Douro River and the Wonderful World of Port

Posted by Pat on November 10, 2017 in Travel |

28 October 2017

One does not need to cruise the Douro River Valley for Port because most all wine houses can be found along the Cais de Gaia. However, river cruises up the Douro, though what is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, is a pleasant and tasty way to pass a few days. So much wine – so little time!

We are warmly welcomed aboard Douro Prince and accommodations are organized and comfortable.Many companies and river boats sail the Douro. Most offer the same ports and activities. However, prices can vary considerably. Some ships are larger, carry more passengers, offer a pool, and amenities you may or may not want or use. We booked with the local company Douro Azul. Their fleet of river boats range from the 130-passenger Douro Cruiser, 80-passenger Douro Princess, to the more luxurious 30-passenger Spirit of Chartwell.

We chose the 48-passenger Douro Prince, refurbished in 2015. The upper deck has 15 double cabins and 1 suite, and the 8 cabins on the main deck have a private balcony. The Prince has a comfortable lounge bar, small shop, sundeck and restaurant. Access to surprisingly good Wifi is 10€ a week, practically a steal. There is an optional package of 259€ for tours or you can choose tours individually. Our double room with balcony was 880€ (upper deck supplement was 85€ and 390€ for single supplement). A drink package was a reasonable 85€ for the week. Booking was easy and payable via PayPal. The official language of the ship is English and fellow passengers were from Canada, Netherlands, UK, and Portugal.

There is no nighttime cruising, so exploring ports and doing morning jogs are options. Generally, there is little to explore in these ports beyond the ‘main street’ but plenty of wineries and tasting nearby. No late sleeping in. While the upper deck may be quieter, the main deck will reverberate when the engines fire up in the mornings, sometimes around 7 am.

Cais de Gaia is a lively quay with lots of music, cafes, spectacular views of Porto, a funicular up to expansive views from Miradouro da Serra do Pilar, and enough Port tasting to keep you busy for days. Since we had three days walking Porto, we felt no need to be locked up in traffic for the ship’s 44€ city tour. Instead, we walked across the quay to the wine cellar of Ramos Pinto. Also nearby are world famous Sandeman, Offley, Fonseca (bottles for Costco), Grahams, and Cálem. Take you pick as all will offer informative tours with Port tasting at its end.

I won’t explain “all about Port” as this is best learned by reading or just listening to tour guides. But, what I discovered at Ramos Pinto was that there are four main styles of Port: ruby, white, rosé and barrel-aged Tawny. While most Port I have tasted in the states is red and average in quality, here are Ports costing several hundred dollars. Ramos Pinto has been bottling since 1880. I saw a bottle of that vintage selling for over $7000! In fact, I could purchase three bottles, 1880, 1926 and 1938 for about $15K. A steal? Obviously, I will have to stick to lesser vintages.

Port is the unique blend of Portuguese indigenous grapes, of which there are over 50 varieties. Port is lush with flavors like raspberry, blackberry, caramel, cinnamon and chocolate. The two main types include a Ruby with berry and chocolate flavors (slightly less sweet), and Tawny with more caramel and nut flavors. Port should be served just below room temperature, in a smaller than regular wine glass and the serving size is approximately 3 oz. Aging can be from a couple years to a decade or two with Vintage Port aging 30-40 years. You can tell aging and drinkability by looking at the cork. A Vintage Port has a regular long cork, and the “drink now” style has a plastic-topped cork cap. Most Port I see in the retail stores and local wineries are the latter.

I learned much on my short tour and tasting: I have never tasted a really fine Port until today. I can’t afford a good Vintage Port. I love the white and tawny Ports. And I want to head to the nearest store and buy a couple bottles for the ship. Bottles of said libation are quite reasonable, costing from 6-9€. We pack up a few bottles for our cabin, board the Douro Prince, and prepare for a “seek-and-find mission” for Port. So many Ports – so little time!

The Douro begins in the mountains of northern Spain at around 6561’ and flows 446 miles to the border, entering Portugal to become its second largest river. The Douro flows 130 miles to the Atlantic and is navigable the entire way due to five dams and locks along its course. Once a narrow, dangerous and unpredictable river, once tamed, it became a major commercial route for the fertile Douro Valley wine region. The valley extends for 62 miles and well over a half million acres. Elevations rise from 160 to 3280 ft creating numerous microclimates. The location of a vineyard, its elevation, rainfall, sun orientation and average temperature influence the Port’s flavor and quality.

The Alto Douro Wine Region has been a producing wine for over 2000 years, its  outstanding landscape attributed both to nature and man. Since the 18th century, its Ports have been world famous for their quality. The entire valley consists of 13 demarcated regions that reflect a variety of landscapes (from arid to lush), unique historic and cultural heritages, and a plethora of familial vineyards, manor houses and wine caves dating back generations. There are small urban centers like Régua, Lamego and Pinhão. A train line runs almost, but not quite, the entire length of the Portuguese side of the river (doesn’t travel into Spain).

Departing Vila Nova de Gaia, slowly moving east, passing beneath five arching bridges (some designed by students of Eiffel), blue, sunny skies bode well for our week-long cruise. Weather can be changeable in October and rains are typical. This departure is at the end of the season; we avoid large crowds but risk more volatile weather. Temperatures promise to be in the low 70s during the day and possibly as low as 55 at night. There could be fog, but there is no prediction of rain for the next several days. Perfect!

Along the Douro are olive and citrus trees interspersed among endless grape vines. Of course, the color depends upon the season. For us, leaves were turning fall colors; summer would be greener. Grapes were picked early this year, in August. The hills are most times rolling and gentle. There are signs of recent wildfires but spring should restore the hillside vegetation. There are some serious narrows and boulders, rocky regions and steep canyon walls, mostly tamed now by the dams. And there are shale and stone buildings and walls everywhere. Thousands of stone terraces line both sides of the river, partitioning hillsides to prevent erosion and create easier access (even though access seems to require something other than large machinery).

Shale and stone buildings, huge storage barns and endless walls were all built for the purpose of grape production, harvesting and processing. Walls remain standing, tile roofs gone. Trees and vines wear shades of orange, red and gold. Cormorants sit in trees and fish kiss the water’s surface. We idle past stork nests, herons, mallards and an occasional Griffon Vulture. A few stone or trestle bridges gracefully arch across the river; other bridges are more utilitarian. Countless tributaries enter the Douro, examples of why this river can rage and flood at such dangerous levels.

Five dams were built on the Douro between 1964 and 1973, with the last, Crestuma, finished in 1985. All are worth climbing to the sundeck to watch their operation. (Occasionally the water level is too high and everything is lowered and passengers go below for the ship to pass beneath bridges.) Two of the locks, Crestuma and Piocinho, are book-type where gates open like a book. The other three are traditional guillotine locks. Locks are 40’ wide (Crestuma 46’) and between 290-316′ long. Amount of rise ranges from a meager 46′ to a whopping 313 feet! Once inside and stable, the speed of rise is impressive with water rising about a foot every 6 seconds. These dams produce hundreds of gigawatts annually and are vital to the Douro. (But serious flooding continues, as you can see along Porto’s quayside where water rose well above my head in 2016.)

Tours are optional. The ship succeeds in operating a tight schedule. Offered onboard were:

1. Porto City Tour – 44€. If you have spent time in Porto, which you should have, then this is redundant. Tour ended across the quay at Sandeman. Independently join a tour at any of the wineries for about 10€, including wine tasting. Buy some wine there or walk the short distance to the local market and purchase bottles for the ship. No problem drinking it in your room; 6€ corking fee in public areas.

2. Douro Museum at Régua, included. Located a few steps above the dock, an interesting museum about the history of this region and its wine.

3. Mateus Palace from Régua, 43€. Winding bus ride of 55 minutes into surrounding hills/mountains. Baroque palace is a part-time home of the count of Vila Real; its pinnacled facade, grand stairway, interiors and objects d-arte are okay. The library is the best stop. You can wander orchards and formal gardens featuring cedars, sculpted hedges, statuary and fountains. Question if the trip was worth it.

4. In Pinhão, everyone rode to Quinta da Avessada, a rustic centuries-old winery, 30 minutes into the hills. The lights were sparkling below and more numerous than expected. We had a wonderful welcome and explanation of the family winery. Port is traditionally fermented in lagars where people stomp grapes with their feet while the wine ferments, a.k.a.” I Love Lucy,” though today probably more wineries use automatic lagars with mechanical feet. Dinner and entertainment was exceptional and well worth the drive. And the owner “Mr. Bean” was a joy to behold.

Streets of Castelo Rodrigo

5. Castelo Rodrigo, Barca d’Alva on the border with Spain, 31€. Winding, 45-minute climb to 2,200 feet above sea level amid endless almond trees. Castelo Rodrigo’s quiet streets are narrow and its houses still have 16th-century facades and distinctive Portuguese windows. Tour includes a few minutes in the local church then you are on your own to admire panoramic views. Everyone, all 60 or so, is selling something. The best thing here are the wonderful varieties of almonds and the almond alcohol. You traverse parts of a national park and if there is any daylight left, you might experience some birding on the return.

Salamanca Cathedral

6. Salamanca, Spain, 88€ for city tour and lunch, or 49€ for transport. About 2 hours by bus. A beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site. The walking tour does not enter anything and is really not worth it. Salamanca is beautiful and easy to wander. From Plaza Mayor the pedestrian shopping street takes you past key sites: House of Shells, the 13th-c Salamanca University, the New (and old) Cathedral built from 1513 through 1733, and the Art Nouveau Museum. You will have nearly 6 hours in the city; plenty of time to see the sites and enjoy some rioja wine and paella in the Calle Rúa Mayor. The Cathedral includes a wonderful audio guide; plan at least an hour.

Caped Sandeman at sunset in Pinhão

7. Quinta do Seixo/Sandeman Winery and Lamego, 39€. You can’t miss the iconic Sandeman capped-crusader atop the hill above Pinhão. A 15-minute bus ride takes you to Sandeman’s, who has been here since 1811 and recognized around the world. After wine tasting, a 45-minute bus ride takes you to historic Lamego. The highlight is the baroque-style Cathedral Sanctuary. The impressive 700 steps up the top of the hill may be beautiful but most will opt for the bus. Tour is rushed so we opted not to do it. Others liked it very much.

Just a word about the buses. Douro Azul owns their own fleet of luxurious buses. And they are terrible. The reason you are told to fasten a seat belt is because the angle of the leather seats cause you to continually slide to the front. Also, I did feel that water should have been provided, at least on the way to Salamanca. This really isn’t a major problem but it did surprise me.

Other onboard activities included: daily briefings, cooking demonstration, Portuguese lesson, Portuguese folk music, Vintage bottle opening ceremony (you pay for a sip), and a talk on the current history of Portugal. Lunches (buffet) and dinners were excellent (except for the one buffet dinner). Breakfast was good but I am not a foodie in the morning so got coffee from the lounge and sat on my balcony. Wines were good, food varied, well-prepared and presented.

With no hesitation, I recommend this cruise. Everything was well-operated, everyone friendly. One worries if Mother Nature will interfere with a river cruise. Portugal is suffering from very a dry season and wild fires. Probably I need not have worried so much about low water. Actually, there are more cancelations from flooding. Possibly a record was set when waters rose 42 feet above normal levels in Porto in 1962. Similar floods have hit every few years, the last in 2016 when almost 3” of rain fell in 24 hours. A plethora of rain…

but a promise of so much Port!

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