The train scissors through a landscape matted with ferns, feathery shrubs, eucalyptus, and olive trees. Sugar cube cottages, brown and white, are sprinkled across the hillsides, their gardens fenced with grapevines. The tracks reel out along a narrow ridge overlooking the Douro River. Dark as desert-night, the river glitters with a Milky Way of mirrored sunlight. On the opposite bank, the slopes are stair-stepped with hand-packed terraces. Over five millennia of grape-cultivation, these vineyards have re-sculpted the entire Douro Valley, where the marriage of form and function has given birth to a new oenological topography. Scattered over the hillsides are the Quintas of the Douro, the winery-vineyard estates that produce the region’s noble old ports. With whitewashed walls and coral tiled roofs, they shine like shells on the banks of the river.
From the Pinhão train station I walk a dusty, uphill mile to Quinta de la Rosa, a vineyard and winery founded in 1906, and my home for one enchanted night. With my unwashed hair and harem pants, I know I look like an itinerant urchin, but the receptionist pours me a cool glass of White (2009) before even asking for my ID.
I take the Lamelas trail up into the solitude of the vineyard. This landscape demands a horizontal frame, even a panorama—only the most generous angle can envelop the abundance of this terrain. Wild olive trees and downy green quince ripen on the steep flanks of the terraces. My lunch is handfuls of grapes fished fresh from beneath reddening leaves. Each handful has a different spirit: some sweet as jelly, others more puckerish. This is wealth—not a night on a vineyard, but an earth that offers up indigo ambrosia under every leaf.
The grapes are perfect spheres, like aggies rolled through a dusty game of marbles, dark as twilight shadows and powdered with silvery wild yeasts. Alina at reception told me that Harvest begins tomorrow morning. I find grapes sunbaked halfway to raisins, and one fallen cluster that has begun to ferment, filling the skins with the savor of wood smoke and cinnamon.
Along the trail I find shards of rose quartz, another gift from the abundant earth. A few pieces are as wide as paving stones, sunken flat in the path. Drystone walls trace property lines slowly crumbling, as the land takes back its own. Carpeted in dry grass, the floors of old, drystone shacks have become nurseries for young trees: saplings reaching for the brushed-silk sky that canopies the roofless cottages.
On the highest terraces, the grapes are cooler and a few of the breezes have just remembered that they ought to begin rehearsing for autumn. Pssst, pssst: the skitter of lizard feet whispers to me from dry red leaves beneath the trellises. Is this the first time in a year that the only traffic I can hear is the racing of lizards and the rushing winds?
Supper is served on the Quinta’s terrace, a bower of wisteria and grapevines, overlooking the river. The jewel of dessert is the glass of ruby red port, a liquor that belongs in wood-paneled parlors with green glass lamps and velvet wingback chairs. I climb into my four-poster and curl up in a dream as soft and snug as the port.
When was the last time I woke to a rooster preaching his frayed prayer? His hoarse matins psalm calls me from sleep and my eyes open on a live oil painting: ‘Dawn on the Douro.’ Helios has not yet hitched the sun to his chariot when I set out again on the trail up to the crown of the vineyard. From the steep switchbacks, the Douro Valley unfurls around me like acres of dark green corduroy. As I climb, the sky ripens like a blushing nectarine. As unexpectedly as juice spraying from a bitten grape, the sun splits the skin of the sky, bursting over the valley.
I breakfast on grapes, fruit still cool with night’s breath on its cheek. I find a vine whose grapes are amethysts, jewels lush with nectar that tastes of elderflower cordial at midsummer. At the crown of the vineyard, a compass of birds marks the cardinal directions, each point chiming with its own melody.
As I hike back down through the knitted rows of green and copper vines, the valley unfolds the town of Pinhão, houses bleached and clean in the gossamer sunlight.
On the Quinta’s wisteria terrace, I sit down with my notebook for second breakfast: cottony bread and the estate’s own grassy, golden olive oil.
I love learning this terrain, its trails and tastes, not only for the pleasure of a moment, but because I can fold up the whole corduroy vineyard, wrap it in memory’s silk handkerchief, and tuck it in my pocket. One snowy evening come January, I will unwrap it like a forgotten Christmas gift and walk back up to the crown of the vineyard. I will spend the whole winter night amongst September vines, remembering the taste of elderflower, and velvet port. I will find myself a hilltop cottage with a green door and replant Eve’s garden.