Liz Gill discovers that wine making can be fun and that even cake baking is the result of a long heritage
The initial sensation is weird – this could be what wading through frogspawn feels like – and we can’t help but squeal at its strangeness. Within a couple of minutes though we’re marching up and down the huge granite tank as if we’d been doing it for hours which, of course, is what we would have been doing if we’d been proper wine-makers and not just visitors curious to experience the ancient tradition of treading grapes by foot.
In the old days there was no alternative but even with modern mechanisation there are still grapes, those destined for superior red wines, which are best crushed this way. This is because the human foot, unlike a machine, will squash the grape but not the pips meaning the result is less sharp and more colourful.
The first part of treading, thigh-high in newly gathered fruit, was very hard work, done by men for two hours to a one-two, left-right beat called out by an overseer or banged on a drum. Women then joined in for the easier second stage with its party atmosphere of singing and dancing and the then rare opportunity to link arms with the opposite sex.
As relative weaklings we have come in when half the container is liquid but we still delight in finding whole grapes beneath our feet and giving them a sound squashing. It’s the same satisfaction, someone says, that you get popping bubble wrap. In homage to our predecessors we dance around a bit while our guide Gabriela sings an old Portuguese folk song.
Afterwards we remove the protective shorts we’ve been given and hose down our legs and feet which are now tingling wonderfully. We have been reassured incidentally that any dirt or unpleasant foot bacteria are always destroyed by the fermentation process the grape juice will now undergo though a helper does admit that the tourist crushed grapes will not be made into anything special but ‘probably just wine for the workers’.
Our treading at Croft’s flagship Quinta da Roeda vineyard in the Douro Valley has been preceded by a stroll round the vines which stretch both vertically and horizontally up and across the steep hillsides, all marked by colours, numbers and letters so that workers can gather which of the 11 different varieties the winemakers want.
Their end product is what we sample in a tasting which includes the company’s pink port, three years in development, which it claims was the first in the world. It is aimed at the youth market which producers believe has enormous future potential.
Interestingly, the Portuguese themselves, particularly outside the port-making area, are not as keen on it as we are. In the UK it has been the mainstay of aristocratic cellars and gentlemen’s clubs as well as a festive favourite almost since it was discovered that adding distilled grape spirit to wine stopped fermentation, making it sweeter, stronger and better able to last the long sea voyage to Britain.
White port is similarly being given a sexy new image as we learn at the Quinta Seara D’Ordens where Lucia Morei tells us that it tastes great with orange zest and cinnamon or mint, lemon and tonic water. Lucia is among the latest generation of a family which has farmed there at an altitude of 3000 ft since 1792 and made its own brand port since 1996: at one point we see her 92 year-old grandfather making his daily inspection of the vineyards; at another we say hello to a couple of cousins treading the grapes.
Although only in her twenties Lucia is an expert as well as a charming host, able to explain the differences between white, tawny, ruby, vintage and late bottled vintage ports as well as tutoring us to recognise different notes and what might go with what: ruby with cheese and chocolate maybe, tawny with dessert.
We also learn that the number of years on a bottle is an average, that a ten year-old, for example, might be a blend of five and 15 year-olds, the blending being done to ensure consistency in the brand. And the cork, she adds, is a guide to storage: white and tawny have cork stoppers which can be replaced after opening as the ageing process is complete; rubies have a regular cork as they continue to age in the bottle and once opened must be drunk.
Our wine-themed tour of North Portugal offers many such fascinating insights, often as much to do with history, geography, social conventions, even advertising, as with the wines themselves. For example, at the House of Sandeman in Porto, founded in 1790 by a 25 year-old Scotsman, we are told that the figure of the caped and sombrero-ed Don on every bottle was designed in 1928 as the world’s first wine logo. So iconic is the costume that it is worn by all the guides who take guests through cool dark cellars past the giant barrels – the biggest balsairos can hold up to 100,000 litres -and the stacks of precious vintages and the company’s collection of old glass bottles.
Porto has been our last stop: we started our visit in Minho up near the Spanish border to discover more about the North’s other famous drink, vinho verde. Verde means young as well as green with this wine meant to be enjoyed within a year or two though some higher quality ones will benefit from keeping.
In fact producer Pedro Araujo gets rather irate at the idea that vinho verde is only about cheap and cheerful volume. “Look at Bordeaux. They produce some dreadful wine but they only promote their quality ones which then reflects on everyone. Here we tend only to promote quantity.”
His Quinta do Ameal in the Lima Valley, however, limits the yield of the loureiro grape to five tons per hectare as opposed to the potential 17 tons meaning that the same nutrition goes into fewer bunches, producing the sort of excellent white wine which is offered in 40 Michelin starred restaurants around the world.
The other vinho verde grape, the alvarinho, has been the subject of our previous day’s visit to the lovely little town of Moncao which even has a small but stylish museum dedicated to it. Earlier we have been round the neo-classical Palacio da Brejoeira and its gardens, home until recently of Miss Herminia d’Oliveira Poes who died only a few years ago at the age of 91 and who was a female pioneer wine-maker in a world dominated by men.
Everywhere we go we are tasting wine: not just at the vineyards but also at the palace, at the museum, before our fine dining at the Six Senses hotel on the banks of the Douro with its fish and shellfish rice and coriander signature dish and at our supper at the Convento dos Capuchos, a former monastery now a hotel, where we are guided by a representative of the local cooperative – at least one member of every local family, he says, depends on some aspect of wine production for their livelihoods.
One can, of course, taste and spit or pour un-drunk wine away but we tend on the whole not to resist temptation. Nobody feels inebriated though or hung over but we are all glad of delicious food to absorb the alcohol and delightful places to rest at the end of the day.
And we do take a break one afternoon to bake cakes at the Confeitaria da Ponte in Amarante. There are five different types but all involve sugar and egg yolks – tradition says that the sisters in the Poor Clares Convent there used to be given eggs as thank yous for using their curative skills on local people (the sisters used the egg whites to starch their habits) – and they are all so over-whelmingly sweet that you almost feel your eyes rolling with sugar rush after a single mouthful.
Amarante is also sells another kind of confectionery. Touching the statue of Sao Goncalo whose tomb is in the eponymous church was said to increase the chances of love-lorn women finding a man which led in time to the creation of penis–shaped biscuits now sold outside the church by elderly women of impeccable-looking respectability.
Wine tourism is a growing market as visitors become ever keener to learn more about their favourite tipples and most quintas – the name actually means fifth which was the tithe farmers had to pay to the king – can adjust what they offer to the novice or the expert and any level in between.
The area though also has much to offer the non-drinker: sensational scenery with fantastic views, historical buildings, enchanting old towns, beautiful churches, cultural activities and festivals and a range of outdoor activities including golf, fishing, horse-riding kayaking, hiking and cycling.
TAP Air Portugal has 20 weekly departures from London City and Gatwick to Porto. Prices start at £46 one way including all taxes and surcharges. For further information, visit www.flytap.com or call 0345 601 0932.