Port wine, the nectar of the regular folk

We have champagne to thank for the evolution of what we now know as modern day port wine. In the late 17th century, champagne became known as a modern wine and was incredibly popular with the British and, of course, with the French. According to legend, a Benedictine monk, Dom Pierre Pérignon, pioneered quality changes for champagne and declared, of sparkling champagne, “I am drinking stars.” It wasn’t until later, after his death in 1715, that subsequent changes in production technique following his initial invention caused drinking champagne became the height of fashion in Paris and Versailles. Because it was so limited and nothing like it had been made before, the people who purchased it were invariably rich. This left little for everyone else.

When France and England went to war in the late 17th century, the English boycotted French wine and soon began buying their wine from Portugal. Due to the Methuen Treaty of 1703, Portuguese wine could be imported into England at a third less duty than other wines. This lead to an influx of Portuguese wines into the English market. 1

The first port that was initially made was coarse and cheap, sold as an alternative to claret wine. Port was first introduced to satisfy the tavern market of the English. In 1717, the first trading post was established in Porto. The city of Porto, with its many wine cellars or adegas in Vila Nova de Gaia, has long served as the main export port for port wine. This is where the main production and export of this fortified wine has taken place over the centuries.

Port wine, also known as Vinho do Porto, is a Portuguese fortified wine from grapes grown in the Douro Valley of Portugal. Traditionally, after the grapes are picked, they are placed in Lagares, which are these large open stone basins where the grapes are trodden by foot or by a wooden stick. While the grapes are fermenting, they create must, which is grape juice. The sugar in the must is then converted to alcohol.  When the must has reached about 6-7 percent alcohol, it is then fortified by the addition of a neutral grape spirit known as aguardente (a type of brandy). This simultaneously stops the fermentation process and stabilizes the wine. By stopping the fermentation before it is has completed, there is little residual sugar left in the wine, and a slightly sweet wine results. However, with the addition of the neutral grape spirit and residual sugar, there is an increase in alcohol as well as sweetness.

The first port wines produced were made with dry wines, meaning that the fermentation process had already run its course, leaving no residual sugar. This is what we would call a Dry Port. However, the traditional dessert wines that many know today are made with sweeter wines; thus when fermentation is stopped, residual sugar remains, giving this fortified wine the sweetness and potency we now enjoy.

Port wine is quality protected and monitored by the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP). In 1756, the Douro Valley, where port wine is produced, was established as a protected region or appellation, making it one of the oldest demarcated and protected wine region in the world.

The Douro Valley has hundreds of varieties of grapes, but there are five key varieties widely cultivated and used in the production of port: Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roiz (Tempranillo), Tourigua Francesa, and Touriga Nacional.

Ports from Portugal can be divided and then subdivided into numerous categories. There is port that undergoes “reductive” ageing, which are wines aged in sealed glass bottles. A second main category is port wines that are matured in wood barrels—a process known as “oxidative” ageing. The port wines that possibly interest you most are the Rubies and Tawnies that you have likely heard about and maybe already tried.

Tawny Port is wine made from red grapes, aged in wooden barrels known as pipas. This process exposes them to gradual oxidation and evaporation. They are generally nutty in flavor and a golden brown in color. They can be aged for 10, 20, 30, and 40 years. In the image below, you will see what we call Colheita.

Colheita is a tawny port of a single vintage, instead of an age indication of 10, 20, or other years. Rather, it has a specific vintage year mentioned. Below you will see there is a Colheita of 1998 that is still in barrel. Colheitas can spend 20 or more years in barrel before being bottled and sold.

Ruby Port is among the most popular of port wines produced. These wines are generally stored in concrete or stainless steel to prevent oxidative ageing and to protect the beautiful ruby color common to these wines. Rubies are generally blended to be consistent in color and flavor. They are fined and cold filtered. They tend to be somewhat fruitier on the palate and in some ways fresher. A Ruby isn’t generally a port that will improve with age.

Vintage Port is a wine that is made entirely from the grapes of a declared vintage year by the individual Port house. Vintage ports represent approximately 2% of overall port production. While some perceive producing port wines labeled as vintage ports as a way to increase revenue by naming every year a vintage (or as some perceive it, a great year), the decisions to label certain port wines as vintage port are not taken lightly, and many reputations hang in the balance here. Vintage ports are aged in barrels for a maximum of two and a half years before bottling and then require another 10 to 40 years of ageing in bottle before they are ready to be consumed. Since they are aged in barrels for less than three years, they still retain a dark ruby color and a substantial amount of freshness. It is recommended to consume a vintage port wine within a few days of opening it, and it should be treated like a normal wine.

2011 is an example of  a phenomenal vintage- many wineries have released their 2011 Vintage Ports. I would highly recommend getting your hands on Vinhos Oscar Quevedo Vintage Port 2011, which was awarded 96 points by the Wine Spectator this month.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) is generally a port wine that was destined for bottling as a vintage port, but which, due to lack of demand, was left in barrel longer than planned. These port wines are generally bottled four to six years after the vintage year. Some are filtered; others are not and require decanting. The wine is ready to drink when it is released.

Calem Port Tasting- Bottom Row: Left to Right- 30 yr White Port- 40 yr Tawny – 1940 Colheita – 2011 Vintage Port

There is, honestly, so much to learn about port, and there are even white and rose port wines available as well. Port wine is extremely flexible as a wine/spirit and can be used to make mixed drinks as well.

Two good friends of mine, Ryan and Gabriella Opaz of CataVino, told me about a phenomenal White Port and Tonic drink. Such a drink would be a great intro to enjoying port wines, especially on a hot summer day. I found a recipe online by For the Love of Port with a great recipe to try.

How to make a Port and Tonic:

What you’ll need:

  • Bottle of Dry White Port (such as Taylor’s Chip Dry, Fonseca Siroco, etc.)
  • Tonic water
  • Fresh mint leaves
  • Ice cubes

In a tall glass, place 5-8 mint leaves and then top off with ice cubes. You can add more or less mint depending on your taste preference. Then add in equal parts White Port and tonic water and stir.

Chin Chin!

And stay posted for an interview with a port wine producer from Vila Nova de Gaia—coming soon!

1 Work Cited: Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures, by Paul Lukacs; W. W. Norton & Company (December, 2012)

Porto, the Gateway to the Douro Wine Region

Porto, formerly known as “Portus Cale” by the Romans, latin for Port of Cale, is now known as Oporto (The Port) by the locals following the Reconquest in AD 1000.  This city is full of Old-World charm with its red-tiled roofs, soaring bell towers, extravagant baroque churches, and stately buildings tumbling down the hillside to the River Douro (Rio Douro). Porto is one of Europe’s oldest centers and was registered as a World Heritage site by Unesco in 1996.

Oporto of "Portucale"

Porto of “Portucale”

Fun fact:  Did you know that Porto put the “Portu” in Portugal? In AD 1000, after the reconquest of Portugal from the Moors, the city’s name was made the name of the new country,“Portucale.”

I personally love the beauty of this town, and on my first real visit to this town, I marveled at the historical and modern significance that it had on the wine industry. Porto is famous for its export of Port wine; however, this region has so much more to offer than just Port wine.  Indeed, Porto is a vibrant city with amazing food and culture.

A little wine history of Porto:

While it is thought that grapes have been grown in Portugal for over 4,000 years, it wasn’t until the 14th century that Portugal really became known for its wine trade with England.  This wine trade later expanded in the 17th century to other countries such as Scotland and the Netherlands.

Port Wine Basics:

Port wine, also known as Vinho do Porto, is a Portuguese fortified wine made exclusively from grapes from the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. It is typically a sweet red wine that is often enjoyed with desserts or cheeses. There are now many different types of port: white port, rose port and the traditional red port.

Before I delve into everything port, I want to talk about Porto.  I’ve covered Port wines in this article.

The city of Porto:

Porto—or Oporto, as I like to call it—serves in many ways as the historical and cultural gateway to the stunning Douro River valley. It is worth it to stay a few days here before setting off into the Douro river valley.

Porto is a compact city with rolling hills, so be prepared to walk up and down quite a bit. I would recommend a great pair of walking shoes. As I visited the city, I created an “Oporto Must See List” which I saved on my Foursquare account. (I love using this tool because it maps it all out for me and as people provide me with recommendations, I add it to my list and can find it instantly.)

Ribeira of Porto looking over at Vila Nova de Gaia at night

Ribeira of Porto looking over at Vila Nova de Gaia at night

Porto is technically divided into three parts:

Ribeira, which is Porto’s riverfront center with a gorgeous view of all the Port wine houses across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia. This is a stunning neighborhood with great riverside restaurants and outdoor patios. It can be very touristy, so be prepared to look at menus and pricing first before sitting down. If you are a runner or a walker, you can run all the way from the port at the river’s edge inland as well as out to the sea along a busy road. I would recommend going early in the morning before the traffic picks up.

Places to visit:

  • Palácio da Bolsa, R. de Ferreira Borges 55, next to the Church of St. Francis —This stunning building is a must-see.  It  has some lavishly decorated rooms, including the Arabian room, which was inspired by Granada’s Alhambra.

Place to eat:

  • Bacalhau Restaurant—This tiny little place is hidden on Rua de Cima do Muro Bacalhoeiros 153. It is right on the river, and they offer some great dishes of seafood and in particular Bacalhau, also known as dried and salted cod, the nation’s national dish. They also have a great wine menu. You can sit outside or inside, but the views are worth waiting for a table outside.  +351.960.378.883


The Historic Sao Bento Train Station

The Historic Sao Bento Train Station

City Center, which is located directly up from Ribeira, on the top of the hillside.  I would consider this area to be a more realistic and less touristy area of Porto, especially if you are considering doing some shopping.

Places to visit:

  • Sao Bento Train Station, Praca Almeida Garret: This train station, opened in 1916, is still in operation.  The entry hall to the train station is covered in over twenty thousand vivid blue “azulejo” tiles, showing the historical and folk scenes of the Douro River region; the tiles were painted by Jorge Colaco in the 1900s. Throughout northern Portugal you will be able to find beautiful blue “azulejo” Portuguese tile that you can take home as a souvenir.
  • Clérigos Church and Tower, Rua S. Felipe de Nery:  Are you interested in seeing the beautiful city from above?  If so, brave the 225-step climb to the top of this towering landmark of Porto. Afterwards, stop over at the Clérigos Vinhos & Petiscos for a small bite and great wine.

Places to eat and drink:

  • Bella Doce Praça Almeida Garrett 11, is a great place to sit down and enjoy some of the local pastries and amazing coffee at a phenomenal price. At less than a Euro, you can enjoy a beautiful shot of espresso.  It is located directly across from São Bento Train station and has white umbrellas covering the outdoor tables. The entrance has a white awning.  It is also directly behind the large green magazine kiosk and by the entrance to the São Bento Metro stop.
  • Clérigos Vinhos & Petiscos, Rua das Carmelitas, 151, is a cute wine bar that offers a really good selection of Portuguese wines and aperitifs. It is located in the middle of this very modern-looking outdoor mall with outdoor and indoor seating.  I went in the middle of the afternoon, after lunch and before dinner, and enjoyed a small three-bite nibble and spent 3 euros for a Reserve glass of Douro wine. They serve regular-size meals for lunch and dinner.
  • Café Aviz, Rua de Aviz 1, is a great no-fuss cafeteria where you can get a reasonably priced meal. I’ve heard the francesinha, which is a sandwich made with a number of different meats, roast beef, different sausages and bologna, then covered with melted cheese, and a beer-and-tomato sauce. It is then topped with an egg at some places and served with French fries.  Be aware, it is a heart-attack type of meal but I would rather eat this than food at the millions of fast-food restaurants you now see. Click on this link for a fellow traveler’s experience with the Francesinha.

Vila Nova de Gaia

Now that you’ve stuffed yourself with this amazingly dense sandwich, let’s walk back down the hill and across the river to the Port wine center, Vila Nova de Gaia.  This is arguably one of Porto’s main tourist attractions, the port-wine cellars (Caves do vinho do Porto). The Douro can be crossed by any of the six bridges that connect the two sides of Porto together. If you are walk as I would imagine you would after the Francesinha, cross via the Ponte Dom Luis I. The metro runs above it, and the cars and pedestrians can cross on the lower level directly from the Ribeira water front.

Vila Nova de Gaia has always played a very important role in the history of the port wine business. All port wine that was to be exported outside of Portugal, had to first pass through Gaia. It would travel from the Douro Valley, almost 100 kilometers, approx.. 62 miles down river to Gaia, where it would be stored and aged before it was shipped out. This is where you will find a number of port houses that are definitely worth a visit. Here are a few of my recommendations.

Places to visit and taste:

Quevedo Port Wine Lodge, Rua de Santa Marinha, 77, Vila Nova de Gaia: This family-owned port wine business was officially founded in 1991, but the history of the land and the family goes back even further. The Quevedo Vineyard is located in João da Pesqueira, a small town in the heart of Douro Valley, where they make still wines as well as port wines.  Oscar, the most well known and recognized member of the family, acts as the face of Quevedo. He is also the member of the family whom you are likely to see in the tasting room, while his sister, Claudia, the winemaker, is generally out in Douro making the wine.  Oscar explains how port is made. I personally love his accent. Enjoy:

W. & J. Graham’s Lodge, Rua do Agro 141, Vila Nova de Gaia: W & J Graham’s was founded in 1820 by the Graham brothers from Scotland. The lodge itself was built in 1890, where you can now visit, taste, and tour the amazing facilities. I would highly recommend visiting this great lodge. W & J Graham’s now belongs to the prestigious wine group, the Symington Family, along with CockBurn’s, Warre’s, and Dow’s.

Porto Calém, Av. Diogo Leite, 344, Vila Nova de Gaia: Calém is the closest port lodge to the bridge and therefore makes it a great beginning or end stop. Established in 1859, Calém is one of the oldest port houses in Vila Nova de Gaia. In 2006 and 2008, they won the Best of Wine Tourism award for their architecture and wine tourism services. They offer daily tours and hold a number of events throughout the year. Since 1998, Calém is now a part of Sogevinus Fine Wines S.A., which also owns Kopke, Barros and Burmester.

Given that you’ve probably already drank quite a bit of port at this point, the only option is return to the City Center or go across the river and enjoy the night life and great food Porto has to offer. While I haven’t had a chance to visit all these places, I would recommend checking out my “Oporto Must See List” on Foursquare for more recommendations given to me by fellow travelers and locals.

After visiting Oporto for a few days, make sure you make it to the Douro River Valley. Stay tuned for a series of stories on Portuguese wine and travel.

Chin Chin!