The Yorkshireman legend behind Portugal's port

If Russell Crowe ever wants to reprise his role as the swashbuckling Captain Jack Aubrey in the historical romp Master and Commander he should consider the astonishing life and times of Joseph James Forrester.

Winemaker, cartographer, agitator, painter, agronomist, entrepreneur and adventurer, the flamboyant Yorkshireman is widely regarded as the godfather of the Portuguese port industry – a man still held in high regard by winemakers throughout the Douro Valley.

Born in Kingston-upon-Hull, Forrester was just 22 when he arrived in Porto to work in his uncle's port house, Offley, Forrester and Webber, in 1831. The old winery, which now trades under the brand name Offley, can still be found up a cobbled laneway not far from the tourist-thronged riverbank at Vila Nova de Gaia.

"Baron Forrester was a man ahead of his time, a painter, a cartographer, a wine blender and a wine producer," says Luis, who takes me on a tour of the Offley warehouse, which has been used continuously for almost 300 years and still ages the company's valuable aged tawny ports and celebrated Cachucha White Reserve.

"Apart from researching the grapes, the vines and the diseases that affected the vines, he was an expert in both vinegar and olive oil production."

Forrester also found time to write the definitive book about port production in the Douro Valley, a minor publishing success in its day, and championed the rights of small grape growers who were then being squeezed by the Douro Wine Company, which had a monopoly on port exports.

But it is the Englishman's skill as a cartographer for which he is best remembered. In 1844 he completed the first detailed map of the Douro River – this proved to be an invaluable resource for the boatmen who transported wine from the upstream vineyards (quintas) to the port houses at Vila Nova de Gaia, near the mouth of the river.

"Before the construction of dams and locks in the 1950s and 1960s the Douro River was incredibly dangerous," explains Luis. "At certain places the river is very shallow. There are often floods and the flat-bottomed boats that carried the wine barrels were hard to control."

A full-scale copy of Forrester's hand-drawn map is proudly displayed outside the modern tasting room and his presence seems to hover over the atmospheric barrel rooms, packed with vintage casks and barrels of various sizes – the largest holds an astonishing 70,000 litres.

Advertisement

Although Offley is now part of the giant Sogrape wine conglomerate, the Portuguese are keen to maintain their port-making heritage, which means keeping many of the old traditions, such as slow ageing in oak, alive.

About halfway through our tour Luis points to the blackened rafters in one of the oldest barrel rooms and explains how they acquired their distinctive pallor.

"When you age port in oak barrels some of the alcohol evaporates. We lose about 5 or 6 per cent each year. We call that the angel's share," he says. "And since alcohol is lighter than air it drifts upwards, which is why after almost three centuries our roof is so dark."

In recognition of his contribution to the wine trade, Forrester was showered with awards, titles and memberships of prestigious bodies such as the Royal Academy of Turin, and the Royal Geographical Society in London. His greatest honour, the title Baron of Forrester, was bestowed by King Ferdinand II of Portugal in 1855.

But it was this insatiable thirst for adventure that seems to have led to his untimely death just six years later – the peripatetic aristocrat was exploring the upper reaches of the Douro when his boat was swamped by a giant wave. Forrester was swept overboard and presumed drowned, although his body was never recovered.

"Yes, that's true," Luis says. "His body was never found. There are still several local legends surrounding his death, but nothing has ever been proved conclusively."

While port may not have the mass appeal it once had in, say, the early part of the 20th century, port tourism is big business in Porto. All of the port houses, including Taylor's, Graham's, Sandeman, Calém, Ferreira and Churchill's, offer tours, tastings and other experiences such as Fado performances and multimedia presentations. Offley is more modest in its appeal, but thanks to the legend of the Baron far more beguiling – and its ports, his greatest legacy, are consistently excellent.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/portugal

FLY

Etihad Airways flies frequently from Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Brisbane to Switzerland, with onward connections to Porto aboard local carrier TAP. Cruises depart from downtown Porto, 11 kilometres south of the airport. See etihad.com

TOUR

Offley, located at Rua do Choupelo, 54, Vila Nova de Gaia, Porto, offers regular tours and wine tastings with English-speaking guides. The classic tour, which includes a small tasting, costs $9 per person. A combined visit to Offley, Ferreira and Sandeman port houses costs $31. See eng.sograpevinhos.com

CRUISE

Scenic's 11-day "Unforgettable Douro" cruise sails from Porto along the Douro River to Vega de Terron on the Spanish border and includes a day-trip to Salamanca. Guests can choose from a wide range of shore experiences, such as guided city tours, signature dining events, wine tastings and canoeing expeditions. Prices start at $6295 per person, twin share, for a standard suite. Tariffs include all meals and drinks onboard, shore excursions, complimentary mini-bar, free Wi-Fi, butler service, airport transfers and all tips and gratuities. Phone 1300 742 859, see scenic.com.au

Mark Chipperfield was a guest of Scenic and Etihad Airways.

Comments