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Portugal's fortified wine is one of the finest in the world. Hamish Anderson gets behind the wheel of a Mercedes C-Class and heads off to explore where it all began - Porto and the Douro Valley
Despite their enthusiastic embrace of Spain, from the Costa del Sol to cosmopolitan Barcelona, the British public have been curiously lukewarm in their attitude to its neighbour, Portugal. It sometimes seems as if, for many Brits, Lisbon and the Algarve are the only two points on the map worth sticking pins in.
They're missing out. Because, further north, right on the brink of the country's rugged Atlantic coast, is Porto, the kind of unspoiled, idiosyncratic city that, in an ever-more homogenised Europe, is becoming increasingly rare. It's also the place that's responsible for one of the finest contributions to the wine world: port.
Wandering around the city on my first morning, I felt as if I'd travelled back in time to the early 20th century - in an entirely positive way. Despite a recent influx of investment into Porto, the fabric of the city remains largely unchanged. Shops, bars, cafés looked as they must have decades ago, many featuring the beautiful art deco styling with which the city fell in love in the 1920s. The city centre's small scale makes it perfect for exploring on foot, stopping now and again for an occasional coffee. The first of my stay was at the aptly named, 19th-century Café Majestic on the Rua de Santa Catarina. This is a place where the besuited waiters understand that the pleasure of a bica (the Portuguese equivalent of an espresso) and a pastel de nata (egg custard) is not to be hurried. I happily whiled away an hour or so watching the world go by, sitting at a beautiful carved bench, the leather seat of which had been polished to a high shine by the bottoms of thousands of coffee and pastry lovers before me.
Fortified by my caffeine and sugar hit, I strolled some more, soaking up the atmosphere of the small, cobbled streets and the gently decaying grandeur of the buildings, many of which, from churches to cinemas, are decorated with stunning azulejos - tin-glazed ceramic tiles. One of the most impressive examples was at the São Bento railway station, where a huge azulejo mural depicts pivotal events in Portuguese history.
The city's cuisine is hearty and robust, as proved by the locals' fondness for tripe: one of my most memorable meals, tripe cooked to delicious effect with beans and red wine, was taken in a tiny 'tripeiro', one of several lined up next to each other in a single street, all of them specialising in the ingredient. Down in the Ribeira, the waterfront area on the north side of the Douro river, the café menus tend to concentrate more on seafood, and it's possible to dine there very well, and very cheaply, on the day's spankingly fresh catch. Sitting there one evening, glass of port in hand, it was hard to escape the evidence of the city's trade in this remarkable fortified wine: winking at me in the twilight from the area known as Vila Nova de Gaia, on the opposite bank of the river, were the neon signs of the port lodges - Dow's, Cockburn's, Sandeman and Taylor's among them - where port has been stored and aged since the 17th century.
Heading for the port
The next day I crossed the Dom Luis bridge to explore the steep, narrow streets on which the lodges are clustered. Many of them run tours which, of course, end with a tasting. Some can be overly commercial but others, such as the one operated by Taylor's (one of the oldest port houses and part of the Fladgate Partnership, which also incorporates sister labels Fonseca, Croft and Delaforce) give a genuinely worthwhile insight into the port-maker's art.
But to get seriously under the skin of the port-making process, there's no substitute for a visit to the Douro Valley, the heart of port production. So, I slung my suitcase in the boot of the C-Class and headed off there. After a brief 40 minutes on the motorway, during which the C-Class demonstrated what a comfortable cruising car it was, I turned off. The next stretch of road was only completed a few years ago; before that, the drive from Porto must have been torturous as, for the next 90 minutes, I negotiated a seemingly unending series of sharp hairpin bends. Happily, the car coped with the task admirably and I arrived safely in the town of Pinhão. Right in the heart of grape-growing territory, it's a great place to base yourself as there are many port lodges within easy reach, as well as plenty of good hotels and restaurants.
Look in any direction here and you'll see acres of vineyards stretching out across the valley's steep hillsides, the Douro river snaking its way through the centre. As I walked through some of the more vertiginous plots, it wasn't hard to see why this area was designated a World Heritage Site in 2001; as the sides of the valley are generally too steep for the planting of vines, the land has been terraced - some of the stone walls used to support these terraces are 60 feet high and in many cases have been carved out of solid rock. It's an incredible feat of landscape engineering.
To explore a little further into the Upper Douro, towards the Spanish border, I hopped back in the C-Class. My destination was a particular port lodge owned by Taylor's. Each port house has a favourite farm (or 'quinta'), the wine from which makes up a significant portion of the blends used to make vintage port. For Fonseca, it's Panascal; for Dow's, it's Bonfim. But this one, Taylor's Quinta de Vargellas, is the most famous of them all. For such a celebrated place, the entrance is pretty low-key; a pot-holed track, down which I gingerly guided the car. But, finally, I was there, gazing out on the vineyard which, owing to its position on a curve in the river, looks like a kind of viticultural amphitheatre.
Inside the lodge itself, it's as if a late 19th-century grand British villa has been airlifted across Europe and dropped into position - the rooms are much as they would have been back then, and are adorned with personal mementos that reminded me that Taylor's is still part of a family-owned company. The feeling of being at a British colonial outpost was reinforced by the presence of the quinta's own railway station, which runs from Porto to Vargellas and beyond. It was easy to imagine the family back in the Edwardian era, sitting in the beautiful waiting room, bags packed, ready to start their long journey back to the UK.
Back at the house, I joined in a tasting of eight of the Taylor's range, all the product of the company's respectful attitude to the past, as well as its commitment to constant innovation - it was Taylor's that pioneered the idea of vintage, dated, single-quinta port, as well as the technology behind mechanical food treading. But what has remained consistent is the quality of the drink itself, and the rugged beauty of the region in which it's produced. For wine lovers, those two factors combined make this part of the world one of the best destinations anywhere on the planet.
Porto (00 351 22 340 2300, www.pestana.com)
Doubles from €140
On the banks of the Douro, this modern hotel set in a converted monastery is a great base from which to explore the city.
Vila Nova de Gaia, Porto (www.taylor.pt)
Due to open in late 2009, the luxurious Yeatman Hotel (part of The Fladgate Partnership) will be housed in a former port warehouse and will also incorporate Portugal's first wine spa.
Casa do Visconde de Chanceleiros, Pinhão, Douro Valley (00 351 25 473 0190, www.chanceleiros.com)
Doubles from €120
This small, intimate manor house has been lovingly restored - staying here feels like holing up in a country estate.
Quinta de la Rosa,
Pinhão, Douro Valley (00 351 25 473 2254, www.quintadelarosa.com)
Doubles from €76
What better way to discover port than to stay in a working winery? The rooms have a very traditional English charm - visit in the autumn and you'll have a chance to get involved in the traditional grape treading.
Bull & Bear,
Porto (00 351 22 610 7669)
Not (as the name might suggest) a pub, but a stylish establishment where one of the country's greatest chefs, Miguel Castro e Silva, serves up sophisticated, contemporary Portuguese food.
Douro Valley (00 351 25 485 8123)
Just 15 minutes from Pinhão, this riverside restaurant serves modern Portuguese food and has one of the region's best wine lists.
Pinhão, Douro Valley (00 351 25 473 2978)
A great spot for lunch: expect simply presented, traditional dishes.
1998 Taylor's Quinta de Vargellas
One of the best from Vargellas for years, this is the perfect expression of the quinta's vineyards, with a floral, aromatic nose that belies a serious, brooding palate. Good to drink at any point over the next 10 years.
Niepoort 10 Year Old Tawny
Dirk Niepoort makes many of the best Tawnies around. This example offers up a complex array of flavours, black fruits, figs, coffee and chocolate. Drink it at cellar temperature.
Quinta de la Rosa Finest Reserve
£12.99, Fields, Morris & Verdin
This is consistently one of the best value ports around. You can enjoy its intense flavours of chocolate, blackberries and spice now, but those in the know will keep it in the cellar for seven years, then enjoy the taste of vintage port for a fraction of the price.
• Ruby A young port (normally blended from grapes aged between three and six years); fruity and sweet in flavour.
• Tawny Elegant, complex and mellow, matured mainly in the barrel for at least eight years - or as many as 40 - before being blended and bottled.
• Vintage port Made entirely from the grapes of a declared vintage year, aged mainly in the bottle. Good vintages include 1970, 1977, 1983, 1991, 1994, 1997, 2000, 2003.
• Late bottled vintage Wine from a single year that spends extra time in the barrel before bottling - if the portmaker gets it right, LBVs can taste close to an aged vintage port.
• Single quinta port Wines from a single vineyard released in years when a true vintage port is not made (see Quinta de Vargellas, left).
• Made from white grapes, matured for two years; can be medium sweet or medium dry. Best enjoyed as an aperitif, either chilled and served straight, or mixed with tonic, over ice.
If red ports are served too warm, the spirit will become too prominent. Tawnies should be served at cellar temperature (13°C) and all other styles of red only a little warmer (16°C). White ports should be served chilled.
0-62MPH: 8.6 seconds
Top speed: 146mph
On-the-road price: £27,012
Hamish Anderson's verdict: 'Comfort and handling are what you need when negotiating the twisting roads of the Douro, and the C-Class has both in abundance. And on the occasional straight
stretch where I had an opportunity to put my foot down, the engine coped effortlessly.'
Top Gear's Andy Wilman adds: 'Mercedes has gone back to its roots with the new C-Class. The company that has always prided itself on making the best-built cars in the world is currently on a push to re-establish that crown in the face of growing competition. The C-Class is the first big evidence of this push - less blather about technology, more emphasis on a car that will last for generations. It drives much better than the old C-Class, too.'
* Please note exact model pictured not available in the UK. Price quoted is for the C200 Kompressor Sport which is similar to the model shown, but also features the AMG Sports Package as standard.