Portugal is noted for its wines and the Minho region in the north of the country, just a few kilometres from the beautiful city of Porto. Anna Hyman set out to explore.
Pedro Araújo makes wine. Exceedingly good wine: fresh, crisp and absolutely delicious.
But then Portugal is noted for its wines, think Algarve, Alentejo, Douro. But Pedro’s wine is not from any of these areas. No, his wine comes from even further north, from the historical and enchantingly pretty Minho region. A region famous for its lush green landscape as well as its distinctive, slightly pétillant, vinho verde – green wine. Green as in ‘young’ rather than colour, though it made us wonder if ‘green’ might refer as much to the greenness of the region as to the youth of the wine.
Fly into Porto airport and before moving on to Minho spend a couple or so nights exploring the fascinating city of Porto with its medieval heart, and the famous port wine lodges of Gaia on the opposite bank of the Rio Douro.
A couple of nights in Porto
The majority of the lodges welcome visitors for a tour of the cellars and a tasting; one of the most recognised, thanks in part to its iconic logo of the silhouette of the hatted and cloaked figure of the Sandeman Don. Sandeman offer a number of interesting tours starting from €6pp rising to about €35 for a full tour with extensive tasting session.
Take a boat ride on the Rio Douro sailing beneath the six magnificent bridges and out to the mouth of the river; visit the ancient fortress-like cathedral perched high above the city; the richly gilded interior of St Francisco church; marvel at the blue and white tiled chapel of Capella de las Almas and the church of Santo Ildefonso.
And do not miss the railway station of São Bento tiled with some 20,000 blue and white tiles depicting events from Portuguese history.
The Palácio de la Bolsa (Stock Exchange Palace) is impressive too; and don’t forget to allow time to soak up the ambience of the narrow cobbled streets of the medieval quarter. Do not miss Lello in Rua das Carmelitas either. It is arguably the most beautiful bookshop in the world; others claim the title, but their buildings have been used for other purposes earlier in their lives.
And should sightseeing or shopping get too much treat yourself to a lunch or afternoon tea at the elegant belle époque Majestic Café to the gentle accompaniment of a piano. One of the house specialities is a kind of French toast rich in an eggy custard topped with dried fruit. Absolutely yummy.
The birthplace of Portugal
From Porto it’s an easy journey into the Minho region; the region frequently known as the birthplace of the Portuguese nation. It is incredibly pretty: meandering rivers flow into the Atlantic; landscapes range from beach to pastoral to forests to vineyards to mountains, interspersed with tiny hamlets where chickens scratch beside the road, quaint market towns and historic cities.
The two most historic cities are Braga and Guimarães. The latter is considered the birthplace of the Portuguese nation for it was here in 1139 that Alfonso Henriques proclaimed himself King of Portugal and chose Guimarães as his capital.
It was also in the 12th century that the archbishops of Portugal chose Braga as their seat, thereby making it the country’s religious capital. Today it is also the region’s main city, home to industry and a university. Braga positively bristles with churches and religious festivals and at its centre a delightful, elegant heart with a number of gracious 18th century houses and some pretty gardens.
However, the city dates back centuries before. In fact wander into some of the shops and cafes and look down through the glass floor to find traces of the Roman city lying beneath your feet. It was a fortified town but all that remains of the original fortifications is the imposing Torre de Menagem. Braga is a good shopping centre with several of the streets boasting some interesting shops. Keep an eye open for the Café Christina and the 1907 Café Brasileira. Minho region seems to specialise in high class patisseries.
If you have time head a couple or so miles outside Braga to the astonishingly spectacular Bom Jesus do Monte with its magnificent stairways of the Five Senses and the Three Virtues leading to the church.
Viana do Castelo
Photo: The stunning ceiling of Santa Casa da Misericórdia
Another chapel standing high above the surrounding countryside is the basilica of Santa Luzia at Viana do Castelo. It’s modelled on the Sacré Coeur in Paris. (See main picture above.)
Close by it also looking down on the town, the Rio Lima estuary and the Atlantic Ocean is the supremely comfortable Pousada de Santa Luzia) – treat yourself to lunch or dinner in its excellent restaurant and maybe an overnight stay too www.pestana.com/en/hotel/pousada-viana.
The pousada is only three miles outside the town but to reach it drivers have to negotiate many hairpin bends. There is a funicular railway that runs from the top of the hill to close by the railway station.
Viana do Castelo is an interesting little town which in the days of the Discoveries in the 16th century provided many of the ships that set off on their epic maritime voyages to the rich cod fishing waters of Newfoundland or to trade with the Hanseatic cities or Brazil.
Evidence of the once little fishing village’s wealth gained from its sea-fairing past can still be seen in the form of the many fine buildings, and of the number of shops that to this day sell the dried and salted cod – bacalhau so beloved by the Portuguese.
Ponte de Lima
Follow the Lima back in land to little riverside market town of Ponte de Lima. As its name suggests there is a bridge here that spans the river. The bridge dates back to Roman times and five of its 16 arches are original; the others were restored or rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries. Like Viana do Castelo it too has some elegant and costly looking old houses.
It is also the centre for vinho verde and many of the restaurants and cafes serve the famous wine which, incidentally, is both red and white. The red, usually served in thick china bowls, however, is something of an acquired taste.
Quinta do Ameal and Vinho Verde
Follow the pretty winding river Lima deeper into vinho verde territory to Quinta do Ameal for wine in a different league.
The Quinta, which dates back to 1710, is tucked away down exquisitely pretty narrow country lanes. The final drive up to the main building is lovely any time of the year but in the spring it is approached through a tunnel of heavenly scented purple wisteria.
The Quinta’s wine is made from the Loureiro grape, from grapes grown exclusively on the estate. (Loureiro comes from the word laurel, and indeed the wine does have a bay leaf-like bouquet.)
Traditionally Loureiro has been mixed with other grape varieties to produce vinho verde but Pedro Araujo decided to concentrate on producing his wine exclusively from this rather under-rated varietal. His philosophy is that if he treats the Loureiro vines with care and respect, growing them organically and biodynamically they will reward him with high quality grapes.
He was right. By careful management and pruning and thinning the grapes the Quinta achieves a low, but consequently an exceedingly high quality, harvest. The grapes themselves are gently handpicked into smallish boxes before going through the wine making process.
As Pedro describes it – the best chefs only use the highest quality ingredients, treating them with respect for their gourmet dishes, he does the same with his grapes and wines. By so doing he has produced wines that are highly acclaimed both nationally and internationally: the Ameal ‘Clássico’, ‘Escolha’, ‘Espumante’ and ‘Special Harvest’.
Not content with just making quality wine in May 2014 Pedro completed the process of transforming several old building on the estate into stylish and comfortable self-catering accommodation for guests.
Only 12 out of the total 30 hectares of the walled estate are given over to grapes, the remainder is given over to gardens with a swimming pool and terrace, a forest and some 800m of riverside. Within easy distance from the estate there is the coast with glorious beaches, mountain and country walks, facilities for kayaking and cycling and attractive old towns with good restaurant and shopping amenities. www.quintadoameal.com .
The Quinta is an idyllic spot; and Pedro Araújo makes exceedingly good wine – vinho verde – fresh, crisp and utterly delicious.