On the banks of the river Douro in the golden hour during the late Spring, staring out over the cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia, I feel a world away from the picture painted on my palette the moment I take a sip of port wine. The spectrum of aromas and tastes contained in a glass of this famous fortified wine, ranging from rich red fruits to dried nuts and berries, evokes winter images of comfort for me; where I’m sitting besides a log fire sipping a glass of ruby accompanied by a slice of Stilton. But here under the heat of the Portuguese sun, those tastes I associated with winter unravelled to tell their own story.
Porto sits snuggly between the Douro Valley and the Atlantic Coast, in northern Portugal. Blue tiled churches, a two-story iron bridge and wonderful examples of fading grandeur make Porto worth a visit for the architecture alone, but the city’s legacy can be found at the bottom of a glass in a singular moment of pleasure taken with each sip.
No matter where you go in Porto, there are constant reminders of its iconic namesake wine. Strolling along the banks of the river Douro, one is bombarded by the names of Port brands—from the cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia to the sails of the barcos rabelos, the historic boats used to carry the wine that are now more tourist attractions than transport vehicles.
Despite the boastful bravado of the city, port wine doesn’t begin its life in the city of Porto. It’s exported from Porto, and aged in Vila Nova de Gaia, but the vineyards lie farther east down the river, in the mountainous Douro Valley.
Vines grow on steep metamorphic rocky slopes in the Douro Valley — where some are even cultivated on narrow terraces propped up with hand built stonewalls, while others use the more recent technique of vertical planting, which allows the vines to grow perpendicular to the hillside terraces. The tradition of vine cultivation in the Douro Valley dates back over 2,000 years, making it one of the oldest wine regions in Europe. Its unique vineyards and its terroir were among the first to be demarcated, and are now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The climate, soil and grape varieties all make port wine inimitable. The region surrounding the Douro River is rich in indigenous grape varieties, where up to 30 local grapes are used in the production of port wine, where the finest ports hail from six key grapes whose growing conditions are as individual as their flavours. The varieties of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão and Tempranillo, known locally as Tinta Roriz, are found in red and tawny ports, whereas white ports use local white grapes such as Gouveio, Malvasia Fina and Viosinho, among others. All grapes used in the manufacture of port are regulated by the Instituto do Vinho do Porto. It is this tenured tradition which has bestowed Port wines with their esteemed status, sought after alongside the wines of Burgundy or Bordeaux.
After a short stroll across the two-tiered iron Luis I bridge, which connected the upper and riverside parts of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia, I headed over to the Port cellars. I decided to visit the Sandeman, Ferreira and Offley cellars. I found each cellar carried its own little quirks and characteristics: Offley’s tour is traditional and informative, Ferreira’s cellars are beautiful and historic sporting unique details left behind in the history of port making, and Sandeman’s tour is the most theatrical. Of course, it goes without saying that the tasting is definitely the highlight of each cellar.
Walking through Sandeman’s damp cellars, the musky scent of wine and oak filled the air. Our guide, dressed in the iconic black cloak and broad hat that’s become synonymous with the Sandeman brand, stopped beside a giant barrel close to three meters in height. Port begins life as an ordinary wine, he told us: the grapes are crushed and fermented together, and after a few hours the tannins and aromas from the grapes begin to release. The production of port and conventional wine go their separate ways halfway though fermentation, when a strong spirit, like a clean young wine brandy of 77%, is added to the vat. The addition of the spirit not only stops the fermentation process, but it also keeps the natural sweetness of the grape intact by preventing any more of the natural fruit sugar from turning into alcohol. The wine is then brought to these cellars for ageing – which is a crucial part of the port story since it’s this very ageing process sets the destiny for a bottle of port wine.
The giant barrels are used to produce ruby and white ports, depending on the grape type. In the case of white ports and standard ruby ports, the wines are only aged for two to three years in large oak vats. These vats prevent oxidative ageing, which allows the ruby ports turn out a rich claret colour, carrying an intense aroma of red fruits and berries, such as cherries and blackberry. White ports, however, can vary in sweetness, with some drier than others. Often served chilled, white port has a citrus taste, making it an ideal apéritif.
Deeper into the cellars, our tour introduced us to the tawny ports, aged in small oak casks, which can take reside up to 40 years in the barrel! The smaller barrels expose the port to oxidation and evaporation, which in turn imparts these ports with an amber or golden colour, a rich nutty flavour and aromas resembling oak and butterscotch. We took a sneaky peek at the older casks kept behind lock and key in their own little dungeon for decades. These were the most intense and luxurious tawny ports around. The best of the barrel-aged tawny ports, colheitas, hail from a single vintage year; not to be confused with vintage ports aged in the bottle.
Vintage ports are also locked up in dusty cellars, and aged for two years in oak vats before being transferred to the bottle, a process known as reductive ageing. After decades more in the bottle, vintage ports become the most potent and structured of the port wines, with lower tannin levels and a smoother palate, and the complexity doesn’t stop there.
Reserve ruby ports that come from higher quality yields are left to age for longer in the vats, whereas late-bottled vintage ports are aged in the vats for up to six years. There are also crusted ports, which unlike vintage ports are not from a single year, but in a similar vein to the vintage ports, they are also aged in the bottle.
At the end of each tour, the tasting confirmed the professed complexity of these legendary fortified wines. Sandeman’s Porto Apitiv White is refreshing, with a pale yellow colour and a hint of citrus and a nutty, floral aroma. Served chilled, this works well with tonic water and a splash of lemon. Taylor’s Chip Dry White Port suits those looking for a crisp, dry taste. Its ageing in the oak vat imparts a certain nuttiness among the fruit flavours, which results in an elegant white port. The Porto Ferreira Ruby is an intense, full-bodied port, with a crafted equilibrium between structured tannins and mellow sweetness, and an aroma that conjures up impressions of ripe red berries. Offley’s recently crafted rosé port has a curious bouquet of tropical fruits, making it a great alternative to a cocktail.
While the best tawny Ports are aged for decades, and a little out of my budget, I found a quality tawny in a more reasonable price range – the Quinta das Carvalhas, which comes from a single vineyard, and is carefully matured in oak casks. With a velvety texture that tasted of dried fruits and nuts, this topaz coloured port is perfect served alongside a slice of blue cheese.
When the tastings came to a close, I felt I knew slightly more about port wines, but there is still a world of port out there to discover. But what I took home at the end of the trip, is that while there are a myriad port wines sporting different hues, tastes and vineyards of origin, they all seemed to blend together in a narrative that intertwines with the city of Porto —a city which has aged as gracefully as the wine that bears its name.