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Northern Portugal – Porto Part I – Port
For a while now I’ve been wanting to visit Northern Portugal. I have a real love for port so, apart from anything else, I wanted to learn more.
My recent trip took me to Guimarães and Braga and then on to Porto. And, although we received a fitting and warm welcome at the Sheraton Hotel in the form of a glass of port when we arrived, the trip was not just about port. I’ll be writing a little more about what else to do in Porto in a separate feature, despite an increasingly strong conviction that I could so easily just have taken up residence in the Port Houses on the south side of the Douro (I wonder if there’s such a thing as a Port House crawl?)
Port is a fortified wine with a curious origin; the result of an English boycott of French wines during the Napoleonic wars in the late 17th century. Rather than drink French wine, the English decided to source their wine from allies in Portugal – and in order to stabilise the fragile, still wine on the longer journey from Porto to England they started to add a little brandy. The result was port, a sweeter, fortified wine that has a higher alcohol level than the Claret it was meant to replace.
Porto is the second largest city in Portugal, on the estuary of the Douro. For centuries, the wine was brought downstream from the vineyards of the Douro to Porto and stored in the Port Houses of Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Oporto. And for centuries merchant ships would be loaded with casks of port for export to England. Now the market is broader and port is appreciated worldwide, though for many English people a glass of port is the only way to finish dinner.
Our first encounter of one of the Port Houses was a tour of the cellars at Taylor’s followed by a tasting of three of their Port Wines. Founded in 1692 by Job Bearsley from England, Taylor’s is still family owned and run.
We learnt that there are about 30 traditional port grape varieties, mostly red and all varieties that I’d never heard of before. Some of the better-known grapes include Touriga Francesa, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Amarela and Tinto Cao. Grapes are harvested by hand from September onward and put into huge granite tanks where, even today, they are trodden by foot.
Once the fermentation has turned about half the grape sugar into alcohol, the treading stops and the wine is run out into a vat. The wine is fortified by the addition of a clear grape spirit which stops the fermentation and preserves the sweetness of the grape.
The port is left at the Douro valley winery until early the following year when the casks are transported downstream to Vila Nova de Gaia so that they can mature in the cool cellars of the Port Houses. At Taylor’s we saw rows and rows of barrels, stacked neatly waiting to mature. And, we were fascinated by the curious white markings on each barrel. It turns out that it is all to do with capacity. The traditional unit of volume of port is a ‘pipe’ of 550 litres. Each pipe is made of of 22 ‘almudes’ and each almude of 12 canadas. The numbers in the ‘X’ indicate the capacity of each barrel – the one on the right would be (6×25) +550 litres, while the one on the left is smaller, (3×25)+(10×12)+550. Needless to say, there’s another way of explaining what each measure constitutes – to the Portuguese a canada is as much as a man can drink in a day, an almude the quantity a woman could carry on her head and a pipe as much as could be transported by an ox cart.
Originally the port barrels were transported by special boats called Barcos Rabelos. Designed to help negotiate the fast running Duoro, the Barcos Rabelo had a flat bottomed hull, a long steering oar and a sail, to help the barge journey back upstream. By the 19th century, there were hundreds of these barges making their way from the Quintas to the Port Houses. But, the introduction of the railway meant that there was an easier way for the port to be transported and today the barges have a new use, taking visitors to Porto along the river.
You can also visit many of the other Port Houses, for a tour of the cellars, for a tasting experience or to eat in the restaurants. A good place to start is at Porto Cruz, where you can have dinner or just a tasting and where there’s a remarkable rooftop terrace and bar looking out over the Duoro. It was a great place to dine, we enjoyed a selection of regional dishes
A light pickle, Legumes Salteados com queijo de cabra, salted vegetables with goat cheese which we enjoyed with our bread, then a dish of Cavala fumada com escabeche de cebola – smoked mackerel with fried onions. Cogumelos salteados com Porto –a rich dish of salted mushrooms with port wine. Morcela da beira com maçã e cebola – smoked blood sausage with apple and onion – one of my favourite dishes of this meal – a dark, intense and smoky sausage with a garnish of fine apple and onion slices. Then, Bacalhau à Brás – fried sliced salt cod and potatoes mixed with onions and egg – comfort food for the Portuguese I think – I’ve had variations of this almost everywhere in Portugal
All finished off with a slice of Bolo de chocolate – chocolate cake and some port!
Despite all the fantastic food and wine, the highlight of the evening had to be a trip up to the rooftop bar, with stunning views over the Douro and to Porto itself.
There are plenty of options to eat at the Port Houses and on our short trip we just had time to try two.
Also recommended is Vinum, the restaurant for Graham’s Port where we enjoyed lunch the next day. It’s a room in the heart of the wine cellar dating back to 1980. A glass wall lets you peek through to the seasoned oak casks full of port wine. And, the food is excellent.
After a white port cocktail aperitif and canapes on the terrace, we went into the main dining room, where we feasted on salada de feijão branco, tomate seco e queijo com manjericão, a white beans salad, dried tomato and cheese with basil, an impossibly pretty dish with the salad mixture carefully arranged inside a fine slice of cucumber
followed by lombo de bacalhau com caldo verde – cod with vegetables in a rich broth. Here the cod was served as a piece rather than flaked up – the salting made a firmer, meatier fish which must have been very carefully prepared as at least one of our party refused to believe it had been salted! Then to finish off the meal a pretty and delicate tarte fina de maçã – a caramelised apple tart with a dollop of ice-cream
Once again the food was matched with some of those wonderful Douro wines that we seldom see in this country. I was impressed with both meals in the Port Houses (and with the port tasting experience at Taylor’s). The quality of the food was superb – and unsurprisingly, both restaurants were packed. It didn’t feel ‘touristy’ though and the food was uncompromisingly Portuguese.
Port Tourism is clearly developing fast in Porto, with plenty of options both in Vila Nova de Gaia and in the main city for port tastings. If you are looking for a more sybaritic experience, then the Yeatman Hotel, a has a Caudalie spa so, you could spend all day drinking port and then visit the spa for a vinotherapie detox.
Perhaps one of the best ways to learn about port would be to do something like the twin-stay itinerary, offered by Taylor’s at the Yeatman Hotel in Vila Nova de Gaia and at the Vintage House Hotel in the heart of the Douro. Vintage House was built in the 19th century as a home for the Taylor’s Port family and has recently been bought and is being refurbished to provide the perfect base to discover one of Europe’s oldest wine regions and UNESCO world heritage site, the Douro Valley.
Is Porto all about port? resoundingly no. But, if you happen to have an interest, then the vibrant and colourful city of Porto is definitely a great place to start learning. Next, I’d love to visit the vineyards and wineries in the Douro – preferably when the grapes are being harvested and trodden.
For more information about Northern Portugal check their website
TAP Portugal flies direct from London Gatwick to Porto twice daily, prices start at £89 return including all taxes and surcharges.
For further information, visit www.flytap.com or call 0345 601 0932.
I stayed at The Sheraton – a five star luxury hotel with amazing spa facilities
I was a guest of Porto and Northern Portugal Tourism Board
The images of the Douro and of The Vintage House are copyright Vintage House.
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