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Portuguese Wines Beyond Port

Port Wines of the Douro Valley in Portugal

Bliss in a Bottle

Photography by: Eduardo Tatschke.

Walking out from a dark, silent alley onto Porto’s bustling seafood-scented ribeira, one immediately understands why this city is a hidden gem of the Iberian Peninsula.  A myriad of ochre and brick colored houses sprout from the deep gorge leading down to the River Douro. As it coils and turns out towards the ocean crossed by 6 immense bridges, pinnacles of 19th and 20th century engineering, it’s no wonder the Porto has earned the title ‘city of bridges’.

But Porto, in northern Portugal, seems to have many names and titles, particularly since UNSECO (whc.unesco.org/en/list/755) named it a World Heritage Site.  Its baroque, gothic and renaissance facades decorated with stunning blue and white ceramic tile work, or azulejos, (www.flickr.com/photos/20792787@N00/sets/607160) dominate the historic center of the city.  People peer out from their windows or balconies, garlanded by the day’s washing swaying in unison. The streets dip and rise creating spectacular visuals of a town that seems to have halted in time. 

A scenic walk across the River Douro on the Don Luis I bridge will take you to the town of Vila Nova da Gaia, whose riverfront is a tourist hot spot.  A big change from the traditional seafood eateries on the other side, Gaia offers trendy experiences in the hip restaurants and riverside café’s.  But it’s the port wine cellars and lodges that Porto is most famous for.  People from all over Europe congregate here, at the birthplace of port wine, for a taste of this seductive yet noble drink.

The Douro Valley is nothing short of an earthly paradise, stretching 100 km’s from Porto in the form of terraced vineyards cascading down into the river and undulating along the mountainous terrain.   In this demarcated region with different altitudes and microclimates, the 30 different varieties of grapes for port are grown and seldom found elsewhere.  Some are grown as far up as 1,800 meters, but experience tells us that lower elevations are best, where it is said the grapes can feel the river flowing.

The port wine region is divided into three zones: the Baixo Corgo, the Cima Corgo, and the Douro Superior.  Each zone has its own remarkable climatic conditions that vary throughout the year, determining the quality of the grapes. Small scale variations in the temperature or rainfall can make or break a harvest.  For example, the Baixo zone is closest to the Atlantic hence receiving the most rainfall, making it a fertile and bearing land.  The Douro Superior is the hottest and driest region of the three.

It is said that a miracle of agricultural engineering has been necessary to succeed in creating vineyards here in the steep slopes of the Douro Valley.  The terraces on which the vines flourish lay on sedimentary rocks known as schist which are molded using dynamite or bulldozers, but a century ago was done by the hard toil of men and women of the trade. The loose dry soil doesn’t look too promising, but it’s perfect for the vines to push down their roots to find water.  It’s this poor quality soil and the extraordinary climatic fluctuations that make this region a wine heaven. 

Interestingly enough, it was English wine traders who saw the enormous potential of the Douro Valley.  Driven by their shortage of Bordeaux wine due to frequent wars in the 17th century, British wine merchants turned to Portugal for an alternative to the French wines they loved.  But the quality they found in Portugal did not match their expectations, and so they decided to oversee the production of wine worthy of a British palate.

This is why when one walks along the Gaia riverside the names of the large port cellars are English. Taylor’s, Croft, and Sandeman are among the large English port houses popular today in Porto.  They offer tours of their age-old cellars and a bit of port tasting for the enthusiastic tourist or wine aficionado.  A tour will cost you anywhere from nothing to €6 and can be enjoyed in Portuguese, Spanish or English with frequent groups leaving every half hour or so. 

The Sandeman tour is probably one of the most interesting. You are greeted by a dark caped tour guide resembling the image of the infamous Don Sandeman trademark logo, whose design was created in the 1920’s representing the traditional black capes of Portuguese students.  As soon as you step into the large cellars, the smell of old oak and fermented fruit mixed with the pleasant coolness and humidity of their is intense. Barrels, drums, and casks are piled up across the warehouses, all containing the vintages which are brought here from the quintas to start the ageing process.

The tour ends in a large hall presented with intimate dim lighting and long black tables, where glasses of white and red port are set on each place.  The tour guide bids everyone salud and the instant clinks of the crystal is heard followed by a mellow silence.  Everyone swirls the port in their mouths for a few seconds and finally swallows.  Some are tasting port for the very first time and some others are savoring their favorite wine.  Either way the experience is a hedonistic thrill putting Bacchus himself to shame.  The fine white port has a pale lemon color with lovely pear and apple notes. The red port has a sensual deep ruby color with a brown sugar nose, and sweet cherry and plum notes. Bliss.

There are three main types of red port:  Vintage, Tawny and Ruby.  Ruby ports spend a minimum of two years in huge vats before being bottled.  These immense vessels minimize the amount of air that comes in contact with the wine through the wood, reducing the oxidation.  This process yields a bright garnet or ruby colored wine with berry fruit overtones.  Ruby ports are best enjoyed postprandially with red or black fruits and light cheeses, perfect for desserts with chocolate.  

Tawny ports are aged in smaller barrels allowing more air to come in contact with the wine, creating more oxidization.  As the name implies, Tawny ports have a deep mahogany color, with overtones of almonds and spices.  It is suggested that they are served also after dinner, with stronger cheeses such as Roquefort, and nuts or dried fruits.

Vintage ports are the most expensive kind of port.  It is a higher quality of ruby port which age from four to six years in the oak casks. These ports need to be decanted before drinking to allow the remaining sediments to sink.  This type of port will continue ageing in the bottle, and Sandeman boasts having a 100-year old bottle from 1906 which costs €3,000. 

There are also white ports which aren’t as popular as their red counterparts but can be just as good.  They can range from very sweet to very dry, and should be enjoyed chilled as an aperitif to any meal.  White port has a citric tang with light floral hints which can be enjoyed alone, on the rocks, or even combined with tonic water and a wedge of lime.

The house of Calem (www.calem.pt) is another large wine lodge which is family-owned, and what’s more, is Portuguese family-owned, which is probably why many of the locals recommend it. The tour around its award-winning 19th century cellars is short but informative, showing off the impressive 57,000 liter oak vats, some of which are as old as the business itself. Oddly enough, some of the smaller oak barrels are exported up to Scotland after they’ve served their function with port, to continue their storage career, this time with whiskey.    

Port is a fortified wine, which means that its natural fermentation process is halted by the addition of brandy. This stops the sugars of the grape from turning into alcohol thus giving the final product its sweetened characteristic, as well as between 19 and 22 degrees of alcohol --almost double that of normal table wine. How this process came to be is unknown, although word on the street is that monks in Portuguese monasteries were mixing wine with brandy to make it sweet for centuries before the English came. It is also said that a measure of brandy was added in order to stabilize the wine during the long sea journey to the British Isles. 

Uphill away from the river promenade, a labyrinth of steep sunlit cobblestone streets lead to port houses, such as Taylor’s, Offley, and Croft between the traditional tiled rooftops and iron street lamps.  The view of Porto from some of these wine warehouses makes for a worthy companion when tasting their port.  Such is the case of Croft (www.croftport.com), whose tasting room decorated with old barrels and traditional grape-picking tools looks onto stunning scenery.

Walking out from the wine lodge, Porto shows itself once again from across the river under the glow of a the sun behind a low hill. Back in the Porto Riviera the restaurants are already spreading out their tablecloths and the pungent smell of fried calamari fills the air.  In the city center the Brazilian gold of the church mosaics and marble of the steeples highlight the power and wealth that Porto once had, when the trade of port made it flourish. So one shouldn’t be surprised that the country itself was named after a city that thrived on a sweet succulent wine. It goes to show that a bit of bliss in a bottle can go a long way. 

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