El Tratado

Two weeks ago the skies opened over the Iberian Peninsula. I drove the highway to Plasencia, then Salamanca, and on to Donostia, as the Basque city of San Sebastian is known to the locals.

It’s been a few years since I drove the route the Portuguese followed to Tordesillas, where the famous treaty was signed. The house of Alonso Gonzalez de Tordesillas, the king’s repostero de camas, or chief bedmaker, is now a museum—inside are models of the ships of Columbus, and a facsimile of the treaty itself.

The archive at Simancas, where I stopped to see the plaque in honor of Alice Bache Gould, was closed, but winding round the impossibly narrow streets of the town, cut from the steep escarpments of the Duero, it’s easy to picture the soldiers of Castile, and the peasants with their heavy loads, in the last years of the fifteenth century.

One week later I drove that same road, one of the most dangerous in Europe, this time headed west to the ‘Terra Santa,’ the holy land of Portugal.

With me in the car were two friends who had been promised a visit to the land of Port Wine. At Valladolid, we stopped for dinner at one of the oldest restaurants in Europe, the Parrilla de San Lorenzo, established in 1596—it’s a rabbit warren of dining rooms, full of works of art, and listed as a national monument.

The Parilla de  San Lorenzo, a legend in its own lunchtime.

The Parilla de San Lorenzo, a legend in its own lunchtime.

I discovered the place when I was wandering around the area seven years ago taking notes for some of the Spanish scenes of The India Road. The references in the book to flat bread, lechazo, or baby lamb, and the tinto fino, draw from my experiences at the San Lorenzo, and visits to the small restaurants in the villages of the Ribera del Duero that thankfully don’t make it into Trip Advisor.

The San Lorenzo started life as a convent for the nuns of Saint Bernard, founded by Philip II of Spain. At that time, Portugal was going through its only period of occupation since it became a nation on October 5th 1143. The six decades from 1580 to 1640 were dark days for Portugal; a good deal of the empire was lost, as the Dutch profited from the weakness of Lusitania, and the Portuguese fleet was forced to engage the English on the side of Castille as part of the Invincible Armada.

A word about tinto fino: this is the varietal known as Tempranillo in Spain, which in Portugal becomes Aragonés or Tinta Roriz. You’l find it in many Riojas—but for my money, the best wine region in Spain is the Ribera del Duero. Valdubon, Pesquera, Alion, and the king of them all, Vega Sicilia (for which you’d need to pawn your offspring) are rarely seen outside Spain.

Of course there are some pretty good wines in Portugal—to find those, you’ll need to visit. I suggest you do that soon, before the whole population has emigrated to work in your local Starbucks, escaping the cretinous dictatorship of European (aka German) austerity.

As you head west from Valladolid things only get better. We stopped at Zamora, where Afonso VII of Castile signed the treaty that confirmed Portugal and Spain as two independent nations, eight hundred seventy-one years ago.

The next day we hit the region of the upper Douro—the river is just as golden, but it has a new name—the Duero is left behind on the Spanish side.

If you want to learn about Port Wine, I think it’s sensible to travel to the places where it is made, the source of the Nile, so to speak. If your ambition is to look at vats and barrels, then the big cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia, on the south bank of Oporto, would be your destination.

I judged my friends to be happiest at the center of the action, and October in the high Douro is something to see. The harvest has just ended, and although Portugal does not have a harvest festival to match Thanksgiving, or the moon cakes of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, there is a quiet satisfaction in the air.

Perhaps this is because everyone is now certain that next year the wine will not run out.

There are no big cities in the upper Douro, the area is predominantly agricultural. As you head south toward the town of Pinhão, the terraced slopes of the river, with leaf still on the vine, overwhelm you.

The view from Quinta do Seixo, blessed by both sun and vine.

The view from Quinta do Seixo, blessed by both sun and vine.

Pinhão is a one street metropolis with a couple of restaurants and a few stray hounds that cast a yellowed eye on us as we passed, before returning to their post-prandial snooze.

Time is always of the essence, so we made our first visit to a quinta, in this case the Sandeman estate, at 10.30 am. A little early for a drink in my book, but clearly not for my friends, one of whom lives above the Arctic Circle—not for the faint-hearted.

Sandeman is now owned by a large (ok, not Google-large) Portuguese corporation called Sogrape—that strikes me as a splendid name for a wine business. The big boys are into robot-presses, the estate house organizes tours, and we finished up in a comfortable living room, which has a breathtaking view over the terraces. They have a wine shop there too, but no one even mentioned it until we asked−no pressure.

We did a vineyard tour, normally reserved for a minimum of ten people. We’d offered to pay the ten-person rate split three ways, but the company wouldn’t hear of it—they charged for three people, with a bottle of vintage port included – that’s how you get repeat business.

The young lady who escorted us was clearly used to madmen, and patiently answered all our questions. As we walked down the terraces, she pointed out the different varietals, marked out here and there with a dab of white paint. She even picked a couple of bunches of grapes that escaped harvest for us to try—they were nice, but I prefer mine fermented.

In the afternoon we headed out to an exactly opposite experience. I have long been a fan of wines from Quinta do Passadouro—their terroir, to use a suitably pretentious French word, consists of thirty acres on the opposite bank of the river, about three miles north of the Douro.

Here everything is informal. A Dutch family that moved south from Rotterdam has set up a bed and breakfast, and Ronald will take you round the lagar, where the grapes are pressed by foot in the traditional way.

The man had forgotten about our appointment, due to a large party he had just gotten rid of, and arrived late, looking harassed and sounding apologetic. Soon things improved, as he found himself among kindred souls.

As he finished his explanations, I told him we were very grateful for his time, and we should be on our way.

The man from the Arctic Circle glared at me with the fires of Thor in his eyes.

The Dutchman said “First you have to taste the wine.”

I felt I’d escaped Valhalla as we headed into his house and sat down, glass in hand. Ronald was certainly not going to sit around and watch us drink. He became the chief inquisitor as he poured reds, rubies, and tawnies—always four of each.

Now there’s a quiz I like—and I most certainly won’t phone a friend.

Ronald is a big-hearted man. He got so carried away he went beyond his own stock and began diving out of the door into what is obviously the holy grail, and emerging with vintages from the opposition. I believe this heralds a new golden age of collaboration between Scandinavia and the Netherlands.

My sins were forgotten.

Ronald didn’t charge us for his time, so I asked my friends to bring him a gift, preferably of the consumable persuasion. In return for his efforts, he received two pounds of Norwegian Brown Cheese and a bottle of Maple Wine—I just hope he doesn’t attempt both at the same time.

We did depart the area with a few bottles of wine. I discovered that for my Scandinavian friend, suitcase capacity is measured in bottles—just like the tonnage of the caravels and carracks. The word ton comes from tonel, or cask. In old English the term is ‘tun’.

Wikipedia, the source of intellectual fulfillment for the concerned young person of today, tells us an English ton is an ‘old wine cask volume measurement equivalent to 954 litres.’

That’s two hundred-fifty US gallons, which may be the record to beat for a Port tour.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

 

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