I’ve always loved the deep blood red colour of Port wine and the sweet complex flavours ever since I used to sip from my father’s glass as I sat on his knee in the old Lazyboy armchair. Often I’d be cuddling in his lap after a nightmare, and feeling vulnerable he’d calm me with his encouragement to ‘have a sip. ‘It’ll help you sleep’.
He was right. It did help me sleep.
And it also set up an association in my mind between home comfort, the smooth velvet taste of Port and the smell of Dad’s pipe, and that curious association in my head of family, home and Port. But it wasn’t until our trip up to the Douro Valley in early September that I realised I even had an association at all. It all finally clicked into place when we visited the Douro Valley and the gorgeous family run winery – Quinta da Pacheca.
The road trip from Porto to the Douro Valley takes approximately one and a half hours if you take the high speed motorway but our little group of Travel Bloggers took the slow, lazy way through the lower lands of the Minho and the Vinho Verde region, winding past terraced vineyards overlooking the serpentine Douro River, gradually gaining altitude until we reached the demarcated (DOC) World Heritage region of the Upper Douro Valley itself – home to the world’s finest Port.
By the time we reached Régua, the region’s key service town we were already conversant with the types of vineyards we’d seen. We had learnt that the terraced rows of vines represented the old plantings; terraced to ensure that the old hand pulled wagons could track between the vines in harvest. Newer plantings were flatter, less terraced, and somehow (in my view at least) less magical. And the large tracts of land that were now planted in olive trees represented a failed harvest and ruined soil of a Phylloxera infestation.
There is a fairytale quality about the history of the Douro Valley and its part in the foundation of the nation of Portugal. Maggie, our Portuguese tour guide, told us stories of a son’s betrayal and a mother’s banishment, of a Burgundian Knight called Henry and the merger of the County of Portucale and County of Coimbra. All these legends of knights and passion and war and intrigue were played out in the Douro, the cradle of the nation of Portugal itself.
And whilst the manufacture of Port has become high tech and big business over the years, there is still a great deal of passion, pride and family history imbued in the wine and in the remaining family owned wine estates operating to this day.
After crossing the Douro River we drove up the hill overlooking Régua and then finally down the tree-lined entrance way to the old original Quinta. We were met at the cellar door by the Quinta da Pacheca staff, and Catarina, whose great great grandfather first planted the vines that still produce the celebrated Port.
We started our visit with a tour to the wine making facilities with Catarina explaining the process from grape to bottle, and the family traditions that still guide the Port making process. For Quinta da Pacheca is still very much a family run operation, despite the ever-increasing pressure to succumb to modernisation. Catarina looks after the wine tours and the boutique hotel on site, another sister oversees the viticulture and wine making and another brother co-ordinates the Quinta’s marketing efforts.
I was very disappointed to hear that we had arrived one day too early to join in the harvest as this Quinta still harvests the grapes in the traditional manner, with farm labourers smashing the skins and crushing the grapes with their feet in giant shallow tanks called lagares.
Sensing my disappointment Catarina was quick to explain that despite the harvest’s party atmosphere the crushing of the grapes is actually extremely hard work, especially for men who have been out picking the harvest in the field all day. It seems Port making is a hard business all in all, but those who are born in the Douro have the wine-making business in their blood.
Many of the men who work the grapes for the family who run Quinta da Pacheca are themselves descendants of the labourers who originally gathered the harvest and crushed the grapes when the wine etate was established in 1903.
November, a great time to visit the Douro Valley
We were disappointed about missing the chance to participate in the harvest and crushing the wine, but Catarina let slip that there is a lesser known, yet just as much fun, event around the 11th November each year called the festival of São Martinho (St Martin’s Day) which celebrates the new wine. Traditionally it is celebrated around the bonfire, eating magusto (roasted chestnuts) and of course drinking the first of the new wine.
Typically the weather is gorgeous around this time, warmer than it is in the northern parts of Europe which is heading into winter, yet cool enough to be pleasant, and of course tourist numbers are down which means that there are low season prices and a more authentic experience to be had with the people of the Douro.
After the Port tasting we were treated to a tour around the boutique hotel that is housed in the original Quinta. The building has been cleverly modernised and 15 stylishly designed individual rooms have been created. With views to inspire, a magnificent vineyard to walk through and a peace and quiet that is to die for, this would be the perfect place for a getaway.
And if that isn’t reason enough, then there is the food.
OMG. The food. Is. Amazing.
We dined in the shadow of the family’s magnificently carved armoire and were treated to the best of the estate’s crisp green Vinho Verde (a white wine with a green zingy taste ), deep Douro red wines and of course a delicious Tawny Port. The three course dinner prepared by Catarina’s mother was spectacular and featured fantastic fresh flavours of mushrooms, duck and coriander.
Sadly we didn’t stay the night, but as we pulled away replete with good food and good wine, I couldn’t help reflecting on the quality of the food and wine and the genuine hospitality we’d been shown. For me it was yet another example of that connection between Port and family, and confirmation – as if I needed any – that the Douro produces special complex wine and Port because in the Douro there is family blood in the vines and Port in the veins.
Where: Quinta da Pacheca, boutique hotel just outside of Regúa in the Douro Valley, North Portugal.
What: Stay at the Quinta da Pacheca boutique hotel and enjoy the family hospitality and five star food and wine.
Why: For the peace and quiet, for the food and wine, for the history.
When: Catch the São Martinho on 11th November, or go any time in the low season and enjoy better weather than anywhere else in Northern Europe or America. Rooms - €100 or €120 per night Single from €75.
How: Low cost carriers fly into Porto from all over Europe from as little as £28 one way(Easyjet). The Douro Valley is two hours by train from Porto, (catch the train to Regúa or Pinhão) or for a more leisurely approach you could cruise up the Douro river from Porto.
Disclaimer: We were the guests of Turisme do Porto and Quinta da Pacheca as part of the #TBU post-conference blog tours, however all opinions above are our own.