WINE is judged by nose, legs, body, texture and, oh yeah, taste. Often it is compared to fruit, nuts, flowers or even weeds. But since the 15th century the grape harvest in Portugal's Douro Valley has combined elements of Puccini and Sigmund Romberg.
Even today some of the smaller port-wine quintas, or estates, will marshal a troupe of high-kicking grape stompers a la Busby Berkeley. Choreographed by centuries of folk dancing, the barefoot ballerinas roll up their trousers or hike up their skirts and tread the granite stage of a large vat. One of their all-time hits, I am told, is "Shuffle Off to Porto."
While the differing vineyards of the Douro sit almost side-by-side, light years separate the taste of the region's two famous wines:
Vinho Verde, which holds the vigor and brashness of youth
Port, wrinkled in the barrel, earning its fame from age and brandy-fortified sweetness
For our visit in high summer there would be no "Tiptoe Through the Vats" on the playbill. The festivities start in mid-September and can last through October. On our quest for the vineyards, from Porto, we emerged onto a 1½-lane asphalt byway above the river. As seamless as a scene change at the movies, the calm valley of the Douro River segued into our focus. Early morning sun shows off the Douro gorge at its finest. A breeze off the mountains of Spain had the waters and the waves shining out as silvery chevrons stitched on an olive-drab sea.
The grapes growing in the first vineyards of the Douro, strung along pergolas so high off the flinty soil that ladders are used in the harvest, will produce the light, bright vinho verde. The world that incubates vinho verde is not the world of horizon-sweeping production fields as we have seen in Germany, Burgundy, Napa or even the port-wine region upstream. Instead vinho verde comes from a series of irregular plantings punctuated by the owners' dwelling, olive trees, gardens and lines of family wash hung out to dry.
As the scattered forests of eucalyptus and sea pine were left behind, frequent villages appeared, usually clustered around small Romanesque churches. ("The churches suffer, unfortunately, from having been too drastically restored," notes the Michelin Green Guide.)
Once upon a time the Douro River flowed wild and dangerous along the rocky base of its gorge. Square-rigged, flat-bottomed barges, called rabelos, shot 60 miles of rapids to transport port wine. However, dams have now widened the river into a string of broad pools. Today's scenes on the mid-Douro almost resemble the lake country of northern Italy.
At Regua, about halfway to the Spanish border, the hills become terraced by a sweeping crosshatch of vineyards. In this area specifically defined by law since 1757, the vines of the upper Douro produce their world-famous nectar named after the city of Porto, where the wines sleep until deemed ready for market.