I knew it was going to be a good trip when I found myself standing next to the fastest man in the world at Gatwick Airport. He was in the Virgin Upper Class 'queue'; I was in the Easyjet holding pen. Dressed in jeans and jacket with a Puma pom pom hat and six pieces of matching Puma luggage, Usain Bolt went practically unnoticed. Douglas Blyde and Emily O'Hare, my companions on this trip, professed not to know who he was. Oh well...
Miguel Roquette, from the family who own Quinta do Crasto, picked us up from Porto in his brand new 4 x 4. We zoomed up into the Douro, reaching the estate in the fading afternoon light. Despite the November gloom, my first view of the Douro valley didn't disappoint. Ask any winewriter which is the most beautiful wine region in the world, and it's a fair bet the Douro will feature in their top 5. Row upon row of vertiginous terraces hewn from schistous rock tumble down to the meandering river.
Hard to believe this otherworldly place is a mere two hours' flight from the UK.
Quinta do Crasto (from Castrum meaning defensive position, Latin fans)
was established over 300 years ago on a spit of land high above the river. Like most of the great Portuguese estates, its fame was initially gained through Port, but over the past 15 years has built a a strong and ever-growing reputation for table wines. Most are 'field blends', a delightful term which I think means 'we're not exactly sure what's in the vineyard, but it works'. Over dinner in the charming family house where Miguel and his family stay, he opened some older vintages. Douro Red 1998 was showing delicious development, its sinewy structure lending it a claret-like classiness. Vinha Maria Teresa, Crasto's top wine from the same vintage showed what extended oak ageing in top quality French barriques lends to this fabulous, Touriga Nacional-dominated fruit. Perhaps the biggest surprise for the writers was Crasto Branco, a beautifully balanced blend of Roupero, Gouveio and other indigenous white grapes. Refreshing but structured enough to stand up to all manner of white meats (and a locally grown salted almond or two), it stood out as a beacon in the sea of red wines.