Fall harvest time is best, but stunning landscape beckons any time
by Karen Rubin
An image of burly, hairy-legged, barefoot men stomping grapes and singing to keep the rhythm of the choreographed movements and fight back the boredom of the repetitive motions forms in my mind as we listen to Catarina, whose great-grandfather took over Quinta da Pacheca, one of the oldest wine estates in the Douro.
We are standing in a massive if simple room of enormous granite stone tanks – like large square bath tubs. It is grey and dark, but here is where the transformation begins, that turns grapes into fine wine.
I have to imagine the scene because the harvest is still weeks away; the grapes are still green, firm and young on the vine and haven’t had a chance to take in the sun, the moisture, the elements from the soil, the heat and cool, which makes each globe a factory of sugar and tannins, alcohol and flavor.
Less than two hours drive outside of Porto, the northern city the city that gave its name to the country and the wine, the Douro Region of Portugal continues to produce wine the way it has been done for hundreds of years – stomping grapes in bare feet – a contrast to the high-tech windmills that line the mountain ridges and generate much of the country’s electrical power today.
The modern highway (there is even an E-Z pass-type toll system) gives way to narrow, winding roads, and as we cross a Roman bridge, we come into the Douro.
It’s a Brigadoon-kind of visual experience: small villages that hug the hillsides look much as they did 100 years ago.
The essential aspect of the Douro is the Douro River, this stunning meandering river that runs from the Spanish border in the East through spectacular scenery, finally emptying into the sea at Porto (Oporto) on the west coast.
But what really distinguishes the Douro, and makes its landscape so spectacular are the vines on steeply terraced hills and mountains that rise 1,000 feet on both sides of the river between Barqueiros and Barca d’Alva.
The Douro was the first specifically demarcated wine region, created by the visionary Sebastiao Jose de Carvallho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal whose progressive ideas of economics and politics rescued the Portugal after the devastating earthquake that destroyed much of Lisbon in 1755. He established boundaries and regulations for the production of authentic Port from the Douro in 1756. The region has been designated as a World Heritage site.
You look at the neat rows of vines and realize that men would carry woven baskets up and down these terraces at impossible angles. The woven baskets, weighing about 70 pounds when they are full, were carried with leather straps that went around their head. Today, we learn, they use a lighter plastic basket that does not cause damage to the grapes, and there we see small motorized vehicles that work their way up the terrace, but it is still back-breaking work.
You can visit Douro Valley to learn more about the art of wine making, experience authentic harvest festivities (which take place roughly mid-September to mid-October), relax on a boat as it cruises up the Douro, watch the breathtaking scenery go by from a historic steam train and taste the various wines at a degustation dinner.
Our visit takes us onto the Douro Wine Trail – something that is especially popular to do during the harvest season, roughly mid-September to mid-October (the dates vary and the decision can be made almost instantly, when the grapes appear to be the best for picking).
Quinta da Pacheca
We come to Quinta da Pacheca, one of the best known estates in the Douro region and one of the first to bottle wine under its own label. The estate is first mentioned in a document dated April 1738, where is it referred as “Pacheca’s”, the property of D. Mariana Pacheco Pereira. The current incarnation was founded in 1903, by Dom José Freire de Serpa Pimentel, who decided to develote himself to the risky business of winemaking and bought the estate. More than a century later, the fourth generation of the Serpa Pimentel family runs Quinta da Pacheca.
It is Catarina, Dom José’s great granddaughter, who is guiding us through the winery, and brings us into a dark, low-ceiling building with about eight enormous granite tanks, where the men will bring the grapes from the harvest It is not at all the wooden barrel like Lucy (“I Love Lucy”) Ricardo stomped in, during that famous episode.
Catarina describes how the men who gather the grapes are the same fellows who then spend another three hours stomping the grapes in their bare feet, singing to keep up spirits against the strain and boredom and to keep the rhythm of what is actually a choreographed process, with up to 14 men in the biggest tank at one time. It reminds me of the sea chanteys the sailors on the old sailing ships sang to keep the rhythm when hoisting sails and perking up the mood in the monotony.
I have to imagine the scene in my mind because the harvest is still weeks away; the grapes are still green and young on the vine and haven’t had a chance to take in the sun, the moisture, the elements from the soil, the heat and cool, which makes them a factory of sugar and tannins, alcohol and flavor.
She demonstrates the elongated movements and I can’t imagine doing it for more than five minutes, let along three hours at a stretch.
“It’s a very hard job to stomp grapes,” she says. “They have to do a motion – mixing with leg motion for three hours.”
For the first 1 1/2 hours, the men join together- one man sings and marks rhythm, ‘One-two-left-right,’ They work slowly. Then the man who is singing starts singing things about the others
“The second 1 1/2 hours, they go wherever they want in the tank, sing and dance as an accordion player plays. It’s a ritual.”
She adds, in all seriousness, that men with hairy legs used to be paid more, and that women were not allowed in at all.
This goes on for 6-8 days for that batch, but the process repeats over and over for the three weeks of the harvest, with the vats filled up, then the liquid drained off and moved to stainless steel tanks, and ultimately, into barrels for aging.
There are daily visits with the Quinta’s oenologist or a member of the Serpa Pimentel family (the owners), including at weekends. They’re always available to show you the winemaking and process of aging wines.
You can get the best feeling of what it is like to live the life of a vineyard family(and not just watch the stomping, but get your feet into it, as well) at Quinta da Pacheca. In September 2009, they opened a charming 15-room inn -all the rooms are individually decorated, comfortable, with private bathrooms (three have television). The lovely public spaces include a parlor decorated with the original art work for her father’s wine labels from 45 years ago, depicting the faces of the men who worked on the estate.
The dining room is utterly charming – with a big picture window that looks out to the vineyards, yellow light that mixes with the green decor.
Over lunch, Catarina tells the story of her great-grandfather, and how he came to the Douro in 1903: he was an aide de camp to a General from the region who told him about the land. Her grandfather also married a lady from Lisbon, and her father, as well (they had met at school where she studied decorative arts). Lisbon in those days was a 10-hour journey to this rural place.
Her grandfather became president of the Institute of Port Wine – representing Portugal in international organization of wine and vine.
Her mother had to learn the wine-making business. “‘To be a wine maker is more than working the field,’ she would say.”
Over lunch of traditional recipes prepared with wonderful flare, we learn more about what it means to operate an independent winery. as well as about the local cuisine.
Food in this region is simple – we sense the aroma and flavor of mint in rice; the local game is partridge – pheasant, wild pig.
Our lunch features traditional preparations: a scrumptious rice dish, prepared in the black pot that is traditional in this region, 1 kilo of rice for 1 kilo of water, heated over a fire, and when it starts to bubble, put into the oven, where it is cooked for hours and hours with bay leaf, lamb sausage, mint, olive oil. The meat is seasoned with olive oil, paprika, pig fat.
All the Portuguese desserts use egg yolk, almond and sugar. Why egg yolk? Because the egg whites are used to clarify wine (like a filter), acting like a brush to sweep out impurities, she says.
I will confess, I am not a wine connoisseur (though I can appreciate fine wine) and though I have been through California’s Sonoma wine region and Long Island wineries, I am still a neophyte when it comes to knowing the nuances of wine prodution – the art, science and business realities.
But becoming immersed in wine in Portugal’s North is like going to Nashville and not being a huge fan of County Western Music to begin with, and acquiring an appreciation of the history, the heritage, the culture and economics. Here, the whole region, the environment, the culture, the economy, the society, is oriented around wine production.
I begin to understand what independent producers like Quintera de Pacheca go through. There are enormous restrictions on the production of Port – up until the1980s, the grapes had to be shipped to Porto where the Customs House was; making it economically unfeasible for smaller producers.
Finally, a Customs House was opened in the Douro, but there are quotas on how much of the production can go for Port.
The restrictions on making Port wine are severe – all the wines have to be approved; the producers have to pay for stamps of quality from the wine institute.
“In a bad year, they might do LBV instead of risking not getting approved for a vintage year.
Most sell their grapes to the larger companies, and produce their own table wines which do not need to be aged as long.
A red wine aged for 14 months inside American oak has a different flavor from the same grapes aged 14 months in French oak, Catarina tells us.
There are some innovations – and each of the vintners has their own “secrets” – such as aging Port wine by an oxidation process and blending aged grapes with younger ones so the wine has the taste and attributes of being aged for 30 years.
And we learn that most of the vineyards had to be completely replanted after a blight killed most of the vines].
“Some farms are recovering, starting to plant directly in the soil – we don’t know what will happen – you can’t risk with Port,” she says.
“You can’t depend on weather, soil or God. It’s more work than luck. You have a lot of failures before have success.”
Some are replanting, some are cloning, and some are grafting. Grafting cuts down the number of years before the grapes can be harvested from five to three.
“All have their secrets,” says our guide, Carolina Mucha.
This year the harvest is expected Sept 20-Oct. 15.
Quinta da Pacheca offers a lodging package: two nights bed and breakfast, a boat trip, watching and even participating in the harvest and stomping a wine dinner, for 600E (about $900); rates in high season (summer) are about 150E (about $225) with breakfast; in low season, about 100-125E ($150-190).
You can have meals at the hotel, or go just up the road to the newly opened AquaPura, a magnificent resort with spa, built on land bought from Quinta da Pacheca.
Other places on the Douro Wine Trail
CS Vintage House Hotel, an utterly charming five-star hotel specializing in wine experiences, occupies the most magnificent setting right on the Douro River where it takes the most beautiful turn to show off the terraces on either side. During September, in partnership with Favaios Enoteca, CS Vintage House has a special program of harvest tourism, including lodging for two nights for two people with private terrace / balcony for Douro. On the next day, you are taken to “Quinta da Avessada”, to participate in the activities: cutting of the grape, transport to the mill, pressing of grapes, wine tasting, traditional meals and other perks.
Back to the hotel, you can also request a visit to the others vineyards (at extra cost).
CS Vintage House lies on the very edge of the river Douro and is surrounded by the famous Port vineyards of the world’s oldest demarcated wine region. The site of the hotel is an old “Quinta” or wine estate, which dates back to the 18th century.
An exquisite outdoor pool overlooks the river; there is even a river cruise boat that docks right outside the property.
The old house, lodges and gardens have been sensitively refurbished in the traditional Douro style preserving their unique history, whilst providing up to date hotel facilities.
All the bedrooms and public areas look out over the river at the steeply terraced vineyards beyond, making the hotel ideal for those seeking relaxation and tranquillity.
Originally opened as a hotel in 1998 by the Taylor’s Port wine company, it was acquired and renovated in 2009.
Even when it is not harvest season, CS Vintage House was designed to be a wine hotel, with its own Wine Academy, offering a regular schedule of tastings not just of the local wine, but locally produced chocolate and jams.
Just around the back of the hotel is the railroad which goes to Porto, and a quaint town of Pinhao where there is a museum.
CS Vintage House Hotel, Pinhao, Douro Valley, Tel: +351 254 730 230,www.cshotelsandresorts.com.
Quinta do Panascal is open to everyone wishing to visit one of the most famous quintas in the region. The majestic property is located on the banks of Távora river. It has the only audio tour available in the region which has been produced in 9 languages. The tour guides visitors through the vineyards and talks about the history of the company, the estate, the Douro Region and, the famous wines produced by Fonseca Port. During the grape-harvesting season, visitors can enjoy the unique experience of watching the men and women treading the grapes in the “lagares”, since the Port is still produced in the traditional way on the estate.
At Quinta do Panascal, you can take part in “The Blending Art,” a game whose aim is to challenge the players to produce a blend of an old Tawny. Each group is provided bottles of Port, pipettes, beakers and funnels. The final evaluation is made by a blind tasting. Each group designates a taster and all the blends will then be tasted and accessed by the tasters. Quinta do Panasca, 5120-496, Pinhao Tel. (+351) 254 732321,email@example.com.
Quinta da Casa Amarela: Situated on the left bank of the Douro River, half way between Régua and Lamego, this farm has been in the hands of the same owners since 1885. In the cellar, the age-old process of making wine are kept alive: the grapes are transported in baskets and converted in large granite tanks with men crushing the grapes by foot. It is possible to participate in the harvest activities, here. Quinta da Casa Amarela, 5100-424 Lamego, tel. (+351) 254 666 200, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.quinta-casa-amarela.com.
Quinta da Santa Eufémia: One of the many unequalled repositories of history in the Douro Valley, Quinta da Santa Eufémia is an independent family house, founded in 1864, situated in the valley of the Douro River, South East of Peso da Régua in Northern Portugal. Its more than 45 hectares of vines, produce the richest grape varieties (email@example.com, www.qtastaeufemia.com).
Quinta Seara d’Ordens: With a magnificent location in the Douro Valley, Quinta Seara d’Ordens has the traditional house, the granite tanks and a Chappel. It is a space especially prepared to receive visitors where apart from being learning a bit of the history of the wine from Demarcated Region, you can also enjoy and give your opinion on your wines in a tasting room. Quinta Seara d’Ordens, 5050-342 Poiares, tel. (+351) 254 906 415, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.qtastaeufemia.com.
Quinta dos Calços do Tanha is a winemaking enterprise that dates from the 1930′s, and has undergone an important re-structuring of its vines since 1989, with the consequent re-conversion of its fermenting rooms. The Quinta Calços do Tanha is also a pleasant base for wine tourism. Besides the internationally renowned wines “Calços do Tanha” and “Quinta da Vila Freire”, you can taste the gastronomy and agricultural products; appreciate the various handicrafts and the six granite tanks for crushing the grapes (lagares) surrounded by 13 Portuguese tiled panels among other archaeological and historic-cultural points of interest. Quinta dos Calços do Tanha, 5050-362 Peso da Régua, tel. (+351) 254 906 158.
Casal Agrícola de Cever provides a good example of the typical Douro production farm: The farm produces mainly Port Wine and quality olive oil. All rooms are on the ground floor, apart from the turret, occupied exclusively by a room with a superb view overlooking the vine, and the Game Room at the loggia/cellar level. The story goes that part of its land belonged to the assets confiscated to the Távoras in the 18th century. Casal Agrícola de Cever, 5030 Santa Marta de Penaguiao, tel. (+351) 254 811274, email@example.com, www.casalagricoladecever.com
For information about the harvest activities official program, contact ‘Port Wine Route.
Aquapura Douro Valley Hotel
The region is so picturesque and so popular for wine enthusiasts – especially because so many of the wines produced here can only be enjoyed here – that a number of fabulous hotels have opened, which also offer a wine experience.
There are many different ways to experience the Douro, from the quaint inn on a vineyard, to five-star boutique hotel, to a major full-service modern resort with tennis and world-class spa, such as the newly opened Aquapura Douro Valley Hotel, in Régua, which opened in June 2007.
A member of Small Luxury Hotels, the resort, was built on land from the Quinta da Pacheca, and is surrounded by vineyards.
At Aquapura, everything evokes the wine experience, from the spa which uses grape seeds in their treatments, to the magnificent outdoor pool, the color of wine.
It has 50 modern rooms in an entirely renovated 19th century manor house, 21 villas of pure contemporary design, a 2200 sq. meter spa for pure indulgence and five hectares of woodland by the river bank (you can get a list of birds and trees), plus indoor pool, outdoor pool, 24-hour gym, tennis court, meditation and yoga pavilion, library; wireless Internet access throughout the resort.
Aquapura offers a family-friendly luxury experience – babysitting is available -
An “early summer” package of two-nights stay in double room with buffet breakfast, a 25-minute spa treatment, boat trip and wine tasting at the hotel (3 whites and 3 reds), is priced from 250E pp.
Aquapura Douro Valley Hotel – Régua, Douro Valley, quinta do vole obrauo, 5100 758 samadaes-Lamego, Portugal, Tel: +351 254 66 06 00, fax 351-254-660-661, firstname.lastname@example.org,www.aquapurahotels.com.
‘The Soul of the Douro’
The Terraces are what make the Douro so extraordinary – scenic as well as culturally interesting and from a wine-making point of view, what gives an extra dimension to the way the grapes ripen and the kind of wine they are used for. The 1000 feet of elevation makes a big difference in how the grapes ripen and what they ultimatley become, and from a human point of view, you can only marvel at what it takes for the people who work in those vineyards.
I think of the rice terraces in the Philippines, and the terraces of tea plants in Hangzhou, China.
Today, we see a little mechanized cart, but most of the work is done on foot and by hand.
The terraces have been here for hundreds of years, but these vines are likely young – the vineyards suffered a terrible blight, and the farmers are rebuilding.
And so, we have begged our guide, Carolina Mucha, to take us to where we can best appreciate the terraces. We wind up our day, with our guide taking us up a narrow, twiswting road, higher and higher we climb and wind… At every turn, the views are spectacular, but we have further to go. Finally, we come to the peak, Casal De Loivos, a small village of about 50 people, which commands the most spectacular view.
Looking down to where the Douro river makes a turn, where you can see the terraces rising on both sides, and down in front, she says, “This is the soul of the Douro.”
Visiting the Douro Wine Trail
The harvest season is the busiest time, and the calendar of activities fluctuates. You should make advance reservations by contacting the Port Wine Route organizers directly, to organize an itinerary with harvest activities at the different vineyards.
The best plan is to fly TAP, Portugal’s flagship airline, into Porto (three flights weekly from Newark); or you can do an “open-jaws” trip, flying in one way to Lisbon and the other to Porto. TAP has only two classes: Business class is first class and it is top-flight, with roomy seats that open to lounges for comfortable sleeping; personal TVs, a wonderful meal with wine and a snack, served on linen with china and silverware. The flight is just about 6 hours, so Portugal (Lisbon and Porto) and among the closet European gateway cities from the US. TAP also serves Lisbon with its newly launched service from Miami (800 221 7370, www.flytap.com).
As for getting to the Douro Wine Region: you can hire a car (different car rental companies available in the airport: Avis, Guérin, Hertz, Europcar, Sixt, Auto Jardim, etc.) or rent a private car with a tourism driver/ guide (that can also help you with the program and individual bookings).
Our guide/driver, Carolina Mucha, gave us the most magnificent experience of the Douro Wine Region (email@example.com).
More visitor information is available from Porto & Northern Portugal Tourism Association, Av. Inferior à Ponte D. Luis I, 53 – 1 4050-074 Porto Portugal, tel: +351 223 326 751, fax: +351 223 326 752, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.portocvb.com.
Friday, 19 August, 2011
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