We wonder whether god created the Douro as a test. It gave the region poor soils and a mountainous terrain, scorching Summers and freezing Winters. But if humans persevered and made a living in this land, they would be rewarded with magnificent wines.
The soil, composed of schist and granite, forces the vines to struggle and produce small grapes that are full of flavor. No one believed more in these grapes than Dona Antónia Ferreira. She made a fortune producing port wine in the beginning of the 18th century and reinvested it all in the Douro, owning at one point 37 vineyards.
This Summer we had the privilege of visiting one of these vineyards, the Quinta do Vallado, which dates back to 1716. We toured the cellars and tasted some of the quinta’s great table wines.
At the end of our visit, we drank some wonderful old tawny port. With our glasses full of this golden nectar, we toasted the people of the Douro and their magnificent wines.
Quinta do Vallado is located in Vilarinho dos Freires, Peso da Régua, tel. 254 323 147. Click here for their web site.
People in the Douro valley say that babies and port wines are often born at night. Port producers let the grape juice ferment for about three days. They choose the perfect moment to add a neutral grape spirit (aguardente) that stops the fermentation before the yeast eats all the grape sugar. This moment often comes in the middle of the third night.
Most of the Douro grapes are used to produce ruby ports. These inexpensive ports are first stored in cement or stainless steel vats to prevent oxidation and then bottled. The result is a wine that retains a dark ruby color and fresh fruit flavors.
When the quality of the grapes is exceptional, port-wine producers declare a vintage year. These ports are stored in wood casks for one or two years and then bottled. With little exposure to air, the wine is dark red. Aging brings out complex flavors, such as notes of vanilla, chocolate, and blackberry.
The best grapes are also used to produce tawnies. These ports are aged for many years in casks made of Portuguese chestnut and oak. This aging process creates complex flavors and gives the wine a silky mouthfeel. The small amount of air that circulates through the tiny pores of the wood oxidizes the wine slightly, changing its color from red to amber.
It is wonderful to share a glass of ruby port with new friends. But there’s nothing like drinking old vintages and tawnies with old friends.
If you keep a list of ideas for fun activities, we would like to suggest a new entry: visiting a port-wine cellar.
Port wine is made in the Douro region where Summers can be very hot. So, the wine is shipped to Vila Nova de Gaia, a town adjacent to Oporto, to be stored away from the heat. There, the wine is kept in dark, cool cellars until it trades the brashness of youth for the refinement that comes with maturity.
Most port-wine houses offer tours of their cellars. The tour guides teach you to distinguish between tawny, ruby, late-bottled vintage, and vintage port. They also regale you with interesting stories and facts about port-wine production. You’ll learn, for example, that the “share of the angels” is the fraction of the wine stored that is lost to evaporation. At the end of the tour you are invited to a port-wine tasting, so you’ll also get a share of this precious nectar.
Sandman’s and Taylor’s are two of the most popular cellars to visit. Click here and here for information about their tours.
The first story is about the death of Dona Antónia Ferreira’s grandfather. He had a chance encounter with Napoleon’s troops and, eager to show off, addressed the soldiers in impeccable French. The soldiers assumed that he was a deserter from the French army and shot him.
The second story is about Admiral Horatio Nelson. Nelson drank port while he devised his strategy for the battle of Trafalgar. According to legend, he dipped his finger in port wine to draw a map of the fleet positions he later used.
Some might infer from these stories that in times of danger it is a good idea to drink port and a bad idea to speak French. But the lessons from history are always subjective.
Dona Antónia Ferreira lived in turbulent times. She was born in 1811, the year in which Napoleon’s troops finally retreated from Portugal. When she inherited her grandfather’s wine business, another enemy came: the phylloxera epidemic.
Dona Antónia hired thousands of workers to graft her vines into the roots of American vines resistant to the pest. And it worked!
She went on to produce great port wines, plant new vineyards, and make a fortune. She used some of her wealth to endow schools and hospitals, earning the nickname Ferreirinha (little Ferreira) for her generosity.
In 1987, her descendants sold her company to Sogrape, another wine maker. But the brand Casa Ferreirinha endures as a symbol of quality. So, if you see a Ferreirinha bottle in your wine shop, take it home. And make a toast to Dona Antónia who believed that one can plant the seeds of prosperity during hard times.