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Saturday, 5 October 2013

Wines of Portugal

Over 2.5 weeks we enjoyed sampling many Portuguese wines. Before leaving Canada we had mixed experiences with wines from this region and enjoyed a healthy debate with a close friend about whether we would find any quality wines (Port excepted). So at every meal except breakfast we tried to sample local varietals to broaden our perspectives.

Overall we enjoyed many of the wines. We had a few that were delightful and quite a few that were pleasant. But the process of tasting so many wines was lots of fun.

We started tasting wines in the Alejento region, south of Lisboa and close to Evora. This is a somewhat warmer climate and produces reasonably full bodied reds. We particularly enjoyed our dining experience at the Espora winery along with a good sampling of their better wines. There basic wines are available at our Ontario wine stores.

The second wine region visited was Dao. We were less impressed with what we sampled here.

The best wines were found in the Douro Valley. We particularly liked the wines at Quinta do Portal where we enjoyed tastings paired with a wonderful meal while overlooking their vineyard. Best lamb I ever ate! We brought home a bottle of their 40 year old Port.

The most fun tasting we had at Vineologie, a wine bar/store in Oporto. There we sampled about a dozen Ports with vintages as far back as 1968. And then we got to bring a few of these home with us.

The following pictures show some of the bottles, hopefully with their names and vintages clear enough to see. And please note many of these were part of tastings, so we didn't consume ALL of the bottles - just some :)

Oporto - - Our final Days and Nights

Our first morning in Oporto we followed our usual routine of breakfast around 10 and then Monica urging Joe to move along with the day. Breakfast at the Pousada was excellent with lots of offerings.

We grabbed a taxi and were soon in town. Take note that although the hotel suggested that the rides should only be about $6 Euros they were usually between 8-15 Euros.

There are six bridges spanning the river here. Our taxi deposited us at the bridge Ponte de Dom Luis. We explored a touristy area for a while before hiking across the bridge to a street along the river that houses all of the major Port Houses. There are lots of restaurants, wine bars, hawkers and a sky tram that travels overhead.

After some exploring we went on a tour and tasting at Sandeman's, one of the first widely marketed Ports. The outfit worn by the Sandeman icon looks like Zorro, but is in fact similar to one worn by most Portuguese University students. The tour was fun, but unfortunately their Port tasted just like their product sold in Ontario - not so interesting.

We wandered back over the bridge and explored the Ribeira - a warren of old buildings. Monica found a shop selling lovely jewelry where we bought some necklaces and also received advice on lunch. The salesperson referred us to a new small restaurant owned by his friend. We easily found it along the river. The Casinha Sao Taoa on the Casi Da Ribeira is owned and operated by a daughter and her mother. The offerings are wonderful Tapas and a few modern takes on traditional fare. We liked it so much that we came back for lunch again the next day.

After lunch we returned to our hotel for some rest at the pool. We did not want to waste the 30C sunny weather.

Dinner this second evening was at the hotel. The food and service here was good, but strangely they don't seem to understand wine service. They have a great list, but every red wine we ordered needed to be put on ice and we sent back two bottles because they just tasted horrible. One of our waiters blamed the warm weather, but this is a large hotel and one would think they had temperature controlled storage in a wine region!

The next morning we went exploring more of the town. We took a taxi to the edge of town and paid 2 Euros each to ride the funicular up to the top of the city. This is basically an elevator and saves lots of climbing. We saw many older buildings, found the shopping district, city hall and explored some warrens of narrow streets. We looked for but could not find the old market. Oporto certainly shows its age and many areas could use some sprucing up to better display some quite beautiful architecture. We then had a second Port tour and tasting at Offley. Met 2 couples from England who had sailed down to Portugal and were later planning on sailing further south and then across to the Caribbean. Great adventure. At Offley we opted to pay extra for a taste of their 20 and 40 year old Port. Nice, but not nice enough to purchase.

We spent the latter part of the afternoon back at the pool resting up for a lovely dinner. Our taxi took us on a different route along the highway where we could see the "modern" Oporto skyline and then down into a richer part of town bordering the ocean.
Our destination was SHIS, a fusion restaurant combining traditional Portuguese recipes with Japanese. Located right on the ocean we could see the undulating waves breaking on the rocks just outside the window. Lit up by lights it was quite striking. The interior of the restaurant was quite white and modern and unadorned.

We started with shared sushi appetizers and tempura. Both were fresh and tasty but not much different than Toronto. The tempura was actually a bit oily - not our favourite. We followed that with a shared duck dish. It was tasty and well prepared. Our wine match tasted a lot like a Sauvignon Blanc, but was actually a local grape. We also had white port to accompany the foie gras stuffed ravioli. Yum. SHIS receives great ratings on Trip Advisor. We found it pleasant, but not a destination.

On our last day we woke up early and set out for a final exploration of Oporto. Today was the first cloudy day of our entire trip. This reflected that this was our last day of vacation. This time we had the taxi take us directly to the old market. It is about the size of Toronto's St. Lawrence Market, but much "plainer" and frankly a bit shabby. But the fish and butcher stalls displayed many tempting offerings at great prices.

Our plan today was too finish some last minute shopping and then have a special lunch at DOP, a celebrated local restaurant. It took a lot of trekking and wrong turns before we found it. It is situated in a square which unfortunately was under construction and quite noisy. Inside the restaurant is a pleasant space. We were surprised to be one of only three tables in the early afternoon.

The service was quite good and attentive. We opted for two tasting menus to share - one that was all fish and the other a mixture of fish and meat. We may describe these more fully later in our food blog but for the very high price of this meal, with wine pairings we were quite disappointed in the quality. This is experimental food with foams and such, but it lacks an attention to the importance of taste. The wines were ok, but not great.

After lunch we hiked down (after getting lost one more time) to the river and visited the jewellery store where Monica had bought her necklaces. Then we grabbed a cab back to the hotel to pack. This evening we ate a very light dinner at the hotel. Again the food was fine and the wine quite horrible. The highlight of the evening was our conversation with an 80 year Canadian who was on an extended trip. We quite enjoyed his company.

The next morning we checked out early, got gas for the car and headed to the airport. The instructions we had been given to find the car rental office were not at all helpful. At one point we thought of abandoning the car at the airport and hoping they would find it. We stopped 5 times and Monica tried to communicate with various people. Nobody seemed to know where we were suppose to go. Somehow through successive approximation we finally found the office, one kilometre from the airport! We expressed our frustration and were quickly whisked back to the airport where we checked in and finally relaxed again.

We had booked "Club" seats on Air Transat and this proved much more enjoyable than the economy flight to Portugal. We quite enjoyed the comfort of the seats, the attentiveness of the service and the quality of the food. This was perfect for our daytime flight, but the seats would not be as good if you wanted to sleep on an overnight flight.

And then 7 hours later we were home. Toronto greeted us with sunshine and warm temperatures. Life is good.

We will be uploading a few more chapters over the next week on our hotels, wine, restaurants and a few other topics. We hope you enjoy.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Oporto Attained

We left Alijo and stopped just outside the town at the local Wine Museum which is owned and operated by a cooperative of vintners. They were quite busy handling a bus tour, but found time to give us a tour. Our guide was a young man originally from Mozambique with Rastafarian braids. He gave us a quick tour and then at our request took us to the tasting room to select wine for purchase. His colleague then took over and easily convinced us to buy a 1997 Tawny Colheita. Although usually more prudent we succumbed and without knowledge or research proceeded to pay 2.5 times the price we later found for this wine on the internet and in shops. We are revealing our embarrassing mistake on our blog to warn others to avoid this museum and to also have some idea of products and prices before paying large sums for wine in this area.

We left the museum, still proud of our purchase and headed toward Vila Real a nearby city with a famous monastery. We found it without any problem but found there were no English tours for several hours so continued on our way to Oporto.

The roads at this point were of good quality with those invisible tolls. They continued to be windy along the mountains, but now at highway speeds. Our little Fiat gave the driver many frights along this journey. We also found ourselves passing through several active forest fires. We first saw smoke in the distance and then found ourselves passing through it. There were fires on at least three different hills and fire trucks positioned along the way. But the road stayed open and we continue along our path.

When we arrived in Oporto it was easy to find the Pousada do Portal where we were happy to find that our suite was indeed a suite with lots of comforts. The hotel is situated right on the Douro river about 4 kilometres outside the city. It has two buildings that are attached. The older one which used to be a rich merchant's home contains the public rooms and restaurant. The second building has all of the guest rooms and used to be factory. Behind both buildings is a lovely pool on the river along with lots of deck chairs for lounging and a small bar with beverages and food. In the afternoon local young men climb up the supports of the deck so that they can then jump off into the river. At least they do this when the watchful manager is distracted.

Once we were check in we headed for the pool and spent several hours enjoying a swim and the warm sun. We have had amazing warm (30C+) weather with blue skies for every day of our trip until the last one. It's been great.

Then for dinner we had a wonderful time at Pedro Lemos which was reviewed earlier in our blog.