that we could both maintain a sense of dignity and that none of my tourmates would suspect that I was, in fact, sloshed.
Back to the car we went for our drive home, during which I could do nothing but rest my forehead on the cold window of the van in the hopes that my inebriation would wear off before the day was up. Thankfully, it did. And I haven’t touched another glass of Port since…
Have you ever visited Porto before? If so, did you indulge in some Port wine whilst you were there? Let me know!