Relishing wine and luxury in Porto

 
Timothy Barber
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BOTH port (the drink) and Portugal tend to be the victims of limited appreciation in this country. The latter is best known for the golf resorts and tourist traps of the Algarve, and for football’s premier golden-booted poseur; the former is the tipple you pass to the left during the cheese course.

Well there’s a lot more to both, and Porto, the small, historic city overlooking the estuary of the river Douro in the north of the country, is where you should head to find out. Especially because, in the Yeatman wine hotel, it has one of Europe’s most ravishing new places to stay.

The main city of Porto (or Oporto if you want – there’s no strict rule governing which name you use) sits along the steep slope of the northern bank of the river, a pretty hotchpotch of ancient cobbled streets, jumbled tenements, and the odd Moorish-influenced spire.

Across the Douro is the town of Villa Nova de Gaia, the home of the port industry. Clustered over the hill that rises steeply from the riverbank are the motley old port storage lodges, signs peaking out with names like Offleys, Fonseca and Taylor’s. Overlooking them all, and with a spectacular view of the old city across the river, is the Yeatman.

WINE CULTURE
The hotel is the brainchild of an Englishman named Adrian Bridge, the ceo of Fladgate Partnership, which owns high-end port brands Taylor’s, Fonseca and Crofts.

Built on land owned by the company, it’s a giddy celebration of Portuguese wine culture. In its 25,000-bottle cellar you can meet with the sommelier to discuss your wine choices for dinner that evening; rooms are sponsored by local wine companies and artwork on each floor is themed around different aspects of port heritage; two of its most impressive suites feature beds fashioned out of vast port vats; and its grandest feature, overlooking the wonderful panorama of old Porto, is a pool in the shape of a port decanter.

The view is shared by every one of the hotel’s 82 rooms, through floor-to-ceiling windows and from blissful private terraces. They’re big rooms too, painted in warm vineyard greens. Shuttered windows into the bathroom can be opened for you to continue gazing over the scenery from the tub.

One of the lovely things about the Yeatman is the way in which its designers have avoided falling into flash, designy statement making. It has an airy, neo-classical ambience that falls the right side of twee. There are lots of imaginative details: an elaborate ship’s telescope from Japan in the suave bar, for a closer view of Porto landmarks; a mural of Brazilian wildlife in the restaurant; a croquet lawn; a clubby smoking room, complete with gleaming red chesterfields, humidor and hi-tech air-extraction system making it the region’s only space for legal indoor puffing. A butterfly house is due to be installed.

If the hotel’s sunny ambience and magnificent setting are all Portuguese, these creditable eccentricities could be associated with a more English sensibility. This all reflects the complex, hybrid culture of the port industry in which many of the companies are still owned and run by British families, descendants of the merchants who first established them and gave them names like Taylor’s, Smith Woodhouse and Graham’s. The hotel gets its name from the Yeatman family, partners in Taylor’s port since 1838.

DOURO VALLEY
However, head off into the vineyard-covered countryside of the Douro Valley – the demarcated area east of Porto where port is produced from indigenous grapes – and you quickly leave behind the traces of Brit influence. A couple of hour’s car journey – the Yeatman will supply you with directions and packed lunch – along snaking mountain roads takes you deep into this richly alluring landscape, where you can stop for tastings at remote port lodges.

Locals still come together at these places after the harvest to stamp grapes by foot in the traditional manner – all port is made this way.

Discovering the delights of tawny port, white port, late bottled vintage port, and many other kinds, is something of a revelation for anyone who’s only experienced it as a digestif. The education continues at the Yeatman, where port cocktails – as a fruity summer cocktail, I’d say a kir has nothing on the chilled pink port and tonic – and wine-matched tasting menus offer enjoyable indulgence.

As does the spa. Gallingly, it wasn’t quite finished when I visited, but it’s going to be a humdinger. An indoor infinity pool – with that same sweeping view, of course – 10 treatment rooms, Turkish hammam, Roman bath, sauna, steam room, are present and correct. It’s run by French company Caudalie, who specialise in “vinotherapie” – the grape, of course, is rich in antioxidants and forms the basis of the pampering products. The “crushed cabernet scrub” and red wine hydro-massage – bathing in a water and wine mixture – must be the ultimate way for an oenophile to unwind.

UNTARNISHED
You can easily walk from the hotel down to the restaurants fringing the Villa Nova riverside, threading your way between old port warehouses and stopping for a tasting or two if you fancy. A stroll over Porto’s large iron bridge takes you into the old-world environs of the city centre, a UNESCO world-heritage site with all the medieval churches, restaurants spilling out into alleyways and squares bordered with cafes that you’d expect. It’s a charming, beguiling place, relatively untarnished by peddlers of tourist tat. I hope it stays that way, even though it now has a hotel with the potential to be world-class.

THE YEATMAN | FACTS
Opened: September 2010

Accommodation: 12 suites, 70 guest rooms

Facilities: Restaurant; cocktail bar; smoking room; wine shop; Vinotherapie spa by Caudalie; indoor pool, relaxation area and gym; outdoor pool and bar; croquet lawn; kids’ club; butterfly house; extensive business facilities and entertainment areas.

Rates: Rooms at the Yeatman cost from €185 (£153) in low season, and from €290 (£239) in high season, including breakfast and VAT, based on two sharing. Suites (without breakfast) from €320 (£265) low season.

To book: call 00 351 22 013 4200; email relax@theyeatman.com; or visit www.theyeatman.com