Day 2 of our Portugal trip, June 19, early morning we set out from Porto to visit Douro Valley, in Northern Portugal, It is the first demarcated and regulated wine region in the world (1756), known mainly for Port. The name Port is obviously derived from their homeland Portugal. Port is a sweet, red, fortified wine most commonly enjoyed as a dessert wine because it is rich and sweet. Wine production in Douro Valley is regulated by Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP). They control the quality and quantity of Port wines, regulating the production process. This region also produces some of the best wines in the world, other than Port, and also olives.
On our drive to Douro Valley, we halted at picturesque Amarante town, on the banks of River Tâmega, known for the São Gonçalo (Saint Gonzalo) Church. Amar in Portuguese means ‘to love.’
The granite bridge above was built over the Tâmega River in the late 18th Century. The original bridge, believed to have been built in the 13th Century, collapsed in a flood in 1763. The present one was completed in 1790. A plaque on one of the obelisks (in Greek meaning a tall, four-sided, narrow tapering monument which ends in a pyramid-like shape at the top) guarding the bridge entrance on the left bank commemorates the victorious resistance of General Silveirea, on the 2 May 1809, when he confronted Napoleon’s troops led by General Loison.
This Church, built in 1540 houses the tomb of São Gonçalo who died in 1259. São Gonçalo, the patron saint of Amarante, is believed to be a wedding facilitator for older women. As per legend, in order to find the love of one’s life, one must touch the statue of São Gonçalo on New Year’s Eve.
This lady was selling ‘Doces Falicos‘ or ‘phallic sweets’, a sugar glazed phallus shaped cake, also known as ‘Little Gonzalves.’ This phallus cake originated in from pre-Catholic times, with roots in pagan fertility rituals. The cakes are handed out together with locally-harvested dried figs at ceremonies held each January (on the anniversary of São Gonçalo’s death) to usher in a ‘fertile and favorable’ year. It is also used in June street parties, by local singletons who believe that it could bring them true love and a happy family. The cakes are much sought after by old spinsters in search of a husband, where the ‘old spinster’ are often single woman in their late twenties or early thirties, keen to settle down and start a family.
In the 1930s, Portugal’s fascist Second Republic outlawed the cakes as being obscene, but the villagers of Amarante continued to make and exchange them secretly. After the dictatorship fell in 1974, the Bolos de São Gonçalo came back out of the closet.
From Amarante we drove crossing the Marão ranges through a tunnel to Douro Valley.,
The Douro Valley lies about 100 kilometres inland from the coast and is protected from the influence of the Atlantic winds by the Marão mountain ranges. The oldest vineyards are planted on traditional terraces supported by dry stone walls. These walls were built by hand on the steep hillsides and then filled with soil. Most of them are narrow, often bearing only one or two rows of vines. These historic walled terraces rise up the rocky slopes like the steps of the Pyramids. Today, they form one of the world’s most dramatic and inspiring vineyard landscapes. A vineyard estate in Portugal is known as a ‘Quinta’.
Vines of Douro Valley are not artificially irrigated. The vineyard soil is very stony and is rich in nutrients but is free draining. The roots sink deep down in to the soil in search of water and the grapes produced by such vines is said to be of better quality to produce Port.
The art of creating a terrace has died down due to hard work and costly labour involved and also availability of earth moving equipment. The cost of terracing has become prohibitive and they are no longer built today. Only the old vines grow on terraces. These wines are planted in closer rows as no tractors are used.
Patamares are modern terraces cut into the mountainsides using earth moving equipment. They are not supported by walls but are separated by tall earth banks. Near the vines, they grow lavenders and roses. The health of the flowers of these plants are indicators of the quality of grapes growing on the vines.
Relatively inexpensive and quick to build, Patamares may cause soil erosion. Many vineyards plant olive trees to bind the soil. The vines are planted in rows with a wider gap to allow tractors to move between the rows.
In places where the gradient allows, terracing is replaced by vertical rows of vines running perpendicularly up the hillside. Vertical planting also provides better leaf canopy exposure.
After about thirty minutes, we reached Pinhão, a small sleepy town near Spanish border, the heart of Port wine country on the banks of Douro River. From here we set out to visit Croft Winery followed by a cruise on Douro River.