The visitors book proves it: I was last here fifty years ago – and nothing has changed. The broad white verandah still looks out over orange trees to the steep terraces of vines going down to the river. The house, verandahed all round, sleeps like a planter’s bungalow on any tropical station, lawns shaded by thick trees (in this case limes), screens closed against mosquitoes, the rooms complete capsules of times long past. Deep beige armchairs, faded prints, dusty books, the polished dining table, have not changed since the 1960s. Probably not since the 1920s, when the Gilbey family bought the estate, 150 acres of vines and the stone barns where Croft’s port has been trodden time out of mind.
The upper reaches of the Douro, a hundred miles from the sea through range after range of steep hills, are dry, hot and fertile. When we arrived the other day there had been four days over 40º, the conditions that make great vintage port. It’s a long time since we slept as past generations have, bare under a sheet hoping for a draught from windows open on both sides of the house, resenting the mosquito screens blocking the free passage of air. The thermometer drops to 30º at dawn: I get up to open all the doors to let the cool air in, and doze off just as the sun shoots its first shrivelling rays into the house.
The early morning is when the vines can get to work, photosynthesize and swell their grapes. In this exceptional summer veraison , when the grapes turn colour from green to red, is already under way. By mid-morning, vines that stood trim and gleaming have started to droop; their stomata closed; evaporation exceeds the power of their roots to find water in the parched soil. They look hangdog until evening, metabolizing nothing, losing time in the journey to ripeness. Fig trees show signs of the same stress, their big leaves limp. Olives, on the other hand, with their small grey leaves, seem immune to the heat. The agapanthus are unbothered, too, baking under the dry stone walls. And orange trees gleam on regardless.
I’m afraid I react like the vines, with the advantage that I can hide in the shade and dip my feet in the fountain. Our hosts’ labrador, on the other hand, has found a niche in a flower bed and lies between hydrangeas and agapanthus with a lime in his mouth for refreshment.