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Jazz no Parque: July 15-17, 2011

By Published: July 28, 2011

July 17: Touring the Duoro Valley

There are lots of reasons to visit Porto, but for those who like a good port wine, there's no better place to find it—and at an incredibly reasonable price. And so, a Sunday trip into the Duoro Valley, where vineyards can be found along the mountains on both sides of the river, seemed like the perfect way to wrap up this short first encounter with Portugal. Leaving Porto by car, courtesy of tour guide Fernando Magalhães, the culture of rural Portugal began to assert itself almost immediately. Sunday is, for farmers, a day of rest, and in a culture that is, perhaps, a little antiquated but in the best possible way, wives don't cook; instead, families—often large, with five or six children by no means the exception—head out for the day, many going to church before having an easygoing lunch at a local restaurant. That the sizes of the portions in those restaurants are, in a word, immense, reflects that they are catering to people who are putting in hard, physical labor. It's also simple food, but good food. After a leisurely meal that does more to cement families, in the space of an hour or two, than happens across the ocean—where stores are open seven days/week, and double income families rarely find the time to bring everyone together at the same time—everyone hits the road for a Sunday afternoon drive; it may be the day of rest, but it's not necessarily a day of quiet.


The Duoro River Valley

Stopping in Amarante, the sense of history became, if not overwhelming, then certainly profound. Centuries-old structures, including a church where families were gathering for 11 a.m. mass, define this lovely small town of less than 10,000 which, like Porto, is divided by a river but, in this case, a much smaller one, with an old, one-lane bridge providing egress from town center. Outdoor squares with open-air cafés, cobblestone roads on a steep incline from the town center in the valley to the upper level with a panoramic view, and homes and shops built in and around stone structures that, for a North American, are powerful simply because they exist, collectively encourage a slower pace to life that is a very compelling alternative to the more frantic approach back home.

Driving further east along the Duoro River towards Regua, two other important facts became clear. First, along the tops of the mountains were a number of wind power mills. As it turns out, approximately 37% of a Porto resident's power bill comes from this renewable resource, and nearly another 13% comes from electricity generated by the eight dams spread along the river—in one case, dividing the river with a steep drop of 28 meters on the west side of the dam. Portugal may be a small country, but its commitment to renewable energy sources is an inspiration, and for large countries with plenty of open spaces and rivers, where similar things are possible, there seems little reason not to invest in the creation of such renewable power sources.

The landscape is marked by vineyard terraces climbing the steep mountains leading up from the valley, but also farmland growing oranges, lemons and cherries. There are eucalyptus trees alongside pine trees, all in a country whose average temperature, in this neck of the woods, ranges from 10 Celsius in the winter to a relatively dry 25 in the summer—though a marked change is felt on one side of the mountains that separate Porto from the Duoro valley, it sometimes being possible to experience a 10 degree change when driving from one side to the other.

Reaching the Quinta do Panascel Vineyard, in the heart of the Duoro Valley, it's easy to see why Portugal's port wine is so renowned. With miles upon miles of vineyard terraces leading down to the valley, it's simply impossible to automate the harvesting process; every grape is handpicked in a three-week period starting in mid-September each year, and though the sun isn't quite as warm as it was this day in July, it's still clear that this is hard work. Grapes pass a complex inspection process, and those that are rejected for use in port wine are used to make a table wine, whose reputation may not equal that of Italian or French wines, but is reputedly just as good. If it's true that he best grapes come from "stressed" vines—vines that have to grow long and deep to find nutrients in the soil—the sometimes 3 meter roots of the vines here in the Duoro Valley must surely produce some fine grapes and, consequently, wine.


Quinta do Panascel Vineyard

At Quinta do Panascel, there are no machines to crush the grapes either. Visit the vineyard in early October, and it's possible to find employees in a large room, filled with huge rectangular vats, stomping on grapes and singing traditional Portuguese songs. If the whole thing appears to be a scene out of a film, well, that's in many ways exactly what a trip to the Duoro Valley is: a visit to a place where centuries-old traditions may be updated (the walking tour of the vineyard was accompanied by an audio guide on a small MP3 player), but the important aspects remain untouched. This particular vineyard produces five different kinds of port wine—three, the more typical red, and two of an atypical white port that can actually be refrigerated indefinitely once opened, unlike the red variety, which ultimately oxidizes.


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