The sweeping curves of the Douro, hemmed in on all sides by gravity-defying vines, never lose their capacity to inspire wonder and awe.
The irony is that, beyond the bare bones of contour and riverbed, this apparently natural wonder is anything but: the mountain river Douro has been fattened over the past century into a series of finger lakes by a succession of hydro-electric dams, while those terraced hillsides have been etched by bulldozer and dynamite into ledges to which vines can cling.
If ever there was an example of nature trumped by man, it is the birthplace of Port, a wine with a back-story as remarkable as the landscape that created it.
The styles of Port are multi-coloured – from traditional ruby to barrel-aged tawny to youthful white – but vintage Port remains the pinnacle. Inkily opaque, powerful, concentrated wines, these are only made in the best years and can remain challenging beasts for a decade or two before age starts to mellow them.
Or at least that’s the conventional wisdom. Modern vintage Ports are beginning to eschew their gum-puckering, tooth- blacking past for something more fruit-forward and approachable.
Don’t be mistaken – these aren’t Port-lite, toned-down versions of the classic style, it’s just that years of hard work in vineyard and winery are creating Ports that, while still hugely age-worthy, are perfectly delicious in their toddler years.
That increased approachability helps with food. Cheese in general and Stilton in particular are all very well, but modern vintage Port is just as happy alongside a rich chocolate dessert, or even an intensely flavoured game stew. Emphatically, they are not just for the cheese board.
If the landscape of the Douro bears the imprint of man, so do the valley’s classic vintage Ports, most of which are named after the men who helped bring them fame: Taylor’s comes from Joseph Taylor, who ran the business nearly two centuries ago; Warre’s from William Warre, whose family dynasty in Portugal started as early as 1729.
These classic Ports are blends – combinations of the finest grapes from a handful of selected vineyards throughout the valley; the source of that fruit has come in many cases to help define the house style.
So Warre’s feminine, lifted aromas come in no small measure from Quinta da Cavadinha, a breeze-cooled vineyard high above the Douro; Dow’s takes its foursquare, dry and slightly austere character from quintas including Bomfim and Senhora da Ribeira; and Graham’s multi-layered, sweet and savoury signature is a product of vineyards such as Quinta dos Malvedos.
These vineyard building blocks are able, in the hands of a skilled winemaker, to create stunning vintage Ports that are far, far more than a sum of their parts. And if you want to investigate those parts further, many of the individual vineyards in question bottle their own vintage Ports – known as ‘single quinta’ vintages – in many of the years when classic vintage Ports aren’t made.
It’s a bit like taking your very own tour of the vineyards of the Douro Valley, substituting smell and taste for sight and sound. If you want the full effect, however, you really need to go there and taste the wines. Just don’t take your car.