Here’s a very important lesson about drinking port wine: don’t drink a lot of it.
It’s not its syrupy sweetness or that it’s associated with being a dessert wine and thus inappropriate for other drinking opportunities. It’s not its historical connection with the gentlemanly elite of England or that it’s not as well-known as the vinho verde we drink in my country. The reason is a lot simpler than that: port wine is made by putting brandy in it.
I did not know that part when we had three glasses of it before dinner on our first night in Lisbon.
Before heading to Portugal, I’d been curious about port wine – what was this stuff that people sipped on in tiny glasses before or after dinner in fancy restaurants? – but, up until my first night in Lisbon, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to it. Based on the massive headache I had when I woke up the next morning, I was unsure I ever wanted to have it again, but I also knew that I couldn’t spend eight days sailing up and down the Duoro River Valley without giving the mysterious stuff another chance. After all, the River Duoro is the only region in the world entirely devoted to growing, caring for, and cultivating its grapes.
Ten days sailing back and forth along the River Duoro in northern Portugal taught me a lot about this mysterious beverage. For one thing, the wine itself is as much a part of Portuguese life as the melancholic cries of the fado singer inside a dimly-lit speakeasy or the pastel de nata, the sweet egg pastries with the crispy burnt tops sold on every corner in every shop in every village.
I learned, too, why I had the misconceptions I did. I came to understand that port wine ended up becoming so popular in England because the wines survived the rocky sailings best when the sailors added brandy to the casks. Through the daily tastings on our Viking ship, I came to recognize the subtle differences in the tastes between the white port, the ruby, and the tawny. At the Sandeman port cellar in Porto, we even shadowed a winemaker, glimpsing a few of the vintage ports, what our guide called his “sleeping beauties,” and marveling at the 1963 variety, the oldest one in the cellars still in its original cask.
We talked about the harvests, about why the bottles are laid sideways to keep the cork wet, and why the wine inside the bottle should age at least ten years before being exposed to the air. I tried moscatel, which, yes, is even sweeter and thicker than port, and madeira, which I’d only ever used as cooking wine, and I grew fond of both of them. There was none of this three-glasses-before-dinner business—I sipped them all slowly, curiously, and thoughtfully.
On the last night of our cruise, sailing back into Porto, the wine’s beautiful namesake, we ran up to the upper deck at sunset with two glasses of ruby red port. A night of overdoing it in Lisbon had turned into a flavor I absolutely love.
Article and photographs by Kristin Winet. A special thanks to Viking River Cruises for sponsoring her trip to Portugal and introducing her to port wine!