There's a very simple and innocent explanation for how I came to be hosed down by a Dutchman in the Douro Valley. We'd all been drinking, it was a hot afternoon, and, besides, everyone was doing it. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The reason I was in Portugal was to join the UK wine tour company Arblaster & Clarke's annual port harvest wine and city trip, where I would meet up with 20 or so fellow wine enthusiasts in Oporto for tastings, dinner at a port lodge and visits to port-makers.
Despite the democratisation of wine over the past 20 years in Britain by television personalities and supermarket bargain bottles, it's still a subject that attracts fanatics, pedants and snobs. So it was with some trepidation that I walked into the hotel bar to meet up with the group for the first time. Would I find the room full of serious-looking folk sniffing pensively into their port glasses? Would I flounder in the heat of the debates about producers and vintages and be ostracised for my lack of a cellar-full of Fonesca 1977? Or, indeed, for my lack of a cellar? Luckily, I could relax. It seemed there were some serious collectors on the trip, but what I found out sooner is that port lovers just wanna have fun.
The short trip from the hotel to Graham's lodge across the river in Gaia felt more like a school outing than a pilgrimage to one of the great port houses, which suited me just fine. Gaia's high-sided, twisting and narrow roads were originally designed for the ox carts that used to carry the barrels, or pipes, of port from the barco rabellos (flat-bottomed barges) that had transported the wine from the Duoro valley up to the lodges. Navigating a luxury coach through them seemed about as sensible as sailing the QE2 down the Regent's Canal in London, but made for an enjoyably hair-raising ride.
A presentation and tour around the yeast-scented cellars revealed the six members of the Symington family who own Graham's are the 13th generation involved in the port business. They can trace their heritage back to an English consul in Oporto, Walter Maynard, who first shipped port in 1652. It was surprising to learn that Symington Family Estates also includes those other instantly recognisable names, Dow's and Warre's, along with the less well- known but nonetheless prestigious Smith Woodhouse among others. Have they never heard of monopolies?
We gathered at the tables using stools fashioned from old barrels in the spacious tasting room to appraise the four tawny and six ruby ports that had been opened for the occasion. Brandy, the alcohol used to halt the fermentation of the grapes and fortify the wine, was the first thing I smelt as I put my nose to the glass. I sipped and immediately tasted the sweetness of the unfermented sugars. Then the rich, fruity flavours of the indigenous grape varieties, such as Touriga Nacional, came through.
A dinner of caldo verde, the national dish of potato and cabbage soup with spicy sausage followed by bacalhau (salt cod baked with potatoes and cream) ended with more port to accompany a selection of the local cheeses. The impending early morning call to catch a train to the Douro valley seemed a long way off as the lights of Oporto twinkled across the river and the conversation flowed.
Even if you aren't going anywhere, Sao Bento station is worth visiting for the magnificent historical frescos made from traditional blue-and-white glazed tiles alone. However, we were about to make what is considered by some to be one of the great railway journeys, from Oporto to Pinhao and into wine country.
Travelling first class means a comfy seat in what appears to be the re-creation of a living room from a 1970s British sitcom; thick orange curtains, wood-effect melamine panelling and garish turquoise upholstery. The first hour or so of the 130km trip takes you through some uninspiring urban landscapes. But then, suddenly, you're racing right on the edge of the river, the steep terraced hillsides rear up around you and you're in the heart of one of the planet's most dramatic landscapes.
There's a very good reason why Arblaster and Clarke run the port tour during harvest time. Obviously, it's a great opportunity to see the grapes being picked and the wine being made. But, thanks to our guide and manager of the Quinta do Passadouro winery, there's a chance to get hands-on in the process.
Or maybe I should say feet-on, because it had been arranged for us to tread some grapes. This is not part of some phoney heritage experience. Although there are now automated alternatives, grapes for the highest quality ports are still routinely pressed by the foot, which still results in the best juice and colour extraction.
That morning at the nearby Niepoort winery, we'd seen two men up to their knees in the granite tanks, known as lagares, plodding sullenly through their four-hour grape-treading shift like some vision of hell from an old stand-up routine. The scene at the Passadouro lagares at 3.30pm on Saturday afternoon, after a long lunch on the beautiful terrace over looking the valley, couldn't have been more different. A dozen merry Brits splashing around in crimson gore was like New Year's Eve in Trafalgar Square as directed by Quentin Tarantino. The soothing, exfoliating action of the treading soon gave way to the sheer exhaustion of what one of our number, an ex-athlete, compared to running through sand, and after 10 minutes or so I was being hosed down by Ronald from Rotterdam.
However, it was a hot afternoon, and I'd been drinking. And well, everyone else was doing it.
THE COMPACT GUIDE
HOW TO GET THERE
Andy Lynes travelled as a guest of TAP Air Portugal and Arblaster & Clarke. TAP Air Portugal (0845 601 0932; flytap.com) offers return flights to Oporto from London Heathrow and Gatwick from £83. The next Arblaster & Clarke Wine Tours (01730 263 111; winetours.co.uk) Port Harvest Party takes place on 28-30 September 2007. It costs £349 per person, based on two sharing, including two nights' b&b, two meals, transfers, visits, tastings and first-class rail travel.
Portuguese National Tourism Office (0845 355 1212; visitportugal.com).Reuse content