Port in Portugal - a short trip report
Updated: Jan 27, 2021
In these days when travel is restricted, I've looked back at past trips with profound fondness. So, for my own nostalgia and for your future wanderlust, I wanted to share a few pictures and words about a trip Pierre and I made in 2016 to discover Port wine, and more...
First of all, thank goodness for grandmothers who will offer to take care of your kids for a week! So at the beginning of August, we set out to discover the beautiful Douro valley growing region for Port wines stretching from Porto (or Oporto) city itself all the way along the Douro river in towards the Spanish border. Our aim was to see the area and get a feeling for the geography, and to eat and drink our way around!
It had been a very dry year - just like in Tuscany - and on the outskirts of the wine region, dozens of forest fires were pestering the countryside making the air smoky and hazy. We were a bit worried about how this would all turn out, but halfway into the Douro valley, the skies cleared up and the splendour of the region revealed itself.
The long river twirls along steep banks terraced with grapevines as far as the eye reaches and as you turn one corner, another stunning vista opens up just like the previous one.
It's possible to drive along the river for a lot of the way and it's rather easy to get around, but if you venture up into the heights of the hills, you may end up on narrow roads without railings and at times it felt like we were floating in a paradise of vineyards, the ground suspended somewhere under us. We had rented a car for our whole stay to have full independence, but in retrospect perhaps it would have been an idea to do a train ride from Porto. The train (http://www.linhadodouro.net/) runs along the river and stops often so it's possible to visit the Port Quintas (wineries). From the river banks, you can admire the whole stretch of the Unesco protected valley with the steep vineyards and iconic white Quintas with their large boards of black name brands.
We split up our week to spend 3 days in the gorgeous Douro Valley exploring the grapes and the land and 3 days in lively Porto to visit the Port houses and feel the vibe of the city.
Port is one of the oldest appellations in Europe originating sometime back in the mid 18th century. The terraces where the vines grow have been formed over centuries and are impressive as they indicate toil & trouble in order to turn such rugged terrain into a successful agricultural area. And even if successful in terms of fame, the work is still mostly done by hand as vineyards (varieties are Tintas and Tourigas mainly) are difficult or sometimes impossible to access with machines, the yield is ridiculously low (sometimes only 2000 kilos/hectare) and the price for the grapes equivalently low.
The overhead of making port is huge because of the many years of ageing, so it's mainly only historical estates on the left bank of Oporto (so Vila Nova de Gaia) that will invest in this part of the process. This means that most wine is moved out of the Douro valley after making and into the city for ageing. In the past, the river was used to move the wine which old Rabelos (traditional cargo boats) testify to, but nowadays trucks are loaded with the fortified wine ready for ageing into one of the many varieties of Port (white, rose, ruby, tawny, vintage, late bottle, etc).
A new generation of growers and winemakers are wanting to emerge, but it's almost impossible for the Port making, so an increasing number of dry reds and some whites are being made in the region. One day by chance at a local eatery we met one of these guys, an interesting winemaker who he gave us great insight and tasting of alternative wines.
The Douro was however first put on the map thanks to the fame of the Port, that takes its name from the city in which it is aged. Or almost. We made our way to Porto city, located on the Northside of the gorge of the Douro river just out to the Atlantic Ocean. The temperatures here drop drastically from inland and are extremely pleasant. Perfect climate for ageing wines, Port wine is aged in the brand name houses and adjacent warehouses on the Southside of the river though, and the name of the city here is in reality Vila Nova de Gaia. This is the perfect place to taste the different kinds of Port and you can practically walk into the different port houses, some of which offer an informative tour, others just a tasting of a variety of Ports.
Here are some names to look out for in the city: Quinta do Noval (tastings are rather expensive but the quality is excellent), Ramos Pintos (there's a tour into their museum and cellar which was rather informative), Niepoort, Croft (we visited at their grape-growing estate just outside Pinhao), Graham's, Fonseca, Taylor's, Quinta do Portal, Churchill's & Fonseca.
Some gourmet eateries to include if you go:
Toca da Raposa in Ervadosa de Douro
Largo do Paco in Amarante
Pedro Lemos in Porto
Orangerie at the Yeatman hotel overlooking Porto
Here are some pictures - only brought my iPhone 7 due to weight restrictions on the flight, but at least it'll give you an idea of what a trip to the area could look like.