- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2006

OPORTO, Portugal — We’re in this ancient port city, set to sail into the finest ports in the world — white, ruby, tawny and vintage port wines. Oporto gave the nation (Port-ugal) and the wine their names.

These famed fortified wines come from the rugged, steeply terraced Douro River vineyards. But it is in Oporto, the ancient city at the mouth of the Douro, where the wine is nurtured to maturity before it is shipped to the world. Here, in the cool, humid cellars of port houses, called lodges, the character of the young port is shaped as it ages in bottles, casks and vats.

Portugal’s second-largest city, a bustling, hardworking commercial center, is the gateway to the north. Known as the “Ancient, Most Noble, Always Loyal and Unvanquished City of Oporto,” the town is more like a village than a city; one easily can walk everywhere.

We dodge cars in the steep, narrow streets as we descend to the Douro. Our goal is the lodges of 18 port shippers that offer tours and a glass of port.

We cross the iron spans of the Dom Luis Bridge and enter the old Vila Nova de Gaia quarter. In 2001, Oporto was named the Cultural Capital of Europe, a designation that led to transforming the city and this quarter. Riverside parks, fine restaurants, vibrant outdoor cafes and busy shops give the old warehouse district a festive air.

The quarter offers the finest panorama of Oporto, a town of gray granite, blue-and-white azulejo tiles and orange terra-cotta roofs, home to people since the Bronze Age.

Prince Henry the Navigator, who inspired Portugal’s voyages of discovery, was born here in 1394. The prince adopted the Douro craft, the sleek barco rabelo, for some of his voyages. Today, the boats slumber before the port lodges, touting Graham, Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, Dow, Croft, Warre, Sandeman, Cockburn and Ferreira, some of the leading port houses. For 200 years, these flat-bottomed boats loaded with cargoes of port braved the Douro’s dangerous, once rapids-filled waters. Today, trucks and trains transport the wines.

We make our way to the house of Ferreira, the best-selling port wine in Portugal, which is best known for its old tawnies. It has a large stock of older wines, including vintage-dated tawnies that few houses can match.

This lodge has survived since its founding by the pint-size Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira, who was widowed at 33, found she had a flair for business and bought vineyards throughout the Douro. She financed roads, schools, hospitals and nurseries with her wealth, so her 19th-century contemporaries called her by the affectionate diminutive “Ferreirinha.” Her memory is still cherished today.

A 400-year-old monastery building houses the medieval tasting rooms, with their granite arches, beamed ceilings and cobbled floors. Beyond lie the dim, musty warehouses containing giant casks, vats and rows of bottles of aging port. The 26-gallon casks hold the wine for several years before it is decanted into more porous 140-gallon wood barrels. The oldest port in barrels is dated 1910.

Our guide at Caves Ferreira tells this portly tale: Two young shippers from Liverpool added grape brandy to this unexceptional table wine in 1678 to stabilize it on its journey to England. By fortifying it so, they created port. Gradually, the port wines we know today evolved.

That same year, the first export of “vinho do Porto” was recorded in the Oporto Customs House. Since then, all port has been exported through Oporto.

Port has a long heritage. The winegrowing region was demarcated by the Marquis de Pombal in 1756, almost 100 years before the classification of Bordeaux wines. By 1798, port had become the favorite drink of London. The Times of London reported that “they drink the same quality of port in all the universities.” Port became synonymous with royal toasts.

In a fortified wine such as port, a neutral grape brandy is added to the fermenting must. This stops the fermentation, leaving substantial residual sugar. Much of the complex flavor in a mature vintage port is the product of those sugars and grape brandy.

The oldest bottle here dates to 1815, and 10 cases from 1861 were sold recently. Annually, 10 percent of the port evaporates into “angel air.” The mellow tawnies produced here are 10 to 20 years old; the 40-year-old tawnies usually are used for blending.

Our guide suggests that to develop a taste for the wines, those unfamiliar with port might begin by drinking one that is aged in the barrel rather than the bottle. “Drinking a vintage port is like drinking a good Bordeaux,” she says.

“If you don’t age it yourself, it gets expensive, but you can buy young ports and age them. Then you can drink one of the great wines of the world at a reasonable price.”

We enjoy a sumptuous lunch with Antonio Martins of A.A. Ferreira (www.sogrape.pt). This most famous Portuguese wine firm was founded in 1751 and recently celebrated its 250th anniversary. Mr. Martins says the English drink high- and medium-quality port, the French prefer the lighter tawny ports, and Americans drink high-quality and young-valued vintage ports. American consumption has increased steadily during the past decade.

As we look out across the river at Oporto, Mr. Martins says poets have written that Oporto has been ravaged by floods, disasters and wars. The Duke of Wellington’s troops defeated Napoleon’s units south of here.

After a farewell port, we enter the old riverside area, the Ribeira, a quarter of twisting streets, shadowy arcades, hanging laundry and small shops buzzing with activity. Often flooded, the Ribeira is the home of the old city walls and 16th- and 17th-century slate-roofed homes painted in medieval colors of rusty red and ocher. Their second floors of lath and plaster are wider than the first floors.

We traverse the Street of the Brothels, then those of the coopers, the basket weavers and the various guilds. All streets have protecting saints, housed in niches and many honored with processions. The tiny nightclubs and bars open at 11 p.m. but don’t swing until after 2 in the morning.

We visit the old Customs House, built near the old Roman harbor, where Henry the Navigator was born. The prince sent out Portugal’s explorers during its golden age of discovery.

We view memorabilia and models of Oporto during various epochs. Nearby stands a statue of Prince Henry and a chapel honoring the hundreds who died fleeing Napoleon when a pontoon bridge collapsed.

We step inside the Church of Santa Clara, built in 1416, the heart of the medieval monastery before it burned. Thereafter, it was transformed by gilded wood that covers the walls, chancel and altars that took 168 years to carve. Rich families built chapels, buried their dead here and poured more than 500 pounds of 24-carat Brazilian gold into the gilded cherubs, garlands and animals. The church’s masterpiece is the carved and painted “Tree of Jesse” depicting Christ’s genealogy.

Near the river is the Palacio de Bolsa, which houses the stock exchange with its Hall of Nations, Pompeii-style mosaics, elegant rooms and offices. Of even greater interest is its Moorish masterpiece, the oval Arab Hall, a golden, glittering ballroom with glassed-in arcades. Like all Islamic structures, it must have a mistake because only Allah is perfect. Here, the door is off-center.

The following day begins at the se, or cathedral. Its spreading steps and old square provide a stunning panorama of river and town; its cloisters, undergoing excavation, offer fascinating ruins of centuries of life, layer upon layer, descending 150 feet.

Next we linger at the Soares dos Reis National Museum, once a palace and now full of decorative arts and admirable sculpture and paintings. Then we enjoy the Museum of Ethnography and History, stroll past the Archbishop’s Palace and make a visit to the Casa Museu de Guerra Junqueiro, the home of a famous Portuguese poet (1850-1923). Although his poetry was unknown to us, his art and personal collections bring his age to life.

A must-see is the striking new Museo de Arte Contemporanea, a fine modern art showcase. Give yourself an afternoon to enjoy the art, from 1960 to the present, the environmental exhibits and the gardens.

As each busy day ends, we retreat to the opulent, friendly Hotel Infante Sagres (www.hotelinfantesagres.pt). Rooms are cozy, but its antique-filled bars, lounges and restaurant offer an Old Europe atmosphere perfect for relaxing.

We head our rental car up the Douro Valley, which weaves through scenic deep-cleft gorges terraced with thousands of neat vineyards. The Portuguese, among the Earth’s most amiable folk, are demons behind the wheel, but the roads are excellent, and new bridges span deep ravines, making our drive to tiny Lalim a pleasant one.

Port comes only from a demarcated region of the upper Douro that stretches 62 miles to the Spanish border. Regua (pronounced Reg-wa) and Pinhao (pronounced Pin-show) are the production centers. Here, the grapes thrive in the hot, dry summers on the rocky, terraced soil. At night, the shale rock radiates the sun’s heat back to the grapes.

We pull into the granite mansion Quinta do Terreiro (www.geocities.com/quintadoterreiro), built in the 13th century. It underwent a two-year renovation to preserve its original characteristics. Off its veranda, mountain panoramas unfold. Its 10 rooms are modern, and its dining room, library, poolroom and bar reflect the family’s history. The bar has a granite lagar, or vat, where grapes were trodden.

Our room has a namoradeira, where young women once sat in the windows on stone benches across from chaperones. Below, young men courted them.

One memorable evening, we dine at the quinta on grilled peasant pork, crunchy bread, salad, oven-roasted potatoes and a creme caramel scorched with a red-hot iron held over it. Candlelight reflects off a pendulum clock, fine china, festive paintings and mirrors and the gray granite walls.

The owner, Dr. Graciaro Fernandes Grazziani, recalls his youth, when bulls and sheep slept in the quinta and corn and potatoes were stored here. He tells colorful tales of the old days that now live only in his memory.

One day we hike out through the pool and tennis courts and back into the 12th century, strolling down cobblestone streets past the 12th-century Romanesque church and into a world of family gardens, cherry and apple orchards and ancient vineyards.

The quinta, though remote, is a short drive to bustling Lamego, an important medieval commercial center. Portugal’s first assembly of nobles, the cortes, met here to recognize the country’s first king. We climb to a partially restored 12th-century castle, then hike up the nine terraces and 686 steps to the pilgrimage church of Nossa Senhora dos Remedios. During pilgrimages, penitents often climb the steps on their knees.

We visit the museum in the former bishop’s palace, one of Portugal’s best local museums, with its priceless 16th-century tapestries, then relax at a cafe and sip the local Raposeira, one of Portugal’s best sparkling wines.

Later, we’ll admire the cathedral, built in 1129. We’re too late for the Vindima, the grape harvest held in late September featuring folk dancing, singing and dazzling religious processions in which floats are pulled by oxen.

Later, local guide Paula Reis leads us along the Douro, called the “Rio do Ouro” (River of Gold) for its golden tones in autumn light. The countryside is a mantle of green and yellow leaves, punctuated by the quintas, or manor houses, of growers and shippers.

Mountains keep out cold Atlantic winds and rains, so the climate is semi-Mediterranean, ideal for cultivating grapes, olives, almonds and fruit trees. We visit the small riverside town of Pinhao and the port-wine museum. The train station’s blue azulejo tiles depicting the wine harvest are justly famed.

We board a small pontoon boat for a leisurely Douro cruise. The river twists in a golden chain lined by steep hills and terraced vineyards. The blue sky contrasts with the white quintas, green and ocher vines, silver olive trees and the rich, brown earth.

We lunch at the packed Forno, or oven, and enjoy lamb, rice-cooked cabbage, flan, crumb cake and a fine red wine before pushing on to the quintas of Castelinho, do Porto and Fonseca where we walk the terraces with an audio guide. Centuries of toil have created these thousands of terraces no wider than a man’s outstretched arms. The region has been designated a World Heritage Site, so money has come from UNESCO to plant new vines.

Dinner is a sumptuous surprise at the well-known Quinta da Pacheca ([email protected]) with its friendly owner, Jose Vanzeller Serpa Pimentel, 62, and his wife, Teresa, and son.

The next day, under leaden skies, we board a rabelo, the traditional wooden sailing ship, for the Varanda da Douro cruise from Pinhau to Peso da Regua, a major 18th-century port-wine-shipping center where the Douro and Corgo rivers meet. Regua suffered floods until an imposing system of locks and dams was built in the 1970s and 1980s. Again, we pass some of the magnificent 85,000 vineyards in the port-wine zone.

At our last candlelit dinner at the quinta, we enjoy caldo verde, a soup made with kale, followed by the tasty Portuguese obsession bacalhau, or salt cod, and empanadas, meat pastries. We savor a fine port wine and reflect on the golden river and the quinta’s past.

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