Arrival in Oporto

Began our Oporto scouting trip with blue skies and crammed appointment book: Graham's, Niepoort, Quinta de la Rosa, Quinta do Tedo, Quinta do Passadouro,Quinta Vale D. Maria, and Quinta Vallado.

Europe is frozen in a cold snap, and the Atlantic fronts have dumped buckets of rain on Portugal, flooding the vineyards upstream. No sign of that today in Porto. The air is clear, the light razor sharp, the sky crystalline blue.

A 50-minute river cruise on the Douro takes us under 5 bridges. The most famous was by Gustav Eiffel, the engineer who built the Eiffel Tower. The city of Porto flanks one side of the river, while Vila Nova de Gaia is on the other. Here’s where the old port firms are based. Antique flat-bottomed boats with oak barrels line the dock; before the dams were built, these made the 4-day journey from the vineyards upstream, a trip now undertaken in 2 hours by refrigerated trucks.

We stop at Sandeman and Ferreira. Like all the Port firms here, they offer half-hour tours of their aging facilities, followed by a sample of 2 wines. A full day of this would be a fine introduction to white and ruby port – but nothing more, because that’s all they seem to serve these hoary crowds. We’re in pursuit of finer things: the aged tawny and vintage ports…

A local points us to a restaurant off the beaten path in Vila Nova de Gaia, where authentic food is served. Indeed, at Acro Iris, the cuisine is like a trip back in time in its simplicity: home-cured green olives, delicious sheep’s milk cheese, and Portuguese ham were set on the table when we sat down. Next, caldo verde, a cabbage soup topped with a round of blood sausage and drizzle of olive oil--wonderful on this chilly January night. Claudio then has bacalhau, salt cod with potatoes; the fish had a delicious, crispy exterior. I order polvo (octopus) and am surprised to find the dear creature intact, roasted under a bed of sliced green peppers and whole potatoes. All is washed down with a simple, hearty Douro Vihno Tino 06 from Vila Redia.

Twelve hours of sleep follow.