Discovering Porto and the Douro Valley

Oporto is one of the great wine capitals of the world. It has served as the centre of the world Port trade for more than three centuries. All of the most famous producers still have their vast cellars there, looming moodily over the mighty Douro river.

But with the Portugeuse economy in freefall and with competitors such as gin dominating major markets, Porto’s economy has been forced to diversify away from reliance on sales and towards tourism.

This has mainly been a success. The sweet and dry wines are still fantastic but the city has been transformed – five-star hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants are now plentiful and the old promenade has even been redeveloped. The airport has also been recently redesigned and is now just fifteen minutes from the city centre. So travelling to Porto is easy. Business is booming.

But at a cost – an actor with a cape and a script now greets you at the gates of the Croft porthouse and a new generation of day-trippers clog the lower reaches of the Douro. You have to try a little harder to find that authentic Porto experience. Luckily for you and me, SmoothRed know where to find it.

We spent our first night at The Hotel Infante Sagres, Porto’s first five-star hotel built in 1951. It was recently given a €5.5m investment and handed a second life at the hands of local architect don António Teixeira Lopes, disciple of the master Rogério Azevedo, author of the original project.

The aim here is to win two Michelin stars to match The Yeatman, the other hotel in The Fladgate Partnership in Gaia (where we spent our second night in Porto). The restaurant will achieve this without a doubt. The Vogue Café, created in partnership with Condé Nast International, is another new addition and where we sampled their signature ‘Port Sour’ (eye-opening) after a tour of local wine bars, and also enjoyed an excellent breakfast (restorative) early the next morning.

Our first full day in Portugal was an overnight visit at Quinta da Gricha in the Upper Douro, and the crown of the Churchill Estates. Inaccessible by road and too steep to land a helicopter, the Douro itself is the best route into the most beautiful of the whole area, itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Local knowledge is as crucial as ever here – SmoothRed got us ahead of the morning tourist traffic to a private dock where a classic rabelo waited to take us (just us) the rest of the way.

With strong, freshly brewed coffee in hand we slowly meandered along the Douro as our local guide brought us up to speed with the history and culture of wine-making in the Douro. We docked and were greeted by a customised Defender to take us up the hill to Quinta da Gricha. At Gricha we sat down to a rustic lunch with some of Churchill’s dry Douro wines. The table itself, and more to the point the view, high up above the river with Porto in the far distance, is one of the most stunning anywhere in the wine world. An afternoon in the vineyards for some and by the infinity pool for others was followed by a full tasting of their Churchill’s Port wines and a fantastic dinner. Rooms in the 1852 lodge are superb and the beds sublime.

Day two started with breakfast on the terrace and a last chance at the view, and we were on our way through the Douro to tastings on our way back to Porto. As Hugh Johnson puts it: “Of all the places where men have planted vines, the Upper Douro is the most improbable.” The soil is almost non-existent, and the slopes are up to 60 degrees and the temperature is well over 30 degrees Celsius for the entire summer. All without any serious mechanisation. The love and engineering and tenacity to make this wine unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else in the world. As we know, stressed vines make great wines – so onto the tasting!

Our most memorable stop was at Alves de Sousa, the finest independent winemaker in the region. This stunning winery, was designed by local architect Belém Lima and clad in black brick to minimise impact on the surroundings, is where they make all of their award-winning wines. Abandonado is a dry red which, produced in tiny quantities and only released every five or six years, sums up the Douro in a bottle – old vineyards, traditional processes, and mixed varieties. It shows potential now but can last for decades in bottle, growing and presenting new features along the years.

Our SmoothRed transfer took us back via other small producers near Vila Real clinging to the Douro all the way. Lunch was a rustic affair – a very smart move ahead of our two-star Michelin dinner at The Yeatman that evening.

Once checked in at this fantastic hotel, we enjoyed a stroll down the hill to one last tasting at the award-winning Churchill’s tasting room – a far cry from the tourist theatre of Croft’s. Dinner in the Yeatman Restaurant is courtesy of chef Ricardo Costa and is Oporto – traditional with contemporary flair. We spent another night sleeping very soundly.

Our flight out of Porto was not until mid-afternoon, so we had time for lunch. SmoothRed told us of a jewel in the crown of Portuguese cuisine, the restaurant itself a design classic and the chef with eight stars in his back pocket. But in low season it would still be closed, surely, or at best in their preparation stages, winding up for the season? Well, yes, they were closed to the public, but for SmoothRed anything is possible.

We sat with the chef’s family and friends enjoying their final lunch before the season opened the following day. One of our group, a mad gastronome even for our party, was seen to be enjoying the experience so much that he was allowed into the kitchen to finish off one of their own courses. He returned 30 minutes later. Coffee and the three dessert courses, with a Tawny Port flight, was served on the tables outside as Atlantic rollers crashed at our feet. This was a lunch to end all lunches, to end a wine trip to end all wine trips.

Written by Oliver Mott

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