HAVING spent a weekend playing cricket in Oporto, a group of us felt that we needed some well-deserved R & R in the valley of the River Douro; so we decided to take the train to Pinhão. The trains leave from the São Bento station in the centre of the city, which is built on the site of what used to be the monastery of St Benedict.
You pass through the vineyards of the vinho verde region, before the railway joins the narrow river valley, and the Port wine vineyards begin — just short of the village of Mesão Frio. At Régua, a narrow-gauge line branches off up the valley of the Corgo. By the side of the river are the warehouses of the various wine-estates, or quintas.
Until comparatively recently, Port wine had, by law, to be aged down-river in the warehouses of Vila Nova da Gaia, on the opposite bank of the Douro from Porto. This meant that production was in the hands of the limited number of companies who owned these premises, known as lodges.
Relaxation of the laws in 1986, however, means that individual growers up the Douro are now permitted to produce wine themselves, and age it on their estates. At the same time, while the demand for fortified wine has fallen, there has been a big increase in the production of Douro “light” wine.
Half the group stayed at Quinta de la Rosa, which is by the side of the river, just five minutes’ drive from Pinhão. This belongs to the effervescent Sophia Bergqvist, who is likely to press-gang you into a game of cricket before showing you round the estate — where grapes are still trodden by foot.
Their wines are available from many of the best addresses, including Harrods, and Fortnum & Mason, but they have kept out of the multiple retailers, with the exception of Waitrose, who list their Douro Valley Reserve red (£10.15). I notice that their Special Reserve Port (£21.50) is on sale in the Grape Vine, in St Mary’s, on the Isles of Scilly.
Both the wines and the Ports are available at the Oxford Wine Company; Wine in Cornwall, in Penryn; and Whitebridge Wines, in Stone, Staffordshire (I recommend Dourosa red 2006, £9.99).
The rest of us stayed at the guest house of Quinta do Noval, high on the hillside in a valley off the Douro. This is an estate where wines have been produced since 1715. In 1981, a fire in its warehouse in Vila Nova de Gaia led to a decision to concentrate the whole operation, including its ageing facilities, at the estate. This meant that it was in pole position to benefit from the changes in the regulations.
The estate has just over 100 hectares of vineyards, and its flagship Vintage Port is the Quinta do Noval Nacional, made in strictly limited quantities from grapes grown on ungrafted vines.
Its Ports are widely available, but it also makes limited quantities of table wines. One of these is the Cedro do Noval 2007 (The Wine Society, £15.50), but this cannot be called Douro, as the blend contains a proportion of Syrah grapes.
The Douro must, surely, be one of the best places to combine wine and tourism.