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Taste the tipple of kings...and Fidel

Portugal - This hotel overlooking Porto is perfect for wine lovers. It has an Iberian heart with an English accent, writes Sarah Donnelly

'So," says Adrian Bridge. "Fidel Castro leant forwards, raised a thin finger up to my face and asked: 'And where do you buy your sugar?' Of course, we don't add sugar to our port."

Adrian is showing me a photograph of several world leaders jammed, just as we are now, between colossal port casks. Without a hint of pretension, he adds flatly: "That's the king of Spain next to him. He was translating."

Well, Adrian is the kind of man who could talk a king into providing translation services. He heads the company behind the Taylor's, Croft and Fonseca port brands, and has just completed his most ambitious project yet: a luxury hotel dedicated to the philosophy of wine.

The Yeatman Hotel's balconies concertina down the hillside above us, but to get its true measure you must start here, in the dark caves of Taylor's port lodge. Adrian turns his attention to a dusty map of the wine-growing region, on which locations of unspecified importance are marked with hundreds of pinpricks. He speaks lovingly of his lush vineyards, nurtured in a gentle climate and fed by the Douro River, which rises in Spain and meets the Atlantic here in Porto. He tells how his wife Natasha's ancestors were early port producers, and how she, the master blender, can sense just how long each wine should be aged in these barrels.

This family business has a British accent but a truly Portuguese heart: a fact borne out in every detail of the Yeatman Hotel. Its wine cellar, which opens for two hours daily, is arranged like a map of Portugal. As you enter from the north, the complex flavours of the cooler Douro region merge into the ripe aromas of the hot south. It also holds a fine collection of other European and New World wines, but you will find these only once you have safely cleared Madeira.

Then there is the view: from every room, central Porto's chaotic mountain of red roofs is seen rising out of the river. On the near bank, the cavernous whitewashed warehouses of Vila Nova de Gaia bear illuminated names of familiar port brands: Taylor's, Sandeman, Cockburn's. Even the bronze Bacchus in the lobby has his back to arriving guests in order to survey this view and, should you open your eyes while submerged in the terrace pool, you will still see the city glimmering through a glass porthole.

The hotel's restaurant, presided over by Michelin-starred chef Ricardo Costa, has strong regional influences. I find Natasha Bridge conferring in fluent, unaccented Portuguese with the sommelier. She tells me she was born in England but grew up here. I learn how fellow hoteliers thought her and Adrian mad for turning half of this prime city real estate into green space, and they admit that it could have been built for half the cost.

The sommelier moves with telepathic attentiveness between tables and returns to fill our glasses with a 1977 vintage port. I watch Natasha swish it in her glass then inhale deeply with a frown of concentration. On my turn, I become nervous. These grapes, ripened in a world that existed before my birth, when Portugal was a nascent democracy and an unbuckling colonial superpower. Surely their purpose was not to end up on my undiscerning palate. But, as I take a sip, I am transported for a moment to a warm summer in the Douro Valley, immersed in the unique alchemy that made that harvest just right.

In the morning, I wake to a clear sky and a foggy head, and I make for central Porto, which is just a short walk across the Luis I Bridge. Over the river, the terracotta metropolis reveals its winding, shadowy streets lined with blue-and-white-tiled townhouses. Bars and restaurants along the Unesco-protected waterfront cater for the tourist trade and emerging youth culture. I stop by the neo-Gothic Lello bookshop, which allegedly inspired J K Rowling's descriptions of Hogwart's school, and the Art Deco Majestic Café, where intellectuals of the Belle Epoque whipped up revolution over tea and cake.

After an arduous climb to the top of the Clerigos Tower, the view does not disappoint. This Baroque campanile, which pokes its grey head above the rooftops, was once a landmark for returning ships. Porto's seafaring spirit brings with it a certain melancholy, described in Portuguese as saudade. It has no direct counterpart in other languages, and evokes longing for lost times and lost loves. Soon the howling wind drives me back down to terra firma, and the prospect of an afternoon amid the sweet smells of the spa is calling me back to the Yeatman. But that evening, as I sit in the bar watching Bacchus ponder a starry sky, the thought of saudade comes back. I look out at the river, making its final push into the ocean, and picture the vines in the valley, whose fruit will soon ripen for some generation other than my own.

Compact Facts

How to get there

The Yeatman (00 351 22 013 4200; theyeatman.com) offers B&B in a double room from €256 per night. A special spa package is available from €886 per couple, including two nights' accommodation, buffet breakfasts, one tasting menu with drinks, two Caudalie Vinothérapie® spa treatments, access to the panoramic indoor pool, gym and well-being area.