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The Douro river

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Miguel Sousa is stomping his feet in the ruins of a 19th-century stone enclosure partway up a steep bank of the Douro River in northern Portugal. The young agronomist at Quinta do Portal isn't angry. He is demonstrating the age-old ritual of foot treading, practised in the area since the Romans ruled the Western world. For centuries, the people of these hills have locked arms and furiously pumped their legs to liberate the grape juice that would make the valley renowned for port.

In the lagar, as this type of enclosure is called, Sousa notes the remnants of a shrine in the wall that probably held the image of a saint – a local protector perhaps, or St. Vincent, a patron saint of wine.

We marvel at the immense physical effort it took to coax juice from this wild riverbank and discuss what I have come to experience – the offerings that have launched the vine-laced valley into the global market for fine wines.

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"It's amazing," he says of the region's long love affair with the grape, which runs as naturally and deep as the river itself. "Here, there is a tremendous respect for the land."

He explains that the oldest part of the family-run quinta, as the wine-growing estates are called, has been in the Branco family since the 19th century. The family is still cultivating such traditional Portuguese grapes as touriga nacional, but has introduced cabernet sauvignon and malbec, as well as some whites. "We are experimenting," he says.

My husband and I began our drive up the valley in July after flying to Oporto and touring the port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from the old city, where big names like Offley, Sandeman and Taylor Fladgate still hold sway. The British cornered the market in the 17th century while warring with France and helped to launch port by adding brandy to the wine to stop fermentation for the long trip to London. Eventually, it became illegal for Douro growers to export their own wine. When Portugal joined the European Union and trade rules eased in the late 1980s, a renaissance in winemaking began. Now, many of the valley's vintners are proudly making and exporting their own labels of port, as well as award-winning reds and whites.

We had come to taste the transformation. But first, a warning: If you suffer from vertigo or don't like hairpin turns, you may want to consider exploring the Douro Valley by boat. Driving, however, lets you appreciate the centuries of work that have gone into manually crafting the terraces out of the ancient schist, a shale-like stone that is porous enough for vines to reach deep into mineral-filled crevices for water and nourishment in harsher times.

From the lagar, Sousa shifts forward a couple centuries, leading us into a shining example of modernity, a 4,700-square-metre, temperature-controlled cellar by award-winning Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza Vieira. The gleaming concrete-and-steel building, partly clad in skins of schist and cork, fits seamlessly into the surrounding vineyards. Here, oak barrels, both big and small, go about their languorous business of nurturing the perfect port. Hundreds of other barrels and vats contain the new table wines, which are exported to 15 countries, including Canada.

We prepare for dinner in the spacious restaurant overlooking the vineyard with an aperitif of muscatel, sparkling water, lime and mint. Patriarch Eugenio Branco comes to greet us along with his son Pedro (in charge of exports). That new cellar, they tell us, was built as a "a gift to the Douro." Tiny appetizers made with eggs and cheese and fresh herbs picked earlier in the day are followed by cod cakes with sautéed apple, sprouts, black-olive mayonnaise and baby greens from the garden, served with the award-winning Quinta do Portal Branco 2011. The main is perfectly prepared cod loin with clams and sautéed shrimp. We are treated to two wines from the inner chamber – the Grande Reserva 2007 and the very best, the Aura 2007. Both are dense and extremely smooth, with hints of dark fruit and the minerals that have nurtured the vines.

The next day, we hit the winding roads to Quinta de la Rosa, another family-run operation that has developed a reputation for breaking new ground with table wines. By map, it's about 20 kilometres away – but the map doesn't account for the switchbacks that take us through more vines, with olive trees glistening in the sun, swallows swooping and church spires sprouting from ancient hilltop villages.

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So much for arriving early. By the time we arrive, Joana Sousa is already discussing dinner with lodgers: octopus or salmon? She takes time, though, to show us around the vineyards as the river glistens below. Once filled with rabelos, traditional boats that transported wine to Oporto (it's now sent by truck), the river now sports tour boats that can be seen gliding below.

This quinta has been in the Bergqvist family since Sophia's grandmother received it as a christening present in 1906. In the tasting room, we try a nice dry white and a refreshing rosé. Then Joana Sousa uncorks a bottle from that magic year we had tasted the day before. It's the Douro Tinto 2007 reserve, made from the main port grapes, such as the touriga nacional and tinta roriz, matured in French oak casks and bottled in 2009. It is at once intense and refined, bold and fresh. And again, smooth. She shares a taste of Passagem 2008, which comes from a different location that is sandier, producing a drier wine though still with undertones of fruit. And she shares a taste of a 40-year-old port.

At this quinta, the port grapes, as well as some of those for making table wines, are still juiced by foot as locals, some imported workers and tourists flock to the area each September to participate in this timeless communal endeavour. Treading is said to create a smoother, purer product, as fewer bits of seed and stem make their way into the juice. I certainly am in no mood to argue.

As I sip, the plaintive sound of a steam whistle rises from below. It comes from a 1925 locomotive that was used to bring the port to Oporto after the rabelos, but before the trucks. Later, in the neighbouring historic town of Pinhao, we stop to admire the old train station, decorated with azuelos (traditional Portuguese tiles) depicting scenes of the harvest. And then – as luck would have it – the historic train appears with its load of tourists, complete with a fireman stoking the boiler.

Suddenly, men and women in traditional garb emerge with ukuleles, tambourines and an accordion, singing traditional songs. All along the platform, people break into spontaneous dance. I have a grand time with a kind gentleman who takes it upon himself to show me the steps. If this is any indication, I imagine that come September, when it's time to harvest and stomp the grapes, Douro celebrates with one terrific party.

Where to stay

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Quinta do Portal's antique-filled Casa das Pipas, surrounded by hills and vines, was artfully built from the remains of a stone stable and retains all the atmosphere one could want while visiting a centuries-old winery.

Rise at dawn to watch the sun come up over the vineyards and hear the birds awake. Then take a dip before breakfast in the beautiful outdoor pool as day breaks in the Alto Douro, a World Heritage Area.

EN 323, Celeiros, Sabrosa; 259-937-000;; rates: $120 to $180

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