Lunch in Pinhão and the Small, Small World of Port Winemakers

When you’re a tour guide scouting a new region, some days are better than others. This one was particularly memorable.

Take the 9:15 train up the Duoro River, from Porto to Regua – a famously beautiful passage. After an hour of farmland, the train travels in lockstep with the broad, winding Douro. This valley is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s no wonder. Tidy terraced vineyards cling to its precipitous slopes, buttressed by schist stone walls and topped with winery signage—Sandeman, Quinda do Tedo, Quinta de la Rosa. The names roll by.

Arrive in Pinhão, a sleepy river town at the heart of Port country. Met by Jet Spanjersberg and Ronald Weustink from Quinta do Passadouro. What a nice couple, both from Rotterdam. They’ve been living in Portugal for the past nine years with their two children. Ronald is a real renaissance man: He manages tourism for the quinta, which has B&B rooms; he’s a sales rep for other local wineries, including Niepoort, Wine & Soul, and Lavoratoire des Fertoias; and he’s a passionate hiker who leads tourists through the vineyards and spectacular countryside here in the Douro valley. (A hiking tour in the Douro is also on the horizon for La Dolce Vita Wine Tours.)

We lunch at Ponte Romana, a popular watering hole for local winemakers and one of the better restaurants in town. Spare ribs cooked in Port wine sauce with rice is paired with Character 2007, a field blend of Touriga National and Touriga Franca from Wine & Soul. (Famous for its cult wine Pincus, Wine & Soul is owned by the winemaking couple Jorge Borges and Sandra Taveres da Silva; he also oversees Passadouro’s cellars, and she’s a winemaker at Quinta do Vale Dona Maria – typifying the crisscrossing paths of winemakers in these parts). The second wine of Pincus, Character is fruity and superb—not surprising, considering the vines are 42 years or older.

Surprise, surprise! At the restaurant, we bump into two boldface names: Dirk Niepoort and his team, whom we’d met the other day, and Cristiano van Zeller of Quinta do Vale Dona Maria. So in this small restaurant in Pinhao, three VIPs of the Douro region can be spotted under one roof.

Niepoort generously brings a Niepoort vintage Port 1931 over to our table. This is a garrafeira – a rare Port style (Niepoort is one of the few wineries still making it). Garrafeira Port is first aged in oak barrel, then moved to glass demijohns for continued aging—in this case decades. The Port on our table was put in demijohn in 1935. It’s superb: still showing abundant fruit and very much alive.

We finish our meal with two Ports from Passadouro: a beautiful Ruby Reseva, superb in its fruit character and lip-smacking sweetness; then a to-die-for vintage Port 2004. Intense and persistent, it leaves a multiplicity of sensations in your mouth during its marathon finish. If the 2004 is this good, then Passadouro’s 2007 vintage must be orgasmic. Bliss lingers for the rest of the day.

It’s tough work, this scouting, but someone’s gotta do it.