Does anybody drink port? Maybe it’s just me, but the red stuff seems a bit redundant. I don’t even remember the last time I saw an advert for it. Whisky is everywhere, it wouldn’t be Christmas without brandy, even sherry is making a comeback.
Port, on the other hand, is generally consigned to the back of the drinks cabinet, gathering dust alongside that cheap bottle of Kahlua you bought to celebrate the Millennium. Surely there’s a reason people ‘pass’ the port at the end of a posh dinner, rather than pouring themselves a glass?
Hands up, an ill-advised evening at university swigging a cheap bottle of Sainsbury’s port like it was a Bacardi Breezer has coloured my view. I haven’t touched a drop since, not that it has been a difficult drink to avoid – I live in fear that ‘port and soda’ will become the new Aperol Spritz.
But when you’re spending a long weekend in Portugal’s stunning Douro Valley, home to the world’s finest and most sought after ports, revered by connoisseurs the world over, the rules have to change.
When I arrived in Porto my stomach flipped. Like talking to painfully proud stage school parents, there was a reverent mention of port in every conversation, and a photo on every fridge (probably). Forget your G&T, I was also reliably informed that Portuguese nights out start with a ‘port and tonic’... my worst fears were coming true.
So there was no choice but to face my demons. A glass of another local speciality ‘vinho verde’ – literally ‘green wine’, but more like stunningly light prosecco than mouldy Pinot – at the hotel bolstered my confidence, and I was ready to visit the cellars of ‘Port Knox’, a family-run port producer with a copious supply of the local nectar and an ear for good puns.
Nestled in the rolling hills, the inconspicuous brick building is a tucked away treasure trove. It took a light hike through the vineyards to get there, but the scenery rewarded the sweat, with majestic orange trees, sweeping views of the meandering River Douro and striking red leaves to rival New England. On a crisp autumn day, it was nothing short of spectacular and a chilled glass of rosé would have been the perfect companion. But it was a richer, stronger tipple that awaited.
Stepping into the cellar was immediately intoxicating – a dark, atmospheric corridor was flanked by huge wooden barrels, the kind you’d imagine cartoon heroes clinging to as they began freefalling down rapids, but four times the size. There was no disappointing stainless steel machinery here, it felt authentic and even romantic.
The all-important port itself was rich, expensive and varied, but always 20 per cent proof – thems the rules according to my charismatic guide Miguel. He talked me through no less than ten ports, including tawnies, rubies and a 100-year old vintage, each one bolder and more attention seeking than the glass before.
Luckily, unlike my student peers, Miguel supported my decision not to neck ten full glasses in one afternoon, the result being a greater appreciation of port and a sense that, at least in this very small way, I had matured.
Much like eating a forkful of fresh pasta on a sunny Italian veranda, this was the perfect setting to actually appreciate port. Easy to drink, full of flavour and pleasing to the palette, it was a bit of a revelation.
This was the way to really understand why this drink still sells, and although I won’t be ordering it at the weekly pub quiz, I’ll definitely be drinking it again. The more initiated would no doubt revel in Miguel’s expert recommendations, although I’d be impressed if they’d shell out the eye-watering sum for the vintages.
While the Douro Valley itself is still off the beaten track compared to tourist-friendly Lisbon and the Algarve, beautiful vistas have already encouraged wine and port lovers to exploit low-cost Easy Jet airfares, for a splash of sunshine and a taste of the good life.
I was staying at the Six Senses hotel, where wellness and wine go hand in hand, and the menu includes such eyebrow-raisers as caramelised octopus and wasabi vine leaves. If all else fails they also did an excellent burger. And pastel de nata (custard tarts) were served at breakfast, which I for one was not too sophisticated to enjoy.
Wine was inescapable – available from a vending machine or a fancy tasting session, and the bed was more like a marshmallow than a mattress, a great selling point for a hotel that offers a sleep programme to help insomniacs. There was also an admirably eclectic range of activities on offer from yoga to tree climbing, but the endless alcohol meant I was too tipsy to take either too seriously.
Really, to experience this fantastic region the only option was to get out of the hotel (although I was delighted to sneak off to the sumptuous spa when it got a bit chilly).
I particularly enjoyed a tasting menu at DOC, a riverside restaurant run by Porto-born Michelin-starred chef Rui Paula (not to be confused with Ru Paul and his Drag Race), sitting beneath a lime tree, gazing at yachts on the Douro – an experience that left me feeling dandy, particularly having polished off the superlative chocolate pudding.
It’s booze that gets top billing though (although the people here are far too classy to call it that) and after a couple of days a cruise along the Douro river, tasting your second local white wine at 11am felt like perfectly normal behaviour. Especially as, just as you took the first sip, the sommelier would point to the specific vineyard where those grapes were grown.
Don’t tell the French, but this lush region is the ultimate wine-lover’s paradise and, in the end, a port-hater’s correctional facility. If you don’t come away feeling refreshed, revitalised and slightly sozzled you’ve definitely done something wrong.