On 23 June each year, Oporto transforms itself from hard-working town to party capital during one of the wine world’s liveliest but least-known festivals. The highlight is the port houses’ regatta. Jane Anson sets sail

On 23 June each year, Oporto transforms itself from hard-working town to party capital during one of the wine world’s liveliest but least-known festivals. The highlight is the port houses’ regatta. Jane Anson sets sail

My list of the world’s most enticing views for wine lovers would include the Pommery castle in Reims, the sign that marks the start of Highway 29 in Napa, the drive to Franschhoek in the Cape winelands, and – possibly leading the pack – the view from the Sé cathedral in Oporto over to Vila Nova de Gaia.

There’s a large paved square in front of the 12th-century Romanesque cathedral, standing high up over the city. Looking down at the spiralling medieval streets that lead down to the Douro river, on the Oporto side of the river it’s all pinks, blues and yellows of the UNESCO-protected houses. On the far side of the Ponte D Luís iron bridge, on Vila Nova de Gaia, is a carpet of signs marking out the port lodges and their millions of gallons of maturing port; Croft, Fonseca, Taylors, Cálem, Sandeman, Symington… a Hollywood Hills for hedonists.

It’s not a bad view on a wintry Thursday afternoon in January, when I first saw it, but for one night in June, it’s the backdrop for one of Europe’s liveliest, but least known, festivals; one that involves fireworks, grilled sardines – and a strong possibility of being whacked over the head with a leek.

For much of the year, Oporto is a beautiful but fairly unassuming place – the Portuguese like to say ‘Lisbon plays, while Oporto works’, and like any river city, there is a constant buzz of activity, items being loaded and unloaded, and commerce getting under way. But on my first visit, it was the impracticality of the place that I warmed to. You can hardly say that common sense is at the top of the agenda of a city that stores its most precious commodity in warehouses built around the rabbit-warren, steeply sloping lanes of Gaia. On any working day, you’ll see huge trucks squeezing down cobbled streets, loading crates of late-bottled vintage from dusty cellars. And if that’s not impractical enough, consider that the grapes for port are grown over 100km away, in the Douro Valley, where until the blasting of tunnels enabled a tortous journey along twisting roads, the only route between the two bases was by the flat-bottomed, and dangerously unnavigable barcos rabelos (boats), 241km downriver to the coast, along an undammed river that included rapids and gorges, with the inevitable risk of losing cargo or crew. Oporto might be a working town, but it’s smiling wryly while it does so.

The Festa de São João celebrates this quirky side of Oporto and is the city’s biggest festival, attracting over 10,000 revellers. It’s held on 23 June each year, in honour of São João, the patron saint of lovers. Preparations begin days in advance, with each of the downtown districts (Oporto is actually a collection of five smaller ‘cities’; Porto, Gaia, Maia, Matosinhos and Gondomar) preparing models of everything from religious scenes to fantasy dreamscapes, to be paraded on the night itself. The main activity, however, involves hitting people over the head with a leek (or, more recently, often with a large plastic mallet). Apparently it’s a compliment to be whacked, as it’s all an elaborate mating ritual. Whatever the theory, I can tell you it’s addictive.

At midnight, fireworks are set off from boats between both banks (last year’s 23-minute display cost €100,000). This is when the old city walls really come in handy, as the streets get very crowded, and standing on the low stone walls helps keep you from getting swept away. As dawn approaches, those still awake head off to the beach of Praia dos Ingleses. The next day sees a return to work for the port shippers – of sorts – with the port houses back in heavy competition with each other. This time, however, it’s on the water, with the barco rabelo regatta that sees 15 of the traditional boats racing (by sail only) from the mouth of the river Douro back to the port houses of Gaia.

The great port race

Despite a hangover (I blame the mallets), I was crewing with Croft, the initiators of the first race, back in the early 1980s. The boats themselves hadn’t been used commercially since the 1960s, because, as I was reassuringly told by my crew mate minutes before setting off, ‘When there’s a bit of wind they are the most ungovernable craft imaginable.’ In 1983, however, Robin Reed, then-chairman of Croft, decided to have a bit of fun with a few rival houses, and after the initial success, everyone else wanted to get involved.

New boats were built, all by the strict rules established by the Confraria do Vinho do Porto, which ensures that the correct length of a traditional barco rabelo is 11m, built entirely from pine in traditional shipyards on the side of the Douro river. The race looks impressive – 15 billowing sails all bearing the name of a different port house, masts and beams swinging from side to side in the wind – but any thoughts of intense competition are banished when you climb aboard to find your captain strapping on his flowing ‘port brotherhood’ robes and handing round generous plastic tumblers of white port. ‘Don’t worry about this being a serious race,’ David Guimaraens, chief winemaker at Fonseca, had cautioned us as we gathered on the banks ready for boarding earlier that morning. ‘At least, I hope it isn’t – I haven’t sobered up from last night, and only went to bed two hours ago.’

The names on the sails are, however, instructive about the nature of the industry. Today, 90% of the port trade is in the hands of 10 shippers, and many of the ‘rival’ boats are actually owned by the same families. ‘Big business did try to get into port a few years back,’ Adrian Bridge, chairman of the Fladgate Partnership (Taylors, Fonseca, Croft, Delaforce), explained to me. ‘But once they realised that their capital would be tied up in barrels for years at a time, and that the port market is specalist at best, they got out.’ What that means is that today, although economically port is hardly the most rewarding of businesses, it does make for a uniquely intimate atmosphere – Cálem won the race, but it is owned by Sogevinus which also owns Burmester and Barros, and all of the crews celebrated the victory together.

Croft, I’m afraid to report, collided with two other boats and ended up coming third from last – but we’d drunk enough Fine White by that time, so no one was complaining.

Oporto: The Essentials

WHERE TO STAY

Pestano Porto, Praça de Ribeira 1, 4050-513 Porto.

Tel: +351 22 340 2300

www.pestana.com

It’s not often you get to stay in a hotel that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Part of this hotel’s buildings date back to the 16th century.

WHERE TO TASTE

There are surprisingly few wine bars on either side of the river, although the recently restored Gaia has some stylish new bars – port still holds sway here.

La Maison des Porto, Rua de São João 46, 4050-552 Porto.

www.lamaisondesporto.com

A port wine school with over 200 different kinds of port, many from small producers. Wines can be bought direct.

Solar do Vinho do Porto, Rua de Entre-Quintas 220, 4050-239 Porto. Tel: +351 22 6094 749

An 18th-century villa housing the Port Institute, up in the hillside with beautiful views.

Infante Wine Bar, Avenida Ramos Pinto, Cais Gaia, Lopa 430, 4400 Vila Nova de Gaia.

Tel: +351 22 3759 342

Nine wines from the Douro Valley (most expensive is Barca Velha 1985 at t175).

WHERE TO EAT

Foz Velha, Esplanada do Castelo 141-Foz do Douro, 4150-196 Porto.

Tel: +351 22 6154 178.

www.fozvelha.com

On the Atlantic beaches, this is known for its great wine list and reasonably priced local menus.

Três Séculos, Rua do Choupelo 250, Vila Nova de Gaia.

Tel: +351 22 3742 800

Taylor’s Restaurant has lovely views to Porto and a reasonably priced wine list. There is also an excellent tour and tasting.

The area of Matosinhos has hundreds of seafood restaurants. Just get a cab and get out – if it looks crowded, it will be excellent.

FESTA DE SAO JOAO 2007

The 2007 festival will be on Saturday 23 June, with the barco rabelo race the next day. Contact: the organisers on +351 223 745 520 or aevp@aevp.pt for details.

A Short Detour To The Douro Valley

You can’t go to Oporto without seeing the Douro Valley, where the grapes are grown on ancient terraces carved into dizzying slopes. As you go inland, things get hotter and drier, and it’s not unusual for temperatures to reach 50ºC in summer, but this has got to be one of the most stunning vine-growing regions on earth. All the heat also gives you a practical insight into the nature of the wine – sunshine, of course, means thick skins, high skin-to-juice ratio, and rich, unguent-like flavours – and into the nature of the men that pick them by hand, toiling on slopes where no machinery could possibly reach. The riverside town of Pinhão is the best place to base yourself, and can be reached either by train or boat from Oporto (I suggest taking the boat upriver and the train back down) – or you can risk the hair-raising curves of the road. There’s a lovely path along the river that passes in front of the Vintage House hotel. One recommended stop is the Quinta do Panascal, where you have the option of a self-guided tour – a pair of headphones that lead you round the terraced vineyards, allowing you to learn at your own pace. Also worth a visit are the gorgeous shaded terraces of Quinta do Noval (pictured left), owned by AXA Millésimes, and Quinta de Roeda where at harvest time you can watch the grapes being crushed underfoot in the traditional manner. The Douro is also hard but immensely rewarding walking country; that after-dinner glass of port will never taste quite the same again after you’ve walked the same amphitheatre terraced slopes that gave birth to it.

Written by Jane Anson