There’s good money in port wine, evidently. And the top of a mountain is a great place to produce it.
We left our Viking riverboat today in a bus that took us for a white-knuckle ride on a narrow road through a series of hairpin turns, up, up, and up. “Don’t look down,” our guide warned (we all looked down, terrified). Our destination was the famous Sandeman winery, perched on the top of a mountain surrounded by its extensive vineyards, which produce some of the best port in the world. The label on Sandeman ports shows a mysterious figure wearing a long black cape with a wide-brimmed black sombrero to match, and we were met at the entrance to the winery by a Sandeman representative so dressed (The sombrero represents the Spaniard who first created sherry and the cape acknowledges the college students at universities all over Portugal who traditionally wear them. (Portuguese college students no doubt drink substantial amounts of both sherry and port.)
He led us into the dark cellars where the grapes are pressed and made into the port wines that are then transported immediately down to Porto, where the weather is better for storage. After the hair-raising bus ride and the mini-seminar in the dark cave, we were ready for a tasting of this special nectar, and it didn’t disappoint. (Many on our tour came back to the boat lugging heavy bottles of Sandeman port.)
The Sandeman label is part of the gigantic Mateus company, which also produces Mateus rosé wine. A bottle of this wine, it is estimated, is sold to someone around the world every two seconds. Jimi Hendrix got drunk on it and Elton John wrote a song about it, and the man who owns Mateus and the Sandeman ports is the very wealthy owner of the winery that we visited. But he won’t sell it at the Sandeman winery because he considers it “too cheap for our visitors here.”
The Mateus family built a humongous private palace near the vineyard, and that’s where we headed after the port tasting. The Baroque style building is still owned privately by the Mateuses, and is filled with priceless furniture, art work, rare antique books and hand carved wood anaglyptas (look the word up if you need to). In its chapel are stunning hand embroidered religious robes. The family, which lives here in the summer only, invites locals into the chapel for mass at Christmas and Easter. Even more lavish than all this is the design of its incredible formal gardens. Roses of every kind and color, knot gardens (look these up too if you don’t know what they are), formal hedges, exquisite ponds and fountains — one of which was built to perfectly reflect the façade of the mansion — and everything is manicured beautifully by just one gardener and two helpers.
Returning to the Viking Helgrim, we retraced the route along the Corgo River that many automobile aficionados love to drive because of its winding contours, according to our guide. We met the boat coming in to dock just after the captain had taken it through its third lock of the day. We’re heading upriver today and tomorrow, which means that our riverboat, all 262 feet of her, will have to pass through five different locks to take it to higher water. Up the mountain to the vineyards in the afternoon. up the river throughout the day . . . it seems there’s no down when it comes to a Viking cruise.
Story courtesy of Julie Hatfiled. Photos courtesy of Timothy Leland.