My first encounter with the intriguing concoction known as Rose Port is at Croft's Quinta da Roêda, one of the oldest estates in Portugal's upper Douro Valley; grapes have been growing on these astonishingly steep terraces since 1588.
"Rosé Port is usually drunk very chilled," says my guide Christina. "This wine doesn't age at all and should be drunk as an appetizer. It goes well with roasted almonds."
Port, often typecast as an overly sweet dessert wine, is rapidly shaking off its frumpy gentleman's club image and tantalising younger drinkers with a new generation of lighter, food-friendly ports – led by Rosé Port.
The wine in my tasting glass is light yet aromatic with hints of sherry, raspberries and red fruits. It has the crispness of a rose but a fuller, more luxurious texture.
Croft, an Anglo-Portuguese enterprise that traces its origins back to 1707, is justifiably proud to have invented this novel, summer tipple – today Croft Pink is the company's biggest seller, ahead of its much-admired, and higher priced, tawny, ruby, white and vintage ports.
"This wine was developed in 2008 by Croft," explains Christina. "We were the first to create port in the rose style. Rosé Port is aimed at the younger Portuguese drinkers – we hope it teaches them how to enjoy and appreciate port wine."
After two hundred years under Croft ownership the company was sold first to London spirits company Gilbey's and then to the giant Diageo conglomerate, but in 2001 the Croft port business was acquired by The Fladgate Partnership, a family-owned company that owns several other port brands, including Taylor's and Krohn, plus the super-luxurious The Yeatman Hotel in Porto.
Under the direction of its ambitious managing director Adrian Bridge, a former British Army officer and City banker, Fladgate has made a significant investment in the Quinta da Roêda estate – replanting poor-producing terraces, creating new port styles and transforming the old stables into a contemporary tasting room.
Just five minutes up the road from Pinhão, a laid-back river port best known for its charming 1930s train station decorated with 24 mosaics in blue and white tiles, Quinta da Roêda provides a pleasurable introduction to the arcane world of port. Often called the jewel of the Douro this immaculate 107-hectare estate still adheres to many of the traditional winemaking techniques: grapes are picked by hand and crushed in open treading tanks known as lagares; visitors can take part during harvest.
"We don't have a specific day for starting the harvest," says Christina. "It can start at the end of September or in the beginning of October. We pick all of the grapes by hand and we only pick the best ones."
Portugal is celebrated for its huge range of indigenous grape varieties and the Douro Valley is no exception, growing no less than 80 different varieties, such as Touriga Franca, Touriga Nactional, Tina Barroca, Tinta Cao and Tinta Rorize, the five commonly used to make port.
"On this estate alone we have 11 grape varieties, but further along the valley there are up to 40 varieties being cultivated, " says Christina. "The work here is still very labour intensive. The newer terraces can accommodate a small tractor but we use horses for the old ones."
While global sales of fortified drinks generally have declined over the past 10 years, port has held its ground. Portugal exports around €737 million ($A1 billion) worth of port each year, with its biggest markets being France, United Kingdom, United States and Angola.
While new products such as Croft Pink and Croft Indulgence (an approachable blended port) will no doubt appeal to the younger palate, aficionados are still willing to pay top dollar for one of Croft's vintage ports which are released, on average, only twice each decade.
"Most collectors will want to buy the 2003 vintage which is regarded as our finest since 1945, itself a legendary year for port," says Christina. "A lot of people buy this wine as an investment or maybe to open on a special occasion, such as a birthday, wedding anniversary or university graduation. But in Portugal, of course, we can always find many excuses to open such a vintage wine."
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. etihad.com
Quinta da Roêda Estate, just outside Pinhão in the upper Douro Valley, offers several tasting options such as its Winelover experience ($44), which includes the chance to taste its pink, late bottled, 10-year-old tawny, 20-year-old-tawny and Croft Vintage Quinta da Roêda 2008, plus vineyard tours and mixology classes. The tasting room is open daily from 10am to 6pm. See croftport.com
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 $6,295 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. For bookings phone 1300 742 859 or see scenic.com.au
Mark Chipperfield was a guest of Scenic and Etihad Airways