Mapping the Douro

I have a fascination with maps. When my parents took us on our first trip to America’s West coast back in the 80’s, my brother and I spent weeks pouring over the Rand McNally road atlas we bought beforehand, working out the most exciting route for our month long adventure. Then I got into wine and remember buying my first wine book back in 1988. It was an old edition of The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and to this day, many editions later, it is still my favourite wine book. Maps provide a context for me and allow me to fill in the images for myself. Maps create a familiarity to a place I’ve never been. And for those places I have been, the maps take me back to the memories, recreating travels and adventures, better than any picture can.

I imagine it was a similar fascination that drove Joseph Forrester when he created the first detailed map of the Douro Valley in Portugal. Joseph arrived in Portugal in 1831 to join his uncle who was a partner in a Port house. Although he got involved in the business initially, he ended up devoting himself to a comprehensive survey of the Douro Valley from the upper reaches near the Spanish border all the way down to the outflow into the Atlantic. This resulted in a map that was to be one of the most important works of its kind. Looking at the river today gives you some idea of the scale of the task that would have faced him, but the many tourist vessels, traveling up and down make it look rather sedate and much of the river has now been tamed by dams, ultimately as a result of Forrester’s work. In his day Forrester would have been traveling into the unknown and he and his team had to negotiate the wild rapids flowing through the huge canyon in handmade wooden boats. The Douro gave him his life’s work but also took his life when the boat he was traveling in was overwhelmed in one of the fearsome rapids. His body was never to be recovered.
As we travel high up in the Douro the map becomes a reality. We glimpse some of the history in the museum in Regua where the map hangs tucked away in a corner, as part of a larger exhibition of the historic Douro. And we get a feel for the river itself on a boat trip leaving from Pinhao, further upstream. I am in no doubt our experience is hugely different from Forrester’s. I ponder this as we sip sparkling wine aboard a small motorised vessel and take in the stunning views. But it is high above the river, walking through the Quinta da Boavista, it is easiest to step back in time. Forrester visited Boavista, until recently owned by Offley, the company his uncle was a partner in. As a winery it has fallen silent. But now this piece of Douro history is owned by Tony Smith, who is keen to breathe new life into its ancient walls. Lunch is served in the old ‘lagares’, the big stone throughs where in days gone past the vineyard workers would crush the grapes at harvest time with their bare feet. One of the more unusual places I’ve had the pleasure of having lunch. Tony already owns Quinta de Covela, located just outside the demarcated Douro Valley. Here he and winemaker Rui Cunha make Vinho Verde to die for from the local Avesso grape. Their efforts have been rewarded this week when they received the trophy for best viticulture from the Revista de Vinhos magazine. For now there is no wine at Quinta da Boavista but judging by Tony’s ambitions, this is going to be one Quinta to watch. Let’s just say he seems very keen to put it back on the map. I’m sure Joseph Forrester would have been pleased.