Graham’s Port Blog is hosted on WordPress, which recently issued a challenge to all its bloggers and employees worldwide: get out from behind your computer, get some fresh air and exercise in the form of a 5k walk or run, then come back and blog about it.
The Douro is, quite simply, the most spectacularly beautiful landscape imagineable. So, your blogger decided to take a walk through our vineyards and bring you with her through the magic of the internet, as part of this worldwide initiative.
My first challenge was simply getting to the Douro; with wildcat strikes on the train services jeopardising travel plans I had to hitch a ride with colleagues who had business at Quinta do Vesuvio, another Symington property in the Douro Superior, 120 km east of Porto. Perfect: Quinta do Vale de Malhadas, which supplies grapes for Graham’s ports, is immediately next to Vesuvio, just upriver.
My walk started at the armazen at Vesuvio, with its magnificent old toneis, each holding around 14,000 litres of fine port made in the last harvest. In fact, your blogger’s own fair feet helped tread three lagares of that wine, so it seemed a particularly fitting place to start off.
I headed east and around .75 km came to some experimental vineyards. The Symingtons engage in considerable research, both viticultural and enological. This vineyard is set up to compare results between seven different trellising systems. If you look closely at the photograph, the background vines are trained “Poda Minima” – minimal pruning – as you can see! The mad tangle of those vines contrasts with the very tidy Smart Dyson pruned vines in the foreground. (Note: you can click on any of these photos to see them full size, then use your browser back button to return to the blog.)
A little over 2km brought me to the boundary wall between Vesuvio and Malhadas. In the 1870’s when phylloxera had scourged the Douro and grape production was at an all time low, the then owner of Vesuvio, Dona Antónia Ferreira, kept her staff employed on other tasks, including the building of this beautiful dry stone wall which surrounds the property – bear in mind, it is over 300 hectares of land!
The area on either side of the wall, in both quintas, is wilderness now, so it wasn’t until I had walked about 2.7 km that I had my first view of the vineyards and olive groves of Quinta do Vale de Malhadas.
The vines are doing well, as you can see, leaves are already unfolding. Later in the day I spoke with the viticulturalist, Mário Natario, who confirmed the vines are very forward this year, and doing well. He is hoping to get their field grafting done at Malhadas over the next two weeks. I should mention we have had spectacular weather, warm, even hot, and clear for almost a week now. As I was walking through Malhadas, even the caseiro, who lives year round in the Douro and should be used to it, commented on the extraordinary heat.
I carried on past this vineyard of Tinta Roriz, and then turned down towards the river and railway line, 3.5 km. Clearly there was once a dedicated stop at the old winery. Rupert Symington tells me the old winery is amazing, and promised to give me the key some time to explore. In that slightly lower-roofed extension to the back, there is an old olive press – each of those four doors opens into a section of the building dedicated to one part of the process, and press, storage jars and all are still there. He tells me the olive oil they make from Malhadas is fantastically good (a previous blog post explains the harvest process, if you are interested, though now our olives are pressed at a nearby co-operative).
Just up from the winery is a beautiful old well – notice the stone shelf-like steps which descend into the well. There is a small brook which runs along the outside edge of that surrounding wall – just the sound of the running water was refreshing on such a hot day.
I carried on, past the quinta house (where the caseiro, the property manager, lives) and all its surrounding outbuildings, and on past vineyards to another area of wilderness. At 4.9 km I came to Vale dos Porcos (yes, Valley of the Pigs – wild boar were and still are quite common in the Douro). This is a deep stone-lined ravine which holds water cascading down the hillside – from that crevasse in the photo it passes under the roadway where I am standing, and carries on down the hill through more wilderness – I have no idea where it comes out, I think it is too far east to feed the little stream next to the well in the prior photo.
As I reached the 5km point, I was surrounded by Esteva, Rock Rose. If you are familiar with reviews of Graham’s ports, particularly our Vintage ports, you will often see tasting notes of Esteva. This is an intense floral scent but with a distinctly herbal edge to it – imagine rose with something like menthol or eucalyptus blended in. One thing I noticed over and over again as I walked was the incredible fragrance of the air – and it reminded me of our Vintage ports. The wilderness landscapes of Malhadas are covered in gorse, rock rose, lavender, and more flowers and herbs and shrubs than I can possibly name, besides all the olive, almond, and citrus trees.
I did walk just a little further, to 5.4 km from the start, to reach a particular spur of land and enjoy the spectacular views:
First, the view across the river, to Quinta do Vale do Coelho (coelho means rabbit), which is one of the key properties for Smith Woodhouse ports, another Symington brand.
Vale de Coelho on the north bank of the Douro, and on this side of the river, more of Vale de Malhadas. This quinta stretches along 2 km of river front, and extends up the surrounding hillsides and valleys over 145 hectares. These photos are taken from a little more than midway along the river frontage and a bit less than halfway up the height of the property.
Admit it, that’s the most beautiful 5k walk you’ve ever taken. But we still have to turn around and walk back!
Of the 145 hectares at Malhadas, only 32 are under vine. The rest, as you can see, is largely wilderness, but there are also considerable olive, citrus and almond groves. I should have mentioned, besides the haunting fragrance I noticed throughout the day, I also enjoyed the birdsong. With almost no man-made noises, I was aware of the constant chatter and music of the birds. I saw only a few darting about, but the music was continual. I should add that the insect life is also thriving – bees certainly were enjoying the habitat (we have hives and most of our quintas make their own honey) and at one point I had so many butterflies around me it was a little dizzying!
The almond trees bloomed back in January and February, and have already set – nice crop coming along here, with their fuzzy green skins. They need to be picked in September – hopefully before the grape harvest begins! Again, at every quinta I have enjoyed the local almonds lightly toasted and salted, and generally served alongside a cold tawny or port-and-tonic. Very nice.
These quintas in the Douro Superior are particularly remote – the roads are incredibly long and winding before you reach a village, so the properties need to be self-sufficient to a fair degree. The caseiro at Malhadas has a great vegetable patch planted on some abandoned stone-walled patamares, and keeps both a hen-house and a separate rooster-house next door.
By 6.4 km I had re-entered the Vesuvio property, and the view was of another beautiful stone wall alongside the road, and a mortuario on the hillside ahead of me. The word means graveyard, and is used as well for the stone-terraced vineyards that were abandoned after phylloxera. Some were converted to olive groves, others were left to go wild. If you click on that photo to see it full size, you can see the walls nearly buried under all the vegetation (use your browser back button to return to the blog).
Finally, 9.5 km, I had a beautiful view of the quinta house at Vesuvio. I mentioned the need for self-sufficiency – that open ground in front of the house, with citrus trees on either side and clustered around a well in the centre, is the kitchen garden, freshly cleared and ready to re-plant. Just two weeks ago, when I visited with the Lodge team there was still kale standing in the garden, and I have seen it at harvest time, bursting with tomatoes, cabbages, herbs, you name it, all of which go to feed the harvest team as well as the family and visitors to the quinta.
I got back to the house at just under 10k, tired, happy, and luckily just in time for lunch with my colleagues. I hope you have enjoyed this walk as much as I did, and like me, you will enjoy a glass of chilled tawny port afterwards.