Douro Valley – The Perfect Port in a storm

Porto, or Oporto as some like to call it, is the gateway to the Douro Valley – a mass of beautiful rolling hills with row after row of vines weighted down with bunches of grapes just bursting to be

Douro Valley Grapesharvested. At the base of the valley lies the Douro River, which not only provides essential irrigation for the vines, but was also once the main network for the fruit’s transportation. These days, an endless stream of boats uses the river to demonstrate the beauty of the valley to tourists who come to enjoy the scenery of an area that is still, after all these years, both notorious for, and successful in, the production of rich and tasty Port wine.

You don’t have to be a seasoned Port drinker to recognise names such as Grahams, Cockburns & Dow’s; brands all owned by the Symington Family. The family is firmly situated in Portugal, but does have British roots, and takes Port production very seriously. The Symingtons work tirelessly with the IVDP (a government institution responsible for governing the quality and promotion of Port) to ensure that their peerless Port remains on our shelves for many years to come.

But it’s not just the big boys that produce Port in the Douro region. There are a number of smaller businesses too. During a recent trip to the area, I was lucky enough to meet some of these producers and sample the great results they deliver from their grapes in both Port and table wine.

Three days of port and wine tasting sounds fantastic, and I must admit it was a great experience – but even I had to admit defeat having tried somewhere in the region of 50 – 60 different wines Barrels at the Graham Lodgeover the course of 72 hours, eventually giving up even attempting to swallow the samples, and spitting them out instead. I was a little disappointed in myself but, delicious as the wines were, I am sure even the most seasoned drinker would struggle with that challenge! Nonetheless, I certainly absorbed a great deal of information during my tours. That said, testing the wines and listening to educational speeches did not necessarily leave me with total clarity on the vast array of different types of Port. It is, without doubt, an intricate business. There is Ruby’s, Twany’s, Vintage, Crusted – all very confusing, and an issue perhaps that needs streamlining and simplifying (to be entirely fair, I’m not sure the two wine experts that accompanied me on the trip even got it!). However, what I am totally clear on are three particularly special wines I tasted whilst in Portugal. These are something to take note of and remember.

Admittedly, the first one I got a little lucky with: a 1952 Tawny Port released specially for the Queen’s Jubilee and served to dignitaries at an event held by the Queen. I will say that, at £275 a bottle, it’s not a drink I’m likely to consume again; but nevertheless it was pretty special.

On a more realistic note I would urge everyone who enjoys Port, or indeed just enjoys trying something new, to try a ‘Portonic’. Made with white port and tonic this cocktail-like drink is something special. O Mercado in Porto claim that their ‘Portonic’ is the best in the world. Who am I to argue, especially as I’ve never tried it anywhere else!

And, finally, the Port that stole the show? Well, that’s a 20-year-old Tawny priced at about £40 per bottle from Ramos Pinto. It’s quite spectacular, and is the Port I hold responsible for changing my view on Port forever. Words cannot explain how special this port is. My advice? Go and buy a bottle and see for yourself.

Now, it would be unfair to end this article without mentioning what we are ultimately here for, and that is food. In a quest to find a regional speciality in the Porto region I stumbled upon Café Francesinha ready to be eatenSantigo: a bustling city centre establishment, packed to the rafters with locals, where nobody speaks much English. This is just the sort of place I was looking for, as Santigos pride themselves on their famous Francesinha which, roughly translated, means Frenchie. You see, it’s the French Croque Monsieur that gave inspiration to whichever heavyweight Portuguese culinary expert decided to take a classic and make it even better – hence the Francesinha was born. The Francesinha is a ham, smoked cured pork sausage, fresh sausage and steak sandwich, covered with melted cheese and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce, served with French Fries. I’ll try to make one someday and share the recipe, however confidence is low having tasting the best of the best in Portugal!

Unfortunately there are not many flights from the north of England to Porto; only Liverpool offers flights on a Thursday and Sunday, and that’s a real shame because the beauty of Porto and, indeed, the Douro Valley needs to sit firmly on your list of must-see cities. The stunning scenery, the outstanding locally-produced wines and the tasty food really do make it a destination to remember.

If you are lucky enough to find yourself in Porto let me recommend the following:

Porto Hotel – Teatro Hotel

Lunchtime Francesinha – Cafe Santiago 

Outstanding evening meal overlooking the city – Vinum Restaurant & Wine Bar

Douro Valley secluded accommodation and Quinta – Quinta De S.José

An outstanding Port – Ramos Pinto 20 Year Old Tawny

Learn more about Port and the Douro Valley

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