One thing all the varieties grown in the Douro Valley have in common is their ability to withstand extremely warm temperatures. Summer in the Douro can see the mercury rise to over 40˚C for days at a time. Manuel de Novaes Cabral, President of the IVDP, describes the climate in the Douro as “9 months of winter and 3 months of hell!”.
Even though we visited at the end of September when the weather is usually still very hot, we got an early dose of winter with windy, cool conditions and didn’t experience the savage summer heat. It is the unbearable high temperatures that compelled Port shippers in the 18th century to send the wines away from the Douro Valley to age. They wanted to avoid the roasted characters, known as the ‘Douro bake’, that are associated with wine matured in the oppressive heat. The spring after the harvest the wines were always shipped down to the coast and the town of Vila Nova de Gaia, which lies across the river from Porto near the Atlantic coast.
‘Gaia’, as it’s referred to, may be considered the spiritual home of Port. Even though no wine is actually made there, the city is intrinsically tied to the Douro Valley, not just by the winding thread of the river, but because up until a couple of decades ago, every bottle of port produced in the Douro Valley had to be exported from the city of Gaia.
The Famed Port Lodges
We walked around the town amongst some of the vast lodges (cellars) owned by the big port shippers like Taylor’s, Cockburns, Grahams, Ramos Pinto, Sandeman, enjoying views of the long, slender Rabelo boats that used to bring the wine from the valley down to Gaia, before trains took over. We paid a visit to Taylor’s and saw the hundreds upon hundreds of barrels of port of all shapes and sizes resting in Gaia’s moderate climate, which unlike the heat of the valley, is ideal for ageing these special wines.
Until only a few decades ago, all the wine made in the Douro Valley had to be sold and shipped from Gaia, meaning many of the 32,500 winemakers had no choice but to sell their entire production to one of the big shippers who could afford to own a lodge in Gaia. Thankfully this restriction was lifted in 1986 and people like the fabulous, young, passionate Oscar Quevdeo can now ship his family’s wines directly from the Douro Valley, which is great for them and even better for us!
The Douro Valley and the cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia are fascinating – dramatic and striking is the landscape, alive and enthusiastic is the passion of everyone involved with port production (and almost everyone is in one way or another!) and steeped in tradition yet contemporary and refined is the wine.
There is great history and pride in every bottle of port and dry wine from the Douro Valley and whether you drink one in the steep vineyards or at home with friends, each one brings us a sense of pleasure in much the same way as slithering down that slide gave us as a kid.