James Leavey's Corner
Racing For Port In The Barco Rabelo

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by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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James Leavey

A friend recently asked how I was planning to celebrate the millennium. "I won't be doing anything different to my usual routine," I replied. "But then every day is a celebration for someone who enjoys sailing, fine malts and hand-rolled Havana cigars."

Later, I wondered if a better answer to his question was to relive one of those special moments I have been privileged to enjoy.

Like the summer of 1993 when I first took part in the Barco Rabelo Regatta in Oporto, Portugal, as a guest crew member on board Cockburn's entry.

The regatta, one of the world's most unusual boat races, was unexpectedly becalmed that year and ended in disarray. Not that this bothered the participants or onlookers: they were too busy enjoying the Port shippers' annual battle on the Duoro.

"You have to remember it is not a serious race," explained Antonio Vascencelos, who at the time was Cockburn's managing director, as I clambered aboard his company's boat near the sand-bar start at the mouth of the river Duoro. "Most of us couldn't give a fig if we win or lose."

Cockburn, the previous year's champion, was one of a fleet of 15 square-rigged barcos, each representing a Port shipper. The famous logos of Dow, Warre, Taylor, Sandeman, Osborne and Croft, among others, were as clearly displayed on the billowing black and white sails that lined the horizon at the start of the race, as they were on the bottles I had sampled after dinner the previous evening.

Which probably explained my thumping headache.

A couple of millenia earlier, the ancestors of the flat-bottomed barcos were used by the Romans to transport barrel-loads of new wine from the upper Duoro, which was then wild and undamned, 241 kilometres downriver to the coast. This included navigating rapids and gorges, with the occasional loss of cargo or crew. In the 17th century, the barcos came to the fore when British traders, cut off from their suppliers of Bordeaux by frequent wars with France, took to the full-flavoured, robust wines of Portugal.

The Portugese wines didn't travel well so the British traders added brandy to 'fortify' them against the rigours of their Atlantic sea voyage. Before long, pure grape spirit was added during fermentation and Port, as we know and enjoy it today, was born: it is still produced by a close-knit group of Anglo-Portuguese companies.

For a couple of centuries up to 1964, the barcos were the chief means of transporting Port from the Duoro valley to the Port shippers' lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia, opposite Oporto, Portugal's second largest city, after which the world famous fortified wine is named.

Then, with the growth of cheaper, alternative transport, the ancient barcos were abandoned and almost forgotten. In 1983, this all changed when the first Barco Rabelo Regatta took place and more boats were built, all according to the strict rules established by the Confraria do Vinho do Porto, which ensures that the correct length of a traditional barco rabelo is 11 metres on a beam of around 2,160 metres.

Little in their design or construction has changed since these sturdy craft, which are still all built of pine in a traditional shipyard on the side of the Duoro river, served imperial Rome in Iberia. Nobody knows for sure but it is believed that the barcos rabelos was based on Nordic or Mediterranean craft, adapted to the Duoro's rapids and sandbanks.

The annual Barco Rabelo race rapidly grew in popularity and has since been included as part of the annual festival of Sao Joao (Feast of St John, Oporto's patron saint) on 24 June. A spectacular riverside firework display lights up the sky at midnight from Oporto's magnificent Ponte de Dom Luis while the town goes wild and revellers wander around bashing each other over the head with squeaky plastic hammers.

In the early years of the race one boat broke a mast and another capsized, dunking its crew in the river. "A duel on the Duoro can be tremendously exciting," a fellow crew member assured me, "when you actually move, that is, or you are about to be rammed by another boat." On this occasion with no wind, chance would be a fine thing.

So there I was on board my first barco, balanced on the plank that ran the gauntlet between six empty wine barrels, admiring the skill of the 'Captain' who was using the 'espedala' or single long oar at the stern of the boat to steer a zig-zag course up the river. I would like to have tried on the full regalia (long cloak, wide-brimmed hat) of the Confrade, whose role it is to stand in the prow of the vessel during the four-kilometre race, and look important. Trouble was, he wasn't drunk enough.

With only an intermittent breeze that barely rippled their logo'd sails, most of the barcos had still to pass under Oporto's first bridge an hour after the start. We'd already experienced several collisions with rival barcos, who were seen off with loud yells and long poles used to prise the boats apart. Some of our rivals had even tried to steal what little wind there was.

The fitful wind slid Cockbun's barco from second place to last, up to second, and back again, which explains why we ran out of Super Bock beer, Portugal's finest, half-way through the race, and had to switch our attention to Cockburn's tawny, and dry white port. Later, one of our rivals decided to call it a day because, it was suggested, they ran out of beer.

The previous year's race finished in 50 minutes but in 1993 Cockburn took two-and-a-half hours to reach the finishing line and the regatta was called off. Nobody really minded as it was all a bit of fun.

15 years later, in 1998, Taylor was the first of 17 competing barcos to cross the finishing line after a record 35 minutes. A similar number of participants are expected to take part in this year's race which starts at midday on Thursday 24 June 1999. My only regret is that it is not being held at midnight on 31 December as I would have been seriously tempted to pirate one of the boats and crew it with family and friends. Now that would be a hell of a way to celebrate the millennium!

Everything you need to know about Port:

Being fortified, Port is capable of ageing in wood for much longer than most other wines - from two years to many decades, depending on its character and potential. It may mature in cask, vat or bottle --or in combinations of these.

Vintage Portis kept for two years in wood and then bottled, long before it is ready to drink. The very finest and rarest of all Port, it will mature for many decades in the cellar and is usually sold for the buyer to age.

Single Quinta Vintageis kept two years in wood and then bottle-aged at Gaia for 8-10 years. It is usually sold when mature but it will continue to improve.

Late-bottledVintage Port or 'LBV' is a wine of a single year but should not be confused with Vintage Port. It is usually aged in wood for 4-6 years, then filtered before bottling to avoid any deposit forming.

Crusted or Crustingis a blend of vintages which is aged 3-4 years before bottling.

Vintage Character Portis bottled at 4-5 years and will not continue to improve in the bottle.

Both vintage character and late-bottled vintage ports are produced from fine reserve wines which show some of the characteristics of vintage port in a lighter, less complex and more youthful ready-to-drink style. Neither require decanting and, unlike vintage port, will stay fresh for up to a month after opening.

If a fine Port is left to age for many years in oak casks, it will gradually lose its original deep purple or 'ruby' colour and take on the delicate amber hue known as 'tawny'. Unlike other red Ports, aged tawnies may be served cool and are suited for summer drinking when a vintage Port may be considered too rich and heavy.

White Portis produced from white grapes, aged in cask, and ranges from sweet to extra-dry

While Belgians and French drink port exclusively as an apertif, Italians are happy to drink it at any time. The British see port as an after-dinner drink and tend to buy the higher quality vintages.

Outstanding vintages: 1966, 1963, 1955, 1948, 1945, 1935.
Very good, some outstanding wines: 1994, 1992, 1991, 1985, 1983, 1977, 1970, 1947, 1934.

Oporto for yachtie tourists:

Oporto has no marina but you can usually moor up on the Villa Nova de Gaia side of the Duoro, facing the city. The Duoro river is the longest in northern Portugal and winds its sinuous way past mountains and cliffs until it reaches the Atlantic near the city of Oporto. Many dams have been built in recent years to make the river navigable - by keel-less boats.

Oporto, or Porto, itself is frequently referred to as Portugal's Capital of the North and is mainly a working city. It's about half the size of Lisbon but busier. It is also commonly known as the unconquered city owing to the courage shown by its inhabitants in fighting not only the Moors but also the Castilans of Philip II and the armies of Napoleon.

In order to supply the fleet setting out to conquer Ceuta (1415), the local inhabitants of Oporto slaughtered all their cattle, gave away the meat and kept the entrails (tripes), with which they still make a well-known popular local dish, Tripas a Moda do Porto. To this day, the people of Oporto are nicknamed Tripeiros, and very proud of it. Local seafood is also a speciality, if you've given up eating meat.

The two banks of the Duoro are joined by four bridges, the most famous of which, the Dom Luis 1, is the work of the school of Eiffel. The double-decker bridge leaps from the Serra do Pilar monastry to the two levels of Porto: the lower deck towards the quays; the upper deck at cliff level.

The entire city is built on and of granite, including the arching walls of the embankment, the large thick flagstones used for the pavements and the flooring of little shops, offices and bars. The same applies to the frames and lintels of the doors and windows, to the parapets and steps set in the whitewashed or colourfully tiled facades.

The Torre dos Clerigos is not only the emblem of Oporto, but also, at 246 feet, its highest tower in Portugal.

To the river, Oporto owes everything: its name, its form and appearance, its prosperity and its history.

Copyright James Leavey, 1999. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.



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