It’s rare when you visit a place you immediately fell in love with for the second time and feel the same rush. My recent trip to Porto and the Douro Valley was all that and more with still-recurring wistful feelings of “saudade”, the haunting Portuguese word (not translatable in English) for longing for something or someone that is no longer near you.
Besides the eye-grabbing adobe-topped buildings of Porto
and the sweeping beauty of the Douro River, Porto offers a wealth of richness in cuisine, dry wines (not just Port), and incredible culture and history. I had no idea what a gastronomic place Porto is: teeming with fresh fish and vegetables, amazing bread, cheese, and sausages, and my new favorite splurge meal – the francesinha sandwich. The latter is a seemingly crazy blend of beef, pork, and ham smothered with cheese and a tomato-based sauce made of whiskey, bourbon, wine, and beer. While it sounds bizarre, it’s truly incredible and ends up tasting somewhat like a spicy barbecue sauce atop a pizza burger.
Portugal is, of course, best known for its world-renowned Port, a fortified sweet drink made in both wood and bottle-aged styles. The history of Port is one of the most unique wine stories around dating back to the mid-17th century. The grapes were grown 70 miles up the Douro River in the Douro Valley where they were also made into base wines for Port using traditional processes of foot-treading in granite lagares and fortification with 77% alcohol grape spirit to preserve some sugars thus creating Port’s natural sweetness.
The wines were stored for the winter and then, when spring arrived, the wines were shipped down the Douro River to Vila Nova de Gaia in precarious flat-bottomed boats called barcos rabelos. Many lives and Port barrels were lost in these journeys due to the turbulent Douro River (which has since been dammed up in several places to allow easier passage). Vila Nova de Gaia offered higher humidity and cooler temperatures that allowed the Port to age better.
Today these same processes continue except trucks are used instead of boats and some quintas (estates or vineyards) such as Quinta do Noval choose to store their Ports long-term in the Douro since temperature-controlled rooms and tanks are available now. Port lodges dot the banks of the Douro River (as do rabelo boats) providing a timeless yet historical backdrop to a thriving and vibrant town.
Fascinatingly, the same grapes that go into Port (commonly Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Cao, Tinta Barroca, and Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo) are also used to produce robust and characterful red wines. Conversely, White Port also exists and its grapes (Rabigato, Gouveio, Arinto, and Boal among many others) produce intriguingly full-bodied and complex white wines. Rosé is also fabulous, typically made from Touriga Nacional, arguably the Douro’s flagship grape (said to be like Cabernet Sauvignon is to Napa, CA).
A few side-notes on Porto before we get to the wines. Not only is it blessed with jaw-dropping natural beauty, Porto is very clean with a safe and almost pristine feel to it. Independent vendors line the streets paralleling the Douro river peddling unique wares including cork purses and wallets, hand-carved figures, and all kinds of vividly-colored textiles which Portugal is known for. Each Portuguese region has its own textile design and colors. It’s a kind of daily market which, while a bit touristy, owes its authenticity to the fine workmanship in most of the things I saw. Another thing that struck me is no matter what you buy or where you buy it, the attention to attractive packaging is always there (and there’s no bag cost).
Speaking of attractive, if you can splurge, consider staying at the fabulous Yeatman hotel in Porto.
Owned by The Fladgate Partnership, the hotel is a shrine to the wines of Portugal. Each spacious and impeccably-decorated room offers a patio overlooking the Douro River. The hotel offers world-class dining in the Gastronomic Restaurant (2 Michelin stars) and a literally perfect bar (Dick’s Bar) featuring fascinating Portuguese wines, mesmerizing views, and the kind of aura that makes you want to stay all night and ponder the world. There’s also a lovely spa, infiniti pool, gym, and unparalleled service by every single employee I spoke with from the breakfast servers to the concierge, bar staff, and events team.
The Yeatman lies on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river along with all of the Port lodges.
The Port lodges are charming time capsules of wine history and lore. Most offer guided tours, tastings, and occasionally even Fado (the traditional Portuguese music) concerts such as the one at Cálem. If you haven’t had much Port you may think they all taste alike but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Each Port house has its own style, blending, and aging regimen which is easily evident when the various Ports are lined up side by side.
We spent time at Taylor Fladgate’s lodge as well as Graham’s lodge in Porto. The Fladgate Partnership owns the Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, and Croft brands and chooses to only make Port (they don’t make any dry wine but they do partner with several quintas that do). The Symington Family owns Dows, Warres, Graham’s, Cockburn, and Optima among several brands.
At Taylor Fladgate, we did a wonderful self-guided tour (which I had initial doubts about) as well as a world-class tasting. Last time I visited, our Masters of Wine group had an amazing tour done by Adrian Bridge himself (CEO of Taylor Fladgate) but obviously that model doesn’t scale so we were told that the new self-guided tour was created to insure content consistency and also to allow visitors to experience what interested them most.
During the tour, we saw the expansive Port cellars, a complete life cycle demonstration of grapes budding to being made into Port, soil and rock samples of the incredible Douro schist terraces, and several videos explaining how Port is made. I asked several people at the end how they liked the tour and all said they absorbed more from going at their own pace than listening to a guide so it appears the self-guided tour was a winner. I enjoyed it as well although I have to say it’s hard to beat Mr. Bridge’s historical accounts and vast knowledge of the Douro region.
Afterward we had a brilliant tasting of the 7 Ports below:
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)– these are Ports made from a single vintage and aged 4 -6 years in wood. This style is aimed at earlier drinking and offers great value for the quality as it’s like a Vintage but much more affordable. This one tasted very fruit-forward with black and red fruit at the forefront and round soft tannins balancing out zesty acidity.
2012 Quinta da Vargellas Vintage – Vargellas is the enchanting vineyard located far east in the Douro Superior that provides grapes for the Taylor Fladgate Ports. These grapes have vibrant acidity and natural tension as a result of their home at higher altitudes. This Port is a Single-Quinta Vintage Port which means that all grapes came from the same year and vineyard and that it was primarily aged in bottle (only two years in wood) which produces the deep opaque purple that is characteristic of Vintage ports. Bottle aging prevents oxygen from getting into the wine thus preserving the deep color and producing more fruit–forward flavors. Flavors of blackberry, blueberry, chocolate, and violet with an electric acidity showcase this Port.
10 Year Tawny – A tawny is aged at least 6 years in wood and the “10 year” designates that the average age of all wines used in the blend is 10 years old. Tawnies are always blends of many different years and always lighter in color than Vintage Ports due to slight oxygen ingress from being aged in barrel which also produces a more dried fruit and nut profile versus the fruitiness of a Vintage. This Port was the darkest in color of the 5 tawnies and tasted of dried fruit, spice, and almonds.
20 Year Tawny – Charming flavors of orange peel, dried apricot, marmalade, and walnuts with supple tannins and that lightning acidity to keep it fresh. This was the most universally popular of the bunch. In general, 20 Year tawnies offer the best value for the quality as they are substantially more complex than a 10 Year and typically not much higher in price.
30 Year Tawny – This Port demonstrated the developing signs of age with notes of acetaldehyde (that “sherry-like” smell) accompanied by polished mahogany, dried pineapple, and orange flavors with a highly viscous mouthfeel. Most port houses don’t make 30 and 40 year-old Ports anymore and it’s a category that Taylor Fladgate excels at.
40 Year Tawny – Making the leap of preserving the 20 Year tawny’s freshness and youthful acidity but combining those wonderful age flavors of dried fruit, prune, and walnuts that started to appear in the 30 year-old, this Port was exceptional with brisk acidity and regal structure.
1967 Colheita – Colheita is a vintage tawny Port which means that it’s aged at least 6 years in wood (like a Tawny) but is made from grapes all harvested in the same year (like a Vintage). All of these grapes were from 1967 which I have a special fondness for as it’s my birth year and I used this Port to celebrate the big 5-0 earlier this year.
This Port was a complex menagerie of maple syrup, caramel, honey, walnuts, dried herbs, and furniture polish with an almost Cognac-like edge to it. Its beautiful amber gold color was tinged with olive flecks on the rim which also speaks to its age. 11,000 bottles were produced and this Port can still be found in the U.S. for $300.
Taylor Fladgate also has a beautiful restaurant next to the tasting room called Barão Fladgate. With a panaoramic patio and spectacular views from inside, this is a perfect place to enjoy everything Porto has to offer.
We also visited Graham’s Lodge in Porto which has a stunning restaurant in Vinum. Sweeping views of the city and Douro river abound whether indoors in the sultry wine-themed interior or the spacious veranda. We had a guided tour of the elaborate cellars (a typical “smaller” Port barrel is 550-liters in size compared to the typical French 225-liter barrel) and more oval shaped in the middle. New oak is rarely used in Port as the competing wood flavors would detract from Port’s own decadent nuances.
At Graham’s we tasted a flight of 4 Ports:
Six Grapes Ruby – early-drinking Port with youthful energy and concentrated blackberry and violet notes. The “Six Grapes” name comes from the symbol traditionally used to mark barrels containing the highest quality wine from Graham’s Douro Valley quintas. This Port is primarily made of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, and Tinta Barroca.
Graham’s 10 Year Tawny – Amber gold in color with flavors of red fruit, caramel, and slight nuttiness developing. Robust tannins and firm structure.
Graham’s 20 Year Tawny – Smoother tannins with dried apricot, savory herb, and walnut flavors backed by lively acidity.
Warre’s 1980 Vintage Port – Warre’s is one of the drier (less sweet) styles of Port and consequently one of my favorites. This one had pronounced mineral flavors of slate and wet rock, accompanied by Touriga Nacional’s trademark violet and blackberry notes all riding a cascading wave of vibrant acidity.
Unlike the Fladgate Partnership, the Symington Family does make its own dry wines from the same grapes that go into Port. Keep in mind that Port is one of the most highly regulated wines in the world with only a certain percentage of grapes produced allowed to be made into Port each year. The thought (smartly) occurred to someone along the way that those grapes not going into Port were far too good to be wasted thus dry wines were born.
Symington has many wine brands and we tried these two over lunch at Vinum.
2016 Altano which is an organic wine of mixed grape varieties aged in French oak. Fresh and fruity with lush blackberry, spice, and vanilla, this wine is young and vibrant.
Note: the 2015 vintage of this wine just got written up in Decanter’s November issue.
2014 Altano Reserva is a blend of 90% Touriga Nacional and 10% Touriga Francesca aged in American oak. This was my favorite of the two with lovely notes of cassis, blackberry, and violet supported by smooth tannins and racy acidity. This wine went perfectly with the rib-eye steak that we had for lunch.
Next up, our time in the spectacular Douro Valley.