Don’t get me wrong: I am not an wine expert. Not even close. But Porto and port wine culture got me real fired up!
Porto is Portugal’s second-largest city and is located at the exact point where the Douro river meets the Atlantic. It not only gave its name to a country but also to a symbol of Portugal in the world: the Port wine.
In fact the two of them are hard to dissociate as the culture of wine is deeply present in the social habits of the Portuguese and in the overall way of living of the city.
Adding to the fact Porto is one of my favorite cities ever, it was no less than fascinating that getting to know more about Port wine. The extremely complex process that stands between the vineyards and the moment I open the wine bottle at our home is fascinating!
Life is too short for cheap wines!
THE PORT WINE
Porto is also known as Oporto (I confess I never understood this one). Since the 17th century, after a commercial deal between England and Portugal, wine has been one of the major industries of the city and of the whole Alto Douro Valley.
This region is one of the oldest demarcated wine regions in Europe, as there have been regulations in place for over 300 years to protect the many types of wine produced there. The most famous being the Port wine – or vinho do Porto. Sweeter than the general wines, this wine has a higher alcohol content (with added distilled grape spirits) and that is why is generally drinked as a dessert wine. Within the category of Port wines, one can find several types, such as Tawny, Ruby or Vintage, which mainly differ in the ageing period and process.
This was my initial basic understanding of the Port wines; only after being in Porto I realized how limited my knowledge was. There is actually a huge amount of factors in the grape production, harvest, fermentation and ageing process influencing the final categorization and taste of Port wine. I will not even get you started, there is already a dedicated Wikipedia page.
After harvest, Port wine is transported down the river to cellars in the Gaia riverside (on the opposite margin of Porto) to be stored and matured. Once this was done by the charming traditional boats – rabelos, although nowadays buses are doing for the sake of efficiency.
In the 1960s, Gaia’s port wine lodges started opening their doors to visitors and have been the city’s most famous attraction ever since. With this deep historical connection, it is impossible to imagine Porto without thinking of wine.
THE PORT WINE CELLARS
It is almost inconceivable to visit Porto and not visit a wine lodge. Most of them stand uphill on the Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the river, and are highly visible from a long distance with their names are displayed in giant signs. Names such as Sandeman, Taylor’s and Cockburn may be familiar to you: many of the cellars are under English control and have been for many years.
Cellars provide a great opportunity not only to actually see the spooky dark warehouses in which the barrels are kept (with bats flying around), but also to get valuable insights and tips on the whole process between the vine harvest and the moment the bottle is opened at your home. The last time I was in Porto I visited the Croft cellars and it was a surprisingly cool experience.
The guide starts by explaining the geography of Douro valley geography and its unique features that allow the right conditions to be considered one of the best wine regions worldwide. Did you know the altitude is a key factor on the final taste of the wine?
Port wine establishments are the perfect place to buy some Port: besides being cheaper than anywhere else, the wine is often incorrectly stored and sold beyond their optimum taste lifespan in supermarkets and souvenir stores.
After knowing more about the history of the company, we then proceeded to the actual place where the barrels are kept; huge corridors with the athmosphere here being really cold and spooky. In the end you get to actually taste the three types of Port wine for free, while the guide gave us a decent amount of information on each drink.
Do not underestimate the little three portions of wine in front of you: Port wine has between 19%-22% alcohol content! It was enough to wobble my reality a bit as seen through my eyes.
Anyway, I really enjoyed this. The guide was knowledgeable without doing a hard sell or being too boring. It was an opportunity to experience something which I knew little about and of course you can use to impress someone with some fancy wine tips.
THE WINE CULTURE
Porto’s connection with wine is everywhere. Looking at the river, the exquisite Rabelo boats scattered by the water catch your eye. These were the little boats that once brought the wine all the way down the Douro to Porto to be stored in the cellars.
Actually, you can do the exact reverse journey and discover the beautiful landscape of the Alto Douro Region consisting of terraced vineyards – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – by boarding one of the full day cruises. By far, the most famous company doing this is Douro Azul.
Porto has also an entire hotel dedicated to to wine and wine-making: the luxurious The Yeatman Hotel. The hotel has partnered with 50+ wine companies in order to sponsor (decorate and name) a room and each one of them take turns hosting a weekly wine-tasting event.
Even the way it is constructed, on the hillside above the wine lodges of Gaia, resembles the vineyards at the Douro Valley. From there, you’ll be sure to experience the most spetacular views across the river and over Porto.
Finally, events like Porto Wine Fest celebrate this marriage in the most interactive way.
Completely filling the dock area of the Gaia’s riverside, in this festival deditated to wine you can experience commented tastings, practical cooking classes, chef’s demonstrations among other activities. I think this is a great idea to bring even more together the wine culture and the everyday living. I spent a priceless late afternoon there, sitting by the Douro with a glass of Port on my hand. The cover photo was taken there (yeah, that’s a hell lot of alcohol!).
UPDATE: This festival is no longer happening! It has been replaced with Vinho Verde Wine Fest.
Are you a wine person? Have you tried Port?