The Douro is the third longest river in the Iberian peninsula and for seventy miles it winds through narrow canyons, demarcating the border between Spain and Portugal.
The entire Portuguese length of the river is now navigable, from Vila Nova de Gaia, at the estuary mouth opposite, Porto to the confluence with the River Agueda at the Spanish border. To make navigation possible many miles of artificial banks and five enormous dams / locks have been constructed. Carrapatelo, the largest of these locks, involves a single lift / drop of 114 feet.
Vessels of up to 272 feet long and 37 feet wide can pass these locks and entertaining cruises of one to two weeks can be arranged along the river. The ship on which we travelled, the Douro Elegance is only a year old and offers luxurious accommodation and facilities aboard.
The Douro has the world’s oldest demarcated wine producing area, as well as numerous groves of olives and almonds clinging to the rocky slopes on either bank. The quintas or wine estates are the centre of Port wine production.
Here, the shallow, rocky schist soil of the steep hillsides retains the day’s heat and radiates it back to the vines at night, preserving an even temperature. It also stresses the vines, forcing their roots deep and encouraging the production of grapes rather than excessive leaf.
I have to confess I was not previously aware of the existence of white port, which is a sweet aperitif. Ruby and tawny varieties of port I had encountered, but I was surprised to learn that only certain exceptional years are designated vintage and carry the date of the harvest. There are only one or two per decade. For other years the crucial thing is how long the wine matures in oak barrels (longer for tawny than ruby) and what year bottling takes place. Worth noting is that ten year old tawny is always ten years old, no matter how long you keep it in your cellar.