It was wonderful to be back in northern Portugal last week after many years of absence. The sights, smells, and tastes resurfaced numerous poignant memories. There have certainly been huge changes, not least the vast network of motorways, and generally increased affluence. Many of these have been for the better. However, much also remains the same, and it was wonderful to visit old haunts – even finding one or two places scarcely changed. It is now only a two-hour drive from Porto up to Pinhão at the heart of the best grape growing areas for port wine, and so on a bright sunny morning we headed up there, swiftly crossing the Minho, climbing up into the Serra do Alvão, and then dropping down from Vila Real towards the Douro river. I hope that the images below catch something of the very special character of this part of the Douro Valley – and the grapes that are cultivated there.
Vila Nova de Gaia, opposite Porto near the mouth of the Douro, has traditionally formed the second integral part of the port trade, providing space for the lodges where the wines are matured. The blue skies turned to clouds, mist and rain the next day, but this did not detract from the pleasure of revisting lodges (where port is matured) that I had first explored some 40 years ago. The narrow streets winding down the hill through the lodges to the river below hadn’t changed, but the corporate structure of the “trade” certainly has, with once proudly independent family firms now being integrated into a small handful of larger companies.
The ghosts of close friends, many no longer with us, haunt these familiar locations. They were so hospitable to generations of geography students (and staff!) from Durham University and Royal Holloway, University of London, with whom they shared their experiences of the port trade – as well as their wonderful wines both in the Douro and down at Vila Nova de Gaia. Thanks are especially due to Bruce Guimaraens and John Burnett – from whom I learnt so much – and are sadly no longer with us. But walking back past Quinta da Foz and the Cálem lodges also reminds me of many great times with Maria da Assunção Street Cálem learning from her about the business of port from a Portuguese perspective – and being challenged about the role of academics undertaking research in other countries.
Port is one of the world’s great wines, but remains sadly unfashionable today. It is time for more of us to continue to sing its praises – from the freshness of dry white port, or the nuttiness and subtlety of a fine 20 year old tawny, to the unique character of great vintage ports!