But the finest part of the whole time in Portugal was the prequel to the port story. This was the day that we went right up into the interior to the Quinta Vargelles, the jewel in the crown of the Taylor’s empire. We drove the few short miles down to Peso de Regua, the road winding more than any other we had travelled down. Regua is the cross roads of northern Portugal; three rivers meet at the bottom end of town, roads follow each valley and it serves as an important rail junction.
We boarded the train east towards Salamanca. Hugging the river’s edge, we got some spectacular views at every stage. The heat was so intense the trains doors were left open, and we sat on the steps a few inches from the ballast as we trugged along. Mile after mile of rocky outcrops, green slimy river and little farms. In amongst this landscape, huge vineyards clung to the valley side, terraced where possible. In some places the terraces were well made walls, old hand made structures, in other places they had just been bulldozed into the hillside; faster, more modern, more efficient, but less elegant, and with uncertain consequences for the soil budget.
We trundled across a girder bridge and pulled into a neat little station. No roads nearby, just a track that wound steeply up to a white villa – the name “Quinta Vargelles” pasted across one wall. We met the owner of Taylor’s, Bruce Guimaraens – one of my lecturers at Durham had been in the air force with him. He was a larger than life, thick jowled man, at ease amongst a bunch of students, hospitable without compromising his status. He took us around the great tanks in the estate. The traditional image of wine making has been lost here to a certain extent, although he insisted that many of the best ports are still produced by treading with feet rather than crushing with machinery. On the walls around the room, a series of murals by Willie Rushton, the Private Eye cartoonist, made fun of the Englishness of Taylor’s – one was a good reproduction of the railway station with a bunch of striped suited bowler-hatted commuters waiting for the 7:45 to Victoria.
I never realised what went in to making port until I was taken around the vineyard, how they separated the skins from the pith to make a kind of brandy that they then remixed with the rather poor quality wine to provide the fortification. The stainless steel vats and automatic crushing bowls kind of took the magic off the drink, but we saw the huge vats where much of the harvest is still crushed by feet.
A walk in the midday heat took us around the vineyards and we heard how the right combination of soil, water and aspect made the best grapes, and we learnt this and we learnt that. I just saw the wonderful views and got a better suntan. After an hour or so, I was ready for some siesta. We finally headed back to the villa, and were treated to a wonderful lunch. The cheesy meatloaf and salad was wonderful, the fruity pudding was delectable, but what caught our imagination the most was the way that two bottles of wine and one bottle of ten year old tawny Taylor’s port was placed between four people before the meal began. The party really relaxed that afternoon, and many of the tensions that you get from forcing a bunch of cliques and strangers together in a confined environment for ten days evaporated in a drunken haze. For the last three days of the trip we acted in a unit. And we were a strange bunch. I was already friendly with several from our group, but there were a number of less familiar people. For a start we came from all over the country – Durham always had a curious mix of northerners and southerners, and the late 80’s were the last years of the Thatcher regime which had protected the interests of London and the Home Counties while stomping on what remained of the other parts of the country. The North East had suffered particularly badly from this, but the presence of Oxbridge dropouts, and genuinely adventurous southerners, the university had a strange mix. (My own reason for going to Durham was nothing to do with me applying to Oxbridge and failing, or from Durham’s profile in geography. It was purely because I had never been to the northeast before). In Portugal, as well as the north south mix (and a couple of midlanders who never knew which side of the fence to come down on), we had a mature student – a rare specimen in the late 80’s – a few year-outers and a couple of people who had been on exchange the year before so had never met any of our year. We also had every shade of action from a lovely lass from Cardiff who was a devout Jehovah’s Witness through to outrageous drunkards, deep thoughtful people who would always sound interested in what you said even when you knew they couldn’t give a toss, to the kind of antisocial freak who you could never understand and they could never understand you. And the mature student had brought his kids and wife with him, which had started out as a real pain. In spite of not being a student, his wife would incessantly ask questions when we were out in the field, much to some of the other student’s annoyance, probably because she was showing them up. The kids took time to learn the ground rules of the field trip, and caused a lot of disruption to start with, and her husband, Mike was the gentle, compromising Ned Flanders type who you could do nothing but like. And heaven knows what they made of me!