Raise your glass in Portugal's charming wine city

PICTURESQUE: The best way to explore Porto's shores is by boat. The home of port wine is a Unesco World Heritage site where some wineries still squish grapes with human feet.
Raise your glass in Portugal's charming wine city

AGED TO PERFECTION: The Douro Valley's mountains have been whittled over millennia to support vineyards that produce port wine.
Raise your glass in Portugal's charming wine city

VINTAGE: A tram runs in front of the 17th-century Carmo and 18th-century Carmelitas churches, which are separated by one of the world's narrowest houses.


    Mar 23, 2016

    Raise your glass in Portugal's charming wine city

    PORTUGAL'S wine city and the river valley from which its port wine pours have sculpted the profile of a region in the past two millennia.

    Its inhabitants have carved a living out of the shale mountains that nosedive into the river, whittling the peaks into terraces clutched by grapevines.

    Nearly 50,000 of the region's 250,000ha have been lathed into hundreds of liana-wrapped honey-dipper tips.

    The world's oldest demarcated wine region remains rugged.

    Some residents of neighbouring Porto city say of this hinterland: "The women are men. And the men are werewolves."

    (The valley folk may take exception.)

    This is the home - the sole source - of port wine.

    The fermentation of the wine made from grapes here is incapacitated by brandy that's at least 77 per cent alcohol to halt fermentation and preserve the sugars that give port its hyperactively saccharine character, relegating it exclusively to the realms of aperitif or digestive.

    This beverage is both born of, and has sired, the culture this land has forged - a culture that has, in turn, reshaped the land's contours.

    The fruits of local labour bejewel the leaves that sheathe the bouncing topography, festooning verdure plumage with enchanting clusters of sapphire, emerald and ruby.

    The Unesco World Heritage site is a place where such wineries as Quinta da Pacheca still squish grapes with human feet.

    Visitors prance atop the fruit to traditional music around the September harvest.

    That's not merely a gimmick.

    Squashing the fruit between toes is the only known way to extract juice without crushing the seeds, which sour grapes' guts with acidity.

    Mass producers are investing to develop robotic silicone feet to prevent seed ruptures - so far, in vain.

    (They've at least dipped their toes in the business.)

    One person can clomp a tonne of grapes - literally - in about three hours.

    The two-century-old winery also hosts a hotel in a noble's house. Diners can swill port - and other wines - while enjoying paired foods in a restaurant whose floor-to-ceiling windows afford striking views of the terraces.

    Most visitors make the picturesque journey by car, boat or train to the land where the grapes are grown from the city from which wine is shipped around the world - Porto, from which both port and Portugal take their appellations.

    Wine has remained integral to the ancient settlement that's best explored aboard the vessels that ply the Douro River.

    Old buildings spill down the banks of the waterway up to where it ejects into the Atlantic.

    Bridges frame the abodes of the small settlement first built on a rocky hill in 700BC that the Romans later expanded.

    Seagulls vault over the ripples like skipping stones, occasionally flicking their beaks into the water to snatch fish.

    The watercourse is lined with cafes and bars among the stupendously slender houses that line the banks.

    The buildings families have inhabited for generations were designed to be exceptionally narrow to manipulate property-tax codes.

    This stretches riverside vistas with a vertical pull that intersects abruptly with the broad waterway's horizontal tug.

    Most structures are sheathed with neo-Moorish tiles, creating an ornate aesthetic in which colour and geometry compete to create peacocks of buildings.

    Miles of tiles encase the edifices that hug streets that spin up the hills.

    Thoroughfares were originally designed around guilds - nobles were forbidden from the area.

    The city chosen as Europe's cultural capital in 2001 has long remained a bastion of authors and poets.

    It's particularly renowned for its bountiful bookstores, including Lello & Irmao, which was frequented by J. K. Rowling when she taught English in the city.

    It is believed that its staircase inspired Hogwarts'.

    Her characters' capes also resemble Portuguese students'.

    Lonely Planet ranked the neo-Gothic establishment as the "third most beautiful library in the world".

    But while the cityscape conjures a magical allure, a major ingredient in the love spell it casts is concealed underground.

    Porto hides a hive of wine cellars that offer tours and tastings.

    Sandman ranks among the biggest port brands, and its subterranean tunnels draw visitors to stroll among stacks of casks before above-ground samplings.

    The traditional cellar is nearly next door to, but conceptually a million miles from, the Porto Cruz Multimedia Centre.

    The contemporary centre is a techie-arty celebration of the brand's port that employs touchscreens, film and art displays to celebrate its wines.

    It also produces jams, creams and teas that use port as ingredients.

    Indeed, port wine has so shaped the area's physical composition and saturated its culture that it's not solely imbibed - but even eaten.

    It flavours every dimension of local life.