Gustibus borrowed wings on this occasion and took off from Prague airport on easyJet to London-Stansted and Ryanair on to Oporto with seven lucky participants. We were met by Luis Ataíde, our chauffeur of the 9-seater VW-Caravelle, kindly supplied to us for the whole duration of our trip by ICEP Portugal. Our first night in Portugal was spent in style at the luxurious Infante de Sagres hotel in the centre of Oporto.
After a splendid breakfast with port, Luis came to pick us up and whisked us through the Ribeira quarter which is part of a UNESCO heritage site, past the famous Factory House and on to the other side of the Douro river via the Dom Luis I bridge built by the Belgian engineer and disciple of Gustave Eiffel Théophil Seyrig to Vila Nova de Gaia. Here, most of the famous port shippers, have their lodges (armazens).
First visit was to Sandeman (founded 1790 by a young Scot George Sandeman, who borrowed 300 guineas from his father for this purpose), where we were met by our old friends, PR manager Lígia Marques and export director Joao Graça, together with Helder Martins, chief of ICEP Portugal in Oporto.
The Sao Bento station in Oporto, famous for its blue tiling depicting scenes from the Upper Douro region, we boarded the Comboio do Douro (Douro Train), which took us all the way up the river. Luis met as with our luggage at a picturesque railway station at Pinhao, where we began our tour of the quintas with a whistlestop at the Vintage House Hotel by the river.
All the Douro quintas we visited - Quinta de Monsul (Porto Rozes), Quinta da Pacheca, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta de la Rosa and Quinta do Bom Retiro (Porto Ramos-Pinto) - were right in the middle of the harvest.
In Portugal they take PR very seriously indeed. So seriously, that guests are looked after during their visit by the owner of the winery or quinta and by top management. They all showed us round their establishments personally, with excursions to the vineyards, conducted the tastings and finally invited us to their table for lunch or dinner, sometimes in a restaurant but often "en famille", accompanied by their range of wines, always finishing with Vintage Port of some fabulous vintage. Often this is accompanied by the ceremonial of opening an old port vintage with tongs with the ritual of passing the port (if you are dining with the English), never mind the busy time they all must have around the harvest...! On one occasion the owner jumped in the lagar and invited everyone in to join him in treading the grapes with the roga. At Quinta do Monsul (Porto Rozes) the director António Saraiva even left his son's wedding reception for an hour or so in order to greet our small group from the Czech Republic personally!
Like elsewhere in the Douro, the Quinta do Crasto was also in the throes of harvest. After a hair-raising drive to this remote part of the region, we arrived at the quinta which enjoys splendid views over the river and its valleys dotted with terraces and the vineyards. We were met by Tomás Roquette and whisked to the best vineyard site where his roga was completing the morning's harvest of the Touriga Franca grape variety. Together with his Australian "flying winemaker" Dominic Morris, a successor to David Baverstock who worked here previously, they carefully sorted the grapes on the conveyor belt. Quinta do Crasto can be counted among the very top names in Port as well as in the renowned production of so-called table wine (which in Portugal means unfortified wines). Their wines, from vineyards containing 100-year-old vines such as Vinha Maria Teresa and Vinha na Ponte, are legendary.
At the very end of a rocky path which suddenly turns into cobblestones one finds oneself in Quinta do Bom Retiro, in English meaning the "good retreat". Here also we found the place in full harvest, though the managing director of this famous house, Porto Ramos-Pinto, a direct descendent of the founder Adriano Ramos-Pinto, Joao Nicolau de Almeida who, along with his PR manager Rita Martins and Freddie Grimwood, a Canadian journalist of British origin now residing in Portugal, was waiting for us beneath the pergola in the garden, chilled bottles of Sagres beer on the table before him, and invited us for a swim in the pool. And that was the sign that we were not in for any ordinary visit. The following whirlwind in the form of a tasting of the company's range: five unfortified Duas Quintas reservas - Quinta de Ervamoira and Quinta dos Bons Ares, 12 ports - from dry white, through Lágrima, 10, 20, 30, 40 year-old Tawny and Rubies, Collector Reserva, LBV and finally, after dinner, to Vintage on the terrace overlooking the Douro vineyards, over which the full moon really did rise.
After the obligatory Vintage port served with Queijo da Serra accompanied by quince jelly we went to check out the grape treading in the stone lagares and it was not long before the majority of us jumped in among the treaders once the drill had turned into what is called "liberdade". After this one's ruby tinted legs need a good shower...
And should you happen some day to come across 2005 vintage port from this producer, remember it was trodden by more than a couple of Czech feet.